Happy Birthday, Mum

Exhibition view, ‘Tidal Zone Experiences’ at Pilar, BruxellesMultimedia installation, Single channel video, Glazed ceramic, wood, wheels, paper, Riso printed booklet, 130x230x250cm

‘Chohakki(early 8th Century)’ written by Seogyeon in the Tang Dynasty says "Goryeo people feed seaweed to mothers after seeing that whales eat seaweed to heal postpartum wounds."

Seaweed soup is the first food a mother eats after giving birth, and Koreans celebrate the birth by eating seaweed soup on every birthday, paying homage to the mother’s love, parturition and childbearing.

In 2022, during the residency at Franse Masereel Centrum with Algae Diplomacy, I created ‘Moyeokguk’, an edition booklet comprised of different seaweed soup recipes using risograph printing. For the exhibition ‘Tidal Zone Experience’ I presented a ceramic birthday soup stand, as a tribute to motherhoods. The soup vessel depicts a story of my mother and myself spotting a crane while talking a walk along the river. My last grandmother reincarnated as crane, the three generations of woman find themselves on a circular trail that brings them back to where they began.

*Text used in the video <Happy birthday, mum>

"What I like. Walking along the river after sunset. The biggest happiness I find in my daily life. Probably."

My mum sent this message after I asked her about the things that she really likes. It was a week before her birthday, at 10 pm, that she sent the message. Probably right after she came back from the walk along the river.

My mum lives with my grandfather who is very, very old and doesn’t cook. 

My grandmother passed away 2 years ago, after many years of suffering from Parkinson's and dementia. My grandmother gave everything for her family and kept nothing for herself. She was completely broken physically and neurologically. My mum, my two aunts, and my uncle took turns nursing my grandmother, who was in a vegetative state for the last few years of her life. After my grandmother left, there was still my grandfather in the house, sick and alive, with no love to receive from anyone. A patriarchal man born in the late 1920s, he never learned to express his love or care and was heavily allergic to daily chores. None of his five children had the same kind of love for him, to care for him. The eldest daughter, the most responsible one of all, my mum, decided to live with her loveless father. Next to where she lives, there’s a small river where she goes for a walk every evening.

About a year ago, she told me that she saw a big white crane, chilling by the riverbank. She said she stood there for an hour just looking at the bird. I imagine her standing still, with hands behind her back like the Italian old men doing Umarell. In the final stage of dementia, my grandmother experienced both extreme delirium and clarity of self. My grandmother never pursued her desires. Everything she did or had was for her family. Thanks to dementia, she became more honest with expressing her desires. We got to know, for the first time, that she loves strawberries and hates a few cousins. I know that the discovery of my grandmother’s desires was heartbreaking for my mum. I know that my grandmother told my mum that she wants my mum’s life to be more about being free and less about sacrificing, to be different than her own life so that their lives wouldn’t end with the same regrets.

I believe in reincarnation, especially with my grandmother finding her new life as a crane. 

My mum’s birthday this year was on the 8th of March. She was born in 1962, on the 23rd of March, but her birthday follows the lunar calendar. Each year the date changes. Anyways, prior to her birthday this year, I proposed to my mum to cook seaweed soup together during a video call. My mum would cook the seaweed soup following my favorite recipe, and I would cook the seaweed soup the way my grandmother used to make it, based on my mum’s memory. The first two weeks after my mum gave birth to me, we stayed at my grandmother’s place for postpartum care, a very dedicated program of recovery for women that involves warmth and seaweed soup. My grandmother cooked my mum seaweed soup for a month, as any other caring Korean mother would do for their beloved daughter.

Seaweed soup means the celebration of birth and motherhood in Korea. Seaweed soup is a birthday soup. When I was little, my mum made seaweed soup on my birthday. When my mum was little, it was my grandmother who made seaweed soup for her birthday. When my grandmother got really, really sick, I saw my mum taking care of her own mother like she was her baby. Her hands holding my grandmother reminded me of how it felt when I was little. The softest."

*Photos by Bo Vanonckelen
*Produced with the support of Flemish Government.