Minouk Lim’s Art of Life

Cristina Ricupero, Independent curator

“L’art c’est ce qui rend la vie plus interessant que l’art”
“Art is what renders life more interesting than art”

Robert Filiou

Lim Minouk, whose initial practice was painting, quickly abandoned the solitary work of the studio for more collaborative gestures with a greater connection to her everyday reality. While living in Paris and shortly after she graduated, she joined the collective General Genius, sharing work and living space with them for approximately three years. As a certain number of her peers, she strived to escape the rigid structure of the permanent exhibition space as well as the art system’s traditional mechanisms by creating her own experimental methods and spaces.

Since the nineties, collective activities of creation became widespread in contemporary art alongside the figure of the “artist programmer”, at the same time curator, artist and critic. The notion of author gave way to a practice of composition and a shared sensibility. These practitioners are not necessarily obsessed with the finished work or end result but increasingly seek to create contexts or situations that should be lived or experienced in common at a particular moment. Most of these practices position the spectator in direct contact with, and in relation to, social practices existing outside the museum or gallery. The act of communication becomes more important than the art object resulting in works that quite often are ephemeral and process-oriented.

Collaborations are only successful for Lim Minouk when she uses herself as a critical and experimental vehicle; when group situations force her to permanently question her own position as an artist by putting herself in a situation of constant danger. What is at stake is how to survive in a neo-liberal economy without necessarily producing an end product to be purchased.

Since the beginning, Minouk Lim has tried, alone or through collaborative practice, to push boundaries and expand the possibilities of the art system, giving emphasis to the conditions within which works are produced. Most of the projects function as a response to, or an interpretation of, a specific situation and/or invitation. At times, she has dealt with the framework of the art institution to produce or generate a new context within it.

Invited in 1999 to a group whose goal was to bring to the fore the “cutting edge” new generation of Korean artists (“Flow, New Tendencies of Korean Art” in the Art Centre, Korean Culture and Arts Foundation), together with Frederic Michon, she responded with an installation-intervention they called “Social Meat”?a direct comment on the organizer’s and the art world’s desperate need for young talent or “fresh meat”.

Comprised of four different installations not necessarily interconnected but creating a kind of itinerary starting from the entrance of the building to the exhibition hall, its first intervention was a banner on the facade with the words: “Moderation, Anticipation, Control of Body Smell”, superimposed on, and playing down the pretentious proclamation of the official slogan, “Here Comes the Century of Culture”. The second part, “Smell Office”, took place in the storage room for the surplus catalogues, which was transformed through red fluorescent light and strong flower fragrances into something that could evoke either the butcher shop or the prostitute quarter.

With the same red lighting, the third installation, “Le Bon Sauvage”, functioned like a transit space since it was literally placed at the very entrance of the exhibition hall. A red vinyl cloth forced people to walk over it, triggering the fluorescent lights on them and evoking a sort of sterilization zone, between clean and contaminated areas, where one has to adjust or misadjust all bodily sensations. Finally, “Smell Office Annex”, in the exhibition hall, used leftover office objects from the storage room to create a fence where two rabbits where placed and kept under surveillance for the duration of two weeks. Half domesticated or half-wild, rabbits could perhaps suggestively represent the artists themselves? Going beyond the caustic commentary on art institutions mechanisms, this complex installation brought together into a very unusual constellation diverse elements that convey a wide range of fantastic symbols and meanings.

Humour also seems to be essential to Lim Minouk’s projects. Her works appear generous and challenging, critical and playful at the same time as it became clear through the way she reacted to an invitation addressed to her by the corporate-owned Posco Museum in Seoul. Making use of their employee's weekly newsletter, she created a storyboard portraying herself as a contemporary Little Red Riding Hood, desperately determined to unravel this corporate art gallery’ “stories behind the scene” just to see all her efforts constantly impeded and blocked.

One common thread linking Lim Minouk’s wide range of activities and usage of media is that they are not so much about exhibiting a work of art. They rather utilize art as a means for setting-up new relations between people through diverse investigations and the shaping of both private and public space. Her projects call for a critical language through which values, ethics and social responsibility can be discussed in terms of art.

When the Marronnier Art Centre of the Korean Culture and Arts Foundation asked her to create a chill-out coffee space for an exhibition called “Rolling Space”, Lim Minouk, as part of the Pidgin Collective, proposed a work of art where one could live inside: a container. Closed down, it looked like a minimal sculpture but, once opened, it would have multiple functions. Easy to build, cheap and very flexible, containers are common all over Seoul and have played an important role in the city’s urbanisation.

A “living sculpture” functioning as a place where other artists or groups could come and try out their own ideas, “LOST?” posed essential questions related to the artist’s own strategies for survival or what is lost and gained through artistic activity. Close to a park, it was also a hangout for passers-by, homeless, demonstrators, etc. Instead of following a rigid set programme and clear goals, it flowed through the spontaneous rhythm of the artists’ activities where very busy days are followed by non-activity, expecting not appreciation but accepting its own contradictions, allowing itself to be freely elaborated by others, encouraging false paths.

The Korean modernization process has been extremely rapid, even violent and brutal in some aspects, taking the country from the third to the first world in just one generation. Such a big jump has inevitably left permanent scars on the country’s mentality as it comes through strongly in Lim Minouk’s work.

A perceptive translation of this sort of "creative destruction" is "Do We Negotiate Our Destiny”, a one-channel video that traces the history of Ganggyeong, a city that went through great prosperity, decline and is now threatened by reckless privatisation and real estate development. The video blends five narratives, mixing fact and fiction through the fragmented testimonies by some of the city's inhabitants on their present, past and future conditions. Schizophrenic and self-confessional, the tone hints that these witnesses' voices could easily been generalized to the desires and frustrations of anyone living in a globally capitalised society.

In the same spirit, “Rolling Stock” was initially made in 2000 as a tourist cultural guide for visitors to the Gwangju Biennale coming from abroad. Proposing a loose and undefined itinerary, this guidebook presented new and unexpected perspectives on different locations in the city of Seoul.

The guide's material was later re-activated as a video in 2003 ? a recycling principle important to the artist's approach and running throughout her practice. The fast paced video, a collage of shots from busy urban life, features different forms of vehicles - from rudimentary bicycles to modern vans or trucks ? always transporting items and constantly on the move. In a way, this full speed rhythm could metaphorically represent a country that has never given itself the necessary time for its developing modernity to reach maturity. As Lim Minouk states, alluding to this work: “to stop is to die, in the same way as the best art of defence is to always be moving”.

In a more recent video installation from 2005, “New Town Ghost”, the artist films a young woman slammer and a drummer who travel and perform on top of an open truck through the busy, cramped up streets of Yeongdeungpo, where the artist has her home and office. This huge area in Seoul has been a major industrial hub during the past hundred years and has now been chosen as one of the “new towns”, going through a redevelopment plan and experiencing drastic and constant changes. Yeongdeungpo is a symbolic place where hope for a better future and resistance to change have coexisted since the first redevelopment plan took place in Korea at the beginning of the sixties. The truck follows a very specific trajectory, going around a triangle of the area being “redeveloped”, while the slammer recites through a megaphone a text written by the artist that comments on the new mall and housing complex and on the new-knowledge economy, almost as if being ironically commanded by the “ghost of progress”.

“The Wrong Question”, her latest work, is a double-screen video installation accompanied by a soundtrack. The images depict different urban situations and everyday activities such as a car trying to park inside a garage, mixed with the process of trying to tune in the video and adjust its colours. Simultaneously, the over voice translates an older man's thoughts longing for a time when Korea was “ruled by a firm grip”, like those of the Founding Father, Rhee Seung-man or the "bold and decisive dictator of development", Park Jeong-hee. Nostalgia for the harsh days of reconstruction after the Korean War permeates the recitative from beginning to end, contrasting past order with present chaos. From time to time, a wrong question is raised: "What have they (the democrats) done? (…) What's the use of democracy anyway?" On the other hand, there is a distant echo of the famous Korean economist Duck-Woo Nam's evocation of the equality that prevailed at the starting point: "We were then all equal and all poor".

Through different projects and processes, even if in a modest degree, Lim Minouk wishes to contribute to a transformation in the way society functions, trying, for instance, to change our perception and awareness of the life codes around us. She continuously questions the conventional uses of space, pushing to the edge the potential of alternative uses that can, in turn, contribute towards recoding and restructuring human relations. Dealing not with abstract ideas but with real people in their immediate environment, she is subtly fostering not so small shifts in the way we think about, and relate to each other. Lim Minouk’s work is thus closely embedded to the context that surrounds her as it strongly reflects her own reality as an artist who refuses the dichotomy between art and life.