New York City, SVA Artist Residency, 2022
Video performance projection, TRT 8 mins
Mixed media (ink, aquarelle, coal, medical solution pigment) on natural paper
Thymus gland is a lymphoid organ which is the biological training ground where the body learns to protect itself from outside invaders. It is central to the development of the immune system by producing and training special white blood cells called T-cells. The thymus gland produces most of the T-cells before birth and during childhood which will be enough for a lifetime. It is in the upper chest of the body, behind the breastbone, between the lungs, and in front of and above the heart. At birth it is about 4–6 cm / 1.5 – 2.3 inches long, 2.5–5 cm / 0.9-1.9 inches wide, and about 1 cm / 0.3 inches thick. It increases in size until puberty, where it may have a size of about 40–50 gr / 0.08-0.11 lbs, then it decreases in size in a process known as involution. In adults, it is mostly replaced by fat and soft tissues. Thymus is the only organ that knows what is biologically self and what is not.
Activating thymus through physical vibrations has been known to boost the immune system. Thymus thumping can be used as a form of therapy, ritual, or alternative medicine. Even though some scientific research supports this idea, the health benefits of vibrating the thymus are still controversial. The thymus shrinks as we age, sometimes until it becomes dysfunctional. Tapping the thymus is also ritualistic act that symbolizes the feelings of pain, grief, resilience, and power beyond its culturally specific meanings. I am also inspired by the Anatolian tradition of beating the center of the chest during mourning rituals. Here, the thymus is a cultural symbol, a mythical, existential, and mysterious organ, and a tool for dealing with a prolonged grief.
The thymus is an overlooked organ that culturally and biologically connotes the same thing: immunity and resilience. These are the two things I have been in search of lately, questioning how to get immune to the social ignorance, political injustice, ecological and cultural destruction in my home country without normalizing them. In response to this question, thymus opened a creative space for me to reimagine and to speculate its possibilities as a form, and its intersections with physiology (facts) and culture (myths). It combines bodily and psychological inner observations as well as the outer ones such as environmental factors. The vernacular and global political, economic, and ecological anxieties are embodied with a chest beating performance, as a way of searching for psychological immunity rather than a biological one.
In the video performance, tapping my upper chest in private/public and natural/urban places simultaneously shows a belief and disbelief in finding a remedy from the overwhelming agenda of a pandemic, and ecological and economic downfall, yet with a hope of developing psychological immunity to such problems. This idea translates into different relationships with the camera and into different gazes at my body gesture as well. The experimental drawings function to deconstruct and inform the video and reimagine the aesthetics of scientific illustrations they borrow from medical books in search of the poetics in objective information. Brown thymus drawings are made of pigments of a medical solution (Umca) that was produced to support immune system.
Camera & Consultancy: Chong-ha Peter Lee