Established in 1995, the Gwangju Biennale has risen to become one of the premier events in international contemporary art, continuously presenting cutting-edge artworks that embody the spirit of Gwangju while exploring diverse contemporary discourses. In 2021, the thirteenth Gwangju Biennale was held at various sites in downtown Gwangju, including the Biennale Exhibition Hall, Gwangju National Museum, Horanggasy Artpolygon, Gwangju Theater, and the former Armed Forces Gwangju Hospital. For thirty-nine days in April and May, sixty-nine artists (or teams) from forty-three countries explored the theme of “Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning,”presenting visitors with a dazzling array of works emphasizing the importance of plurality and the sense of community embedded within global life systems, shamanism, indigenous lifestyles, and alternative social relations.
This year’s Gwangju Biennale featured eleven Korean artists (or teams), three of whom—Min Joung-Ki, Moon Kyungwon, and Kim Sylbee—produced new works through the support of the GB Commission. These three artists and their new works are now the subjects of in-depth articles by TheArtro. This article focuses on Kim Sylbee’s new video installation 〈Unindebted Life〉 (2021).
Folding screen structures, a single-channel video, and the visitor’s actions compose one work. Several black panels are installed, and small flashlights mounted on them sporadically reveal the images on the panels. If one turns on their cell phone flashlight out of curiosity, elaborate calligraphy reflects back the light and emerges to the viewer’s eyes. As the viewer traverses amidst the installed elements, the video, that was partially covered, finally reveals itself in full. It begins with an image of a flag with phrases reading “Eclipsed between past and future/ Beneath our different skins/ We are cast in the same mold of:” fluttering in the wind. The protagonists of the video are incarnations of Light, Wind, Water, Minerals and Derivatives. The story begins with those five figures slowly gathering in a space. Light descends upon the ground which is “founded by friendship” and illuminates the elements one by one, each indebted to the past. A voice-over resonates throughout the video to lead the narrative. Following the statement “Your future begins with refusal,” the elements sing a canon around the “impositions of the past” and “future,” and document their time together by taking a group selfie. While lines such as “Cells become currency/ Exchanged for continuation,” “Light triggers cell regulation/ (…) We can accumulate/ Without consolidating a sum” are uttered, the figures braid each other’s hair entangling together. Then, Derivative inherits each of the symbolic objects from Light, Wind, Water and Minerals one by one. “And so, one becomes exempt/ From specified functions, duties and restraints/ Empowerd to see, listen and speak for oneself/ (…) And finally encounter each other/ In our designated place at the margins.” After the final canon about ‘freedom’ and ‘future,’ the figures part ways after their transient encounter.
Sylbee Kim contemplates politics and social issues in daily life and experiments with display structures to produce a parallel reality using digital production process, light, and sound as material. Since over a decade, Kim’s work has been conjoining our historical archetypes1) and contemporary human behaviors in idiosyncratic ways. In her work 〈Unindebted Life〉 (2021), exhibited in the 13th Gwangju Biennale, 《Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning》 (April 1–May 9, 2021), she resummons and personifies the theory of the five elements2) that we have unwittingly inherited as our archetype. However, she takes the Classical elements of earth, fire, air, water and substitutes light for fire, wind for air, minerals for earth, and derivatives for the unknown fifth element. This choice reflects the shifts in today’s thinking and the artist’s engagement and concerns in the approach. Elements that had been perceived as fixed are reborn as moving matter having ‘waves.’ In quantum mechanics, the most remarkable characteristic of waves is “interference.” Likewise, Kim’s elements are established as waves rather than particles, as entities that are linked and influence mutually.
In particular, Derivatives, the fifth element here, deserves attention. The word derivative originally meant “a peripheral entity that branched out from something.” As capitalism arrived, it was assigned the alternative meaning in economy, of “a financial security that is reliant upon traditional financial products such as stocks and bonds and creates new cash flows from such underlying assets.” Eventually, elements traditionally considered to form all matter extend their qualities and roles to derivatives, culminating in the financial phenomena of our current era. While it reveals the reality of everything becoming capitalized, the artist shares reality as it is and dreams of a solidarity of ‘togetherness’ rather than presenting any explicit criticism about this situation. One can grasp the artist’s intention in the deliberately staged, typical and banal acts of taking selfies, braiding hair, the inserted narrations, and canons for overcoming the past biases.
Oftentimes, Kim’s work hides the signifié by enumerating signifiers. She expands the signifié through selecting a more typical everyday signifier and flattening it to the limit, creating several layers, and emptying the deepest sediments of meaning to prepare a place where imaginations can be unfolded. Therefore, archetypes that we are unable to recognize in daily life yet are shared across geographies and ages can enter that space; and so do our behaviors of life. Sometimes, things hard to translate in words can be effortlessly accommodated there.
Parallel to the story of five elements, the figures in Unindebted Life also appear as signifiers. Just like the viewers, the performers are individuals with their own histories. However, by intentionally hiding their personal histories, the artist enables the involvement of a wider diversity of subjects. Also stories of people who are judged upon various social standards such as class, appearance, age, and identity and live with a sense of non-belonging enter the work. As sombody’s mothers and daughters or fathers and sons, the performers might represent the ones who have been excluded from life under patriarchy and capitalism and accordingly erased by the selective writing of history such as women or sexual minorities; they could be activists fighting on someone’s behalf; or even the viewers confronting the artwork. They take off the labels given to each of their lives and are attributed with new signifiers on a ground founded by friendship, as molded by the artist. Each of them becomes an element to share a moment of encounter and parts ways. Through this act, the artist asks “whether there can be a time and place where we can be genuinely comfortable with the body and mind of the way we are born and raised.” The fact that the video was shot at the Asia Culture Center3) is also noteworthy, but the artist concealed the significance of the location in the work instead of highlighting it.
For Kim, light was a trigger of the work. It is based on the idea of mitoflash, which was recently discovered in biotechnology research for extending human life. A mitoflash refers to the transient fluorescent sign intensely flashing from a cell’s mitochondria before the cell self-destructs or changes unpredictably. Flashes are observed in thousands of individual mitochondria even in just a single cell. The human body consists of approximately 60 trillion cells, and about 100 to 3,000 mitochondria exist in each cell. So a person directly facing a moment of change indeed could be an aggregation of light. Therefore, the light of change dwells substantially and physically in each of our bodies.4 Having shed various social connotations, we are all alike, at the mitochondrial level.
To effectively realize her idea and belief that “the light of change already dwells within us,” the artist uses retroreflective sheet on a folding screen structure. “When illuminated by car headlights or a flashlight, the sheet returns the light almost entirely back toward the source direction without dispersion, so that only the person at the source can clearly see the reflection.” Like how a performer in the video casts light to others with a flashlight on her head, and another performer observes through a crystal ball in her hand, the viewers throw light with their mobile phone and receive in return a reflection of that light as an image.
In Korean calligraphy, the artist digitally wrote and distorted Light, Wind, Water, Minerals, and Derivatives. They rise in a wriggling appearance like an organism full of dynamic energy. Since the light returns solely to the light source due to the material property of retroreflective sheets, the perception of it remains completely personal. In this light, the signifiers the artist assigned to performers are delivered in their entirety to viewers. The viewers erase their respective lives and are reborn as autonomously shining light, wind, water, minerals, and derivatives. One is able to have, without difficulty, an experience that is synchronized with those of the figures in the video thanks to the commonality of the act of shooting pictures, gazing, and pertaining and the consistency of the performers’ costumes and the calligraphy on the folding screen structure. Using this act as a passageway, the virtual space-time the artist realized in the video, where people are free from social biases and finally able to live as they are, again connects to the present space-time we stand on. Ultimately, whether this work is completed remains with the viewer who holds a flashlight up to it.
Noting the fact that every human is indebted to one another’s time and efforts, Kim imagines a time and space free from the sense of debt where “all hybrids can coexist” and invites the performers and viewers. There people share the hopeful desire for an unindebting life sung in canon and prepare a ground for solace and solidarity by illuminating each other to reveal the hidden light. Kim speaks of “the faint yet persistent hopes that triggered fundamental shifts over generations,” and questions how to pass it on.
“Oh, gentle and sober/ You are everywhere/ It is fine, whatever you are/ It is fair, whatever you do/ You will learn what it all means/ For the first time/ You will be free.” The artist’s urgent wish to recognize ourselves as unindebting light and to pursue a common future is wholly contained in her canon.
1 A universal symbol that is genetically recorded along with instincts and forms the collective unconscious. Arguably, it is something that transcends nation or culture and repeatedly appears as themes or motifs in mythology, legends, literature and rituals. It is a result of ancestral experiences patternized and passed down over a long historical period. Standard Korean Language Dictionary. (Searched on June 19, 2021).
2 The question and reflection on, ‘what does this world consist of?’––i.e. in philosophical terms, ‘What is substance or god?’––persisted since the origins of our world. Until the British chemist John Dalton discussed the atomic theory in 1808, the doctrine of four elements was dominant, including the ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles’s conclusion that all matter consists of four elements of water, fire, air, and earth.
Aristotle went a step further and believed there must be a factor allowing the eternal movement of the celestial sphere, which constantly moves unlike objects on Earth, which eventually stop. So he argued that the celestial sphere must consist of the fifth element called ether, and studies on the nature of the fifth element continued until 1808. Many philosophers and metallurgists endeavored to find or create the fifth element. Even though we now live in an era when people no longer believe in that, one can still find its traces in popular culture, including in the French director Luc Besson’s film The Fifth Element or the American animated TV show Captain Planet and the Planeteers (produced and broadcast from 1990 to 1996, broadcast in South Korea in 1993).
3 In 1980, the May 18th Democratization Movement took place in Gwangju and Jeonnam area against the military coup and demanding for democracy, during which countless lives were taken. The Asia Culture Center is located at the site of the former Jeonnam Provincial Office, where the final resistance took place. As an archetype of the yearning for democracy, it was a place where one could be genuinely comfortable with the body and mind of the way we are born and raised. Simultaneously, it is a place that remained unaccomplished as such in real life.
4 Ironically, as we keep changing, we actually exhaust our energy and start to age. Thus, the more the light is created, the quicker we grow, and the nearer our life’s conclusion called death draws. The artist suggests recognizing it, naturally accepting our own demise and considering how we should hand over the future to next generations.
Sun A Moon is a curator, researcher, and writer based in Seoul. She is currently the director of Space AfroAsia in Dongducheon. Selected recent exhibitions and projects include the 6th Anyang Public Art Project – Symbiotic City (Anyang Pavilion, Anyang, 2019), Zeitgeist: Video Generation (Alternative Space Loop, Seoul, 2018), Brace for Impact (de Appel, Stedelijk Museum, De School, Amsterdam, 2018), Zeitgeist: 非-Psychedelic; Blue (Amado Art Space, Seoul, 2016), Plastic Myths (Asian Culture Center, Gwangju, 2015-2016).