Linda J. Cronin


Chun Sun "Sandie" Yi is creating a stir with a new type of disability art -an art that violates society's impulse to ignore or avoid looking at disability and "deformity". She forces society to confront the disabled person by elevating disability inspired clothing to the level of art. Centered on histories and narratives generated within and performed by the body through everyday social interaction, Crip Couture aims to encourage dialogue between the wearers and the viewers of these objects. She alters the purpose of conventional prosthetics and orthotics, which aim to create more-or-less standardized body form and function, and blends prosthetics and jewelry to make a range of garments, accessories and footwear.

Her art hasn't always involved disability and the body. Yi says, "In fact, I didn't make the connection with disability until I went to grad school (that was after four years of making art about my body)!"

She first started making art about her hands while in her undergraduate program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Through class assignments on wearable jewelry, she began to explore her memories of social interactions she has had. Yi says, "For example, people got shocked when they saw or shook my hand; strangers stare with frowns and pity, etc. There were a lot of emotions and internal dialogues to process, including memories from as young as age 5. I used writing and scribble drawings in my diary to further explore the meanings of these experiences. With the heavily loaded emotional aspect in my work, I learned about my body through looking at her, talking with her, listening to her and eventually adorning her differences."

Yi is the model for a number of her designs which clearly show her nonconventional body structure, two digits on her hands and feet. For some designs, Yi engages with other disabled people to create wearable art that represents their disability and experience. Yi explains, "For Project ImPerfect, I met families and children with limb differences while working as an art therapist in the community and at a hospital." From that experience, she created a line of children's clothes. For her recent work, Yi's collaborators have been fellow artists from the disability community.

Yi hands covered with lace gloves with her face between them
Gloves for Two #2
Sterling silver wire & Digital photography 2005

Yi describes how she begins her designs, explaining "Each wearable item is designed based on an individual's medical experience, physical position and state of mind. Rather than reject the notion of physical alteration, I provide intimate and empathetic bodily adornment, not as a correctional physical aid, but as a tool for remapping and engaging with a new physical terrain, one embodied with personal standards of physical comfort and self-defined ideals of 'perfection.'"

She believes that as a collection of wearable art, her designs explore the impact of ethical and medical decisions made about the body; the boundary between ethics and aesthetics; the idea of the body in flux; and body ownership. She says "The objects and their wearers call for a recognition of collective human experience and suggest the possibility for a new genre of wearable art, Disability Fashion."

When Yi started exhibiting her work, she only showed the wearable art as objects on pedestals and in display cases. There were illustrations of how the object was worn on her hand, but the rest of her body was absent. Later, she began to implement photography in her work; by posing and modeling with her own body, she was interested in having more direct full body contact with the viewers.

Yi says "It was always quite lonely to make art about my body. I mean, as an artist, I certainly enjoyed my solitude because I needed to spend time and converse with my body. Sometimes I felt that I was the only one who had this experience of being alienated for having a different body. Later on, I realized many disabled people too find them isolated from disability community and feel alone with their own presence."

Yi herself is a member of the disability community although she did not always identify herself as such. "Making art about my body fulfilled me, but it did not complete me. When I began meeting other artists who identify themselves as disabled artists, I realized that I had not seeing my body differences as a disability. It was a painful metamorphosis to realize that disability is something that I taught to stay away from and perhaps forbidden to talk about. When I was able to finally claim my disability identity, I felt a sense of belongingness and completion that I had never felt before."

"My wearable adornments have played many roles: sometimes they shelter, protect, comfort and adorn me; sometimes they expose, fight and scream for attention. They have lots complex and paradoxical expressions: together, they make me a full person with diverse expressions. They help me to claim my disability identity."

Yi crouched on white cube dressed only in black stretch pants and horned sandals.
Animal Instinct: Armed and Beautiful
Digital chromogenic print,2005

Through critiques and exhibitions, Yi reaches out to the world outside of her body and memory. She describes how viewers engage with her work and share their perspectives and begin telling her about themselves and their experiences with beauty standards and the struggle of trying to be perfect and to fit into the society. "It seems to me that art about personal experience has the power to connect people and opens up a kind of intimate space to be with one another."

She feels her work does not speak exclusively to the disability community but reaches a wide range of people. She says "I have had teenager boys come to me and tell me they understand my work because they got bullied while trying to fit in at school. My work may be speaking about disability, beauty and body, etc, but viewers can always take what speaks to them from my work with them, whether the viewers are disabled or non-disabled. You'd be surprised at how people relate and project personal associations when seeing a piece of artwork."

She shares her artwork as a way to build connections. It could be connections within the disability community because so many people have not yet been given the opportunity to make their bodies and experiences visible. It could be connections with other communities to explore the narratives of body adornments worn by disabled women of color. Yi is open to all possibilities and potential collaborations.

She wants people - both able-bodied and disabled - to realize "It can be scary to begin exploring and conversing with your own differences when you know that you have worked so hard to be just like everyone else. It's ok that if you're not ready, but when you do find the courage and strength to be ready, go for it and know that you're not alone."

Asked about the future of wearable art, Yi says "I envision the future of wearable art will challenge and defy existing body norms and beauty standard. It will include wearers with different types of physiques. It will be informed and enriched by the wearers' narratives and presence. I look forward to create art with disability/crip aesthetics."


Linda A. Cronin is a poet and editor of Wordgathering.