National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art | 30 Samcheong-ro, Sogyeok-dong, Jongno-gu
03062 Seoul

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artist / participant

press release

Im Heung-soon. Things that Do Us Part: Belief, Faith, Love, Betrayal, Hatred, Fear, Ghost
MMCA Hyundai Motor Series 2017
30.11.2017 - 08.04.2018

Artist Im Heung-soon (b.1969) has illuminated through various art forms and video works the lives of ordinary people who were alienated and sacrificed in the course of the modern history of Korea. At the 2015 Venice Biennale, Im won the Silver Lion for Factory Complex, a feature-length documentary that highlights the realities faced by women workers who led the extraordinary development of the Korean economy but were alienated from the result, raising issues regarding the meaning and value of the socially marginalized in the global art world.

This exhibition Things that Do Us Part takes a look at the ideology of division established throughout Korean history, from the independent movement against the Japanese colonial rule to the Korean War, how the ideology took root in our unconsciousness deeply like a ghost, and how it destroyed the everyday lives of ordinary people.

Among those who tried to find the meaning of life while enduring unreasonable pain inflicted by their own country and history were four women, Jeong Jeong-hwa (1900–91), Kim Dong-il (1932–2017), Ko Gye-yeon (1932–), and Lee Jeong-suk (1944–). The artist depicts their life in detail through interviews with them and their acquaintances and examining their keepsakes and belongings. Through these efforts, Im Heung-soon aims to restore these women’s time and experiences, scattered throughout the grand course of history, to a narrative image centering on the symbolic language of belief, faith, love, betrayal, hatred, fear, and ghost. This image will be a testament to that era and an opportunity to view our current selves and our perspectives from various angles through the lens of that era. Here, the word “ghost,” as mentioned in the work’s subtitle, has an important meaning, as it can be interpreted in many ways. “Ghost” is an ideology, as well as a metaphor of the artist who searches for, observes, and describes it. It could also mean the millions and millions of ordinary people who float around in the discrepancy between the truth and lie of a historical narrative. They ask, “What are the things that do us part?”

Im’s work tells the stories of the people who survived through a ghost-like fear, which has existed around us in different times under different names, and the stories of those who have wandered around as ghosts. To express this idea, the artist presents the exhibition hall as a space for these ghosts to roam, by employing oral histories, psychology, space, and images. The exhibition space is first used as a stage to film the work, and later it is completed as a channel that visualizes the things we had not previously seen and connects the past and present. The artist defines the museum as a wholly new, different space, another world where the living and the dead exist together. In this context, Gallery 5, the main exhibition hall, is a border line as well as an intermediary zone for the living to cross over to the world of the dead. This makes the exhibition hall a place that provides comfort to the souls of ordinary people who endured endless deaths and sacrifices throughout history; this is true even when one does not mention that the museum had become a place for rituals, where the artists served as shamans. So, the museum becomes a space where all sorts of possibilities are opened and coexist, serving as a container in which all these stories are heard as each one encounters and intersects with each other. This is part of efforts to extend the historical significance of the MMCA Seoul building, which previously served as a military facility, into a place where the painful past of individuals and lost and wounded history are shared and understood. This exhibition space is not a place for finished artwork to be displayed, but a changing space that transforms into an altar, a film set, or a prop room according to the narrative of the stories that the artist creates leading up to the opening of the exhibition. This process is also shown to the viewers as a disclosure of the installation process. In the first series of the disclosure, there was a performance in which 4,000 personal effects left by Kim Dong-il were organized in an exhibition space that was completely empty. As her clothes and shoes piled up over time and the knitted works she made were displayed, one could fully imagine and feel the presence of an individual and grew sympathy over her death.

The artist will bring Kim’s personal belongings to her hometown on Jeju Island and burn them after the exhibition ends. As such, the period of mourning for her death will be completed and brought to an end.

In the second series, film sets were built for shooting footage. Important places involving the lives of these old women were built like a stage for an experimental theater, and films were directed and shot here. The mountain situated in front of the exhibition entrance is an especially significant place for all four women and it serves as an important background; all four of these women climbed up mountains to survive, and they lost their most loved ones there. All these stories are perfectly reenacted in the completed work comprising the documentary films recorded at actual locations such as Jirisan Mountain, Jeju Island, Osaka, New York, and Shanghai and the films the artist produced in the films sets inside the museum, based on his imagination. On the opening day of the exhibition, this completed work will be shown on three mega screens as the final series of disclosure. In “Reincarnation” presented at Gallery 7, Im extends his enduring theme across Asia into the Middle East in this context. The artist highlights the life story of Lee Jeong-suk, who moved to Vietnam as a dancer during the Vietnam War and currently lives in Tehran, Iran, in an attempt to understand and sympathize with women who suffered from the Vietnam War and the Iran–Iraq War. Finally, the artist installs a mega-size visual chronicle of these four women’s lives on the outer walls of Gallery 5. This is part of the artist’s grand scenario, in which individuals in Asia who were hurt and marginalized in the course of history after the World War II are presented in the realm of modern art. As such, Im transforms the individuals’ memories and sensibilities, which exist as tens of thousands of facts, into tens of thousands of pixels. By projecting these pixels onto a massive screen through which one observes the trajectory of modern history, the artist creates another history in an aesthetical sense. In the process, the lives of individuals, which had invariably been hidden behind the social structure, are restored in another history with their own voices as the subject of the narrative.

Im Heung-soon reconstructs individuals and history, traveling across various disconnected times of Korean society, and brings life back to the nameless. He brings new life to those without a name through his art. His work is a healing song that can be shared and enjoyed not only in Korea, but in every corner of the world, where painful histories and ghosts abide. In his work, Im wishes the ghost of fear that lived off a grand ideology and maintained the division of Korea would perish by its own vitality.