I was two and a half years old when I made the 18-hour trip from Seoul to New York on an early spring night in 1974. I don’t know who helped me dress that morning, but what they chose for me – a simple, a-line dress – has been the only tangible link I have to the country of my birth.
Two years ago, when I discovered that I had misplaced this dress, I decided to re-make it, using fabric my adoptive mother had left to me when she died. The act of re-creating this object prompted meditation on lineage and legacy – what has been left to me, what has been lost. The dress has become an organizing motif for my writing and art practices.
I made a series of dresses for an exhibit to accompany my graduate thesis work at Vermont College of Fine Arts in early 2016.
Since then, I’ve made dozens of dresses – in fabric and in paper.
“(Re-)Dress, One for Every Thousand,” which will be part of a spring 2018 exhibition curated by Brooke Goldstein for the Jamestown Arts Center, is an installation that uses 200 hand-made white dresses in a symbolic attempt to re-dress the estimated 200,000 Korean children adopted abroad. The color white is traditionally associated with mourning in Korea, and this piece shifts the adoption narrative from the “happy ending” for the lucky orphan to a more complicated meditation on what is lost – for the child, for the culture, for the nation.
In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be documenting the making of these dresses. I can’t possibly comprehend the number 200,000 in any meaningful way, but I think I can understand 200. Between my birthday (October 12, which is an estimated date assigned to me by the Orphans’ Home of Korea) and the end of February, when the exhibition is to be installed, there are about 20 weeks. To stay on track, I’ll have to complete 10 dresses per week.
When I’ve talked to people about this project, several have offered to help me with cutting and sewing. I am grateful for the offers, but part of what I am attempting to do requires me to spend the time with each dress, to recognize – in a bodily way, through the work of my hands – that each garment represents a full human life in all its complexities – wishes, dreams, losses, and fears.
We are exposed to so many data points that stand in for human lives. Every day, I see the numbers of the dead – from the disastrous effects of climate change, from gun violence, from the endless wars in which we now participate. The numbers of stories of sexual assault and violence. The relentless stream of numbers can be deadening. It is too easy to gloss over, to lose track.
I don’t know what 200,000 Korean adoptees really means. There are ways I attempt to understand my own life, but I am only one in 200,000. This is my attempt to remind myself that each number is a life. This is my attempt to recognize the lives of the children whose earliest experience was one of rupture. To make space for them, even if only briefly.