Impossible, but thus Possible: the Philosophy of Minouk Lim

Lee Taek-Gwang
Prof. of Kyung Hee University, Culture Critic

1. Testimony to Say ability

Minouk Lim is interested in that which is invisible. However, this does not mean that her intention is to dismiss the visible and reinstate what is not. In other words, she does not adopt anti-representationalism, but instead attempts to ‘testify’ on behalf of that which is invisible. This method is of considerable interest, since it appears as though what she intends to achieve is to pass beyond the arrangement of images in order to materialize ‘sayability.’ Such an interest in sayability is the thematic consciousness that runs through Lim’s entire oeuvre.
Therefore, what is important to Lim is ‘speaking.’ Her artworks consist of spoken words. They are sometimes stories, at other times incomprehensible mutterings, and at yet further times they appear as ear-splitting noises. As such, spoken words to Lim are invariable sound. Sayability premises that some things are unsayable. That which is unsayable does not exist. Lim strives to take such thingsthat are supposed to be nonexistent and make them exist. How is this possible?
According to Giorgio Agamben’s definition, ‘sayability’ is ‘the thing itself.’Agamben states the following:

“The thing itself is not a thing—it is the very sayability, the very opening which is in question in language, which is language, and which in language we constantly presuppose and forget, perhaps because the thing itself is, in its intimacy, nothing more than forgetfulness and self-abandonment.”

What is noteworthy in Agamben’s quote is that sayability is in apposition to ‘opening,’ as is ‘forgetfulness’ to ‘self-abandonment.’At first, things are what can be expressed through language, but the moment they are rendered into words they are excluded from language. For this reason, the thing itself is forgotten and consequently abandoned. What Lim’s art illustrates is this lingual exclusion itself. Speaking calls attention to the existence of the very thing thusly excluded.
Sayability is therefore the fundamental unit of existence. This is because if something is sayable, then, even if it cannot be seen, testimonycan be given to its existence. Collecting such testimonies composes the core of Lim’s work. As Walter Benjamin once said, “The translation of the language of things into that of man is not only a translation of the mute into the sonic; it is also a translation of the nameless into name” As in the act of translation to which Benjamin refers, restoring those things excluded by human language back into the realm of language is exactly the underlying philosophical motive that can be discovered in Lim’s work. Following the precedent of Goethe, Benjamin defines works of art as ruins. To him, a text is similar to a ruin that offers testimony to an urtext that is no longer visible but had once surely existed. For this reason, the text of ruins can in fact be referred to as a testimony.
A thing itself is sayable because, without language, nothing can be communicated. In the end, even miscommunications are possible only through the medium of language. Therefore, misunderstandings arise regarding the things themselves. There are inevitable misunderstandings that arise from expressing the unsayable in words. This indicates that, in a way, included in what has been said is that which has not been said. In this context, sayability stems from the fragile medium that is language. This is what forms Lim’s perspective on communication.

2. Stories: Subjectless Agentifications

That explains why doubt of communication has been an important issue for Minouk Lim. Her insight into the frangibleness of language is evidenced in Game of 20 Questions—The Sound of a Monsoon Goblin Crossing a Shallow Stream (2008)(Fig. 1) (henceforth referred to as Game of 20 Questions) and S.O.S.—Adoptive Dissensus (2009)(Pl. 9) (henceforth referred to as S.O.S). These two works deal with the issue of being able to freely express one’s thoughts and of being unable to say no. In Game of 20 Questions, words are fragmented into noise and devolve into a repetitive rhythm. The divided screen depicts the same space, but the words being sounded are of varying dimensions.
Here, the signifiers of multiple cultures acquire specific personalities. The characters are the signifiers. These signifiers are spoken entities, but also include that which is not verbalized. This is why Game of 20 Questions seeks to uncover something to say, as if in a game. In Wrong Questions (2006)(Pl. 5), a work that deals with an agent excluded from language, a taxi driver who launches into an extended monologue has nothing at all to do with what he is saying. His words have been predetermined for him. Even the content is not about him, but about the country known as the Republic of Korea. Here, a scene is being testified from the words assigned to the taxi driver by the nation, words that are decisively excluding and isolating him.
An agent who wanders about in search of a place to park (that is, to stay), is a citizen longing to claim her own space. That which is calling to this citizen is the ideology that is being testified by means of the taxi driver’s vocalization. However, there is no specific place for this citizen to reside. The taxi moves, and its location expands into the abstract space of a nation. Wrong Questions is an intriguing work that demonstrates how ideology speaks.
Lim appears to believe that what is important is less the elimination of ideology than making known the fact that an ideology is present. That is why, rather than arguing in favor of a post-ideological era, she opts to describe a story within an ideology. What she deems to be important is the storyteller. Why stories and the storyteller? On stories, Lim seems to adhere to a stance similar to that of Benjamin, who stated the following:

“The storytelling that thrives for a long time in the milieu of work—rural, maritime, and then urban—is itself an artisanal form of communication, as it were. It does not aim to convey the pure “in itself” or gist of a thing, like information or a report. It submerges the thing into the life of the storyteller, in order to bring it out of him again. Thus, traces of the storyteller cling to a story the way the handprints of the potter cling to a clay vessel.”

Lim pursues the traces of a storyteller, traces that are like the handprints of a potter clinging to a clay vessel. What Lim offers in order to overcome reality in Wrong Questions is FireCliff 2_Seoul (2011)(Pl. 12), a performance in which a storyteller relates his experience of torture in the form of a story. The staging of an experience; such a situation must be the fundamental principle behind stories. FireCliff 2_Seoul does not simply accuse, nor merely report the facts of torture. By inviting the torture victim to the stage, Lim converts him into a storyteller. Of course, this characteristic is also evident in FireCliff 1_Madred (2010)(Pl. 11), through which the experience of working at a factory in Madrid is delivered through the alternative forms of stories and songs, completing an ‘artistic form of communication.’
Among her works, this method is put to the greatest effect in International Calling Frequency (2011)(P1. 13). As discussed above, in this work, Lim completely excludes the traditional form of language itself. Of course, such exclusion does not indicate the elimination of language. However, by refusing to designate any one particular language, Lim attempts to unravel the individual held captive by her own identity. Those humming the tune are indeed distinct individuals, but they also constitute a network converted into a single international calling frequency. In this work, Lim’s story reaches the level of poetry. Of course, the resulting poem does not share the sensitivities of conventional lyrical verse. The poem is instead more approximate to what Alain Badiou(1937-) calls the ‘matheme of the event.’
Poetry offers testimony to the production of truth and through textualization secures that truth. The poetic agent that is born through this process is the very agent of the truth that constitutes ontology. To Badiou, truth is an expression of the abyss. This abyss of existence is nothing but nothingness. Nothingness is a nonexistent cause, and in the end it is the traces of this absent cause that constitutes poetry. Therefore, poetry is invariably an example demonstrating the preceding absent causes. In other words, the poetic text is an expression of an event that occurs prior to the agent’s becoming. An absent cause does not exist; this is what constitutes the paradox of an event. Badiou asserts the following:

“The paradox of an eventual-site is that it can only be recognized on the basis of what it does not present in the situation in which it is presented. Indeed, it is only due to it forming-one from multiples which are inexistent in the situation that a multiple is singular, thus subtracted from the state.”

What is it that makes this paradox of an event possible? It is none other than its core of reality and truth. Like Jacques Lacan(1901-1981)’s notion of fantasy, the paradox of an event is a seduction in the direction of truth but simultaneously the cause of maintaining a certain distance from the truth. To Badiou, the relationship between truth and agent is composed by the axiom of infinity. As such, at the core of reality is emptiness. Badiou’s method is to name this empty core the void. What is a void? According to Badiou, the void is that which is excluded from an event that has settled as a phase. In plain language, events can be categorized into situations and states, where a state is a permanent rendition of a situation. That is, situation minus void equals state. In this context, an event never has any choice but to remain a ruin.

3. The Flâneur at the Ruin

As such, the ruins that appear in the works of Minouk Lim are traces of events. What Lim works to show is a situation in which an event has been reduced to state. The sentiment emanating from New Town Ghost (2005)(Pl. 4) as an emotion of anger later appears to have acquired a further dimension in Portable Keeper (2009)(Pl. 8). Who is the man toting the ‘keeper’ all over an entire reconstruction site? The man looks like a parody of the flâneur, or stroller, who wanders about in the city making roundabout tours. What is a flâneur? Labeling a painter named Constantine Guys as a flâneur, Charles Baudelaire claimed that Guys was an artist who embodies a certain quality that can only be referred to as modernity. Baudelaire’s image of ‘flâneur’ overlaps to a certain degree with that of the man in Portable Keeper. Regarding the flâneur, Baudelaire made the following statement:

“The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.”

Baudelaire is indicating that taking leisurely strolls in the city streets is a characteristic of modern art; that is, of the modern poet. Of course, this sort of stroll is without aim and must be distinguished from the common walk, which is something undertaken deliberately and consciously for improved health or to induce a change of mood. The stroll represents the 19th century Parisian culture that considered turtle-like sauntering to be elegant. To Baudelaire’s flâneur, taking a stroll is a condition for his existence, and is closely related to the crowd. The flâneur is a person who collects plants in a field of asphalt.
What caused the flâneur, as Baudelaire detailed, to appear in 19th century Paris? As something that caught the loose glances and steps of the flâneur, Benjamin pointed out the passage, namely the arcade. The arcade was a most suitable place for strolling for leisure. It was Baudelaire who upgraded the status of the flâneur from a wandering idler looking around the arcade to that of a poet.
Baudelaire defined the flâneur as the modern poet, in other words, as a manner of existence for modern artists. From this definition, what kind of truth can be read? The flâneur can indeed be claimed to be a being who demonstrates the evolution of artists’ mode of existence in the face of modernity. In this respect, to Benjamin, the flâneur is closer to a collector than to a poet. This fact is what distinguishes Benjamin from Baudelaire. Benjamin viewed a street as a place of residence for the collector. In such a site, the flâneur of Benjamin, unlike Baudelaire’s, does not compose a poem but instead collects something and then produces knowledge.

“That anamnestic intoxication in which the flâneur goes about the city not only feeds on the sensory data taking shape before his eyes but often possess itself of abstract knowledge—indeed, of dead facts—as something experienced and lived through. This felt knowledge travels from one person to another, especially by word of mouth.”

As it is understood here, the flâneur is a producer of new knowledge as a modern poet. However, the flâneur does not belong to the system of division of labor evinced under capitalism. The flâneur is more an artist than a laborer. Even though a producer, the flâneur endeavors to escape from the capitalist system. Therefore, such a producer is a dreaming idler who has fled this system. If so, what knowledge does a flâneur produce? “Knowledge comes only in lightning flashes” and “the text is the long roll of thunder that follows.” The power that generates this type of knowledge is neither logical reasoning nor rational statement, but rather shock and the Erlebnis, or experience, of a catastrophe. In a nutshell, knowledge is a process revealing the fragile form of language. The thunder that is used as the material for weaving the roll of text is itself the poetic event.
However, in Portable Keeper, no event is to be found. The event has already occurred, or alternatively has yet to happen. What the piece fundamentally exhibits is a man strolling around are construction site. This man appears to ramble at leisure, but unlike the flâneur he has no arcade to view. Already, the building has vanished and this solitary man is simply wandering about. In this respect, Portable Keeper becomes a parody of Baudelaire’s flâneur. The flâneur once a beneficiary of modernity is now destined to stroll around a ruin resulting from redevelopment conducted under the banner of modernity.
The landscape of the ruin imposes a nihilist attitude upon the flâneur. However, the ‘keeper’ clasped in the grip of this man loitering about the reconstruction site serves as a device to counteract modern nihilism. The keeper, as the word literally indicates, is intended to be held in the hands with the aim of protecting something. What on earth could this man be trying to protect? At this point, Lim projects an entirely different attitude toward that which has disappeared. She is less intent on recording what has disappeared than on preserving what is currently in the midst of disappearing. Each and every scene captured in her pieces is something she aspires to safeguard. In other words, those things that are made to return to language. This is evident in Rolling Stock (2003)(Pl. 2). The rapid change of scenes precisely corresponds to the rhythm of the music, as the scenes grasp for the disappearing images. This type of repetition will continue until an event occurs, and so will the music. In this context, the rhythm and melody of the music serve as a temporary residence for things.

4. Possible Only If Impossible

The quality of an event as a ruin is a factor that renders the event’s entire for mation impossible. It seems to indicate the relationship between the symbolic and the real as identified in the theory of Lacan. The real establishes an indivisible relationship with the symbolic, but is never embraced as a proper member of the symbolic. The real does indeed belong to the realm of the unconscious; in Lacanian terms, the unconscious constitutes the whole of images and language that the agent borrowed from the other in order to complement the place of privileged trauma known as sexuality. The unconscious constitutes an individual’s uniqueness. The agent signifies the location of these peculiarities.
International Calling Frequenc is an important project attempting at collectivizing this uniqueness of the agent. What is required in this task is the agent’s fidelity. It also calls for the attention and aspiration of agents whodesire to pass themselvesthrough this so-called international calling frequency. Badiou extracted his category of agent’s fidelity as he analyzed Stephane Mallarmé(1842-1898)’s poem Un coup de dès jamais n’abolira le hasard. Badiou wrote, “On the basis that ‘a cast of dice never will abolish chance,’ one must not conclude in nihilism, in the uselessness of action…” Here, nihilism occurs because one clings to a ‘cult of reality’ and fails to accept ‘its swarm of fictive relationships’ as they are. To put it another way, nihilism refers to the despair that results from a situation in which an agent intent on pursuing a subject does not acknowledge the fact that it is impossible to apprehend the subject. The obsession to represent the real eventually leads to nihilism, and,in contrast, the refusal to face it leads to one being swallowed by quasi-imaginative images that cast shadows deep down into the abyss of existence.
As Badiou captures behaviors other than nihilism through Mallarmé’s poem, in International Calling Frequency, Lim organizesa sequence of imaginative actions that are indeed characteristic of the process of generating the truths known as poetry or art. Art reorganizes the world based on a foundation that precedes the traces of the real. This reorganization inevitably entails criticism regarding the existing world. Therefore, art does not halt at the simple level of techne. Art that settles for that level easily succumbs to nihilism. By reorganizing normative conditions, however, it is possible for art to conquer nihilism. In Jacques Ranciére(1940-)’s terms, it is to rearrange the distribution of the sensible. To set free the sensible, which has been divided by the community into a hierarchical order, on an aesthetic level and then sharing it in a novel manner is the poetic virtue of the Mallarmé that Badiou has in mind.
What is significant at this point is the act of reorganization. The process faces no choice but to go through the three stages of disintegration, abolition and then affirmation. Therefore, the act of art, which, according to Badiou, does not conclude in nihilism, denotes not an anti-aesthetic performance that remains at the phase of disintegrating the distribution of the sensible, but rather the production of the new that arises from the aesthetic premise. What indeed is the production of the new? It is an aesthetic dimension that incapacitates the sharing of all senses, as well as a precedent foundation that creates traces of an event—that is to say, a situation. The thing that fix ate sin the form of text the debris of the event that would be left as ruins after the situation expires: this is art.
Lim’s art intends to discover this situation within reality. It is her virtue to summon the situation that has disappeared, leaving nothing but the ruins. This is what the artist attempts to express in The Weight of Hands (2010)(Pl. 10). The scenes conveyed through an infrared camera display in varying degrees of ‘temperature’ hands that are both the product of evolution and a primitive means of labor. What the colors convey can be seen as literally the weight of hands. Viewed from the outside, their invisible mass turns visible through temperature. The conversion of senses occurs.
What is necessary here is a transition from the negative to the positive. What makes this transition possible? It is the action against plunging into nihilism, Lim implies. This action represents the fidelity of the agent toward the truth of the event. This relentless pursuit of truth, that which enables an event to have traces, is actually what Badiou refers to as the poetic spirit. Such truths are the absent causes that generate events. The task of poetry is, Badiou believes, to identify such truths. From this perspective, a complete text cannot be established. This is because what poems ultimately intend to reproduce is the void of a situation that has already been subtracted. A void cannot be reproduced in text. As such, the text the artist exhibits by means of an infrared camera is actually the irreproducible. In this manner, Lim intends to explore ruins and present the points of truth using topology. As in the case of the symbolic, his works are entering into existence as artwork through such impossibility of establishment. If something like a map covered in signs and symbols is what Badiou regards as poetry, then a map in which colors and sound embodied in topological terms are drawing drafting the contour lines is what Minouk Lim perceives as art.
From such a perspective, her works appear to prompt subjectivism. They might leave an impression that the agent’s action comes before what the agent is attempting to capture. Such doubts can be raised since the agent does not reproduce the objective world, but rather demonstrates the accumulated subjective projections that relate to it. This is also the case with International Calling Frequency. One may think that this manner of performance that denies any organization or medium would further promote nihilism. The agent in each of Lim’s pieces, however, is always interlocked with objective, physical conditions that exist ‘over there.’ The agent might seek out her subject and argue the truth, but nevertheless, there must exist preconditions that make such actions understandable. Her works constantly presuppose such conditions. This may explain the frequent appearance of reconstruction sites or sit-in strikes in her works.
Lim’s efforts are invariably site-specific. Of course, this site-specificity is not fixed, but instead includes a flow. Her interest is focused on coursing site-specificity, that is, the space of mobility. If the agent were to establish a relationship with things, something like a cognitive framework should be in order. This is what Badiou regarded as the law of techne. Techne’s function is quite empirical; for example, it can be referred to as a method for matching images with their physical subjects. Through this, normative universality is created in regard to art.
Lim’s art combines the law of techne with the agent’s fidelity. Even so, it does not indicate that Minouk Lim is trying to do so in order to strictly abide by this law. Rather, in the persistent manner of swaying the law of techne, she strives to incorporate the traces of truth into the text. Through this process, a new law of techne is created and the agent becomes ‘existent’ as both the one and the multiple. This very process is demonstrated in International Calling Frequency.
The moment one participates by tuning into the International Calling Frequency, the resulting existence no longer can be the same agent that was previously present. Participation itself becomes a performance. This performance imitates an event—an event that shakes the conditions of existence and thereby creates a new agent. Lim’s work becomes art only when it is able to birth a new agent. However, I must say that, ironically, this potential is always conditional on the impossibility of art. Reality demolishes the possibility of art. Lim is an artist who does not struggle against this condition, but accepts it as it is.
Herein lies the paradox that art is impossible, but for that very reason the pursuit of art becomes possible. Thus, say ability is a perpetual state of openness toward the thing itself. This state itself cannot be improved upon. The only thing one can do is pursue something within this state. In this respect, the longstanding pursuit of possibility regarding what is impossible, performed in order to return things into language is, in a way, the art of Minouk Lim.


1 Agamben, Giorgio, “The Thing Itself,” Substance 53 (1987), p. 25
2 Benjamin, Walter, Reflections, Peter Demetz (trans.), (New York: Schocken, 1986), p. 325
3 Benjamin, Walter, “The Storyteller,” Selected Writings Volume 3: 1935-1938, Edmund Jephcott, Howard Eiland, et. al. (trans.), (Cambridge MA:Harvard UP, 2002), p. 149
4 Badiou, Alain, Being and Event, Oliver Feltham, (trans.), (London:Continuum, 2007), p. 192
5 Baudelaire, Charles, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, Jonathan Mayne, (trans.),(London: Phaidon, 1995), p. 9
6 Benjamin, Walter, The Arcades Project, Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, (trans.), (London: Belknap, 1999), p. 417
7 Jeong hyun, Maeng, Libidology, (Seoul: Moonji Publishing, 2009), p. 7
8 Badiou, Alain, Being and Event, p. 198