Minouk Lim, “Living on Border” — 1
What does art mean to Minouk Lim? Or more precisely, what is the artist doing in the name of art? These questions arise out of the nature of the relationship between her works and the realm of what we commonly call art: the former often seems to go off on a tangent or sometimes far off from the latter. The artist has intervened in the social and political reality of ‘here and now’ and everyday life within the context of the so-called political art. In particular, she pays particular attention to the evils and disasters brought by financial capitalism, consumerism, new town development, bureaucracy, and individualism which have been formed and developed under global neoliberalism, taking themes and motifs related to them from both mass media and subculture.
Nevertheless, unlike the older generation of political artists who used art as a revolutionary tool for social change and the materialization of ideology, Lim not only pursues the aestheticization of political art through artistic imagination and creativity power but also internalizes criticism and attack on the contradictions of modern culture, social discords, a sense of historical loss, lost memories, and human alienation with the continuing spirit of skepticism and self-reflection. Above all things, she approaches the most controversial issues such as race, gender, body, representation, identity, subjectivity, the Other, and multi-culture with an altruistic concern and eye. Her exclamation of grief, “what should I do to live in your life?” — 2 is, in this sense, an expression of her hope for the mutual benefit- and relationship-oriented solidarity with others and the embracement of disenfranchised people. If Lim ever has something that can be called the will to depoliticization, it is motivated by her poetic sentiment to give artistic form to the critical attitude toward politics and society and her feeling of healing which aspires to bridge the social separation and isolation.
In some respect, this will to depoliticization also parallels a dual or ambivalent aesthetics which destroys or stands on the boundary between art and politics, public and personal histories, society and individual, subject and object, intelligence and sensitivity, and highbrow and lowbrow. It is a practical ambivalence which definitely refuses to fall into a mere conceptual play or the trap of ambiguity, but rather, is charged with the willingness for openness and change, based on the Other-oriented point of view and concrete clarity. It is a kind of weapon with which the artist challenges the unitariness, wholeness and singleness of modernism and strikes a blow against the paternal discourse which created the myth of success on the basis of developmentalism.
Apart from these anti-modernist and anti-paternal implications, her ambivalent aesthetics is also marked by non-visible tactility and non-fixed liquidity in style. Within the framework of feminist criticism, tactility and liquidity are feminine qualities which are opposed to visuality and fixedness and by direct extension, to modernist masculinity. As if to reinforce the French Neo-feminist argument that writing in mother’s milk, or white ink (Hélène Cixous) or an erotic style that is tactile, fluid, and “already two―but not divisible into one(s)” (Luce Irigaray) has an explosive power to overshadow or overthrow the masculine mode— 3, it is in this fluid/tactile style that Lim finds the creative inspiration to dissolve social and human conflicts. Soft and active liquid, rather than hard and inactive solid, and tactile contact, rather than scopic distance, are the reservoir to preserve the recuperative energy to replenish the warmth of human life.
The fluid/tactile style is non-systemic and non-visible like the pre-grammatical language of the Imaginary. This pristine mode, which is not contaminated by the paternal language, breaks out of the yoke of the rules and principles of the symbolic. Lim’s signature formal strategies such as ‘jumping’ utterances and the rhetoric of omission and leap are the most appropriate for constructing the style. Here, in that her ambivalent aesthetics, fluid/tactile style, non-systemic language, the rhetoric of omission and leap, etc. are at the antipodes of modernism, masculinity and the Symbolic, it seems to be not only possible but also necessary to understand her art in terms of gender politics. However, this possibility and necessity is immediately blockaded by the nature of ambivalent aesthetics which denies a single unitary one or univocality. What lies at the center of her art, which continually strives to remain on border, is the act of oscillating between two extremes such as femininity and transcendental femininity, gendered and de-gendered, constantly frustrating determinism.
Ambivalence, fluidity and tactility are also the properties of the medium of video. Video images retain non-fixed fluidity caused by the flow of electronic particles as well as a mosaic texture which involves both two- and three- dimensions due to the intervention of time. Besides, her editing techniques of omission and jumping create a non-systemic and non-visual video language. In this sense, it is no coincident that she has used video as her main medium since 2005.
Her video works are documentaries. But these are not about the natural world or specific events, but records of staged performances. They are sometimes ‘narrative documentaries’ with narrative structures and other times ‘poetic documentaries’ brimming with poetic sentiment. As is suggested by the adjectives such as ‘narrative’ or ‘poetic,’ her documentaries leave a deep and ingenuous impression, while always dealing with a series of pairs of contradictories: subject and object, public and private matters, history and autobiography, and reality and fabrication.
The artist’s style is most vividly shown in The Weight of Hands (2010), a documentary film which follows the conventions of the road-movie format. As if carrying out an exorcising ritual on soon disappearing landscapes of oblivion, destroyed and forbidden places, or spaces which are, as the artist puts it, “already too late,” a person, beating a drum, makes a pilgrimage to the closed ferry terminal at the foot of the cliff of Mt. Jeoldu, Seoul, the vacant area of constructed-but-unsold housing units in Paju, and the Ipo Weir, Yeoju, located on the basin of the Han River and laid bare by developmentalism, etc. This pilgrimage is joined by a group of people who get off a tour bus and begin to march in the dark. They all wear raincoats. The stream of movement continues even in the bus: a woman who, holding a microphone, sobbingly sings a song of farewell, is being lifted and carried by hand by the passengers. Lying down like a dead body, or alluding to a funeral procession, she mournfully flows through their hands like a river, like rainwater, or like tears.
The images like nightly rain, a running tour bus, pilgrimages of a drummer and tourists, and the lateral drift of a singing woman have liquid qualities, symbolic of the process and energy of movement, current and mobility. Furthermore, the artist imbues these damp liquid-like images with warmth and heat by using an infrared thermal camera. As soon as heat or temperature captures an object, its image goes into the ‘warming’ or ‘heating’ mode, quickly losing the sense of substantiality and being converted to illusionary, immaterial one. These melting, distorted forms and their translucent colors―reminiscent of watercolors― not only contribute to enhancing the fluidity effect but also evoke the tactile sense, inviting viewers to touch them.
While video images by definition have a mosaic texture, Lim’s use of thermography maximizes their tactility by transferring realistic forms into abstract colors and textures. Thus, the title, the “weight of hands,” could be interpreted to mean the heaviness perceived not by eyes but by hands. As the artist suggests a new terminology of “sight touching” for “sightseeing”— 4, she aims to recover the spectacular scenes, which were all built upon deadly destruction, through contacting and touching. So, instead of the hand of construction, she introduces another one, that is, the hand of ethics whose weight in no way measurable. If the gigantic excavators frequently appearing in her videos represent the hand of destruction for construction, the hands of the passengers who hold up the weak and feeble woman and try to ease her grief are those of salvation and healing. The striking distance between these two hands which could be respectively regarded as paternal and maternal explains the sensory difference between sight and touch and the perceptive difference between visual and tactile sightseeings.
— 1 The title is borrowed from Jacque Derrida’s “Living On/Border Lines” (translated by James Hulbert, in Deconstructionism and Criticism, edited by Harold Bloom et al., New York: Seabury Press, 1979, pp. 75-176).
— 2 Works, www.minouklim.com
— 3 Chris Weeden, Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987, pp. 65-68; Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One (1977), translated by Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and New York, 1985, p. 78.
— 4 “Here, the term ‘Sightseeing’ is replaced by ‘Sight Touching’ and the video record of the performance becomes a medium to perceive temperature and weight.”(Works, www.minouklim.com)
In S.O.S.– Adoptive Dissensus (2009), a documentary video of a participatory performance given on a cruise ship along the Han River, Lim explores the transition from visual sightseeing to tactile one. Here, passengers on the ship are invited as the audience of the three episodes which are being played on the riverbank. Like a story-within-a story, the film comprises three inner narratives within a frame of cruise tour, with which it unfolds a multilateral outer story, “S.O.S.” The artist poses questions to the viewers by adopting three episodes regarding on the following issues: the temporal and spatial disagreement with the ever accelerating world, the dissensions occurring within the developmentalist desire, and the memories of and resistances against “what we have already seen and what we have already lost.” The audience becomes a momentary community who shares the situations and memories of the three episodes and thereby “experiences a Möbius loop where the role of object and subject is reversed.” — 5
The first episode is a united demonstration of young people who rise against developmentalism and call for “nameless places,” the second is a dramatic farewell ceremony of two lovers who are reclaiming their refuge for love, and the third is a lonely monologue of an unconverted long-term prisoner. All of them send S.O.S. messages with a mirror, or by making a gesture, or through a walkie-talkie, but the ship’s searchlight does not answer them, only to scan the facade of the city. Though a real S.O.S. rescue did not take place actually, the artist’s questioning about the “Han River Renaissance” leaves a long-lasting impression both to the passengers on the cruise and to the viewers in the exhibition room.
Here again, as might be expected from the fact that it was a waterborne performance, aquatic images and the motif of movement remain prevalent. All the passengers, let alone the ship itself, join in movement and the light of the searchlight and the synchronous sound heighten the excitement and tension of the cruise. If the sensations of liquid and movement are evoked by tactile images in The Weight of Hands, it is an omnidirectional, multisensory environment that creates the same sensations in S.O.S. Adoptive Dissensus. The artist becomes both a writer and director of this environmental total theater, actors and audience being the Han River, the lifeline of Seoul, the cruise ship, the captain and passengers on board, and the performers of the three episodes on the three sites on the riverbank. This kind of a large-scale collective performance which occurs real-time in a specific place for two days inevitably emphasizes the sense of community and cooperation rather than an individual’s vision, as well as involves the elements of life marked by its accidents and events. Ultimately, by advocating life art and popular aesthetics and attempting to unify the irreconcilable discordances such as art and life, or art and the public, the artist proposes another Möbius loop in another level.
As was shown in the two above-mentioned works, rainwater and river water are the symbolic subjects and motifs to embody the artist’s fluid/tactile style. Furthermore, water has also an important meaning as an artistic material. This liquid medium to dissolve heterogeneous substances into one inspired her to find a new mixing technique of ‘marbling,’ i.e. a formal hybrid of unexpected patterns and textures created by arbitrary blending of water and pigments. As a visual expression of the liquid non-fixedness and as a product of the momentary contact which brings disharmony into harmony, marbling serves as a key technique in her unique style.
On a rainy day, Lim had an extreme marbling performance in which she poured paints on the car roof and then drove speedily so that they could melt in rainwater. Or she built an imaginary miniature New Hometown by sticking bundles of useless pens and pencils into a marbling canvas which she had made by dissolving paints in water in a pool. The driving performance on a rainy day and the site-specific installation in a pool were open to public as the formats of documentary photography and ink-jet prints as part of To No Longer Tell the End of the Rainy Season (2008). Here, she bitterly denounces superfluity and excess, unlimited desire for growth, and the ideology of rapid development, all of which are suggested by the rainy season or a flood on the one hand, and on the other, earnestly prays for the communication, connection, and harmonization between the self and others through the marbling technique of mixing heterogeneities.
Considering the fact that marbling allows the joining between art and external nature/natural phenomena, latex, Lim’s another favored medium, can be used to the same purpose. She pours liquid latex onto the roof of buildings or the ground and exposed it to sunlight, wind, snow and rain for several months, until it is hardened. This too is a fluid/tactile work to produce specific textures by solidifying liquid. So both marbling and latex work are the indexical trace of natural phenomena as a product of physical contacts. In index art forms such as photography and video in which the image is identical with its subject, physical marks are presented instead of imitative representations. Therefore, Lim’s narrative/poetic documentary films which recorded redevelopment districts, the “already-too-late” spaces requiring memory, their trails of destruction and the process of reconstruction with her unique fluid/tactile sensibility rather than with her eyes, are an extension of her marbling and latex works based on the same sentiment and imagination.
— 5 Minouk Lim, S.O.S – Adoptive Dissensus — Bartleby in Myself (2009), exhibition catalog of Hermès Foundation Missulsang 2009, p. 154.
Portable Keeper (2009) and New Town Ghost (2005) are documentary videos of the performances given in the redevelopment district in Yeongdeungpo, Seoul. In Portable Keeper, a young man carrying on the shoulder a bar-like strange object made of tying together useless writing utensils, bird’s feathers, faux fur, and fan wings strays aimlessly through the market site and urban areas which became ruined or changed to construction fields under the influence of The New Town project. The thing on his shoulder reminds you of a weapon or an incantatory object but he just looks enervated and exhausted, far from being a warrior or a shaman. The object with which you can do nothing and which is useless and functionless and its keeper seem to represent the sigh of grief over and the resignation to the irrecoverably “too-late space.”
In New Town Ghost, a street band composed of a rapper and a drummer sing the resistance against and surrender to developmentalism in the back of an open truck, their moving stage, traveling around the bustling Yeongdeungpo Market. The female rapper in short cut hair recites aloud the artist’s sarcastic texts about construction, prosperity, and the progress ideology, announcing the advent of the sheer ghost of uncompassionate developmentalism. The performance which is suggestive of an MV of an indie band or a boisterous election campaign was done, moving around the neighboring area of the artist’s home and office. In contrast to the ruined scenery which will be selected as the setting for Portable Keeper after four years, the area is still shown as the space of everyday life, crowded with signs, stores and passersby.
Through these two site-specific videos which include the recollections of her own and her neighbors, the artist deals with the process of redevelopment of Yeongdeungpo changing from the city’s old center of manufacturing to the present new town and the complex feelings of its inhabitants’ hopes, regrets, resistance and accommodations. If the clamorous rapper anticipates the specter of development, the silent portable keeper intends to hand down the lost memory as the last witness of the old town.
As is illustrated by the way in which both of the two films closely interweave the history of Korean redevelopment with the artist’s own story, Lim’s works largely start from her personal and everyday experiences. Similarly, Game of 20 Questions: the Sound of Monsoon Goblin Crossing a Shallow Stream, a documentary of “The 4th Migrants’ Arirang 2008” shoot and edited by her, does not avoid autobiographical reference. As if to confirm the feminist slogan “the personal is political,” the artist investigates the truth and falseness of the discourse on multiculturalism, in particular, the racial problems inherent in the designation “Kosian” from the viewpoint of the minority family with a French-Korean daughter, turning an altruistic eye toward and facing up to the emergence of multicultural family as a new social phenomenon and a new community in Korea today in the global age.
Wrong Question (2006), the 2 channel video work, presents the familiar urban images like construction fields, demonstrations, and expressways, accompanied by the ‘voice-over’ narration of a taxi driver who is emphatically praising the rapid economic development occurred under the Park Jung-hee regime. These scenes are interrupted frequently by scenes showing the artist’s daughter –who appeared also in Game of 20 Questions– asking questions in Korean to her grandfather. By using voice-over technique to create the incongruity between image and sound, Lim tells you that the right answer to a wrong question lies “not in the correspondence between image and sound but in what is left behind in their distance.” — 6 In other words, the solution can be given only by the attitude of mutual benefit which acknowledges difference, not by binary oppositions such as left/right, new/old, east/west, which eventually come down to agreement and identification. This is the very role of imagination which is different from ideology and simultaneously, the power of art which varies from politics.
— 6 Works, www.minouklim.com
In her Hermès Foundation Missulsang exhibition in 2007, Too Early or Too Late Atelier, Lim aims to show how imagination and art overcome ideology and politics and accept diversity and difference. If a series of installation works including a latex carpet made by casting the ground, a quilted car cover hanging from the ceiling, and a transformed refrigerator are personal responses to the modern urban life and everyday experiences, the video work titled The First Impression of the Second Edition underscores the potentiality of the present progressive tense which can be a new start at any time through a bookbinder working in Choongmuro who concludes everything by saying “my name is ~ing.” The meaning of ‘too early or too late atelier’ might lie in opening “polymorphous and complicated worlds in the distorted relation with the past and to find another possibility of practice in them.” — 7
Original Live Club – Women’s Only Space presented in 2006 Gwangju Biennale brings up a self-regulating alternative to globalism as a paternal structure and the institutionalized biennale. At the entrance of this women’s only space are screened the female images circulated in male entertainment establishments and in the inside where both economic and porn magazines are supplied, female audience are encouraged to take copies of their body parts as a participatory activity. In the process in which the secret stories about what is going inside are conveyed to male audience only through female participants’ explanation, the female sex is mystified and information is distorted or omitted. By creating a gender-specific space, Lim subverts the hierarchy of the traditional art institution, exhibition culture, audience’s attitude, and the order of communication. If this piece is conceived to “find another possibility of practice” for the “distorted” biennale, it might be appropriate to rename it “too late or too early Gwangju Biennale.”
The exhibition Jump Cut held in Artsonje Center, 2008, shows not the tragedy of time difference, which is ‘too early or too late,’ but another kind of movement found in improvisation, accidental encounters and temporary relations.— 8 Here, the movement relates to marbling using water, rain, flow, and natural phenomena, that is, the casual action caused by momentary contacts between or among heterogeneous elements. The artist moved the old-type Hyundai Grandeur, the car she drove herself in a rainy day for her marbling performance, into the exhibition space and converted it to a fountain called The Miracle of the Han River. By liquefying and nullifying the miracle and a Grandeur, the Korean symbol of prosperity, authority, riches and honors, into the monument of water, she satirizes the distorted too-early-or-too-late Han River Renaissance.
The eponymous work of the exhibition was Andrei Tarkovsky ‘Offret-Sacrificatio’―Jump Cut (2008), a film which attracted much attention from the audience. Instead of taking the documentary format, this eight-minute-long single channel video is a concise edition, or to use a technical term, a jump-cut version of the feature film, The Sacrifice by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. Because of its rapid scene changes, the original storyline was impaired but the viewers were made to use their association and imagination freely and actively. The artist gave back the edited, cut, or omitted parts, which had been sacrificed in the process of making the new version, as the audience’s share. However, this mode of interactive appreciation which requires the recipients’ participation is also what she demands from her own work created in a non-visible and non-systemic language like jump-cut, that is, the rhetoric of omission and leap. By sacrificing the film by the master director of the century using the jump-cut technique, she attempts to recall the victims of the growing pains of the too-early-or-to-late modernization to the audience and make them think over the true meaning of the sacrifice for the salvation of the world and the development of the human race.
— 7 Works, www.minouklim.com
— 8 Works, www.minouklim.com
Her jump-cut version made the original film, which is well-known for being difficult to understand, much more difficult. Perhaps it might be that the artist intentionally chose the jump-cut technique to make it speak for her difficult art and its validity. Lim’s videos marked by ambivalent aesthetics, a fluid/tactile style, and a non-systemic/non-visual language have much in common with the films by cine-artist Tarkovsky who denied realism, popular tastes, and commercialism in pursuit of art cinema, but nevertheless, still persisted in intertextual film-making for the audience. Besides, Lim’s critical concerns about politics, society, culture, gender and ethics and practical activism are also in line with the thoughts of the cine-artist who opposed authority from critical and democratic viewpoints and talked about the future hope which would be made possible by the memories of the past, nostalgia, and sacrifice with constant self-examination and enduring humanity.
Lim’s critical attitude and activism were evident in her early career. After graduating from École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, in 1995, she worked as a member of a radical artists’ group “general genius” which she organized with seven artists including Frédéric Michon in 1997, and then, had a lot of exhibitions from 1998 when she returned home to 2001 when went back to Paris. In defiance of the museum culture or exhibition conventions, most of her works in this period were enterprising and alternative projects which replaced object-oriented exhibition with process-oriented field work, making exhibitions themselves the works of art. Social Meat (1999) presented in the group exhibition “Tendencies of the New Generation” at ARKO Art Center caused a great sensation and earned her ‘enfant terrible,’ for it realized the provocative idea of opening the museum store as an exhibition room or changing the exhibition hall to a rabbit warren.
After coming back to Seoul again in 2004, Lim formed Pidgin Collective as a descendant of Pidgin Girok (or Pidgin Record), an artists’ group in which she had worked with Frédéric Michon since 2000, pursuing alternative activism in a more earnest way. As she articulated the goal of Pidgin Collective as “not to be limited to the single domain of the art world, but to create new situations to disturb situations inside society,”— 9 or as term ‘pidgin’ suggests, the collective prefers cooperation and community, having executed a lot of non-systemic, temporary, process-centered and open-end projects. This is why the group has paid more attention to everydayness and subculture than artistic purity and attempted to draw out communicative, participatory, and interactive creativity from them. The series of Scrap Project, performed in cooperation with the Haja Center, a Korean alternative school, from 2004 to 2006, provided an active archive with which to create a new art movement group involving in the political and social reality and to develop a new model for youth culture.
The art world of Lim who criticizes about the political and social contradictions in contemporary Korean society in broad terms and more narrowly, new town development, and sometimes the art institution, trying to present recuperative alternatives to them, takes root in the aesthetic foundation which is made by tempering and refining her keenly critical mind toward political issues and interventional activism with artistic creativity, humanistic reflection and literary sensibility. Standing at the frontier zone between politics and aesthetics, armed with intelligent suspicion, ethical hesitation and the sensibility of jump-cut-like omission, the artist constantly withholds any form of political creed and assertive utterance which is all too subject to be declarative and educative. As if being the double of Bartleby, the eponymous main character in Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville, like a Bartleby here and now who tries to “read the invisible from what they see and see something from the invisible,” Lim belongs to “those who hesitate and keep looking back questioning themselves rather than giving a confident answer of yes or no” and converts her resistance and negation to the rhetoric of “momentary tremors, hesitations, empty talks and murmurs.”— 10 And this is exactly where both the portrait of Lim, the artist living on border, and her art found on ambivalent, borderless aesthetic are now placed.
— 9 Youngwook Lee, “Fine art, Too Late or Too Early,” Jump Cut, exhibition catalog, Artsonje Center, 2008. p, 89.
— 10 Minouk Lim, “S.O.S. – Adoptive Dissensus―Bartleby in Myself.”
is an art historian, curator, and critic based in Korea. Her main field of interest is in video and feminist art. She was the Director of Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art in Gyeonggi Province of Korea between 2006 to 2010, and the Director of SSamzie Space, Seoul, Korea between 1998 to 2006. Her career includes: Artistic Director of the 2006 Gwangju Biennale; Commissioner of the Korean Pavilion of The 50th Venice Biennale in 2003; International Committee Member of the 2001 Yokohama Triennale; Commissioner of the 2000 Gwangju Biennale, and Curator of the Special Exhibition of infoART of the 1995 Gwangju Biennale. Her publications include the books of: Good Morning Mr. Paik, Design House, 2007; Women and Art, Contemporary Art Discourse and the Field I, Noonbit, 2003; Korean Art World and Contemporary Art, Contemporary Art Discourse and the Field II, Noonbit, 2003; and Feminism. Video. Art., Jaewon, 1998. Kim received her Ph.D. in art history from Hong-Ik University, Seoul, Korea and her M.A. from Concordia University, Montreal, Canada.