The Belated Funeral as Performance: A Dialogue with Minouk Lim

By Stuart Comer, Minouk Lim, Jenny Schlenzka Posted on December 11, 2014
The opening performance of the 10th Gwangju Biennale, a powerful piece by Minouk Lim, took place on a rainy afternoon. A helicopter hovered over Biennale Square, where ambulances and buses converged, carrying high school students, relatives of civilian victims of the Korean War, and members of the May Mothers' House, who lost children in the Gwangju uprising. Remains of civilian victims from the Korean War were carried from an ambulance by blindfolded family members to shipping containers on the square as the May Mothers and high school students looked on. A mourning ritual was enacted in front of one of the shipping containers, surrounded by reporters and Biennale visitors. Spectators were silent; sounds of camera shutters and rainfall dominated the scene. The performance was streamed live both in the exhibition space, where it was shown as a two-channel video installation, and on the website of OhmyNews. The shipping containers holding the human remains were left on the square until the Biennale ended. The next day was sunny. We were amazed to see the square empty and the two containers standing under the blue sky. The bright image presented a striking contrast with the gray scene of the day before. We had loads of questions for Minouk, with whom we had a fifty-minute talk rather than a formal interview. It ended up being a great time for sharing thoughts.

Minouk Lim. Navigation ID. 2014. Photo by Sungha Jang

Stuart: Were you happy with how it went yesterday? It’s weird to ask if you are “satisfied,” though.

Minouk: I brought the bones that have not been buried yet. It is so difficult for me to think about how to tell [this story] and where to start. I hope this square [Biennale Square] will be the last stop for the shipping containers, which serve as coffins. And I hope this place will be the starting point from which we can speak about these tragedies once again, and together. However, the sound of countless camera flashes has shown the gravity of silence. The journalists who attended seemed only to take photos, since the story was too complex for them to cover.

Stuart: I cannot imagine the political games you had to play to get permission to do this work.

Minouk: I asked for permission after consulting with the association of bereaved families. Getting permission from the families was not difficult because they are eager for people to know about the killings. However, I had to ask government officials for permission to transport the containers holding the remains of the dead. But since it’s absurd that the remains are kept in these containers in the first place, I realized it was nonsense to ask the state authorities for permission to move them Anyway, the main problem was the right of private landowners to refuse the return of the containers to their original locations after they had been moved.

Jenny: So there is no historical record of the massacres?

Minouk: For sure, there are many. The problem is that the historical records are decaying in places that deserve to be called tombs. What is the use of records from the past if they do not become part of the present? In 1999 the issue received attention when the Associated Press reviewed the No Gun Ri Massacre. More than three hundred Korean civilians were killed by the US Army at No Gun Ri in 1950. The US government still denies the charges of intentional murder. It merely says that it “deeply regrets” the incident. During the Korean War, the South Korean government killed more than two hundred thousand suspected Communists and political opponents. South Korea’s fifteenth and sixteenth presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, who were democratically elected, made public apologies for the deaths caused by state violence, and they organized the Presidential Truth Commission on Suspicious Deaths and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. However, only 17 of 168 suspected burial sites of civilian massacres across the country have been excavated, and the commissions have been disbanded. I found out last year that there are collective memorial services throughout the year in Korea. The killings took place across the country. Some of the excavated remains are stored temporarily in professors’ laboratories and in an anthropology museum at a university, since there is no other place for them. Some of the other remains have been left in shipping containers. The containers I transported to the Gwangju Biennale Square are from Gyeongsan and Jinju.

Stuart: Allan Sekula also uses shipping containers. He did a film two years ago called The Forgotten Space and it starts with shipping containers. It’s somehow relevant because he was very much interested in following the path of shipping containers to start to locate invisible people—laborers who work in terrible conditions and are never seen. These people make capitalism function, but you never see them because they are on ships or work with shipping containers. I am just thinking about visibility in your work: the visibility of death, the visibility of societal outrage and atrocity that are never discussed in the media.

This morning we were discussing the way we assume that the cameras are staged by you, but you cannot totally control Instagramming. So I was interested in your strategy of making the invisible visible when you stage a media event, and I am also interested in knowing whether that act has been taken on by the audience as well. I am curious about your process, about the extent to which you can control the cameras. It was very interesting to watch that all coming together with the helicopter.

Minouk: In fact, it is not completely true to say the media have never covered the civilian massacres. The No Gun Ri massacre received global attention when the Associated Press uncovered the story in 1999. Only then did the Korean press delve into it. By presenting the issue in an art context, I am hoping that people today will see the event for what it was.

I made the piece because information broadcast on the media constantly flows and dulls our vision. The victims of civilian massacres are like specters who received attention and then were cast into oblivion. People get tired of hearing the same information over and over again, even if they haven’t actually taken it in. However, the context of art is where people see, meet, and think about things for themselves. Thus I believed that many cameras would draw the deaths into people's everyday lives, not merely channel the event as an isolated occurrence. I wanted to experiment with the logic of the media on the issue of visibility, incorporating all these circumstances into the documentary film. This is why I chose to air the event live, and it was important that everyone face the proceeding and bear witness. The event was streamed live on the Internet by OhmyNews.

The funeral procession was a mobile, LTE [Long-Term Evolution, a standard for high-speed wireless communication commonly marketed as 4G LTE] procession that traversed the globe across boundaries of region and time, as people could watch it on their mobile devices connected to the Web. I wanted all those different scales of means to be used to soothe the wandering spirits of the missing dead and amplify hidden voices. I wonder how the photos of the remains in everyone’s mobile phones will be understood over time. However, what I had hoped was pushed away by the internal struggle of the art scene.

Jenny: Were you involved in the broadcasting?

Minouk: When the helicopter was hovering over the Biennale, I was communicating with the pilot. And I was in the broadcasting bus, controlling the position of the cameras and switching the sources to the main channel.

Jenny: How did you find participants for the performance?

Minouk: I met Dr. Sunghoon Han while doing research on civilian massacres carried out during the Korean War. He has been studying the massacres for fifteen years. He also worked for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He informed me that the remains of victims in Gongju were being excavated and told me to visit the site if I was interested. I started to visit massacre sites, meeting the families of the dead. During the process, members of the May Mothers' House in Gwangju worked together with the Gwangju Trauma Center. Seoul Youth Factory for Alternative Culture also participated in the process through workshops. It is an alternative school for students who refuse to receive formal education. I once worked there as an art director.

Minouk Lim. Navigation ID. 2014. Photo by Taekyong Jung

Stuart: Who are the blindfolded men coming out of the buses?

Minouk: They are family members of the victims from Gyeongsan, Jinju, and Hampyeong.

Jenny: And there was a kind of funeral yesterday?

Minouk: There was a very simple rite. It was to show respect for the dead, at least. In Korea people visit graves on each anniversary of a loved one’s death and on certain holidays. People also observe rituals in their homes. What is important this time is that people wore mourning clothes and went through funeral rituals for strangers from other regions. Family members of the victims, long divided by regional antagonisms, talked to each other as they participated in workshops and visits. The most rewarding part of the work for me is the fact that they now understand each other’s pain and sorrow and remember each other’s faces.

Stuart: The strangest moment for me was when I walked behind the window of a container where the ritual was happening. Through the window you could see all the reporters taking photographs. The news media are always up front, never in the back.

Minouk: It is an important point. I chose to air it live so that viewers see it for themselves, as opposed to in the form of edited information. I did not know where all those reporters came from, and I could not even focus on the families of the dead through the cameras I was using since they were behind the cameras brought by the reporters. This shows very well how the media block direct encounters with subjects by interfering from the very front. Nevertheless, the families of the massacre victims were amazed to see all those news reporters, and they wanted to believe that the occasion would expedite the realization of their dream to hold a dignified funeral. Yet all those flashing cameras are already pursuing bigger tragedies and more sensational events. Now the container is left as if it is of no significance. What do these deaths tell us? How will these remains withstand LTE “long-term evolution” in reality? How will they fare, and how will they be perceived? These are some of the questions raised by art.

Stuart: What status do the remains have now? Because the rituals happened yesterday, have the bones been fully recognized? Did the ritual formalize their status somehow?

Minouk: In South Korea the victims of civilian massacres are ignored by the government. I have come to realize that there is a difference between the law imposed by the state and the laws of ethics and morality. I did not start this work expecting anything from today’s politics or politicians. The remains of the massacred will be returned to their former locations in Gyeongsan and Jinju. Even though they are not officially recognized at this moment, they can at least be remembered through art. This is why I am trying to honor the victims through proper mourning in the context of art. This cannot be achieved through politics.

Stuart: I was thinking particularly of artists like Teresa Margolles, a Mexican artist who frequently uses real blood from violent massacres in Mexico. She did a piece during the Venice Biennale in which there was a man mopping the floors of the Palazzo Rota-Ivancich with water that contained the blood of Mexicans who had been murdered. Or she’ll take dirt soaked with blood from the ground where they were killed. And she coats flags with dirt and hangs them at the palazzo. The use of actual remains is still a powerful thing. I am not sure about the ethics in Korea versus those in the Americas. I mean it’s a very powerful thing, especially if you bring a religious ritual into the secular context of the art world—that means something different, too. Santiago Sierra, the Spanish artist, doesn’t deal with remains, but he deals with living bodies in a way that a lot of people find very troubling. I am sure you’ve been asked this a lot already, but I just wonder where your thinking is going about this a day after the event.

Minouk: I am thinking of death. I am looking for people—not the citizens, but the people. The word people reveals the one-sided reasoning of South Koreans, caused by the division of the North and the South. Thus, I have set out on a journey to find people who are not the slaves of community or ideology. In Korea ideologies have formed around every kind of viewpoint. Death is always interpreted by the living. These victims’ remains make me question the scope of what constitutes a community. Is there such a thing as a clear identity?

Jenny: What did the family members say after yesterday’s performance.

Minouk: The families were amazed by so many unexpected camera flashes of reporters from both Korea and overseas, and they seemed to expect to receive attention once again while appreciating the situation. They have spent sixty-four years wishing to inform the world of the atrocities they experienced. Watching them suffer, I thought of a poem by Gerhard Lohfink, “Death Is Not the Final Word.”

Stuart: So much contemporary art now, especially in the West, is still based on the strategies of Conceptual art in particular, which I think emerged in the 1960s with the rise of certain abstract political systems, like the rise of corporations and consumer society. It was moving further away from the object, real flesh and blood. It’s interesting that Jessica’s show [the 10th Gwangju Biennale was organized by Jessica Morgan] in general is returning to all these body art practices from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and this idea of trying to engage with real material and very factual society. And, I think, in your piece you are dealing with two things: the bones and the mediation—the image of the bones. It’s an interesting contrast, dealing with both the physical reality and also the distributive image universe.

And I have a very museum-related question, because you are dealing with the economy in this art world. What do you think in terms of how this work is archived and documented? The whole mission of museums is to remember, and increasingly it gets very hard with these kinds of practices because, for example, you cannot acquire the bones. I am just wondering if an institution wants to acquire your work, what do they acquire? What is the remaining art work? What are the ethics?

Minouk: The collection of a museum is a collective memory. I want my works in the collection to be open to any kind of combination with what is contemporary, so that they can always be created anew. Museums are places that generate incidents. An incident is a spark that occurs in an unexpected place, and there is a need for keeping records that enable different incidents to be constantly repositioned. I wanted to draw what is outside art into and within art, making art that cast doubt on itself. Emil Cioran asked if a person could love himself without destroying himself.

When we encounter an excellent work of art in a museum, what happens? Instead of informing us about something we don’t know, the art makes us question what we think we already know. What is undefined leads us to imagination rather than judgment. That’s why I’m dealing with two things: I am calling out and looking for the missing people in and through these objects. What should go into the collection from such work are these pivotal transitions.

Minouk Lim. Navigation ID. 2014. Photo by Yu-Chieh Li

The interview was conducted in English. Transcript and introduction by Yu-Chieh Li. Revisions made by the artist in Korean were translated into English by Jaeyong Park.