The Promise of If: A Community Bonded by Sorrow Interview with Minouk Lim
Soyeon Ahn, Deputy Director PLATEAU

The obscure title of the exhibition, The Promise of If, ironically captures the depth of thought and boundless scope of Minouk Lim’s artistic practice. The contradictory titles given to most of Lim’s representative works not only reflect the critical stance against the paradox of the Korean society that the artist has maintained over the past fifteen years, but more importantly seek to reveal a world of possibilities that defies logical definition. Throughout the years, Lim’s oeuvre has consistently focused on the overlooked places and people amidst the process of rapid urbanization in Korea, urgently calling for a “too late yet still early” engagement with the past.
Integrating documentary filmmaking and performance, Lim’s video works transform records and testimonies of the past into vivid reality. Her sculptural objects, on the other hand, create delicate organic forms by combining unconventional materials and objects such as liquids, latex, wax, feathers, bone fragments and other residual substances. In addition, the artist often layers acoustic and tactile elements like sound, light and heat on to the work, creating a level of emotion that reaches beyond materiality. By “shifting and rearranging” social criticism into the realm of art, art and politics always remain parallel in Lim’s work. Ultimately, what her practice strives for is “the aesthetic revolution where testimony and fiction come under the same regime of meaning”1 as opposed to clear distinction between art and reality that renders the logic of history impossible.
Lim’s work deliberately distances itself from clarity or simplicity by hiding its “contents” in-between the connecting fragments of a montage or bricolage. Consequently, the search for its meaning also diverges into many different paths. In this exhibition, the narrative gains even more layered perspective by presenting all new installation of works developed from the artist’s recent interests, while intimately connecting back to her earlier works in retrospect at the same time.

The current exhibition takes its theme from the 1983 live broadcast “Finding Dispersed Families,” which the artist recounts as one of her most striking memories of the media. The images from the event include over 400 hours of live broadcast showing the 100,000 applicants holding up individual information boards in search of family members lost during the Korean War. Creating an indescribable moment of “punctum,” these images are recorded as one of the most memorable moments in our recent history. The unsettled life on the road and the endless waiting that the separated families had to endure everyday over the years remind us of the unfinished war within and reveal the unhealed scars of history caused by the division. By recalling those moments from the past, the artist points to the issues of division and dispersion as the most pressing concerns of the reality we live in. It is through the dividing line between the two resembling faces of undeniable family ties, and the gaps that their overflowing tears will mend that the artist explores the world of possibilities that proposes “the promise of if,” one that only art can achieve through the politics of imagination.

In her work, the artist desperately attempts to recreate the fleeting glimpses of the people from the broadcast that flashes by in seconds due to too many stories in too little time. Reexamining their faces in a kind of slow motion portraiture, Lim attempts to restore dignity to their presence and suspend the moment in eternity so they may recognize each other someday. It is an act that recognizes the powerlessness of existence, but still with hope for the survival of the “fireflies,” the feeble beings that glimmer in darkness against the blinding spectacles of reality, even if they will eventually frail away in time. It is through the possibilities of the media, the intermediary and witness between the viewer and the event, that the artist imagines a new dimension of solidarity joined by the shared emotion of sorrow that reaches beyond disconnect.

Over the years, Minouk Lim has experimented in various forms of media from printed flyers, newspapers, short-wave broadcast, radio and video, to live TV broadcast. Identifying the essence of the media with that of her own artistic methodology, the artist has long been fascinated by its relational and intermediary nature. The artist believes that it is at this moment in time- in our present times where media has reached a dead end by the overwhelming speed and quantity of information- that we can ironically hope for a new beginning through the active imagination. Through her animistic imagination, Lim strives for a kind of media that transcends the boundaries by loosening the rigid orders of knowledge and objectification, and giving life to the inanimate.2 Just like the lone flâneur in Portable Keeper who wanders the urban ruins in memory of the forgotten and vanished places, the broadcast studio presented in this exhibition imagines the (im)possible coming together of a community against the odds of time by holding on to their memories. Provoking a kind of primitive fantasy, it presumes that the media, when imbued with life (of a human or an animal) in the mythological sense, may freely cross over the borders of the divide.

The new sculptural works in the exhibition, which consist of materials such as twisted tree roots, Ceylon moss, feathers and wax drippings from unknown sources, realize the artist’s imaginative embodiment of the media as an intermediate between machines and organisms. Willfully transformed for the sake of unrealized hopes, the media envisioned by Lim questions the true meaning of “togetherness” through the harmony of their heterogeneity. Can hospitality overcome antagonism through hope of an “Unavowable Community (Maurice Blanchot)” embracing the others on the outside? The artist shares her vision in the following interview.

AHN This exhibition gives a strong impression that it integrates both past and ongoing developments in your work over the years. While the exhibition presents all new installation, it combines recognizable elements from your earlier work with new work based on your current interests. Please explain about the structure of the exhibition.

LIM We could say that an exhibition space implies a temporary and hypothetical situation, and I start from there. I imagined this hypothetical space that could be a film set, a botanical garden, a situation room, or perhaps a darkroom that illuminates the traces of survival. I wanted the installation to resemble a kind of madangguk (Korean folk theater); one that has a narrative but cannot be fully connected, like seeing the fragments of a performance put on pause. The works over the years contain my thoughts on the identity of media and place, also about people and fading away. I tried to install these works with the feeling of envisioning a “tomorrow.” Mostly, these are about the ideas of “becoming the media” that started with Portable Keeper and The Possibility of the Half, along with the themes of dispersion and disappearance that branched out from Navigation ID. It hopes to attempt, “ in spite of it all,” the things that could not be achieved in the past.

AHN The exhibition takes its theme from the 1983 KBS live broadcast “Finding Dispersed Families.” The historic significance of the event is undeniable, as attested by its recent addition to the UNESCO Cultural Heritage List, but the context in which it has been dealt with has been strikingly different from how such events are usually consumed by the media in overdramatic ways.

LIM For the dispersed families, the scene of parting is a reason to start over every day. I focused on the fact that they continue to hold on to the memory of the place where they unknowingly parted with their families. It is a place where things that vanished away may return to. That very moment of boarding the train or the ship became a site of parting, but the broadcasting studio in 1983 became a site where they would wander around desparately to find one another. The personal information boards shown on the program are objects that bear such sense of place. They seemed to me like the “last leaf” sent off across time and space. O. Henry visualized a new beginning of here and now through that last leaf. By paradoxical intervention, the painted leaf became a kind of a medium that connects hope with the outside.
I continued to question the meaning of place and how it relates to memory. In the process, I was imagining a place of reunion that one could return to. Portable Keeper is like a roadsign at a crossroad. It tries to protect what is invisible. The work was presented in a series of objects, video and performance. The Topology of Last Love (2011) was a site- intervention project at Seoul Station, installing objects along an old stairway that was cut out during the renovation process. Similarly, in The Promise of If, I wanted to direct my focus on emphasizing the sense of place within the “Finding Dispersed Families” broadcast.

AHN The possibilities for contact and mediation given by the fluid and spiritual nature of the media have been previously explored through the theatrical newsroom in your earlier work from 2012. Please explain to us about this work.

LIM The Korean society has been dominated by all things uncertain and fluid. Here, death and disappearance were not part of an experience within the natural currents of time. It has always suffered from a kind of catastrophic mentality. My work is also born out of such mindset and soon I began to imagine what comes after the end of it all. It is at this point I started working on Portable Keeper (2009) and the FireCliff (2010) series. With Liquide Commune (2011), I continued to experiment with less permanent materials in ways like tearing pieces off a sponge or drawing with powdered cuttlefish bones. Then I moved on to The Possibility of the Half after seeing the footages from the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the state funeral of Kim Jong-il.
The Possibility of the Half juxtaposed scenes of the grieving crowd at the state funerals of the North and South Korean leaders, Park Chung-hee and Kim Jong-il, questioning the sense of déjà vu and the similarities they shared. I was curious whether reunification could happen unexpectedly at any point, and what kind of news the broadcast media would report in the times after. It is through this kind of imagination that The Promise of If came about as a semi-fiction, while adding on a certain religious impression.

AHN It is interesting that the various broadcast equipment take on organic forms resembling animals or plants. Are you hoping to imbue these mechanisms with life, or a certain kind of animistic imagination?

LIM When combining readymade objects such as these mechanisms with a human figure or organic material, the two do not contradict one another but rather create a different state of being that is neither machine, animal nor human. I had hoped that this undefinable something may create a third place outside the boundaries of the norm. Throughout human history, mythologies played a similar role. You described them as “plants or animals,” and others may see them as a machine, a tree, or an animal but what is important to me is arriving at the negation that it is none of the above. I believe this is the only kind of truth.
Gabriel Garcia Márquez denounced the social and political reality of his time through myth and satire. During his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, the author spoke about his literary style, now coined magical realism in the west, explaining: “Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude. (...) It is only natural that they insist on measuring us with the yardstick that they use for themselves, forgetting that the ravages of life are not the same for all, and that the quest of our own identity is just as arduous and bloody for us as it was for them. The interpretation of our reality through patterns not our own, serves only to make us ever more unknown, ever less free, ever more solitary.”
In this sense, Portable Keeper is an object in-between what is thought to be alive and dead. Likewise, the scenes unfolding in The Promise of If conveys a place where “the families condemned to one hundred years of solitude could finally and eternally have a second chance.”

AHN Seeing the two juxtaposing faces of the reunitied families and realizing their evident ties through the physical resemblance feels powerfully moving and tragic at once. It seems as if the two faces divided by the dual screens naturally allude to their state of separation. You must feel a distinct sense of purpose when taking on the issue of dispersion as a contemporary artist in Korea, which remains the only divided nation in the world.

LIM The reality is that we have no choice but to stay connected and become part of the pack when in fact we are individually separate and divided. I had to review hundreds of hours of footage in order to recreate the broadcast. What felt strange to me was why the sadness and tears would not dry nor numb over time. Maybe this is how the problems suspended in time and space “rupture” through. I looked for the traces of trauma. These were moments when two people would instinctively recognize each other even when their name and age were marked as unknown. This has nothing to do with the realm of politics but it is rather a paradoxical experience within the instinctive and sensuous space of the media. What I mean by “becoming the media” is not about becoming someone who deals with media. It is about a sensation of dispersion that penetrates with intensity itself. I began thinking about the unfinished war, identities defined through antagonism, role of an artist in a divided nation suspended in perpetual tension, and what it is that we really long for. It is through this thought process that I inevitably came to question what media is.

AHN The archive notes showing that many of the participants did not actually recall the names of their lost family members remind us of the powerlessness of human existence in the face of history. This is also why your work appears as a kind of a cry for help (SOS) for those who frail away in the indifference of time like a call for “survival of the fireflies.”

LIM Nameless people and vanishing places are central themes to my work. I could also call them “lost identities”- things that exist but are feeble and insignificant because no one would give importance to their names. It is about existence. In Inferno, Dante speaks of the glimmering lucciola, the firefly, in which the wretched glory of those suffering in eternal misfortune and lowliness rests. As Didi- Huberman explained, art is a part of these glimmers because it serves as an alternative in these times where we live in the blinding contrast of light and darkness.

AHN Although your career encompasses a wide range of works from installation, video, performance, publication to education, one could say that the core of your practice is video and new media. What expectations do you have for media art as an artist of the media generation?

LIM I have no intention of calling myself a video or media artist nor does any of my work insist on such claim. My work is perhaps too documentary to call it video art. I would say that it is formally closer to an installation, albeit with performative and narrative elements, more so than media art. I never consider the professional and artistic criteria in terms of media-specificity, or art historical meaning. Sometimes I feel as though I am propelled by a certain force like the Möbius strip that leads me to the edges of boundaries.
This is also why my work is triggered by opposing extremities at first, and then evolves into an installation of things heterogeneous and coexisting, without any order or hierarchy of representation. I have been integrating video and performance, while reconstructing archives and records in this sense. As you commented, we are living the times and lives saturated by the media. These media consist of programs and they have homes where they belong, like television, film, and the internet. But the kind of media art I am thinking of does not have a home to return to. It is a home that left its home behind. Its footsteps move in and out of the given path while overlapping and reflecting, looking after what is abandoned. At times, it even erases itself. Jong-chun Choi’s poem Home concludes “The snowman’s home is his body; I wish I could live without a home like the snowman.” I believe what we call media art is about invading the definition and scope of these so-called “boundaries” in order to raise questions.

AHN The containers are central objects in this exhibition. While they recall Navigation ID from the 2014 Gwangju Biennale, they also seem to have broadened the scope of meaning as more of everyday, commonplace objects; or perhaps as temporary housing structures embodying a “life on the streets” in a uniquely Korean context. At the same time, it seems rather profound that they are only shown in two-dimensional façades, devoid of volume.

LIM The speed and mobility of the modernization process brought significant changes to our lives. While it gave us freedom in many ways, our goals became fixated on growth and progress. I realized that these hopes have now turned into nightmares and overshadowed our existence. It is in this context that I manifested my thoughts on containers through works like Lost? (2004) and Pidgin Collective’s on-site office presented at the Haja Center. It was while working on Navigation ID that I encountered the remains abandoned in the containers. I was struck by indescribable emotion from what I saw. It ironically questioned back to me if this is what our lives now aim for and for whom we should mourn. The remains of the deceased inside the containers cannot be identified nor have a proper place to be secured. The families of the deceased wanted to speak out about how all of this made them feel as if being trapped in a black hole.
The families of the Gyeongsan and Jinju sites were very supportive of transporting
the containers to Gwangju. They exposed the reality of this tragic situation by taking the lead in the media themselves. This work does not gratuitously take these remains as its material but it tries to look at the situation from the inside, not the outside as spectators.
Why is it that certain deaths cannot even deserve a proper burial? On the 88 Olympic Expressway and at the Biennale Square, these questions led to one after another and eventually to thinking about community. I felt that all of our lives now, and even the universe we live in, are like the containers. We don’t know where everything comes from and where they go, or what really is inside.

AHN The Gates of Citizen plays familiar tunes as it stands across from Rodin’s The Gates of Hell. Could you describe the relationship between these works in more detail?

LIM In Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion, there is a section on cargo cults, where he explains about the ways how a religion can emerge from nothing. These are rather modern cases as you can see from the mock landing strips, planes and headsets they created. In my case, I put together four container box doors to create a kind of triumphal arch. From inside, all kinds of sounds and pop songs are remixed and played, literally like a traffic broadcast. I selected some of the most popular songs from my playlist that I wish to share with others.
I felt that cargo cults were not unlike the thoughts that came to me when I was working on Portable Keeper and the wearable sculptures. What I was interested in was the very idea of waiting surrounded by mock objects and places as they yearned for what has not yet come. This installation is like what Jean Luc Godard meant as “bringing together things that have as yet never been brought together and did not seem predisposed to be so,” in his History of Cinema. I thought about how I can arrive at the given plateau in between The Gates of Hell and The Burghers of Calais, so I made a control tower of the plateau. In the midst of these lines of flight and repetition, The Gates of Citizen realizes an image of redemption much like the control tower of the cults. That is what an image is. It permanently protrudes like a dislocated joint.

AHN You imply a certain “assumption” in the title of the exhibition, The Promise of If. What could this be?

LIM The word if “assumes” countless “assumptions” in order to orchestrate the acts of imagination. It is through such hypothesis and suppositions that we try to gain at least some sense in reality when things are unresolved and left with regret. This is not my supposition alone. It is the supposition of our times, and of the things that we have yet to face. This “assumption” is the years of waiting, a boundless open door and horizon. The horizon is a kind of rightness that bases itself on the other, an imagination for communal relationships, and the infinite which cannot be thematized. Expectation and disappointment, emergence and disappearance, the possible and the impossible are all presumed within this “assumption.” No one can foresee what is going to happen in a month, a day or even a second from now. A promise is also an assumption. “A roll of dice will never abolish chance.” I believe this is what life really is; a condition that always bears in mind what has not yet been realized.

AHN Jacques Rancière enlightened the possibilities of aesthetics in place of politics by underscoring that freedom from the contradiction and irrationality of the society relies on the physical senses of the body rather than intellectual knowledge. This is also why the formal aspects of your work must be brought to attention. Your work creates seemingly organic entities that are easily perishable by using unconventional materials such as liquids, latex, candle wax, feathers, bone fragments and other various residuals. Often times acoustic and tactile elements like sound, light and heat are layered on, as if desperately reviving them with the last breath of life. Perhaps it is for this reason that the finished work delivers a certain feeling of warmth, comfort and sadness of a different intensity. Please share your thoughts about your focus on materials, sensation and the kind of emotion you hope to convey in your work.

LIM For me, every material is a storyteller. Quite often I would feel that I can see the kind of emotion they carry, and search for their prehistoric roots. I try to focus on being receptive to the possibilities for change. This is not because I want to account for its meaning in advance but rather because I want to leave it open. It is what I call “tactile vision” that awakens the potential senses. However, this does not presume any type of hierarchy, order, category or form. I try not to get tied up on any one medium and more importantly let things happen by chance. The emphasis on chance is perhaps ironic, since this might be because I try to hold on to contradictions. I would get fixated on a buoy and fishnet while taking a walk somewhere or accidentally come upon some bird seeds for a parrot. Sometimes I would look out the window and spot a fan on the roof. Other times, I would also see a shape of a wild goose on the nape of a woman in the seat in front. By accident, I walked into a container and there I saw the endless denial that “there is nothing,” just like Mallarme’s roll of dice...
From the restless crowds of people I see a shadow that each of us wear on ourselves. It may be through our individual solitude that we come to find solidarity with one another. Maybe this is because my studio is near by Cheonggyecheon, where it is always bustling with the noise of messenger bikes and delivery men, and the air filled with the smell and heat of the ink press from the printers and metal shops. It used to be where the North Korean refugees and people from the countryside could start a new life from scratch, and you would understand where I get this feeling if you were to walk around the neighborhood during the evening rush hour. Beaudelaire’s flâneur spoke of the “immense source of enjoyment to establish his dwelling in the throng, in the ebb and flow, the bustle, the fleeting and the infinite.” Strolling down Cheonggyecheon in Seoul, I can add to his testimony that “Seoul is the most marvelous city to become obsessed over ideals.”

AHN “Sorrow” is one of the sentiments that is undeniably present in your work. In mournful wailing, or at times in utter silence beyond any possible expression, it powerfully resonates with the audience. These outcries directly relate to the feelings of “mourning,” but what is the true nature of this mourning that mediates between places, events, people and works?

LIM I think mourning is responding to the demands of the impossibility that make up the truth that nothing exists for real. Why I think this way has nothing to do with the words of philisophers or religious dogma. It rather has to do with the influence from my grandmother who converted to Buddhism. It was a conclusion that I came up with after trying to figure out how they cope with the burden and pain of reality. I would think that it was human nature that they cared after themselves by imagining the sacred. It seems to mourn is to gain prospect. In this sense, I felt that the act of mourning was ultimately to find solace and comfort that only comes after a proper burial.
At the same time, I think about the role of an artist in a society where mourning is no longer possible. Sophocles’s Antigone tried to give a proper burial for her brother, for whom she was forbidden to mourn. In the end, she takes her own life after being buried alive in a cave by Creon, the king who symbolized the law of the land. Antigone contested against Creon that divine law takes precedence over human law, claiming that “[she] was born to join in love, not hate.” From this story, I was able to confirm the relationship between human nature and the sacred once again. This phrase ultimately leads to questions about the relationship between the individual and the state, as well as humanity and community. Taking these into account, I want to say that this is the essence behind the prospects I may have as an artist in the divided Korean Peninsula. What it means to live through the impossible - the hospitality for the unfamiliar – has to be the driving force for creating meaning behind the artistic practice.

AHN One of the key elements charaterizing your work is its “community-oriented” vision that goes beyond the matters of unity and internality, in a way that it embraces the presence of the other instead of pluralizing the subject. Your vision of “community,” in the true sense of “togetherness,” does not seem to concern our ties to family, region or other social networks. On the contrary, it ironically looks to one’s relationship to strangers, and extends more broadly to the meaning of art in regards to the subjects of life and death.

LIM Deleuze said that “sense is always a double sense and excludes the possibility that there may be a ‘good sense’ in the relation.” I believe that the meaning of art likewise comes from the motivation to escape all boundaries of codes and consensus. The pain and sadness of separation still remains vivid here where I live. Some say “what it means to be human is to hold one’s place/position.” But can “we” really welcome enemies and strangers? I believe I should be able to answer this question as an artist living in the divided Korean Peninsula. It is because I still cannot resolve this by the places and the issues of hospitality I have dwelled on for some time. Nevertheless, I only see those communities that are constantly vanishing and shifting at the margins outside the communities defined by language,
region, kinship and nationality. How does this community of undefinable and disunified identities relate to place? That unknown place that art strives for is where the significant and the insignificant collide and confuse the existing orders within the hierarchies of symbols and meanings. I believe this is where we can reinvent the forms of an automous life.

1 Jacques Rancière, (Le)partage du sensible : esthetique et politique trans. Oh Yoon Sung, b-books, p.51
2 Anselm Franke, Animism, Ilmin Museum of Art, p.18

(Translation: Nayoung Cho)