The “Media” Art of Minouk Lim

Nam-See Kim (Professor, Ewha Womans University)


In Angels: A Modern Myth, the French philosopher Michel Serres contemplates upon the universe as a grand flow.

“Wind creates flows of air in the atmosphere; rivers make flows of water across land; glaciers make solid rivers, cutting their way across mountain and valley; rain, snow and hail are flows of water through the air; marine currents are flows of water within water; volcanoes are vertical flows of fire, from Earth into the air, or into the sea; lava flows and mud flows are liquid earth, respectively hot and cold, moving across land; and drifting continents are moving carpets of land floating on fire; right at the heart of the Earth, scientists have identified flows of fire within this subterranean fire … and up in the atmosphere and out in space fluxes of heat and light. One element passes through others, and they, conversely, pass through it. It supports or it transports. These reciprocating fluidities create such a perfect mixing or kneading that few places lack at least some knowledge of the state of others. They receive this knowledge by means of messages.”

Serres calls the presence that carries a flow of message from a place to another a messenger or an angel. The messenger not only includes wind, river, rain, or hail but also man, man-made institutions, and technical devices.

“I see angels—which, incidentally, in case you didn’t know, comes from the
Greek word for messengers. Take a good look around. Air hostesses and pilots; radio messages; all the air crew just flown in from Tokyo and just about to leave for Rio; those dozen aircraft neatly lined up, wing to wing on the runway, as they wait to take off; yellow postal vans delivering parcels, packets and telegrams; staff calls over the tannoy; all these bags passing in front of us on the conveyor; endless announcements for Mr. X or Miss Y recently arrived from Stockholm or Helsinki; boarding announcements for Berlin and Rome, Sydney and Durban; passengers crossing paths with each other and hurrying for taxis and shuttles while escalators move silently and endlessly up and down…like the ladder in Jacob’s dream… .Don’t you see—what we have here is angels of steel, carrying angels of flesh and blood, who in turn send angel signals across angel air waves… .”

Minouk Lim’s artistic oeuvre so far could be what Serres refers to as a work of these angels—a “media” work as a messenger. “Media” positions itself between these presences to mediate and create a flow, providing the reason for the popular usage of the term in broad aspects of our culture—examples include a vehicle that transports a wave or a physical action from one place to another; a psychic medium that intermediates the world of the living and the dead; and a conveyor that links a message or information with our sensory organs. Minouk Lim is a “media” artist whose body of work attempts to produce a flow between two places or presences to intermediate and create an encounter. In an interview with curator Soyeon Ahn, Lim has stated, “media art is about invading the definition and scope of these so-called ‘boundaries’ to raise questions.”3
Lim’s media art, by having the realms of nature, history, and existences of reality cross boundaries towards each another, calls forth a community where only a “few places lack at least some knowledge of the state of others.” In another recent interview, the artist tells the vision of her work to “trace the disappeared and the invisible, encounter them, and question them once again.”4 Among many ways to realize this encounter with the disappeared and the invisible, Lim chose art for its ability to “flow, permeate, and disappear.”

“I don’t have a fixed notion of an artist to worry about, nor do I make works to enlighten people of our social responsibilities. I’m ultimately interested in the issues of existence and focus my question on something more fundamental. Where did we originate from? Is it water, fire, an organism, a star, or the universe? Art is the only language that protects rather than exploits such irresolvable mysteries of grief, warmth, and memories. Instead of striving to make progress for the sake of enlightenment, we should also take a step forward while admitting that there are things unknown, practice these things in real life and fight against it… As an artist, I would approach it by the means of flowing, permeating, and then disappearing, instead of engaging in the act of subjugation or making decisions with a conviction in your knowledge. I would say this is the way to ultimately encounter the invisible and the disappeared.”5

Media as a Flow

More than a few evidence exist to support the hypothesis that Lim’s media work is intended to flow, permeate, and disappear and hence, create an encounter with the invisible and the disappeared. “Flow” is a recurring element that appears in almost all of her video works in New Town Ghost (2005), a slam poet performs on a moving vehicle as it flows along the urban landscape; a taxi driver talks in favor of the age of nationalists while flowing through the dark streets of the city in Wrong Question (2006) and a ferry loaded with tourists flows along the river in S.O.S. - Adoptive Dissensus (2009); in The Weight of Hands (2010), a singer’s body is carried over in a flow by the hands of the crowd; and in Navigation ID (2014), a container with the remains of the dead flow through the highways of South Korea. Lim comments on The Possibility of the Half (2012), a two-channel video work that juxtaposes the images of the mourning people at the funeral of two politicians Park Chung-hee and Kim Jong-il from South and North Korea respectively:

“I had great interests in moving things, things to ride on, or the flow in general, and I began to think that tears are the result of a transference happening within the human body. What could possibly trigger this emotional meltdown? A corpse can no longer feel pain or shed tears and remains in perpetual immobility. In other words, to live is to feel the pain, and compassion is a result of what makes us humans rather than animals. Moving things could also bear a subversive quality that could permeate a certain place and create a status of instability and uncertainty. As tears could account for the two opposite human emotions of overt joy or sadness, I paradoxically saw a tear gland as a joint area for the divided Koreas. The tear gland emerges from a sense of loss, has dried out over time, yet gets continuously refilled by the ongoing fights. I wished to juxtapose the tears of the two nations to search for a common ground. The Possibility of the Half, a two-channel video, formally captures this crossroads of tears, because I wished to imagine a future where tears may be shed under a different possibility. After all, reunification is not about becoming one but about restoring a flow. This flow is in close relations to beauty, and I wanted to think about our origin and destiny through the tears emerging from such grounds, hence came about the title The Possibility of the Half. The tears of a divided community springs from a sense of yearning, but I also imagined the transformative power of these tears that could dissolve the barriers, eventually turning into tears of delight.”6

Several other works also attest to Lim’s faith in a flow and its subversive quality that could permeate a place to instigate instability and uncertainty and eventually overcome a state of stagnancy. The object appearing in Portable Keeper (2009) consists of feathers and fan blades. The blades of a mechanical fan are devised to produce an invisible, condensed airflow by pushing the air in front to the back and vice versa. The airflow gives mobility to a static object/animal, even allowing it to fly at times. For instance, a bird flies from one place to another by entrusting its body to the air current with the aid of feathers to control the flight. In search for the 300 missing people buried during the Korean War, Monument 300 – Chasing Watermarks (2013–15) asked its participants to search for the feathers the artists had previously scattered around the snow-covered Waterworks Center. With their sensitivity to the air current, the feathers, in this case, could have functioned as a medium/channel of communication with the spirits of the disappeared.

And what about the infrared camera frequently employed by the artist? An infrared camera captures body temperature that is invisible to the naked eye. What is bodytemperature if not an invisible flow that exists between people, a token of being alive? By capturing the constantly changing and disappearing body temperature as movements of colors, an infrared camera indicates the state of the physical bodies. Lim finds a metaphoric link between the modus operandi of the arts and the infrared camera that “[by] using infrared radiation, captures the invisible heat that exists everywhere and the energy exerted by the objects and space pixel by pixel and transforms to an array of colors.”7 Instead of using “light”—a symbol of scientific technology and the authoritative power of the media in the society of consumerism—to form an image, this particular media reminds us of the flows/
currents that are detectable with a “tactile” sense.8

Shipping Container

A close follower of Lim’s artistic endeavors would recall another frequently recurring object in her body of works: the shipping containers. For Lost? (2004) presented at ARKO Art Center (former Marronnier Art Center), the artist installed two empty containers at the vacant lot near the museum. As a kind of an on-site makeshift office space, the container offered a space for rest to the exhibition personnel, passersby, homeless, or the general public. Befitting the title of the exhibition Rolling Space, the containers offered a temporary place for leisure, which functioned as a media for inducing traffic of “rolling (flowing)” people. Containers are usually intended for long-distance freight transportations. I recall packing my belongings in cubic units to be loaded onto a shipping container when I was preparing to return home after years of studying abroad. Because of the containers, the packages from Berlin were safely transported across the sea and to the Customs Office in Incheon. In other words, containers serve as a temporary storage for objects that are to be transported from one place to another. In South Korea, however, these containers perform other practical functions for the people. Readily available at the construction sites, the cubic space offers a place for rest for the workers and serve as a makeshift restaurant (called hambashikdang) or, at times, a temporary office and an on-site residential hut.

This temporality and mobility of a shipping container played a vital role in Navigation ID, presented at Gwangju Biennale in 2014. Lim streamed live the process as the containers carrying the remains of massacre victims from the Korean War travelled down the highway to be transported to Gwangju. This was an attempt to symbolically recover the flow that has remained stagnant due to the scars from the history of ideological conflict, war, and division and the regionalist sentiments between Yeongnam and Honam region of South Korea. Upon arriving in Gwangju, the two containers were left at the center of the public square in front of the exhibition hall of Gwangju Biennale. The remains of the deceased are stored in the container—a temporary residence for the objects in transportation from one place to the next. Deprived of a proper funeral and burial, the remains were put, along with desiccants, in plastic boxes used for moving and then on top of an angle. The scene came off as a case of a brutally damaged commemorative ritual. The use of the containers itself proved to be a blasphemous act disturbing the solemnity of the ritual for the deceased, since the temporality and mobility of a container made the remains appear as discarded objects from a construction site or mere packs of goods. What is stopping these remains from flowing away to where they belong? The containers are discomforting visual manifestations of the historical and political issues interfering with the dead. When would these dead bodies without names become free from the temporary residence inside the container so to be properly mourned and commemorated?

Broadcasting Station

Media as a messenger allows one to flow to the other, and thereby makes both to be aware of each other’s state. At the same time, media reveals what is interfering with the flow, and ultimately makes visible the things that have disappeared and become invisible due to the interference. I referred to Minouk Lim’s creative output with such power as “media art” in an extensive sense. Not surprisingly, these kinds of works are usually accompanied by technological devices that we ordinarily call “media.” For instance, as a container would create a flow of an object from one place to another, a camera—as a device of “in-between”—would transmit a state of one site to another in order to make the other side visible and to mediate the encounter between the two places. In Navigation ID, both the camera on the helicopter and LTE mobile phone were utilized as a media “to soothe the wandering spirits of the missing dead and amplify hidden voices.”9

For the new work Running on Empty (2015), Lim has installed a broadcasting station where camera takes the center of the stage. A container, now deprived of its mass to be left with a flat façade, is precariously hanging in the air by a white cotton string. Facing the scene is a camera installed high on a wooden Jimmy Jib. The surrounding consists of technical equipment from a broadcasting station, such as lighting stands, parabolic reflector, and reflecting plate, which are intermingled with objects such as feathers, buoy, and fishing net. What is the camera attempting to capture? Where are these captured scenes flowing to? To get a hint on the answers to these questions, one has to observe the next space in the exhibition.

Presented in the other room is a video projection of The Promise of If (2015), for which Lim has edited the video recordings of the TV program Finding Dispersed Families. The program, initially aired live in 1983 by KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) had intended to aid the search of the separated families during the Korean War and was added to the UNESCO Cultural Heritage List in 2015. Minouk Lim lists this program along with the live TV broadcast held for the funeral of the former President Park Chung-hee in 1979 and Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, a live satellite show staged by Nam June Paik in 1984, as the media images that left an indelible impression on her.10 In Finding Dispersed Families, the broadcasting camera captured and delivered to the watchers the faces of the families looking for a missing member while each held information boards that detailed the search. There occurred moments when people would “instinctively recognize the lost family” upon looking
at the faces on the screen while previously unaware of the fate—even age or name at times—of the lost family members.11 It was the moment in which a media’s role to create encounter—by having the state of one place flow to the other—literally became a part of reality. It is no surprise that this moment of broadcasting history left a strong impression on the “media artist” Minouk Lim.

In Running on Empty (2015), Lim seems to recall this moment as “a paradoxical experience within the instinctive and sensuous space of the media.”12 As Lim has remarked, a container that creates a flow of an object by transporting it from its initial place to another is the “only object that can freely cross South and North Korea at the present moment.”13 However, in Running on Empty, the flat container hanging in the air is rendered useless as to contain any objects or people. It rather appears to be an altar as a part of a cargo cult along with the tree roots and agar-like organic elements in vicinity that are conglomerated as an object to resemble the shape of a human body. What could they be waiting for in front of this container-altar? Is it an attempt to catch the fainting signal coming from the container? The objects and cameras surrounding the container call forth a “paradoxical experience of the media,” which we have witnessed in Finding Dispersed Families. This experience may, in turn, cause instability on the impossible boundary called a “divided state” and begin to create a flow between the two.

The Promise of If

Minouk Lim’s media art does not turn away from the problems of our reality to admire the beauty of an imaginary world, which I read as an inevitable result of her struggle to subvert what has been obstructed and fossilized by creating a flow. For the current exhibition, Lim particularly focuses on the state of the divided Korea. The media’s portrayal of the dispersed families prompted her to think about “the unfinished war; identities defined by antagonism; role of an artist in a divided nation suspended in perpetual tension; what it is that we really long for; [and what media could mean amidst all this.]”14

The physical and ideological antagonism to war and division was behind the disappearance of the victims in Monument 300 – Chasing Watermarks, the lingering of the remains in the containers in Navigation ID, and the reason why the tears in The Possibility of the Half bear a political undertone. The division prevents us from “speaking what [we are] thinking” and greeting those who are defined as “our enemies”—only permitting us to imagine a community “that [is] constantly vanishing
and shifting at the margins outside the communities defined by language, region, kinship and nationality” under the supposition of “if.”15

Contours of Unity (2015) sets out a supposition in all its paradoxical forms. While the contours of Baengnokdam and Cheonji are juxtaposed against each other, the peaks of the two mountains are replaced by a clotted array of crumbling buildings from South and North Korea. If we recall the artist’s statement that “reunification is not about becoming one but about restoring a flow,” a restoration would begin by the melting down of these fossilized obstructions.16 In this regard, the reunification as imagined by Contours of Unity could be clearly distinguished from the ideological use of the term by the political powers of South and North Korea. Rather than hoping to create a two-way flow, both parties have remained static while wishing for the other to come and be integrated into its fixed state.

It is a difficult task to liberate the vision of reunification from the negative connotations the word “reunification” has come to embody—including suspicion, doubt, threatening, and hatred—in Korean history. If we were to envision a reunification, the idea must be reinvented. The process would involve imagining a community that embraces discords with “non-conforming presences” to welcome the outliers of “the communities defined by language, region, kinship and nationality.” The open door in the pile of large container doors that make up The Gates of Citizen (2015) appears to be a careful yet firm welcoming gesture to the an unknown community that is yet to come. In such ways, art becomes an imaginative place for engendering the future constituents who would engage in the “promise” of “if.”

1. Michel Serres, Angels: A Modern Myth, (Paris, New York: Flammarion, 1995) 26.
2. Ibid., 8.
3. Minouk Lim, “The Promise of If: A Community Bonded by Sorrow,” interview by Soyeon Ahn.
4. Minouk Lim, “DISCOVERING THE PAST,” interview by
Emily McDermott. Interview Magazine, May 7, 2015.
5. Minouk Lim, “In Search for the Possibility of the Half in the Scenes of Ruins,”
interview by Myeong-sook Kim. Monthly Art, January 2013.
7.Minouk Lim, “An Adopted Discordance between Art and Politics,”
interview by Haejin Joo. article magazine, July 2013.
8.Minouk Lim, “Seeking the Possibility of the Half in the Scenes of Ruins,” interview by Myeong-sook Kim. Monthly Art, January 2013.
9. Stuart Comer and Jenny Schlenzka, “The Belated Funeral as Performance: A Dialogue with Minouk Lim,” post, December 11, 2014, the-belated-funeral-as-performance-a-dialogue-with-minouk-lim.
10. Artist’s Note.
11. Minouk Lim, “The Promise of If: A Community Bonded by Sorrow,” interview by Soyeon Ahn.
12. Ibid.
16.Minouk Lim, “Seeking the Possibility of the Half in the Scenes of Ruins,” interview by Myeong-sook Kim. Monthly Art, January 2013.

(Translation: Diana Eunjee Kim)