Searching for the Lost Places: Tactile Vision and a New Aesthetic Reflectivity

Yeongok Kim

The Field of Aesthetics: “To me, poetry is public art”

You know, it’s best for those who are left to live a life of subjugation, weeping sorrowfully.
Pigs are dead, hyenas are dead,
The good and the president are dead, with golden crowns on their head,
But the Lord of the Heaven’s memory’s so bad that He forgot all of them.
So what they want to say only becomes poems that are bad,
To go well in every part of this land.
Oh, don’t you think it’s a true dictatorship,
A dictatorship of art?
Neither good poems nor other poems, but only bad poems are running.
Art having nine heads
Has not yet had its tongue cut— What’s this? What’s this fool’s errand?
It’s not Dada but ddaddaBuddha.
It sucks the life’s blood out of middle-agers~
— 1

I am listening to the latest voice of Minouk Lim. In 2009 winter, the Korean people had to watch the scene of a great number of pigs dumped into a pit and buried alive, which haunted them and make them cry out for lots of months. During the last several years which was not much long, there were a lot of deaths in this country. Pigs and cows were slaughtered for the control of a foot and mouth disease outbreak, two ex-presidents past away and so did a Catholic priest and a Buddhist monk who had represented the sense of ethics of ordinary lower middle class people. International marriage migrant women were killed and frustrated laid-off workers committed suicide. These were times when you cannot help but mention the grief, or the shame of those who survived, fearing that the last breath of dead souls roams about your dream. Those who are left perform their own ritual with “neither good poems nor other poems, but only bad poems.” Minouk Lim, who clearly and repeatedly says, “to me, poetry is public art,” wherever she goes, invites both the dead and the living and holds a shamanistic rite. This is not simply because she is confident that her poems are not ‘bad poems,’ but rather because she believes that exposing herself even through the contaminated, negotiated, and hybrid identity of ‘bad poems’ is not only practicing the ‘solidarity with the weak’ but also her own business of doing ‘public art.’

"I am attracted to those who are suffering or sad. It is a pathetic feeling rather than joy that influences me when I am working."

Pathetic Places:
“I want to weep upon places.”

From her 2005 exhibition Public Peeling through Too Early or Too Late Atelier in the 2007 Hermès Foundation Missulsang exhibition to her 2010 show Horn and Tail, Lim was intent on making latex casts of the surface a city. By casting the surface features of manhole covers or utility poles, she turns the huge abstract territory of a city into lumps of flesh that can be concrete and perceivable. The notion of a ‘city as the body’ is simply neither a metaphor nor an analogy; rather, it relates more to the interface between the body and a city, both of which define and inscribe each other. A city is a complex network to link among different social activities, economic flows, power structures, political organizations, intersubjective relationships, and aesthetic formation of spaces and time.
And the human body in this urban space is socially and discursively constituted, becoming a part of the social network by being connected to other bodies or objects. Thus, the body is not only a physical structure composed of flesh, organs, nerves, and bones, but also a readable entity into which sexual desires and socially encoded meanings are inscribed.— 2 Then, how do different cities, different socio-cultural environments construct the body of those who are living in them? What is the rhetorical logic that connects the body, a city, and the body politic? And in what way do they affect one another? All these questions of the politics of the body led Lim to develop very unique aesthetic experiments and tools.
Since she began to work as an artist in Korea, one of the spirits or standpoints running through her art has been about ‘place/ness.’ Lim’s ‘place’ is a site of which you were deprived even before you had lived properly in it. Her ‘city’ is not only a space which lost its placeness, caught up in the development-oriented compressed industrialization and modernization, represented by the ‘Miracle of the Han River,’ and the subsequent stream of neoliberalist globalization, but also brings to you the floating life and confused identity of those who failed in forming attachment relationships with specific places. In this way, her latex city-skin remembers a life which you have/have not lived and summons a life not yet arrived.
I still have an old image embedded in my mind, of Nietzsche weeping upon a beaten horse. Like him, I want to weep upon places. Places make me sad. They are penetrated by a kind of complicated feeling of being invaded and plundered. The origin of a place is the source of an inextricable mystery and sadness to me, for I have never experienced such a place that I should hold or cultivate with the plow of civilization. Isn’t a system for maintaining our present life circulating capital? I am weeping, hugging a place as the protagonist of a tragedy. Although the term ‘mourning’ is often heard now, but there must first be a pathetic place and then something that you should make into abstract forms, or touch over and over again.
A city as a non-place. Lim’s latex-skin displays in a ‘tactile’ way this city-machine which is devoid of emotional attachments and exists only as a gigantic network of technical managements, economical flows, socio-cultural discourses, and dogmatic state governmentality. This kind of tactile seeing stimulates the audience to realize that a life capable of creating meaningful narratives is inseparable from the traces of time soaking into a place, that is, the corporeality of a place which can be neither displaced nor left out. In not so, what is only left is an empty nostalgia for ‘South Korea’s success myth,’ as is illustrated by the tax driver in Wrong Question (2006) which dealt with the false identification with ‘father,’ former President and dictator Park Chung-hee who has been credited with the industrialization of the Republic of Korea.

— 1 Poly History: Text@Media, Lecture Performance, 20 Jan, 2010. Seoul Art Space, Seogyo.
— 2 Elizabeth Grosz (1995), “Bodies-Cities,” in Space, Time, and Perversion, pp. 103-110, Routledge, New York.

From Conception
to Perception:
“Looking through a thermal
camera, I see everywhere
people seeing red.”

If we understand Lim’s works as a mourning-invocation as vehement struggles for ‘already disappeared-not yet arrived’ places, this struggle has a structure similar to Judith Butler’s account of ‘foreclosure,’ that is, the structure of melancholy which “can be possessed only with the provision that it be lost forever.” — 3 This was inevitably inherent in the industrialization occurring in a post-colonial space. However, as her cordiality gradually moves from ‘mourning’ to invocation, her performative art becomes a place-creating medium which transfers people to places and through which the place/ness is formed between man and man, and between man and art.
Thus, when I came to the Ipo Weir at night to shoot The Weight of Hands... I tried to ‘generate’ and re-appropriate a temporary memory, trampling down on the mud. Now, this place became a part of my performance, for I shot here and what would be remembered. In this way, human beings intervene in a place. By presenting such kind of relationship, I wanted to turn the victim of a place into the protagonist of it. I was born in Daeheung-dong, Dajeon. I visited there about a year ago and found it in ruin like the Ipo Weir. As a member of an in-between generation, I have no memory about places. This is why I perform a ritual as my work. It might sound rather paradoxical, but I express that sorrow as a kind of ritual and instead, conjure up a place. If the ancestors’ ssitgim-gut (a shamanic ritual of purification) was for sending off, my work is for summoning.
Lim’s work, which has been long dedicated to summoning places and restoring the attachment relationship with places to people, comes to make an exciting aesthetic leap by introducing the medium of the infrared thermal camera. “Reality is too powerful,” says she. However, the very ‘powerful reality’ is the foundation upon which she can be sensitive to the exothermic reaction of the weak. Her works which are particularly interested in naming, as is shown by Game of 20 Questions: ‘The Sound of Monsoon Goblin Crossing a Shallow Stream’ (2008), are highly conceptual. But by always starting from the affect for the weak, the minority, living creatures which are killed or disappearing, Lim intends to pursue reflectivity mediated by affective perception. As an artist who has paid attention to the gap between seeing and being seen, Lim focuses on the (re)discovery/invention of sensation. Therefore, it would not be a coincidence that she met the infrared thermal camera, for her considers her works as the body that the sensation of consideration for others is transferred to. The artistic practice forms a mutual constitutive relationship with the choice of materials or tools and the way of using them. In the practice of tactile visual art using an infrared camera, the problem of representation becomes that of embodiment.
Media art as I see it is a declaration of oneself. My work begins from the interest in human beings and I think that they are in themselves a medium. While media art is commonly said to be works using high-tech media, I regard man himself a medium and choose to suggest again what I interpreted and observed. — 4
The infrared camera is a weapon to search out an ‘enemy,’ or an industrial camera. The gaze of those who go out to track down the enemy is cold and hard. However, Lim identifies the possibility, or rather, the necessity of symbiosis in heating bodies through this ‘weapon.’ The image acquired by the infrared camera in The Weight of Hands (2010), FireCliff 1_Madrid (2010) and FireCliff 2_Seoul (2011) does not deny sight as well as modern semantics and semiotics; or rather, it embraces and converts them all into a new tactile semiotic system. According to Benjamin’s linguistic philosophy, all things that exist, whether animate or inanimate, utter their own existence. This is what the ontology of language means. — 5 And the response of beings to this uttering existence, this self-expression constitutes the foundation for all linguistic acts. Lim perceives this utterance of existence as heat. The fact that ‘beings give off heat only when heated’ means the existence of all that exists is intersubjective. Her thermographic images tactually reveal this intersubjective existence of living and lifeless things.
According to Luce Irigaray, who offered feminist re-readings of ocularcentrism begotten by phallogocentrism, touch is the primary sense in which vision is rooted. She even argues that we should begin from tactility to reconceptualize visuality. Ocularcentrism based on the Cartesian perspectivism allows neither the intervention of the body nor the interaction between works of art and the audience. The disembodied and abstracted ‘seeing’ only follows the logic of solid matter and is premised on the spatial distance between isolated individuals. Touch is, by contrast, is intermediary and affective and follows the logic of fluid and thereby, relates to proximity, intersubjectivity, and the in-between. Irigaray’s discussion on ‘vision mediated by touch’ emphasizes on the materiality of light and ‘seeing’ by the touch of light, restoring each visual form to its origin, which is essentially tactile. — 6
Lim’s works on the infrared camera image successfully show how visuality mediated by tactility brings changes to aesthetic experiences. The images in The Weight of Hands or FireCliff 2 are perceived as events that are still in becoming. Broadly, these works pursue the recovery of a kind of primitive communication, compassion and sympathy that were eliminated by civilization process and more specifically, evoke in a corporeal way the communityship of the members of the Korean society which was inevitably involved, whether implicitly or explicitly, in the political oppression and developmentalist economy in the context of Korean modern history. This corporal evocation leads the audience to the state of more endurable and ethical reflection.

"What I want to recall with heat is the current of civilization which has constantly taken tactile contacts away from us. I was thinking about how to present tactile contacts, when I found the infrared camera. The images taken by the camera remind you of a brazier. You may feel as if they are giving out smoke or will burn your hands when you touch them. I was first fascinated by this sense of hotness and then, by the fact that I would be able to convert the sense to the form with actions. While I personally met a torture victim and heard his experience, I came to imagine the possibility of sharing his story with my private one, and also with other people’s, both collectively and poetically, using the infrared camera. I would like to bring tactility or the concreteness of temperature back to such poetic utterances. I would like to show there ‘is’ a tactile collective experience like this."

"... I wanted to express the dubious situation in which I could be both an offender and a victim according to your perspective. I came to the former Defense Security Command (aka Gimusa) site and ‘ferreted out’ it, which brought up the past histories and memories for me. When shooting the audience (in Festival Bo:m 2011), I was thinking that ... all of us who had been silent or were involved could be felt as a kind of temporary community with an equal body heat of 37.5degree C. and similar tones, colors, and heat lumps. "

— 3 Judith Butler (1997), The Psychic Life of Power, Stanford University Press, California.
— 4 An Interview with Minouk Lim, the winner of the 1st Media Art Korea Award.
— 5 Walter Benjamin (1977),“Über Sprache überhaupt und über die Sprache des Menschen,” in Gesammelte Schriften, Bd II.1, 140-157, Frankfurt am Main.
— 6 Kim Jihye (2008), Luce Irigaray’s New Concept of Vision Based on Touch, doctoral dissertation, Ewha Woman’s University, Seoul, Korea.

Lim’s media art using the infrared camera is in line with the aesthetic and philosophical movement which is characterized by such slogans as ‘against interpretation’ (Susan Sontag) and ‘from the realm of interpretation to that of power’ (Gilles Deleuze). What is advocated here is not the logic of sense but the logic of sensation, not a signifier tied down to the level of discourse but a sign as the relationship between affect and power. The object/people captured by the thermal infrared camera have meanings without being reduced to the established symbolic discursive system; they can convey affects as they are shown/expressed, inspiring new thoughts through the very affects. For instance, what is occurring in FireCliff 2 when the audience temporally forms a community as a lump of 37.5 degree C. heat after being faced with the painful story spoken by a torture victim under the Korean dictatorial, anti-Communist regime? The event taking place in the red streams of heat is the becoming of an ethical subject who does not deny, or rather, heartily admits the duplicity of the character of his nation, as both an offender and a victim. This corporeal reflection which is irreducible to the disembodied discursive political interpretation is the foundation upon which you are able to face up to the contradictions in the modernization process of Korea that still constraint the conscious and unconscious life of ‘us Korean people.’

The Politicization of Aesthetics:
“The Only Hope of Politics is Aesthetics.”

Art is to expose the invisible and the media to reveal the untold...I wanted to make tangible things like taboos, things that require courage, things that should have been sung but were already forgotten ... things that have already disappeared, things that you think you’ve seen before ... Isn’t it where a work of art is born? A desire for matière, the desire gets stronger and stronger as matière gets more and more absent. ... matière that makes you desire to touch, smell, and mash harder and harder... I’d like to work not for something or someone (in the sense of political propaganda), but for feelings of joy, anger, sorrow, and pleasure, the life realities of birth, aging, sickness and death, and love.
Lim has persistently turned the modern and contemporary history of Korea into the field of aesthetic experiences in terms of the loss of place/ness and the impossibility of memory. For her, ‘doing art’ has been invariably a performance to ‘invoke’ a place which you should hold and cultivate. It is always in a concrete place that human beings work, perceive, form a mutual relationship with other people/objects, and thereby create space as well as their own identity. However, globalization overdetermined by the logic of transnational capital reduces diverse physical regions in the earth to a huge abstract space and makes inhabiting places something temporary and contingent. As many feminist aesthetic theorists underlined, the question about ‘which place to live in’ is not irrelevant to that of identity about ‘which body to inhabit.’ The movement to a new epoch requires you to change the way you perceive and recognize the envelopes of identity.— 7 In this present time when speed indefinitely compresses space with the help of technology and electronic communication has replaced physical meeting, the relationship based on the envelopes of identity and places has become one of the most challenging and important questions in aesthetics and politics. Lim’s tactile art experiments are an aesthetic response to this historical situation. Still searching for the thermal conductor which is tangible and tactilely contagious, her media art asks about the relationship between art practice and politics like the first time: what is aesthetics? And to whom is art practice oriented? Her work is moving from ‘here and now’ to a new era. There is a signboard on this road, reading “Wanna Work for Love.” What could arts and culture be if not a work to charge the in-between between objects and people and between people with the temperature of love?

— 7 Luce Irigaray (1993), An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. by Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill, London and New York: Continumm.

Yeongok Kim
is image critic, art director of the Trunk Gallery in Seoul and Visiting research scholar in Korean Women’s Studies, Ewha Woman’s University. Her major was German Literature in Seoul National University and she got the Ph.D of German Literature and Philosophy in RWTH Aachen, Germany. Her main interesting fields are feminist cultural practices and theories; place/less/ness and space in the process of glocalization; migration and (specially cultural) citizenship. She published Selbstportrait im Text des Anderen: Walter Benjamins Kafka‑Lektüre; ‘The modernity’: the way which women did’nt went (ed.) and has written articles as follow: Site-Specific Art Practices as Intervention in the Era of Globalization: Focused on Two ‘Dongducheon’ Art Projects; Politics of Memory: the War which is not finished and Gender; Memory Body Difference: Feminist Aesthetic in der Glo/cal Era; Community of Hands: Yun Suknam’s Wooden Dogs; Understanding the Candlelight Demonstration and Women’s Political subjectivity through the Perspective of Changing Publicity; A Room of Their Own: Cyberspace and Female Sexuality; New ‘Citizens’ and Multiculturalism in Korea.