ART & CARE: an interview with Jija Sohn, on practicing care
— January 27, 2023

Jija Sohn (1982) is a Japanese-Korean artist based in Amsterdam. From 5 until 16 september Jija took residence in our Wolfie studio at ICK Space for Dance Art, to work on a collaboration with Aleksandra Lemm, Julia Reist, Nica Roses and Elmer Kouwenberg. After creating her works Landing on Feathers (short film), Lands of Concert, and Phantom Travels, Jija is focused on creating ways for caregivers and caretakers to come together and move together.

Can you introduce yourself and your work?

I am Jija Sohn. I work as an artist, creating practice-based projects and working on community-engaged projects and workshops, creating and sharing with an audience. Five years ago, I moved from more classic productions to community-engaged, more life-integrated, ways of working. I also work as a social worker, part-time, with Elmer Kouwenberg, who is part of our current project and was part of our residency at ICK. 

How did you get into social work and how did this influence your work and life as an artist?

In the pandemic, we lost all theatre, everything was closed. It made me think about what I could do in this new situation. A friend told me there was a spot available for a caregiver and assistant for Elmer. I already got interested in this job because a previous collaborator of mine, the actress and singer Lucy Wilke, who has a differently abled body, was working with a caregiver. This was a very interesting dynamic for me to see. It was amazing to see how spontaneous the giving and receiving between them was happening: it was really a dance, it was very fluid.

During the peaks of the pandemic, Elmer told me he was not feeling well because of so many limitations of his mobilities – we also had less mobilities but for him it was twice as much. Not only is he paralyzed but also his life takes place inside a government budget. We wanted to use our physical background to flip the script. Aleksandra and me started to do some stretching and shaking the body with him – these kind of exercises without aiming for anything. We were making a little dance together. I became very curious about how I can meet a still body and how we can be together, rather than the exercises being only for him. This is how I started to use my life and relationships as food for art and the food for creativity, framing it as a playground.

Teaser of Jija Sohn’s performance Lands of Concert

Your previous work Lands of Concert also involved Lucy Wilke, the actress and singer and the collaborator you just mentioned. How did this collaboration start and what is the essence of this performance?

Lucy and I connected during a workshop at ImPulsTanz. We worked on an exercise together and it was eye-opening for me how much a small action can be movement; how gentleness, softness and listening can be movement. Of course, in education we learn that dancing can be listening or sensing. But people who have differently able bodies, they are the experts in this area. Lands of Concert was all about four women/artists coming together and learning from each other in a bodily way. It was all about giving and receiving.

What was your focus during your residency at ICK?

We are currently working on a further development of the film version of Landing on Feathers. In our current practice and projects, there is this line of life happening, which adds to the work, because of the social work that we do together. The process and project became more a study of relationships, rather than four artists making a work. 

Including life into the creative process in the studio brings a very different dynamic and rhythm, and it can also be really uncomfortable sometimes. Of course, there are still bodies meeting bodies, but we really want to put forward the relationship between caretakers and caregivers to invite the theatre space to also smell that part of life; that boring part, the nothing-happening part. That brings a contradiction: performances are often considered a ‘special moment’. But I want to bring something that is not so special.

Teaser of Jija Sohn’s film Landing on Feathers

But that also makes it very special somehow. Art and life are one in your work, which is not something you see often. How do you experience that?

The positive thing is that our relationship with Elmer becomes more than only social care workers and care receiver/client. Because of the dance practice that we do together, we get a more intimate and deeper relationship with Elmer, as human beings. The interactions become even more caring. My heart melts a little bit because that is a gift for me. 

Linking it to the practice of ICK, we are currently working with the theme of Art & Care. What does Art & Care mean for you?

When I am in a creative process, I see my working attitude has shifted because my work includes learning/developing from care work. Sometimes, this way of working and process entails to really look at what self-care and caring for others means. As a creator, I have to make different choices during the process – not necessarily for the goodness of the work in short term, but to respect everyone’s boundaries and trust this choice will be good for the long term. Maybe before, I didn’t respect our capacity of working, sometimes even overloading myself and my collaborators by continuing and asking the team to continue. But now I practice care while being in an artistic project. Progression, developing, going further are not the only elements in making art, but this process also includes pausing, digesting and leaving sometimes. This is an ongoing conversation that I have with myself and with others.

In moments of tension, care is a reminder to slow down. Working with care creates the possibility for updating and rearranging relationships with others. In the end, caring is doing. You have to do it. Of course, talking about it is very important, but how you do it and how you apply it to your process, that is truly something else. 

Jija Sohn with collaborators Aleksandra Lemm, Julia Reist, Nica Roses and Elmer Kouwenberg.
Jija Sohn with collaborators Aleksandra Lemm, Julia Reist, Nica Roses and Elmer Kouwenberg

What’s next for you?

For the continuation of this project with Elmer, we have decided Elmer won’t be on stage with us during the performances, but he will be there as an absent figure to which we all can relate and with whom we all have worked. If we really respect our findings during this project, it feels more right to not ask Elmer to be on stage. We have a different availability in our physicalities and we decided to listen to that, to respect that. But we still consider performing this work as an part of our practice: this project is a continuous practice.

After our residency at ICK, we spent time in the studio at BG and WPzimmer and we are now slowly starting to feel confident in what we can share from our personal caretakers’ perspective. Our first presentation will be at the festival Beyond the Black Box in de Brakke Grond, Amsterdam on February 3rd and 4th. I’m excited to have visitors with who we can share our work.

Next to this project, we want to expand our way of studying and working with relationships to the partners and the people involved in this project. We like to deconstruct ways of working that are rather an exchange than a real relationship. For this, we are developing a partners embodiment practice. This way, we can bring organisations and people together so we can share our practice of working and creating, not only in words and text but also in physicality. I really want to, as much as I can, work with the body. And to share not only the performative part of a project, but also the before and the after, how we are working.

To give space to the whole process, giving it a shape and a body and a physical interaction. Not just words.

And not just showing what you are going to do on stage. 

If you want to see and experience Jija Sohn’s work live, you can see Landing on Feathers during the Beyond the Black Box Festival at De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam on 3 and 4 February 2023.

— Article written by Astrid Klein Haneveld


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