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The Natural Foot vs. Two Jugs of Tears

Hyeyoung Shin exhibit at Western New York Book Arts Center

Infuriatingly poetic, Chairman Mao said, “Women hold up half the sky,” by which he meant that women share half the duty to the state. Of course, they couldn’t do much with their feet shriveled to a length of three to five inches long and completely ingrown due to the Asia-wide practice of footbinding.

Seen mostly as a Chinese cultural anomaly, the issue of “lotus feet” as an aspect of female beauty, wealth, and access to a better future was widespread throughout Asia from the seventh century to the postwar period, and well into the 1960s. “Widespread” is an operative word in footbinding, where a tiny foot was a class distinction signifying lofty prestige, while the “natural foot” was an earth-anchored symbol of peasant women who had to work in the fields and needed a pair of trustworthy hands and feet well planted in the soil.

Hyeyoung Shin’s exhibit of altered books, handmade folios, and prints hold the latter position. Korean by birth, she has brought the pedestal appendage into iconic prominence, using the foot as a device to measure the immeasurable. Korea, known by the rest of Asia as the “Hermit Kingdom,” was not majorly influenced by footbinding practice, but it did exist there, and Hyeyoung’s thematic concerns package, present, and display the unbound foot as having its own splayed source of power and potency emblematic of an egalitarian society as utopian, presently, as that might be.

Her exacting surgery on book text, in cut-out shapes of bottles (standing in for the body) and illustrations of fish (indicating movement and curiously foot-shaped), course through her work. The eyes of little fish staring out to sea provide the only interaction—the images of feet are truncated at the knee. The foot as root, the leg as trunk, imbuing the whole display with the layered significance of prayer, perseverance, patience, and sacrifice.

The process of footbinding was excruciating, producing long lasting pain, the “two jugs of tears,” in female children between two and five years old on whom it was practiced. As in female circumcision, footbinding was a mutilation forced upon an unwilling girl. With limited access to communication outside the home, women had no way to unite or demonstrate. With no legal rights, concubines, wives, and daughters of the rich were kept by their halting gait from straying or running away from beatings.

Hyeyoung Shin’s work, for me, functions in the reverse: Her social realistic style—the portraits of placid peasant feet, the concrete coordinates of place—brings to mind the opposite, the bound foot; charged with erotic connotations for profligate men, alluring and dangerous, for women “the Manchu Way” connoted as a tribal marker, wealth, access to marriage, and the chance for an improved future.

Hyeyoung Shin’s exhibit runs through December 16 at the Western New York Book Arts Center.

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