Art Asia Pacific Issue 90 Sep/Oct 2014_Feature



The 38th parallel north is more than just a circle of latitude on the Earth’s equatorial plane. As part of a global reference system for mapping the planet, the line of latitude is most notable for its demarcation of the boundary between North and South Korea—a historical fracture that has persisted since the end of Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula in 1945, and the subsequent Korean War(1950-53), fuelled by the global interests of the Cold War..

For the artist Minouk Lim, who was born in the central South Korean city of Daejeon in 1968, and who has spent most of her adult life in Seoul, the historical and political reality of South Korea and its capital provide an important backdrop for her work, with it often acting both as the stage and the subject. As Koreans know all too well, in fact, the 38th parallel north is a rough guide, for a brutally partitioned culture. In the wake of midcentury wars, both the North and the South pursued their own civic building schemes under different political and economic governance—with markedly different results. Within this history, Seoul is seen as a glimmering icon of South Korea’s liberal-economic success, engendering the popular term “Miracle on the Han River”—which refers to the wide berth of water that cuts through the city’s center, and evokes the phrase “Miracle on the Rhine” used to describe West Germany’s own striking postwar recovery, thus succinctly capturing Seoul’s change of fortune and hyperexpansion. This transformation has taken its most vivid form in the capital’s extensive and seemingly endless urban redevelopment programs, which have provided a makeover to its appearance, and which at night reflects and sparkles on the surface of the Han River.

Throughout her oeuvre, beginning in the mid 1980s, Lim has come to challenge the neoliberal rhetoric of South Korea’s contemporary politics and its language of growth and urbanization, instead calling forth sensitive pronunciations of memories and stories of the people who live, or have lived, within the country. Asking what, in human terms, may have been or might be lost in the face of these rapid changes, Lim’s art could be said to be one of making visible, and audible, the lives that are hidden beneath the cosmetic renovations of Seoul, and how the city’s new structures have cast citizens as political subjects rather than feeling and sensing agents in a participatory democracy. Lim has achieved this in diverse ways through her innovative interdisciplinary practice, and which seamlessly brings together live performance, video, installation and sculpture, to activate communities, audiences and sites in startling and affective arrangements, cumulatively creating a moving human portrait of life amid immense, politically driven economic and social change.

Lim commenced her art studies at the Ewha Women’s University in Seoul in 1985, and having left Korea in 1988, completed her art education in France at the prestigious École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris, in France in 1994. During her studies, Lim found early success pursuing a practice firmly rooted in the plastic arts, and more specifically, in the discipline of painting. However the medium’s close ties to the commercial market resulted in her quickly becoming dissatisfied with the trajectory that it offered and keen to seek out alternative modes of artistic production. Lim turned her attention to collective practice, co-founding General Genius with the artists Leonore Bonacini, Andreas Fohr, Xavier Fourt and Frederic Michon, which emerged within a European context ripe with practitioners interested in what the French curator Nicholas Bourriard came to term “relational aesthetics.” This he defined, in his 1998 book of the same name as, “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context.”

Such a sentiment could be seen to be shared by General Genius, with Lim explaining to me in a recent email the impetus behind the collective’s creation: “We wanted to propose critical visions through the economic and political relationships within the art system, to penetrate and engage with art as life.” However in regard to this, General Genius saw their work more as revisiting the political underpinnings and aesthetic strategies of the mid-century avant-gardists, the Situationist International, rather than as the mimetic representations of participation and openness that are often cited as criticism of art under the ‘relational aesthetics’ term. In line with this, their activities included the exhibition “Quelle baisse du Taux de profit?” at Galerie Jorge Alyskewycz in 1997, in which the work unfolded and changed in time with the events of the concurrent French parliamentary elections, and which audiences could only view from the street, as the artists had restricted access to the gallery.

Despite her enthusiasm for the potential of collective practice, Lim’s role in General Genius was to be short lived-she left the collaboration after approximately three years. On this decision Lim stated, “I was a foreigner and couldn’t find an interest in discovering those relations in France. Another reason for having difficulties in collective work was the emphasis on expressing all my ideas in verbal language. It was far from the logic of my sensibility.”

Deciding to return to Korea, Lim’s involvement with General Genius served as a pivotal foundation for her subsequent maturity as an artist. Once settled back in Seoul, Lim continued to pursue collaborative practice both with Michon, who also made the move to Seoul before returning to France in 2001, and the Pidgin Collective, which she co-founded with Michon. Along with her direct collaborators, Lim was at the forefront of a growing swell of contemporary artists in South Korea who were working in a similar manner and were driven by shared concerns about both the effects of Seoul’s modernization and the active role artists could potentially play in affecting social change. These contemporaries included the likes of collectives Flying City, Oasis and Mixrice, to name just a few, all of which pursued activist ideologies and social engagement practices to create direct relationships between the local environment and art. Their activities included working directly with communities through interviews and workshops, and using public or alternative spaces as presentation platforms.

Within the context of South Korea, these practices gained an importance and meaning that were readily distinguishable from the more generalized and theoretical discourses surrounding relational practices elsewhere. Indeed, the work of Lim’s peers existed within a rich historical trajectory of South Korean artists employing art as a strategy for political action. Perhaps the most notable in this lineage was the politically oriented Minjung art movement, which emerged in response to the Gwangju Massacre in May 1980 by armed forces loyal to the South Korean dictator General Chun Doo-hwan. Yet the establishment of a democracy in South Korea by the end of the 1980s meant that the political urgencies facing Lim’s generation were different from those facing the Minjung artists, requiring them to define their own aesthetic strategies. However, Jeesook Beck, the co-curator of “Activating Korea: Tides of Collective Action” held at the Govett-Brewster Art Museum in New Plymouth, New Zealand in 2007, has written of Lim’s generation, that while they “may have different views on the genealogy of Minjung art, they share its globalised legacy. They are mostly unsympathetic towards the authority of the dominant social system and art institutions and have the will to publicly contradict [with]in the system or institutions.”

Such an attitude can clearly be seen within Lim’s work with Michon and the Pidgin Collective, and their modus operandi of interrupting and activating public space to cast critical comment often with tongues firmly in cheek. For example the first iteration of the Pidgin Collective’s project "Rolling Stock" (2000-03) provided an alternative visitor guidebook for those visiting Korea for the Gwangju Biennale 2000 and included the collective’s image archive of past projects “re-rolled” or represented in order to illustrate how people move through places at different times, and occupy and adapt them. Later, Tenor & Sweet Potatoes (2004) saw a construction site transformed by an operatic performance by the tenor Im Jun Tae, whose absurd appearance in the surrounding rubble, was only trumped by the artists’ who stood near by roasting a meal of sweet potatoes in a four-leaf clover shaped drum produced by the collaborating artist Pil-seung, effectively breaking down the barriers between high and mass cultures through the collision of elements. Significantly, Tenor & Sweet Potatoes was also a part of the larger “Scrap Project” (2004–05), a seminal series of exhibitions, workshops and events coordinated by the Pidgin Collective, which included critic and curator Jang Un Kim by this point. A converted shipping container located in the playground of the Seoul Youth Factory for Alternative Culture Haja Center in Seoul was used to create an active archive that served both as a hub and catalog of the cultural research and work of Lim and her contemporaries.

Tenor & Sweet Potatoes, with its simple setup of a musician delivering an unexpected performance in a public space bears a striking resemblances to Lim’s breakthrough solo work, New Town Ghost (2005), which firmly announced her as an artist in her own right as well as her transition to explore what she has described to me as her “ vision about the ‘intensive proximity’ of solitude and solidarity, and the questions of the individual and the community.” A single-channel video, New Town Ghost documents a performance staged by Lim on the back of a truck being driven around the Yeongdeungpo district of Seoul, an area representative of the many slated for redevelopment by the former Seoul mayor Lee Myung-bak under his now failed ‘new town’ policy. At the time of the video’s making, Yeongdeungpo and the other ‘new town’ suburbs were undergoing significant change, thanks to the construction of numerous high-density residential towers to house Seoul’s burgeoning population, in the place of older low-density neighbourhoods. While these redevelopments were promoted as improving standards of living and character of the areas, they also displaced many existing residents and divided public opinion. In Lim’s video a young female slam poet yells a stream of commentary on these developments out to the street, using a megaphone to amplify her voice, alongside the musical accompaniment of a man on drums. She shouts lines such as, “Oh, my complex . . . Oh my housing-commercial complex . . . I have nowhere to go. I'm a new-town ghost.” The camera also meditates on people on the street, who look on with a mix of curiosity and indifference, as well as on the surrounding architecture, which shifts from older buildings and lower-rise shops, to new high-density apartment towers that rise to dizzying heights. As the video progresses, and its editing increases in speed, so does the rhythm of the drummer whose pattern and pace becomes increasingly frenetic, while the slam poet incants, “Remodelling complex changes my fate.”

Following the success of New Town Ghost, Lim continued pursuing her solo practice and critical reflection on Seoul’s rapid redevelopment in the two major works, S.O.S - Adoptive Dissensus (2009) and The Weight Of Hands (2010). In both pieces, Lim reemployed the format of staging and documenting a performance in a public space, while pushing the possibility of what this could involve to new, ambitious level. . Exemplifying this is the ethereal S.O.S - Adoptive Dissensus, a 90-minute theatrical journey staged along the Han River on March 29–30, 2009, as part of the International Multidisciplinary Art Festival BOM, and later presented as either a single-or three-channel video installation. Unfolding under the cloak of night, the performance invited audience members to board a ferry and to travel down the river, passing various locations—including Nodeul Island, a fishing spot near Jamsu Bridge, and Jamdu-Bong dock. At each stop, people witnessed a performance unfolding within the beams of the ferry’s searchlights, which produced the effect of a spotlighted stage. The performances included a group of protesters holding mirrors and played predominantly by students from the HAJA Production School, a pair of lovers played by actors, and one by Kang Yong Joo, a former long-term political prisoner of conscience, wrongfully accused of being a spy for North Korea. Each performance told a different story related to the river, with the protestors symbolizing the next generation of South Koreans and their search to reclaim experiences and histories deprived to them, the lovers recounting the river’s place as a romantic refuge that was soon to be lost to development, and Kang Yong Joo recounting his own story in Morse code. Back on board, the evening’s performance was narrated by the captain of the ship.

Lim’s choice of the Han River as the location for this work, like her use of the Yeongdeungpo area in New Town Ghost, was a timely one. One of Seoul’s most defining natural features, at the time of S.O.S - Adoptive Dissensus’ production, the Han River was in the middle of a massive public-works program designed to capitalize on the riverfront location as an attractive tourist destination. Dubbed the “Han River Renaissance Project,” its plans included two world firsts: the longest bridge fountain and the first solar-powered floating island, which have both since been completed.
In a previous interview with the Lim from 2011 about this work, she explained to me: “It made me question many things: why did this development spawn a sense of loss rather than prosperity? What is the relationship between human and nature? What is memory and reality’s relationship? I grew up my whole childhood with construction sounds and scenes near me. It remains within me like an eternal disharmony. Am I supposed to be embracing this as a new kind of natural landscape? If I am a painter, should this be a post-futuristic or post-impressionistic painting?’
Further commenting on her fascination for telling stories of people and places, she added, ‘It’s always interesting to discover how stories survive, sometimes even in cement blocks. Many people I have met in Seoul tried to recall those things that disappeared permanently and create the landmarks of their own making. These are the type of people I trust. Both the subject and the object here are regarded as the third nature.’

These questions and interests returned in her next work, The Weight Of Hands (2010), which followed a similar structure to S.O.S.- Adoptive Dissensus, with Lim staging a performative journey that traversed numerous restricted construction sites in Seoul, except this time, she positioned the audience on a bus, rather than a boat. Most significantly, however, The Weight of Hands marked for Lim an important departure point from her previous work in terms of the technology that she employed to document it. While S.O.S - Adoptive Dissensus was documented using a standard digital camera in a simple documentary format, in The Weight Of Hands the filmed action of the video switches between this and an infrared camera. Under the lens of the infrared camera, images of the action become saturated in yellows, crimsons and magentas, making visible the heat that emanates from the bodies and environment surrounding them. In one of the scenes filmed in infrared, a man playing a single drum stops and places his hand on a glass window. It leaves a purple handprint that slowly vanishes from sight as the heat from the initial touch fades. Despite the image disappearing, the presence of the touch seems to linger. In the use of infrared in The Weight of Hands, and the sensuous affects this creates, Lim found the perfect aesthetic and technological resolution to uncover and reveal the things that escaped language and ready visual representation.

In her subsequent works, including her "FireCliff" series (2010 – 2013), her use of infrared for these purposes would continue, not only in the documentation of the performance but also in their theatrical staging. The “FireCliff” series, presently comprises four iterations at four different venues – La Tabacalera, Madrid (2010); the Baek Seong-hui and Jang Min-ho Theater of National Theater Company of Korea, Seoul (2011); the Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis (2012); and the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts, during an artists residency at Hyde Park Arts Centre, Chicago (2013) – she has directed a documentary theatrical work for each that responds to the site of presentation, using live projections of the action that have been mediated through thermographic and HD cameras as part of the scenography. Also unifying the four works is an interest in testimony, with the bodies in and locations of the performances being presented as sites of witness. For example in FireCliff 2_Seoul(2011), Lim directed a performance between Hyeshin Jeong, a psychiatrist, and Taeryong Kim, a victim of torture whose whole family were arrested for the Samcheok Family Spy Ring Case in 1979. Riffing on the history of the theatre’s site as the place where the Defense Security Command stood, Lim set the stage for Kim to tell his story, and punctuated the end by a live recreation of his arrest projected in HD and infrared on stage, subverting the authority of the mass media by using its technologies to bring together the person and events not formally covered. For the performances in the United States, Lim collaborated with choreographer and dancer Emily Johnson in Minneapolis, and jazz and blues musician Chris Foreman, who has been vision impaired since birth, in Chicago for more lyrical explorations of the relationship between the body and landscape, and the possibilities of perception beyond the visual.

The status of and care with documentation in Lim’s performances is one of the most curious and striking aspects of her work. Eschewing the overt fetishization, or idea, of “purity” that is often bestowed on the experience of the performative moment, Lim’s works are always made to be both experienced live by a primary audience, and then through the mediated form of a document—whether it be in the shape of a film, costumes or an installation of both. Such was exemplified by her 2011solo exhibition “Liquid Commune”, at PKM Gallery in Seoul and her later 2012 solo survey exhibition, “Minouk Lim: Heat of Shadows” at the Walker Arts Centre. For example at the Walker videos of New Town Ghost, S.O.S. – Adoptive Dissensus, and The Weight of Hands, were presented as large scale projections in the gallery while nearby a series of Lim’s ‘portable keepers’–long totem-like poles, made out of assembled fragments of plastic, fabric, feathers and wood that the artist commenced making in 2009 and that often appear in her performances–as well as her “wearable sculptures,” made out of thermofoam, bones, blades of an electric fan and other natural and synthetic materials. Commissioned for the occasion, these were used by the dancers in the performance <em>FireCliff3_Minneapolis (2012) on the exhibition’s opening night, then placed on view for the exhibition’s duration. When asked about the relationship between her live performances and her material installations, Lim commented to me in our email correspondence, “It’s quite simple that I install performance objects . . . For me, the object installation is the same as presenting a testimony in court. It is to invite the perception of the body with tension, and to envision the action. That is a ‘facing and chasing’ relationship, which I consider very important and that it has a similar value in performance and installation. It reveals the space between the moment and memory.”

While I was writing this article, Lim was in the middle of producing a major new body of work for the upcoming Gwangju Biennale in early September. Set to comprise a range of elements, including a large sculptural installation, a live performance will form the pivotal moment. As Lim describes it, the performance Navigation ID (2014) will unfold on the opening day of the Biennale in the vast public square that stretches out in front of its exhibition hall, and will involve the transportation of a container filled with skeletal remains. The remains are to be those of the civilian victims of the massacres that occurred at Jinju and a cobalt mine in Gyeongsan, during the early years of the Korean War, and are representative of the 200,000 or more citizens who met a similar fate - executed without trial on suspicion of having sympathies with North Korea as part of the war crimes alleged to have been committed by the military and police under the Syngman Rhee government and allied forces. Recently, these little-profiled, censored atrocities were brought to greater public attention through the establishment of the Korean Truth Commission on Civilian Massacres in 2005. The bodies that have been excavated in these investigations have no place to rest as the proceedings around these case remain unresolved.

At the same time that the container arrives, so too will families of the victims, whom the artist has organised to arrive by bus, escorted by a helicopter and ambulances. Arriving in Gwangju they will be met and hosted by the Mother’s Association of May–the mothers of victims who died in the May 18 Democratic Uprisings in Gwangju in 1980– and then led to the exhibition hall following one of Lim’s ‘portable keepers’. The whole process will be aired live both in the exhibition space and via the OhmyNews website, and will be re-screened throughout the Biennale’s duration as one part of a two channel video work.

Navigation ID seems set to be a confrontational work, with the emotional weight and impact of its intention palpable even in written description. However Lim hopes it will create solidarity and a new community between the families of the victims of civilian massacres. She commented to me:, “The portrait of this situation could be violent and painful. But I hope this appeals to openness in thoughts and reveals the sacredness and potential of human beings. In my new performance project my main question is about empowering hospitality.” With the fractures of recent history still embodied within the millions of people that live there, and with the country’s politics still focussed on economic and material progress and remaining slower on historical reconciliation, the idea of hospitality seems a pertinent one.