Interviewer: Sunjung Kim
Interviewee: Minouk Lim

Sunjung Kim: Did you try anything differently when presenting Mr. Chai Eui Jin and 1,000 Canes in 2014 and 2020? Between 2014 and now, are there any unfinished stories that you are still trying to tell?

Minouk Lim: Why do we say some stories are complete and some are unfinished? Why can't we treat the past freely as we want to? What legacy does the past leave for us? - These are some of the questions that I cannot let go. Underneath it all, the past has a certain pattern that is not unrelated to our future. To me, the future is not something that just come into our view from a vacuum, but rather something that appears from the bygone beings. This relates to that sense of touching something through the tip of my hands and the soles of my feet, and it eventually leads to the question of my own lacks. The clues to that question lie in the past, and therefore, I need to ask the right questions to feel liberated…

In this context, I felt as though the canes were like the archives of an unsolved case, or the future trying to escape from its own uncertain and tainted narratives. This is the reason why I try to present the canes in a different ways every time. Mr. Chai Eui Jin miraculously survived a civilian massacre just before the outbreak of the Korean War, and fought his entire life to bring truth to light as a way to pay for his own life spared. I think, for Mr. Chai, who had to endure the pain of having to recall the memory of the tragic day, the canes that supported him may be able to serve a different kind of testimony to his lifetime of pain. So, for Gwangju Biennale in 2014, I arranged the canes in a corner to make them appear as though they are spilling into the foreground, or receding into the background. On the other hand, I arranged the canes one by one on the floor for the presentation at the former Conference Hall of Jeollanam-do Office (which is now May 18 Memorial M3 at Asia Culture Center, Gwangju)in 2020. The canes needed a new caretaker after Mr. Chai passed away, and it was fortunate that they found a good home and more opportunities to extend their lives through the Gwangju Biennale Commission (GB Commission). This allowed me, as an artist, to relentlessly explore what "wounded healer" really means. I think this is ultimately linked to an unfinished journey of questioning what art could do.

SK: "Mr. Chai Eui Jin," mentioned in the title, miraculously survived a civilian massacre before the Korean War, and later became an activist who dedicated his life to uncover the truth of this period in history. How did you come to meet him?

ML: My journey first began from my father who often recalled the memories from the past, then led to begin questioning about the National Bodo League. However, one question led to another, and later I was introduced to Dr. Han Sung-hoon, who worked for Presidential Truth Commission on Suspicious Deaths and Truth and Reconciliation Commission. My meeting with him, however, did not necessarily provide any clear answer, but rather blurred the boundaries even more. The questions of modernity, violence, place, and time, experienced in personal everyday life and reality, shifted to a different dimension. I thought I knew about the Korean War, but it was not the case at all. Along the way, I came to meet Mr. Chai, and it ultimately took to where I am now.
Also, the unfinished story began since I met with the Truth Foundation. The foundation was established by torture victims who were falsely accused as North Korean spies, and funded by donations from their reparation payment. I often think that if I did not witness those survivors' testimonies and stories at the foundation in 2009, my work would have taken a different turn. What I am certain is that it was not some grand sense of calling that led me to this point. What moved my mind was not some complex and profound theory, but something rather simple— seeing and listening. If I had not met the victims in person, I would not feel any conflict or dilemma, or question myself as an artist.

SK: Artists who engage with historical elements in their work probably feel tremendous pressure in their responsibilities. Personal emotion and subjectivity could serve as useful tools to work with, but one might imagine that they could also become psychological burdens. As an artist, do you feel the impetus to climb up the mountain of obstacles before you at all costs and turn them into something of your own?

ML: If there were a mountain before me like you said, there would be a clear end goal, in which case, I would gladly take on and carry the weight to move on. But I never meant for that kind of pioneer mentality, pushing my way through the unbeaten path. I do not think that is the job of every artist, nor was it my intention when I began this work. Then, why did I choose this path that could provoke criticism, discomfort, and alienation from the contemporary art world? Nevertheless, it was already too late for me to turn back. We cannot change the past. To think that there is something that should be excluded, especially when remembering and thinking about the relationship between place and time, is suppressing our freedom. To say that art must be objective and universal is allowing oneself to be oblivious to more divisions and exclusions.

When I visited the site of the Seokdal Village massacre in Mungyeong, I began to think about directly involved subjectives, and the relationship between testimony and mourning. At the site, there was a headstone where a poem by a poet Ryu Choon-do that commemorates the lives of infants who were indiscriminately killed along with the village residents on December 24, 1949, was engraved. The begins as: “The Souls of Unnamed Infants – Remembering those killed in the Seokdal Village massacre.” Mr. Chai explained to me that the headstone was created and paid by Ryu Choon-do, who was an obstetrician and later became a poet at the age of seventy. Earlier, I had read Ryu’s anthology Unforgettable People, which was sent to me as a gift from Dr. Han Sung-hoon with the poet’s handwritten notes. I devoured her story in a single breath as I felt like I was hearing her vivid voice, still echoing from the midst of the war field.

There was another image that was seared into my memory from the site. It was the sight of two lemon candies that were placed at the bottom of the headstone. They evoked feeling of locomotion from the tip of my nose to the back of my mouth. I thought that the act of leaving candies is, at the same time, the act of remembering the past that should never be repeated and greetings to the future. Like poet Ryu Choon-do, I wanted to find out the ways to help. I also contemplated the meaning of memory. From this, I realized that memory is not something that only belongs to the past, but something that can enable the “creating” of time. Dr. Han added that the meaning of testimony is like a gesture of greetings for those who sacrificed their lives for those of others. I felt relieved to hear that, as it made my fear and regret melt away. It is less of a burden when we try to think that the duty of an artist is to pass those greetings onto others.

SK: The former Conference Hall, where the work was installed, could also be regarded as an object of history steeped with memory, since it is the site where Yoon Sang-won, a symbolic figure of the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement, was found dead. In this aspect, the space itself is not unlike the canes that Mr. Chai made throughout his lifetime. How did you intend to relate the Gwangju Uprising to the civilian massacres through this site-specific installation? I am curious to hear about your experience as an artist while spending long hours in this space for the installation.

ML: I visited the former Conference Hall in Gwangju once it was confirmed as the installation site. This was where Yoon Sang-won, whose death was recorded as due to stab wounds and burns, was found dead. What permeates the space seemed to be the burn marks floating above his wounded body like holograms, surrounded by the bullet holes on the walls which are now concealed with white paint.
When I was instructed to keep the installation at least four meters away from the stage, I once again felt like the space was splitting up. Those words immediately lodged in my mind and created a kind of rupture. I wanted to reconsider the meaning of “exhibition” and “participating artist,” in terms of understanding the notion of coexistence. It occurred to me that “participation” could mean embracing (holding things together closely) things of divisive nature. Space seems to connect not only people who lived at different times, but also the world that is impalpable. To the invisible beings, whether they belong to the past or the future, I felt that I had to respond somehow. So I brought some refreshments and placed it on the spot where Yoon died. I paid my respects by bowing three times, then began to arrange the canes one by one.

I believed that commemorating the historical events should not be limited to “someone,” “somewhere,” or any specific field. Similarly, I also think it is not the sole responsibility of art to uncover the truth of what happened in the former Conference Hall of Jeollanam-do Office on “that day” in Gwangju. It did not necessarily start with the intention to find a connection between the Gwangju Democratization Movement and the civilian massacres. I rather wanted to examine the mutual directionality of the two. Furthermore, I believe that commemorating the Democratization Movement and understanding what it means to exhibit my work in Gwangju ultimately connect to the future and meet the power of such directionality.