Exhibit by R O Kwon - review by Kaiya Shang

Kaiya Shang

Losing Her Religion

Exhibit

By

Virago 224pp £16.99
 

Exhibit opens with the Korean--American photographer Jin Han, a former evangelical suffering from artist’s block, recounting a myth to Lidija Jung, another artist of Korean origin and injured principal ballet dancer. The two women meet at a party in the hills outside San Francisco and stay up talking through the night. Jin confides in Lidija that a curse has been placed on her family by an artistic courtesan (kisaeng). A distant relative fell in love with the kisaeng, but the relationship ended in a double suicide after his parents expressed disapproval. According to legend, the curse will cause Jin to risk everything ‘for a futile, single love’, setting her life on fire. Half of the chapters are narrated by Jin and the other by the kisaeng’s vengeful spirit in a chatty, sarcastic voice: ‘I’ll be dipped in shit. So, you Han jerks still think I died to be with him?’ 

The novel is concerned with desire. Jin’s feelings for Lidija are linked to both her passion for photography and a nostalgia for a time when she still had faith. God haunts all of Kwon’s work and Exhibit is no exception. She was brought up Catholic, converting to Evangelicalism as a teenager. She has explained that her loss of faith at seventeen is ‘always what I’m writing about, maybe because, as long as I’m writing about the Lord I lost, I can still, in a way, be with Him’. The same sense of loss propels Jin’s artistic pursuits: she turns to photos because they hold glints of God’s spirit. Her first exhibition was a series of triptychs made up of images of people in states of worship paired with self-portraits in which they re-create the originals. But since that exhibition, Jin hasn’t produced a single image worth keeping.

Exhibit is also an unflinching exploration of sexuality and shame. Jin struggles with her long-suppressed desire to be hurt, since it conforms to a stereotype of Asian women as ‘pliant, subject. Ill-used, and glad of it.’ By expressing herself sexually, she fears she will reinforce the stereotype, inadvertently harming other

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