Joanna Ebenstien

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Works at: Seoul Art Space_GeumCheon
Stays in: 2011
Genre: Visual Arts/Installation

1994 UCSC, Intellctual History, Santa Cruz, US

2010 The Secret Museum, Observatory, Brooklyn, US
2007 Anatomical Theatre, Alabama Museum of the Health Sciences, Birmingham, US

2011 Dedalus Foundation Institutional Grant, New York, US
       New York Council for the Humanities Mini-Grant, New York, US
       Warhol Foundation Award, New York, US

2012 The Last Tuesday Society Gallery, London, UK
2011 The Coney Island Museum, Brooklyn, US
       Apex Art Outbound Travel Residency, Seoul, Korea

I consider myself in artist in the tradition of the 19th Century naturalist explorer; I go out into the world collecting, and return home to the tasks of cataloging, taxonomy, and display. I am interested in groupings, the ways in which context creates meaning, things forgotten and overlooked, the history of science, and the artfacts created by the human need to impose order, meaning, and narrative on an otherwise chaotic world.

-Joanna Ebenstein-


My name is Joanna Ebenstein. I am an artist based in Brooklyn, New York. My academic background is in intellectual history and art. I am here in Seoul as part of an Apex Art Outbound Residency Program.

Apex Art is an arts organization based in New York City. They have 2 kinds of residencies: one is the inbound residency, where they host artists from other countries to live in New York City. The other is the outbound residency, where they send artists from New York City outside the United States to live for a month in a place of the organization’s choosing. The artists are required to agree not to produce work while they are on their residency, and are given an itinerary to use as their guide. They are also asked to keep a blog about their experiences. 
The purpose of the outbound residency as I understand it is to send artists outside of traditional art centers to absorb a new culture, create new relationships, and change their lives.

The kind of artwork I do is very varied. It encompasses photography, curation, drawing and painting, graphic design, installation, writing, new media, and performance art. I am committed to creating work that is accessible to people outside the art world. Many of my projects deal with themes of the body, death, and mortality, historical anatomies, collectors and collecting, spectacle and education, art and medicine, and science and magic intersect, and hidden or secret histories.

Some of my most recent projects include:

Anatomical theatre 

a photo exhibition documenting the uncanny artifacts in medical museums of the western world that was shown at the Alabama Museum of the Health Sciences in 2007 and for which I travelled for a month in Europe and the USA collecting images and researching (X10)

The Secret Museum

 a photo exhibition and installation exploring the poetics of collections private and public, backstage and front (X 15)

And the Coney Island Spectacularium at the Coney Island Museum. 

Here, I and collaborator Aaron Beebe took as our subject a particular forgotten history of Coney Island; Coney Island is an amusement park in Brooklyn, New York, best known today for being the home of the invention of hotdogs and amazing roller coasters, but it was also, incredibly, a place where, on an average day around 1900, you could experience, among other things, the destruction of Pompeii by volcano or the San Francisco by Earthquake or a new york hi-rise by fire 

Liliputia, a midget village modeled on 16th century Nurenburg 

Premature infants on display in the infant incubator 

Iggorotte tribesmen and other so called “primitive” people on display in native habitats 

You could also be buried alive in a glass coffin and travel through heaven and hell 

Or visit a number of for-profit museums called “Dime Museums”.

We told this story via an installation simulating a 19th Century dime museum within which we combined artifacts from the museum and private collections with new artworks to evoke and detail the forgotten world of turn of the 20th Century Coney Island. (X 6)

In 1911, Dreamland, one of the great parks of Coney Island, was destroyed by fire and was never rebuilt. The centerpiece of The Spectacularium is a 360 degree victorian-style panorama with a narrative track and lights that allow views to experience the burning of dreamland 

We premiered this piece on the 100th year anniversary of the fire, the biggest fire disaster up until that time in New York City.

The story of the fire reads uncannily like a script for one of the popular disaster reenactments; our thought was that if Dreamland had been rebuilt, they would almost certainly have created an attraction detailing its destruction; our panorama is an attempt to create that imaginary attraction for a contemporary audience 

I also have a number of current ongoing projects: 

Morbid Anatomy is a blog I created in tandem with the Anatomical Theatre exhibition in 2007. Here, I “survey the interstices of art and medicine, death and culture” to a large popular audience 

The related Morbid Anatomy Library in Brooklyn, New York is a private museum and research library based on renaissance cabinets of curiosity, precursors to the modern museum. It is open by appointment. (X 7)

And Observatory 

is an arts and lecture space I founded 2 and a half years ago with 7 collaborators. Here we host exhibitions, lectures, classes and field trips that touch on the intersections of art and science, arcane media, and history and are inspired by 18th century ideas of rational amusement, or learning for fun rather than academic advancement or profit.


When I first found out that Korea would be my destination as Apex Outbound Resident, I must confess I was not sure what to think. I had studied some eastern history at University, but this mostly focussed on China and Japan. I had also travelled extensively in Europe and the United States, but never Asia, and knew almost nothing about Korea, a country you simply do not hear much about in the States. In a way, that made it much more exiting. I had no romantic notions to be debunked, and no preconceived notions whatsoever. I was a totally blank slate. 

What a delight, then, to arrive here and learn so much in this ancient and fascinating country. Many of the things I found here intersected quite nicely with my interests, giving me an entirely new--and much welcomed!--Eastern perspective. Many other things I have been introduced to that I had never suspected existed. I have documented my thoughts in photographs and words on a near-daily basis on the blog I have been keeping for Apex art. The following images are all drawn from that collection.

A journey without is also always a journey within, especially when you travel alone, and the experiences I have had--the places I have gone--gave given me so much to think about, and they have changed--and broadened--my ideas on many topics.

My first response to Korea was that it was, intriguingly, a lot like America and yet, at the same time, not at all like America. 

 As I have been here longer and had more time to absorb the complex interplay of ancient tradition and American style commercialism of the type prevalent in the 1980s, I have become even more fascinated with this tension. 

Lotte industries and Lotte World, television commercials, soap operas, game shows, K pop. signs wallpapering high rises, impromptu markets. All bear more than a small resemblance to America and the flowering of capitalism in ways that are intriguingly similar yet profoundly different. Like a mirror reflecting a twilight version of America, which has helped me see my own culture with more clarity.

Then I began to delve more deeply into the history, feeling very strongly that the only way to wrap my head around what I was seeing was to understand the history behind it. To this end, I read a lot and visited a number of museums, such as The Palace Museum, The House of Sharing, The Folk Museum, the Korean War Memorial, and The National Museum. I also visited a number of palaces, shrines, and temples. In this way, I began to understand more about Korean culture and its storied--and often tragic!--past. 

I became intrigued with the period of opening up to the west, Japanese occupation and its atrocities such as the comfort women phenomenon, the Kiseng tradition, the bureaucratic arts of the Joseon dynasty, folk arts dealing with mortality and medicine, and the religious and ritual traditions of shamanism, confucianism, and buddhism.

Along my journey, I found a number of intriguing things. There is no way I could list them all, but here are a few

The food in Korea has been a revelation. It is a natioanal art form unto itself. Every meal I have had has been noteworthy.

The markets! Especially the flea markets

and fish markets.

In the realm of arts and culture: One of the professors I met as part of my residency itinerary--Taeman Choi of Kookmin University--suggested that I visit a museum called The Kokdo Museum, where I learned about the charming traditional kukdo dolls and the funeral ceremonies.

Also as part of my itinerary, I visited the Jongmyo Shrine

and learned of the world of ancestor tablets and the incredibly elaborate rituals that comprise Confucian ancestor worship

My lovely hosts at Seoul Art Space YEONHUI, knowing my interest in traditional rituals and shamanism in Korea, hosted a traditional ceremony to bless the new year and appease unhappy spirits 

While visiting--and, on occasion, sleeping in! 

many temples and shrines has made me much more interested in sacred spaces and material culture, a direction I would like to pursue in my work (7)

And museums like The Folk Museum, The Palace Museum and The National Museum have introduced me to still other nuances of ritual related to medicine, mortality and memorialization of traditional Korea.

Such as the tradition of exorcisms for Smallpox 

Buddhist reliquaries 

Ancestral shrine furniture 

and placenta jars 

and introduced me to such unsuspected art forms as the Uigwe books from the Joseon Dynasty 

And the fantastic Joseon dynasty-era screens (2)

which will surely impact my future work

While visiting contemporary art spaces such as Culture Station Seoul 284 

with its engaging use of art space and cultural reconstruction as a way to untangle memory and heal from national wounds, has inspired me to think in fresh ways about how art can be relevant to a wider audience and exciting at the same time.

Apex Art attempts to change lives through their outbound residency program. To get artists outside the commercial art world that is New York, and give them an opportunity to immersive themselves in a new culture, experience new things, open themselves up to the new and challenging. 

This has absolutely been successful for me, in more ways--so many of them subtle and hard to put into words--than I can describe. Being in Korea has enriched and broadened my thoughts on a variety of topics that I think about all the time in my work and in my life, and also given me new things to think about altogether. And the generosity, warmth, and hospitality of the people I have met here 

has really endeared Korea to me, and makes me very sad to be leaving. I hope very much to return one day, as one thing I learned in a month here is that a month is simply not enough. Thanks to all of you here who have contributed to making this trip so special and so unforgettable. I hope to see you all again very soon! 

If you want to find out more about me and my work, you can use the links on the screen, or feel free to email me at the address you see there with any questions.

Thanks so much