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

The Politics of a Girl Child

Chan-Woong Lee (Professor, Ewha Womans University)

A girl child is more vulnerable than fragile. Every time she grows in height, or reaches a heightened level of perception, she is helplessly bound to face criticism and heartbreak. In Wonderland, Alice is suddenly attacked when her neck grows longer than the trees. “The pigeon violently strikes her with its wings, screaming ‘serpent!’.” When she grows smaller, Alice repeatedly apologizes and attempts to empathize with the mouse, saying “we won’t talk about cats again if you don’t like them!” When she returns back to her normal height, Alice demands her equal rights to the violent queen. “A cat may look at a king. I’ve read that in some book,” she says. Through the absurd becomings, Alice witnesses a world of unfamiliar rules and becomes flustered by its strange landscape, consequently failing to respond appropriately. While she tries to keep hold of the cat, she repeatedly apologizes, breaks down, and in rare instances, loses her temper.

This strange empathy is often mixed up with bipolar tendencies. As demonstrated by Virginia Woolf and Nietzsche, the highs and lows of bipolar disorder may bring about new perspectives of the world. The sadness of depression allows one to realize that the parts of the world are weeping and connected to one another. In the dark abyss where the sedatives invite us, there is a strange presence that traverses the dividers of the world. “The invisible silence opens the door / The ghost of the sound that moves in and out of all the rooms of the world (Choi Seung-ja).” For Minouk Lim, art is about trailing this moving ghost (Portable Keeper).

To what kind of a world does this trail lead us? Let’s modify the schizophrenic reasoning of the so-called “syllogism in grass.” X is weeping and A is weeping; therefore, X is A. This is the way Minouk Lim finds univocity in the world. What is the univocity of the world? Every drop of water, despite different sizes and shapes, is equivalent to one another within the ocean. For Lim, weeping is the element of univocity that secretly connects all beings. Then what specifically is X and A to the artist? In her 2012 work The Possibility of the Half, North Korea is South Korea. In her 2014 presentation at the Gwangju Biennale, Gyeongsan/Jinju is Gwangju. In this exhibition and work of the same title, The Promise of If, the two members of the dispersed family take the place.

Watching the strikingly resembling siblings on the split screen is close to a miraculous experience. It is a moment when the two water drops separated by forty years of time within the same territory of the Korean Peninsula come together. Almost like particle and antiparticle, the two instantaneously break down in tears after realizing their kinship. Likewise, the viewer witnessing the moment also becomes emotionally moved from deep within.

This is strictly what Minouk Lim calls communication; reaching past the barriers of ideology and nationalism in a speed faster, or slower, than that of language. It is also the reason why the artist insists that art should become a media. However, this kind of communication was an extremely rare instance where the dispersed families actively took over the media. Therefore, the media itself should become something altogether different. The becoming-media of art and the becoming-totem of the media.

With such dual becoming, Lim distributes each one to the two rooms of this exhibition. In the latter, the media restores its primitive and sensual power. In comparison to her earlier works, the sense of warmth and humor in this exhibition marks a clear departure. Could it be that the artist has now attached her small wish to the critical questions? Has the artist, looking down at the Korean peninsula, become the little girl child who stood above the thorns at the stake for her twelve brothers who turned into ravens? But this story will not have the timely happy ending as the fairy tale. The materials of the works, in their feeble existence, will likely perish soon.

The artist’s new work, which retraces the scenes of the 1983 broadcast “Finding Dispersed Families” in the year 2015, may seem like an anachronism. One could say that her viewpoint swiftly shifts across the axis of time, but in certain aspects, this strange sense of time may relate to the fact that the artist lived abroad outside of Korea for the entire 1990s. At the time, Korea underwent a period of cultural optimism of the civil (munmin) government, followed by a financial crisis that completely devastated its economy within the same decade. The Korean society today bases itself on this era and any emotional connection and sense of community from the 1980s has long been lost.

The artist’s anachronistic retracing of the past leads to intense political questions. It demands to find what Parker J. Palmer called the “courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit,” in Healing the Heart of Democracy, where “the human heart is the first home of democracy” and the “standard that protects social dignity.” In the present, however, where the human heart finds its comfort in the consumption market rather than its place in the realm of politics, the search for answer to this question could be a miserable one. On the other hand, despite the critical questions that Lim examines in her works, her practice ultimately refuses to become a political statement and remains faithful to the realm of art by keeping close to those that are hidden and abandoned from us. If real politics is the masterful technique of diving people into allies and enemies, art is about questioning the legitimacy of such action.

From past interviews and conversations with Minouk Lim, close to a dozen philosophers easily came to mind. She seemed to embody most of them while fleeing from them in order not to be anchored down. Critics will attempt to draw one of them out from her works but will ultimately fall short. Her definition of art seems almost flawless – imagining a world that is constantly fleeing from control, even if knowing its impossibility. The question is, how long can a single soul endure the kind of artistic practice that drives itself on such deep and vast amount of sorrow? Today, many people are voicing their concerns over the future of art, but at the risk of sounding presumptuous, I worry about the future of this artist.

Wolganmisool review January 2016
Translation Nayoung Jo