People / Critic

Juree Kim : The Narrative and History in the Soil of a Locale and Artist as a Traveler

posted 19 Mar 2021

Juree Kim taps into the realm of “locality” as a mediator of memory in bringing lumps of clay into the museum space. The lumps of clay are dug up from a specific locale and transported in a not-at-all avant-garde way. Contrary to how avant-garde yielded its place to postmodernism and hybridism post-1968 to reveal its visceral framework under the themes of “time” and “temporal intersection,” Kim introduces locale-specific lumps of clay into the museum, a place of priori formality, alluding to a geographical journey with twists and turns. The artist constantly travels in real life, which sets her apart from the general artistic tendency prevalent since the late 20th century—the “loss of locality” and “absence of experience” brought about by the phenomenon of spacetime compression with the globalization of electronic media. In a way, the artist maintains an extremely empiricist attitude in handling locale-specific clay and savoring its materiality despite the fact that such an approach could potentially be deemed anachronistic.

Everything is turning fast into a form of temporal art. Whereas media—those that precisely and aggressively reveal the faces of time underneath our given matrix of reality such as single-channel videos—has settled in as a typical mode of exhibition, Kim works mainly with mass-forms of soil that magnify the authority of space. It is true that upon this spatial axis, the ethology of the snake with a geo-philosophical attitude, slithering zigzag with its belly to the ground, is similar to that of the Hegelian “slave moralist” descending lower and lower into the ground. Her works are unlike those intended to reveal the faces of time in that the snake traveling through the unpredictable surface of the ground, weathering the dust and temperature while creating curves left and right as if to perform a ritual, demonstrates the subversive characteristic of slave morality, which operates on a plane completely different from master morality—complying with the existing order of reality and playing by the rules to win. In other words, experiencing and sensing a mass of clay specific to a locale in a snake-like manner as a way of regaining access to a traditionally elemental medium other than electronic media is an experience of the auspicious aspects of the material and at the same time, an experience of the traveler (artist) becoming one with the material itself.

〈모습〉, 2020, 젖은 흙, 혼합재료, 연필나무향, 사운드, 680 x 610 x 160 cm. 사진제공 국립현대미술관 고양레지던시

〈Wet Matter〉, 2020, wet soil, mixed media, scent of cedar wood, sound, 680 x 610 x 160 cm. Image provided by MMCA Residency Goyang

At the recent exhibition 《Wet Matter》 spread across the third floor of the SongEun ArtSpace, there are three materialized forms of clay that demand uninhibited speculation on the dark side of nature by guiding the viewers back to the origin of the material potential without added pictography. Whereas the qualitative elements of the experiences embodied by the works should be detected from the artist’s existential narrative, the kind of spectrum music that’s sprayed across the exhibition space like mist points to neither objects that simply dissipate into extinction nor those that are resummoned to the beginning from the end. This is an ambiguous testimony to and confession of both the process of the sky, air, water, earth, and the boundaries in between the elements separating and nullifying on a political level and on the level of bare life, and to their acute reappearance to the border zone. In fact, such testimony or confession is backed by the artist’s journey, exploding with strictly personal and local narratives, and from the texture of the journey, the clay’s progressive perception of the world is narrated across the exhibition space without teleology. This is to say that not only has the clay in its ever-moist state—a condition for budding life—entered the process of self-organization, but has come to embody a very specific local narrative, tone, and voice in the process.

The artist traveled around Dandong, a Manchurian region in between North Korea and China, in the manner of a snake rather than a mole—the artist as a social participant who hasn’t let go of a revolutionary dream is symbolized as an old mole (Marx). There, she was absorbed by the soil that the North Korean defectors stepped on, the days and days of their grim life embedded in the ground, the broken-down bits of disillusionment at the naked reality of life. But what she found to be a truth more undeniable was the fact that the soil had faithfully gathered, digested, and combined the sentiments and landscape surrounding it—the wind, the light, the sense of grief embodied by the line that is the national border, the political undertones, and emotional symbols. It’s not like the scenery itself was moved into the exhibition space in the form of a readymade. Rather, the essence of the landscape and the material feel were moved into the space in the form of an allegory. And from the allegory emerges the artist’s experience of the region like a shadow of historical destiny, both directly and indirectly through the elemental media that is a lump of earth. This is to say that something birthed by the artist’s experience of the region ties around the region and the completely unrelated space that is the SongEun ArtSpace to take the experience to a realm beyond the priori spaces.

Juree Kim’s exhibition A 《Cycle of Birth and Extinction》 held at PS Sarubia in 2017 has deep connections to 《Wet Matter》, showing similar aspects and processes. Taking the basic structure of a suwol landscape (a landscape depicting water and the moon) with the moon hovering in the dark void, casting its light onto a water surface, the artist had theatrically set-up wormwood, wild weeds, and dusty millers around the exhibition space to create an environment reminiscent of a wetland. Here, the dusty millers, once dismissed as the artist’s personal sentiment or memory, undergo an epiphany to coincidentally and inevitably reappear as icons of life and death, gushing up and withering down in one spot. While traveling through a small town in Europe, the artist encountered dusty millers for the first time and was fascinated by the plant that turned white when fresh and alive, and green when withered and dry. Happening upon the same plant in an alleyway in Seoul, the memory of the plant that had been dormant in her subconscious awoke, resulting in an experience close to a sort of conviction. This double-registered experience proves that even the most snake-like journey would merely function as prehistory, only to be re-recognized upon a repeated experience at a familiar place after return from the journey. Kim ultimately approaches the East Asian aesthetic device that is suwol as a localized installation, but from the other side of the universal device resonates a local narrative that penetrates Europe and Seoul through the dusty millers, which stand for an abyss surrounding birth and death, to be gently spat back out. The life and death of the dusty millers and the spectrum of the process offers a lesson on finiteness—something even the immortal moon cannot escape despite the myriads of reproductions created on the water surface. It’s as if the awareness of death sucks in the mediating realm of “locality” to make us face the fundamental question of life, which no amount of languor or skepticism can help avoid. What’s notable about this process is that the two places in the artist’s journey connotate each other and in that connotative format, media such as the dusty millers intervene in a non-gothic, non-subliminal way.

〈모습〉, 2020, 젖은 흙, 혼합재료, 연필나무향, 사운드, 680 x 610 x 160 cm. 사진제공 국립현대미술관 고양레지던시

〈Wet Matter〉, 2020, wet soil, mixed media, scent of cedar wood, sound, 680 x 610 x 160 cm. Image provided by MMCA Residency Goyang

The journey, the connection between the two locales, the mediatic sensation as the link, the sentiment and history associated with the locales, the phenomenon of the exhibition space metastasizing into a state of reality—these are tools for coherence that string together the diverse forms of works Kim produces. They may be attributes that had already been internalized by the artist by the time of the exhibition 《Hwigyeong》, which won the artist the 10th SongEun Art Award in 2011. The hyper-realistic clay sculptures of townhouses in Hwigyeong-dong and the temporally directed process of the water in the water glass slowly dripping and dissipating as it infiltrates and destructs the clay sculpture revealed the core idea of extinction as well as the great shift or transition from one historical period to another. The sensual intercommunication between soil and water was also as mesmerizing as a ballad sang between two lovers. With the 1960s modernization under the Park Chung-hee regime, architectural density and landscape changed with building laws to give rise to the single-story “slab houses,” also known as “architect-less architecture” or “architecture of common imagination” that took up a large portion of the middle-to-lower class residences in Seoul post-1980s. The interpretation of the name Hwigyeong as “the evaporating landscape” is a parody of the “locale” that is Hwigyeong-dong. The artist expresses the gravity of the locale to contain the fleeting experience of the neighborhood in an inward format. But at the same time, this format becomes a manifestation of an absolute paradox in light of its integration with water. Like rain, which ceases to exist only to return to sea mud, the basic material for all creations in Greek mythology, the landscapes are fixed to their locales, yet emit an energy of a vortex, seeking to escape the scene. The fact that this energy is that of death is the identity of the spirituality of the landscape. And this would be because the artist had an intensive experience of the hollowness and futility of the world through the locale of Hwigyeong-dong.

A journey is, as such, an experience of being unable to hold onto anything. It’s a sudden infiltration of extraneous things such as dusty millers. In 2016, when I met the artist at the artist residency studio in Gyeonggi Creation Center, she was looking outside the window from the third floor of the main building, as if to sense the outside world as she would on a journey yet exhibiting a sense of melancholy unique to slave morality. As the sky dimmed down to purple with the sunset, the artist, being a chain smoker, stared into the void being slowly consumed by darkness, captivated by the “evaporating landscape” like the Underground Man. And inside her studio—mysterious and damp like an underground cave—was a lump of earth from an unknown origin. There was no way of knowing at the time that this lump of earth would make for such a mystic medium nor the fact that there hides in the material texture an inner staircase, along the steps of which one loses the sense of time and enters a “locale” where life ends and everything is nullified. Within the cycle of death and rebirth, one sheds his or her old skin like a snake and begins to crawl. And to Kim, a journey is something equivalent to this experience.

※ This content was first published in 『2020 MMCA Residency Goyang: A Collection of Critical Reviews』, and re-published here with the consent of MMCA Goyang Residency

Kim Namsoo / Choreography Critic

started his career as a choreography critic by winning the prize for the part of the choreography criticism from the ninth Choreographic Art Prize in 2001. The author has worked until present days as an editor of a performing art magazine Pan since its foundation in 2006 after his former position as an editor of a monthly choreography magazine Mom(Body) in 2003. As a researcher of the Nam June Paik Art Center for three years from 2008 and the chief researcher of the National Theatre Company of Korea in 2011, Kim published Nam June Paik: From Horse to Christo, The Return of Nam June Paik, and so on. He also issued the initial number of the Quarterly Theatricals.


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