Skip To Main Content

An Island of No Return

2022/05/10 Views:12

An Island of No Return: On Jane Jin Kaisen’s Community of Parting

Written by Nien-Pu Ko 

From deep beneath the vast and rolling ocean, currents of countless forms emerge to meet the land and shatter into florets of waves. Jane Jin Kaisen's Community of Parting (2019) is a composition of matriarchy and the natural world—it appears between cracks, transforming and flowing, and always swerving like water. Like water, it touches on everything in life. The arena of matriarchal mythology is a vast ecosystem. It brings forth life and lives symbiotically with all living creatures nourished by breath.  The natural landscape, captured by the camera lens, implies a meaning beyond national borders. The images in this work intercept at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, the mountainous landscape along the borders, and the oceanic landscape of Jeju Island. It explores, through the space of cinematography, the ongoing tension between two worlds: On the one side, a patriarchal state; and on the other side, a landscape whose vegetation and terrain grow organically with time. This natural and flourishing world can be regarded as a kind of force that works at a grassroots level. Instead of tucking from above and forcibly lengthening life as in a patriarchal state, it is a feminine and natural force that produces and nurtures lives.

Jane Jin Kaisen, Community of Parting, Three-channel video installation.
Film duration: 72:13 min / video duration: 2:58 min. Dimension variable. 2019. 

Community of Parting is inspired by the soul that can cross borders and traverse separate worlds in the myth of Princess Bari (Bari Gongju[1]). The cinematography of this work summons historical moments in different time and space, situating Bari as an important figure in the discussion of geographic boundaries. The myth of Princess Bari exists in many forms and has been circulating on the Korean peninsula for a long time. However, Community of Parting (2019) also touches on themes besides the rupture of borders and geographic boundaries. The narrative of Kaisen’s piece revolves around the Korean shamanic myth of Bari Gongju—a story about resistance and restoration. The story describes the life of the seventh daughter of an ancient king of Joseon. Because she was a girl, Bari Kongjoo was abandoned by her parents, cast away in Hwangcheon[2], and left for eternal drifting. Her name, Bari, means “buhrida” (throwing away or abandoning) in Korean and implies a nameless state. As punishment for this abandonment, the king fell ill of an incurable disease. When Bari learned of her father’s illness, she journeyed to Heaven and cured him with the medicine that she had retrieved. The king offered Bari half of the palace as reward. However, Bari chose instead to become a goddess who guides souls. She turned into a ghost and has been ferrying souls across the river of life and death ever since.

Poet Kim Hyesoon’s piece “Trash and Ghosts” from Woman, I Do Poetry reinterpreted the meaning of this myth and pointed out that it was Bari’s experiences of being abandoned and confronting the other enabled her to have a deeper understanding of life and to truly establish connections with others. She transformed the social death of exile into a symbol of mediation, then eventually transgressed territorial boundaries and wandered in her own space. According to Kim, Bari experienced three events of symbolic deaths. The first death was the social death of being abandoned or being marginalized in the community. This refers to the various experiences of social exclusion caused by different logics of demarcation. The second death involved confronting abandonment and the accompanied processes of recognition and acceptance. She no longer sought acceptance from the society that abandoned her. Instead, she committed herself to others who had been excluded, marginalized, or abandoned. Through the recognition of her own abandonment, Bari gained the ability to communicate with others. The personal social death and the collective social death became empowered because of the entanglement or balance between the abandoned and the power of abandonment. The third death was the relinquishment or renunciation of the concept of being abandoned. She opened herself up to the sea and walked into her own embrace. Therefore, this refers not to the physical death of the flesh-and-blood body but a metaphorical death, which involves the processes of letting individualism shape the Self to face a wider array of reality and trauma and still return to the boundary condition, or, the ability of mediation. Kaisen takes Bari’s three deaths as her work’s main structure and attempts to understand the violent and isolating conditions of contemporary borders by examining the lives of Jeju shamans. Her work highlights the political relationship between Jeju Island and the Korean Peninsula; Jeju Island, once an independent island kingdom, had been incorporated into Korean territories, while bearing the memories of Japanese colonization and state violence during the divisive Cold War era. Furthermore, by contemplating on borders from the perspective of Jeju Island, the term “borders” can serve not only as geopolitical jargon in discussion of North Korea-South Korea conflicts, but also responds to the question of how islands could produce alternative discourses about space.

Jane Jin Kaisen, Community of Parting, Three-channel video installation.
Film duration: 72:13 min / video duration: 2:58 min. Dimension variable. 2019. 


As a human and a deity, a princess and an outcast, Bari was abandoned yet remained, wandering between life and death. She is so contradictory, freely rejecting the identities and territories belonging to either side, splicing out her own time in the universe. In a scene from Community of Parting, the mythology is narrated against the backdrop of a majestic and primitive mist-shrouded valley. The mountainous landscape, made of steel-gray jagged rocks, is split apart by the river torrent that runs across it. In combination with the voice-over account, the river resonates with the story of Bari, becoming the river between life and death. Water bestows life while connecting, purifying, and rejuvenating the soul. Bari, as boundaries and medium, is the locus of mediation between life and death. Having transcended and resisted division and exclusion, Bari is finally summoned by the shaman Koh Sunahn, transcending the violent boundaries of colonial modernity and modernism, composing the soothing chants of memory and history.

Jane Jin Kaisen, Community of Parting, Three-channel video installation.
Film duration: 72:13 min / video duration: 2:58 min. Dimension variable. 2019. 


Since Jeju Island is encircled by the natural defense against the mainland—the sea—it embodies characteristics of anarchism. During the long history of the Korean peninsula, Jeju’s developments have been relatively self-contained. Once ruled by the independent kingdom of Tamna, Jeju island is inspired by its historical spirit of independence and perceived as “unruly”. This also stems from the fact that the island is self-organized in a more socialist manner. Traditionally, customs of marriage and kinship on the island are different from those on the mainland. Compared to the mainland, which is heavily influenced by Confucianism, Jeju Island’s rituals, spiritual beliefs, gender relationships and family relationships are distinctly different. During the Japanese colonial period, many islanders had gradually lost their land in the process of modernization. The loss of land caused a lack of employment opportunities, which, in combination with overpopulation, led to a wave of large-scale immigration. Until 1938, about 150,000 people had already left Jeju island, most of whom moved to Japan or Manchuria in search of a surviving chance. During the Japanese colonial period, despite the government’s disagreements with communism and socialism, Jeju Island was indirectly exposed to socialist ideas, which became a driving force of social collectivism on the island. In the early days of the Cold War, ideological conflicts erupted into violent uprising on Jeju Island for the first time, when the April 3 incident occurred in 1948. The fact that the islanders formed their own guerilla to fight against the government undoubtedly demonstrated their resistant attitude towards the divisive political system on the Korean Peninsula. In return, the government forces, police, and right-wing groups—all of which were based in the "mainland (peninsula)"—launched forceful military operations to suppress the uprising. To this day, Jeju Island is still haunted by the memories of its tension with South Korea during the Cold War era.


In Kaisen’s work, the structure of historical narrative is intertwined with shaman Koh Sunahn’s chanting ritual, forming a dynamic rhythm that could be considered as a key element of the film. Through the execution of this ritual, the cinematic images themselves become living organisms; mingling with shamanic melody and rhythm, they compose moments of transcendence that transgress all boundaries of reality and superimpose on the ancient spirits. These are also moments that constitute Bari's spatio-temporal world, where the rhythms of the work, not unlike sea waves, meld together the interior and exterior aspects of the images. The Jeju shaman Koh Sunahn is indeed an incarnation of Bari. However, Kaisen did not choose  her to represent a kind of contemporary shamanism priest. Instead, she reproduced countless versions of Bari's myth through shamanist priests. As a survivor of the Jeju Massacre (1947-54), Koh passed away in 2019 a few weeks after the completion of this work. However, she practiced shamanism for a long time during her lifetime. By returning the deceased to their families, villages, and Jeju Island, Koh was returning them to the locus of social alienation and historical boundaries, allowing the drifting souls—ideal subjects for these rituals—to receive equal and eternal comfort.

Kaisen, as another incarnation of Bari, was born on Jeju Island and forced into exile, then grew up in Denmark. In this work, she juxtaposes her own exile experience with Bari's first death. Then through the shaman’s chanting rituals, she has called into being a habitable space for poetry and song, where other contemporary Baris—people who were exiled from Jeju to Kazakhstan, Japan, China, Germany and the United States since 2015—were summoned. Here, Bari does not function as a mythological symbol. Instead, Bari, as a method or emotion, becomes a linguistic tool in the discourse about a special way to mediate and exist in the world. Throughout the film, “Bari” develops into an overall narrative of history, culture and social fractures on different temporal-spatial scales, covering the world of the living and the dead. Especially, it conveys the complexities of violence in Korean history, including the community of people who were deported by the Soviet Union from the Far East in 1937 and the community of Koreans in Japan who immigrated and settled during Japanese colonial rule in the 1920s.

Community of Parting is not a partial documentation of the shaman ritual. On the contrary, it re-realizes mythology in the broader context of Korean modernity, because it tells the story from before the nationalist fracture. Traditionally, mythology is understood as a story about piety, but this work interprets mythology from a feminist perspective while exploring the meanings of Bari as death and rebirth. Here, the soul and spirit of Bari has replaced modern image production technologies such as cameras and lenses. When she gazes firmly upon the sea of Jeju, the intertwined waves, forests and the sky meet each other, and the imagery contains many layers of visuality, time, and space. When Bari, the mythological character, is transformed into an abstract concept, a soundscape and aerial image from the ocean, forest, barren land and national borders, her experiences of displacement become a river of images that echoes with mythology. In a scene in this film, she stretches her arms towards the sky and rotates her body. The camera, fixed on a drone towering into the clouds, is surveying Jeju Island. As the artist gradually disappears, the land and the sky become one. From the origins of the gaze, we look down at these unbounded spaces, watching all life forms intertwine and coexist. In this way, the wilderness once again interprets Bari’s spirit, and the island floating amidst the sea becomes a metaphor, allowing us to reinterpret death and rebirth in life and in politics.

Jane Jin Kaisen, Community of Parting, Three-channel video installation.
Film duration: 72:13 min / video duration: 2:58 min. Dimension variable. 2019. 

The article first published in PAN Zine.

[1] Gongju means “princess” in Korean.
[2] A river mentioned in the myth of Bari.

Related Articles