Minouk Lim: Notes from Journeys of the 25th Hour

Clara Kim
Senior Curator of Visual Art, Walker Art Center

Seoul is an urban landscape that changes before your eyes—a city of a kind of liquid architecture that gets destroyed as quickly as it gets built in a cycle of defamiliarization and discontinuity. Navigating the city, as anyone who has visited Seoul will know requires a relationship in which the past, present and future co-exist in simultaneous space. For instance, when you ask a cab driver to take you somewhere, addresses usually prove to be useless, but he will often ask you “oh, is it where Building X formerly was, which used to stand next to Building Y and where Building Z is currently under construction?” Seoul, like many cities in Asia that went through rapid industrialization, operates within the rhythm of a time-lapsed video. In this intricate and densely woven weave of roads, public transport systems, underground tunnels, and overhead highways, entire neighborhoods are eradicated and communities uprooted and displaced en masse for innumerable development and redevelopment projects, altering the city landscape like the unrecognizable face of a chronic plastic surgery patient constantly under helm of the knife. It is a patchwork that never quite comes together where histories, memories and everyday realities are held together by fragile seams.

“My sense of time does not follow the common sequence of past-present-future, but rather of past-future-present.”

This is where Minouk Lim’s work begins. Over the past 15 years, Lim has developed a provocative body of work that critiques the social and political conditions of a contemporary society fueled by rampant growth and development. Interested in the silent, invisible, and peripheral aspects of industrialization—what the artist calls “the ghosts of modernization,” Lim responds to the loss of belonging and place. Her work unabashedly moves from declarative gestures of protest to symbolic rituals of mourning. Consciously working between the lines of aesthetics and politics, Lim’s works create spaces where dissent necessitates new ways of seeing and experiencing. Deeply influenced by the writings of Jacques Rancière (1940-) who defines ‘the political’ not by the relations of power or the achievement of a specific goal, but rather the active process of creating disruptions within consensus driven culture, Lim’s works operate as ‘dissensus,’ using Rancière’s term, or as interruptions to the political and boosterism rhetoric that pervades contemporary Seoul. For Lim, occupying a position of dissent demands a recalibration of our cognitive and sensorial processes, necessitating a different way of seeing and perceiving that recaptures collective memory and implants a conscience within the experience of lived reality.

“My ethical responsibility of art is an issue that draws attention from a number of artists. My stance is close to that of Jean Luc Godard (1930-)’s Le petit Soldat (1963) who said “Ethics is the aesthetics of the future.” I am interested in the sentimental judgment phenomenon, which has moved from ‘the good’ in truth and beauty to ‘beautiful.’ I believe that this is the same as looking into how our world holds disharmony together; it is because an action has to reorganize the sentiment about what cannot be seen, what cannot be heard and what cannot be spoken, as Jacques Rancière had claimed.”

In recent years, Lim has acquired a distinct visual language that provocatively melds her interest in performance, video, and documentary. Commissioned by the BOM Festival, S.O.S.-Adoptive Dissensus (2009) takes the form of a three-channel video installation of a light and sound performance that originally took place on a cruise ship along the Han River. What Lim describes as a “performance documentary theater,” S.O.S. is a multi-layered work that is an immersive sensorial experience with searchlights scanning the nightscape of Seoul as an audience on the tourist cruise boat (or the audience of the video installation) are taken on a journey of the unknown to the 25th hour. The long time captain of the cruise ship becomes the narrator of this journey in which lost histories and memories wiped out by urban development initiatives like the Seoul city government’s ‘Miracle of the Han River’ project are recounted. Using real time, two-way radio, the audience come into contact with three performative vignettes that happen on the banks of the river: a group of student protestors in arms, two lovers who recount their emotional ties to Nodeul Island, and a former political prisoner of conscience recounting his personal story of struggle. Together, they trace a narrative of the individual lives and personal memories, from different times, places and social contexts collapsed into the space of one work, in an attempt to humanize the cost of modernization.

“My work throws the question on the relationship of memory faded by speed, resistance from it and the relationship between human beings and nature inside the city. This rapidly changing environment erases our memories and we have to prepare ourselves to let go of the memories without making them. The dizzy process of ‘globalization’ seems as though ‘we have already seen it’ and ‘we have already lost it,’ while wondering about the restless time.”

Reinventing documentary as a form of direct engagement, Lim upholds the importance of the audience in her work as witnesses to the dissenting voices of history. For the artist, seeing is the act of sensing and touching—a poetic achieved by the embodiment of real time and space. If S.O.S. used sound and searchlights to capture lost spaces, The Weight of Hands (2010) uses the infrared camera, typically deployed for military surveillance purposes, as a literal and metaphoric tool to penetrate through a cordoned off construction zone. The work operates as a funerary ritual of sorts, in which a group of sojourners on a tour bus, attempt to break into a restricted space of development. The haunting video is punctuated by a woman passenger on the bus who is raised up and passed from person to person, while singing a ballad of loss, hopelessness and alienation, while the infrared camera footage records temperature and heat as a series of brightly colored abstract patterns in different hues and intensity. They are the literal and metaphoric stand-ins for lost bodies in space, in a context where physical spaces are restricted or no longer available, the work considers us to use other sensory devices—touch, temperature and heat as a way to see and experience our reality. The use of infrared camera would figure again in Lim’s subsequent work, becoming the technical device that carries and furthers her ideas of perceiving beyond physical attributes, of charting the traces of human existence.

“Today, under the changes caused by globalization, places are counted only as space; individuals are merely resources for networking. Nietzsche was said to have wept as he embraced a downtrodden horse, but I want to weep, embracing places. Nevertheless, I also want to fight against the sense of powerlessness caused by melancholy, whether is it the feeling that overwhelmed Nietzsche, or any other kind. So I am inventing rituals for, and keeping records of, moments of separation.”

Lim’s FireCliff performances, now three in the series, extend her interest in the relationship of the body in the city, of the witness to phenomenon, of placeness and history. The first was performed at La Tabacalera in Spain in 2010—a cultural and community center in a former tobacco factory building in Madrid. For the performance work, Lim interviewed former female workers of the tobacco factory, relaying their stories, their working conditions and eventual lay off and performed their texts in what she calls site-specific installation and sound performance with hip hop music and other sounds and light effects. For Lim, the work is an effort to rekindle the history of place, to uncover the stories that are buried deep in the ground or embedded in the walls of the building—forgotten as new lives pass it by. The FireCliff performances are rituals of sorts that summon the past, present and future in precarious ways. FireCliff 2_Seoul (2011) was performed on the occasion of the 2011 BOM Festival in Seoul. Interested in the relationship between memory and testimony, Lim realized the performance in a more classical theatrical configuration, with audience and a stage set up in a building formerly used as a security intelligence complex. The performance featured two individuals: Hyeshin Jeong, a psychiatrist and Taeryong Kim, a long time political prisoner (who Lim had met while working at the Truth Foundation) and the space of the theater was turned into a documentary space—in which the drama of one’s own life, lived and performed by that person, unfolds to an audience. FireCliff 3 (2012)(Fig. 2) was performed on the occasion of Lim’s exhibition at the Walker Art Center in 2012 and went step further in the integration of choreography, dance and sculpture. As a continuation of Lim’s interest in the space of theater, performance and movement as invoking the active participation of its participants, Lim worked with a choreographer in creating a movement based performance around an imagined apocalyptic landscape. For the first time, she incorporated sculptures in her performance—a newly commissioned series of totemic forms (which appeared first in her video Portable Keeper (2009)) and wearable sculptures. Inspired by André Cadere (1934-1978)’s wooden bars, Krzystof Wodiczko (1943-)’s homeless shelters and Hélio Oiticica(1937-1980)’s parangoles as well as the recent nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Lim created these biomorphic forms from thermofoam and other scavenged organic and synthetic materials as protective shields and devices for the body within an apocalyptic landscape. For Lim, they represent the desire to defend the collective consciousness within a terrain of shifting forces and uncontrollable ambitions while advocating for a deeply humanistic position of empathy, sentiment and resistance.

“We are all born into a theatre. I even consider the womb to be a stage - a liquid theatre. After we’re born, we build a concrete theatre. Half of life is acting in a fiction, and we all consider our roles in reality. I’m not satisfied with the common definition of ‘role.’ I always hear these questions: What is the artists role in society? The father’s role? Mother’s role? Professor’s role? These roles have been more and more reinforced. I would like to rediscover the notion of roles in order to question how much is reality and how much is illusion. So, I'm not thinking about blurring a borderline, but rather a coexistence of fact and fiction. In theatre we talk about an actor as an instrumentalized body, speaking someone else’s script, but I am using the term in its more active definition. As an actor, we have potential to decide our own role.”

Lim’ most recent work Liquid Theater (2012) which premiered at the La Triennale Paris is a video-based installation that consists of totemic sculptures (aka Portable Keepers) and a video. The work takes video footage of the recent death and funerary processions of Kim Jong-Il(1942-2011) as well as archival footage of Park Chung Hee(1917-1979)’s—the two eerily undistinguishable, as well as incorporates Lim’s thinking about Fukushima and the rise of suicides in South Korea. Images of public mourning become stand-ins for private mourning—for the loss of lives that are not commemorated or counted, whose deaths also has the right to be mourned. For Lim, the mourning images, though rooted in fascist ideology, have a primitive quality or rather represent a primitiveness in our humanity. By bringing this footage together with explosions, Liquid Theater presents a possibility in reversing the repercussions of tragedy, in this case how the death of Kim Jong Il might present a beginning rather than an end. To that end, Lim imagines a tropical Korea represented by footage of her daughter on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, so seemingly distant from the specificities of Kim Jong-Il and Park Chung-Hee, but in fact rooted through the biography of her child. She envisions a tropical Korea, a mise en scène of a tropical extreme that creates a new imagination through the destruction of old ones (its political ideologies and capitalist ambitions) and in doing so aims to dispel the false rhetoric of progress by returning to a primitive state where things might become possible again.

“I would like to track the cultural entangling from the modernization period, something primitive and original, but neither unique or common. I would like to tell a story beyond what we see, hear, know and believe to know. It seems that there is a place where the original spirit of the media resides. It is my belief that the nature of art should be set against the hegemony covering a wide range of genres, and the politics should also be the same.”


1 Minouk Lim, “The Heat of Shadow,” Walker magazine (May/June 2012)
2 Minouk Lim, “Art Talk, Lim Min Ouk: Taking a Pause—A Methodology to ‘Confront’ Intangible Objects,” SPACE magazine (January 2011)
3 Minouk Lim, from http://www.minouklim.com/index.php?/works/sos-adoptive-dissensus-/
4 Minouk Lim, “The Heat of Shadow,” Walker magazine (May/June 2012)
5 Minouk Lim, “Take-Out Performance: Minouk Lim in conversation with Jody Wood,” movementresearch (March 2012)
6 Minouk Lim, “Art Talk, Lim Min Ouk: Taking a Pause—A Methodology to ‘Confront’ Intangible Objects,” SPACE magazine (January 2011)