Finding Dispersed Families - 1983 KBS Live Broadcast, Courtesy of KBS Archives

A Broadcasting Studio of Meetings and Partings

Interview with Minouk Lim
Art in Culture
Tiffany Chae

1. This exhibition presents close to forty works spanning your career from the early years to the most recent projects. As the exhibition is coming to a close, what are your thoughts on this "semi-retrospective" presentation?

I wanted to bare through the images that occurred to me and keep questioning them. I thought about the tragic deaths and those communities that came to form the core of my works. I wanted to face them directly and not avoid them in any way, even if they were brought together by pure coincidence. I wanted to lay them all out rather than piling them up in my head. I knew they could not be straightened out by any means, so I decided to confront this difficult situation and expand on it instead. Ultimately, I wanted to create an exhibition that was taken over by a certain impulse. Countless stories behind each work came back to me like the many heads of the Hydra. I was not trying to prove anything, so it didn't matter whether it was a partial or a full-scale retrospective.

2. There is a strong impression that the individual works come together to form a single, larger body of work. It seems they collectively attempt to console the scars left in modern Korean history in a metaphorical way, around the central theme of the national division and separation. This continues on your earlier presentations at the Gwangju Biennale(2014) and the Real DMZ Project(2015), but it must have required a very different approach when adapting the works to a white cube museum space in an urban setting as opposed to outdoors. What was your main concern in the process?

I wanted to create something like a traditional ink painting that reflects certain relations and atmosphere. It is not a binding theme but something that comes from fear that is embedded in many different fragments. Eliminating what is there and searching for what is not there. It is more of an intimate and phantasmagoric realm that is far from nostalgic memories of home or hopeful wishes for reunification. It comes from questioning why I feel wounded by the things I did not experience myself. Everyone is bound to face something unexpected in life and at times have to run away from it in order to survive. But there are times when people are falsely accused against their will. Such mistakes and misfortunes drag on and take hold of one's life. In this sense, the first room of the exhibition, titled The Cave, is a future, hospital, heart and death.

3. The new video work, The Promise of If, appears to be the centerpiece of the exhibition. The work reconstructs a "theater" based on your idea of the "media." What was your intention behind the documentary footages played here?

When does the media leave its residues behind? When does an afterimage become a solid form? Or is a solid form eternally bound to be an afterimage? I thought about the function of a screen as a kind of a pivot joint or a spine that instantaneously shifts itself to and from the material and the imaginary. When those dispersed families, who had no knowledge of each other's whereabouts for decades, seized the media in a desperate attempt, they needed to involve every kind of visual tool possible to reach out through the chaos. The "storyboards" needed to be visible and direct. Some were candidly written in question marks for the unknown name and age (because they were too young to remember at the time of separation), and in those question marks were mixtures of hope and resentment, anticipation and disappoint, completing the full picture. I wanted to reflect on this event in any way possible, and thought the exhibition space could also become a place to experience such happenings and montage of stories. I wish the brutality and endurance, conflict and tension, or perhaps restoration and rupture felt in the moment to all boil down in The Promise of If and ultimately illuminate themselves in some way.

4. The new installation, Contours of Unity, is surrounded by nine monitors showing your early video works. Why did you choose to display them this way with the sound off?

I tried to imagine that the exhibition space was a broadcasting studio of some different order. The first room entitled The Cave, was specifically installed with a situation room in mind. In 2012, I visited an actual newsroom. The situation room next door was particularly memorable because it almost felt silent. There were over ten channels of video turned on at the same time, and they sounded like they were mumbling from inside of an aquarium. The lone director looking at the cue sheet was the only person in sight. I wanted to create both a situation room and a control room for Running on Empty, with objects hanging on walls like control buttons, the video works being the "outside" channels, and Portable Keeper as directors wearing a kind of glass sheath. At least, that was the idea if I were to explain it simply.

5. The Gates of Citizens, made from discarded shipping containers, makes a sophisticated contrast to Rodin's The Gates of Hell across the space. At the same time, the soundtrack that accompanies the work seems contradict the sense of "mourning" that echoes throughout the exhibition. What kind of emotion did you attempt to convey through this work?

I leave it to the viewers to deal with it. I don't want to be an artist that dwells on illustrating any specific kind of emotion. An installation is a montage from destruction. I try to focus on the kinds of emotion that cannot be thought out as a whole.

6. Running on Empty consists of multiple totem-like figures made in a diverse range of materials. How did you come up with the materials and forms of these "totems"?

For instance, there are moments when I was not there but I have to remember. It is completely irrational. Everyone says I should mind my own business but I keep clinging on to them. I can't help it. Politics, society, schools, friends, family are all intertwined in it. Information kills art so I decided to run far away. Instead, I wanted to trust in the little things and take joy and grief in them. I often visit the old marketplace next to my studio, pretending as if I've become some kind of sorcerer. Then I would try to reenact the indigenous people of the cargo cults. Those followers of the cult built air strips, control towers and planes out of sugar canes and waited for the cargo/human gods to come. I created sculptural objects that mimic a studio set. Unlike the media that endlessly projects information on to the public space, they adjust their frequencies towards the "bodies" living in a world that has changed overnight. Burnt canes, protruding lights, hardened liquids, chained thorns, etc. all become transmitters and receivers of different orders. With these objects, I imagined a broadcasting studio that is suddenly transformed into a place of meetings and partings.

7. In comparison to the organic, organism-like forms in your sculptural works (Portable Keeper, Articulation, Running on Empty), Planet and New Town-Point, Line, Plane, seem to emulate a kind of natural "environment". What is the production process behind these linoleum flooring works?

It is another way of expressing the way in which an environment becomes a photograph. In 2006, I began a series of works titled Public Peeling, where I casted the surface of streetlights and manhole covers. Then, I later moved on to casting the entire floor space with latex, mostly asphalt and concrete surfaces, and peeling them off like carpets. I was fascinated by the idea that these were realist photographs that can imprint the sunlight and moonlight, even the temperature and wind of the site like long exposure photography. Next to my old studio, there was an abandoned rooftop space piled up with things like linoleum coverings, sticks and broken fans. I brought them back to make Portable Keeper and held on to the covering. The studio itself was a temporary space, and with the "New Town" redevelopment project closing in on the area, I felt that the marketplace and everything around it will soon vanish. So, it was my way of archiving them as a kind of documentary photograph of drifting lands.

8. Traversing the past and the present, your works have consistently portrayed ordinary citizens who have been sacrificed under government authority. What defines the "people(minjung)" that you attempt to portray?

To put it simply, those who have never heard of the publication "Art in Culture". But this doesn't mean they are excluded from the art world. Who still uses terms like "the people (minjung)" in Korea in their daily lives? The term is a generalization serving the purposes of the intellectuals and their debates. At the same time, this is not to say the term is invalid. I never attempted to portray the "ordinary citizens sacrificed under public authority,” in other words, the "minjung," as phrased by the question. In order to justify the term, the victims of violence must demonstrate strong self-awareness but often this is not the case. The "ordinary citizens" and the victims don't call themselves the "minjung." If we were to rethink they idea of the "minjung," it will be the kind of citizenship where everyone can become a victim or a perpetrator. As an artist, I would like to think that the idea of the "minjung" represents those who don't meet the uniform standards forced by our society and therefore excluded from communities.

9. Korea is the locational backdrop to all your works, but the issues of conflict between the individual and the society that they highlight may translate to a global context. However, when dealing with specific events or locations in modern Korean history, how are the viewers to grapple with this unfamiliar context? Do you recall any memorable reactions from the viewers?

A solo exhibition of the South African artist William Kentridge recently opened at the The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Korea. The entrance of the exhibition features a detailed introduction on the historical background and context of South Africa. No one seems to be criticizing the artist for being too specific or direct about his country.
When I had my solo exhibition in Germany, the interest that the German media showed in my works was quite overwhelming and unfamiliar to me. Their historical awareness seemed uncompromising. What is perhaps unfamiliar to the international audience is the way our government is currently negotiating our own history with Japan.
I would now like to discuss what is really unfamiliar to me about this question. It is the predetermined notions of art's legitimacy, regarding its space and the idea of its "general or reserved public/viewer." Why not fear these?

Translation Nayoung Jo