Always the Bride: Maria Yoon’s Marriage Experiment
Maria the Korean Bride: a Special Valentine’s Day Screening sponsored by Baang + Burne at Wix Lounge
February 13, 2015
235 W 23rd St (between 7th and 8th avenues)
New York, 646 862 0833
What does it mean to be woman? Is the divine purpose of our lives tied to marriage and everything that accompanies? Will our “mission be complete” once a man chooses us as his bride?
Is marriage all there is?
Over the course of nine years, performance artist Maria Yoon explored ideas and a range of attitudes toward marriage. Her journey to knowing and unknowing is recorded in Maria the Korean Bride (2013), a 75-minute documentary-style film Yoon directs and stars in. The film, which screened in collaboration with Baang + Burne Contemporary for Valentines Day, features Yoon as Maria the Korean Bride (MtKB) traveling across the country on two-day trips to marry someone — and sometimes something — in each of the 50 states, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. After 50 marriages and thousands of miles zig-zagging across the United States, Yoon didn’t find any definitive answers to these questions about women and marriage, but her quest did lead to provocative questioning and unexpected answers.
Yoon is a first-generation Korean-American and the eldest daughter, born in Seoul, South Korea and raised in New York City. Although much of Yoon’s childhood was spent like a typical American youth, her parents made it clear that they expected their daughters to marry a Korean man, but even more importantly, marry to prove themselves good daughters and honorable women. The film shows how Yoon seems to disappoint time and again — her youngest sister was wed before Yoon began the project, and her father frequently refuses to discuss how he feels about marriage, his daughter’s project, or even to be filmed. Without a serious romantic relationship happening in her life, let alone marriage prospects, Yoon felt increasingly burdened with unfulfilled responsibility and obligation. To highlight the gravity of these expectations, Yoon’s mother gave her a wedding Hanbok, a traditional formal Korean skirt and shirt outfit worn for special occasions, for her 30th birthday. Receiving her wedding Hanbok started Yoon on a journey to explore the differing meanings of marriage around the country; Maria the Korean Bride was born.
Getting married became a well-run production: finding volunteers to assist (coordinating with photographers, finding “husbands ” on Craigslist or through friends and other connections), locating ministers to perform the ceremony, creating vows and rituals specific to the location and situation, getting waivers and paperwork to ensure that the marriages weren’t legally binding. Finally, MtKB’s first wedding to a Diana Ross impersonator took place in Las Vegas in 2002.
Yoon married men, women, a racehorse, an oil pump, a public park, statues and more during her nine-year performance as MtKB. She began to marry inanimate objects after an especially trying trip to the Milwaukee Brewing Company in Wisconsin. A weekend tour manager asked Yoon to “leave” and told her “go back to where you came from” after seeing her wearing the traditional Korean dress. Yoon admits to feeling confused and hurt by the assumptions the tour manager made about her, but determined to have a ceremony in Milwaukee anyway. The incident prompted her to buy a shirt from the gift shop and marry it in lieu of an actual man, freeing up her thinking around what it means to be in union with another.
As Yoon traveled, she spoke to people along the way, asking them to tell her about their own marriage or their choices not to marry. Interviews in the film include a polygamist household that spoke on the benefit of having someone else there to balance things out, while also admitting that this kind of arrangement certainly would not work for everyone. Gay and lesbian couples discussed their appreciation of matrimony because it gives their families and spouses practical legal protections, but questioned the reasoning of tying marriage to the administration of things like healthcare, death benefits and social security to the institution. A minister who performed one of Yoon’s ceremonies admitted to questioning her own marriage as she began to prepare vows for MtKB. This soul searching and consideration of marriage’s meaning led her realize that she should probably get a divorce. Yoon’s mother is featured frequently, with the artist calling her “the glue” for the film. Her mother states that she was proud of her daughter for making a film that made her and others think about what it means to marry.
MtKB’s final wedding took place in Times Square in May 2011. To mark the occasion, Yoon organized a raffle drawing to choose her final husband. She had a cake made, and engaged Jimmy McMillian, leader of The Rent is Too Damn High political party, to officiate. During the Q&A after the screening, Yoon said she was happy when the project ended and grateful that she only had to do it 50 times. She didn’t come away from the project with any greater perspective on actually being married; she realized that one could only know its value once one has actually experienced it.
For Yoon, MtKB began as an act of defiance, an action to prove her worthiness and ability to find a husband — or 50 — whenever she wanted. Rather than a simple voyage of personal discovery, Maria the Korean Bride grew into a journey of understanding that led Yoon to a greater appreciation for the lives and hearts of a range of people also seeking to understand for themselves love, partnership, and union outside of traditional notions of marriage for themselves.