Im Heung-soon’s exhibition Things that Do Us Part (Nov. 30, 2017–Apr. 4, 2018) is held at the Seoul branch of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA). This exhibition was prepared as a part of the fourth Hyundai Motors Series project, and it is also the artist’s first solo show in Korea since his win of the Silver Lion at the 2015 Venice Biennale for Factory Complex, a documentary on Asian women’s labor issues. Breaking away from the patriarchal and male-dominated record of history, Im listens to the voices of women, questioning the way we encounter and remember the past and identify with the present. Im chose four elderly women who have been through the Japanese colonial rule, the Korean War, and the Jeju April 3 Incident to be the protagonists of his new work. Through a large 3-channel video entitled Things that Do Us Part, an installation resembling a movie set, and archives of the women’s personal effects, Im invites the audience into the lives of those isolated within the harsh waves of history. Im’s uniquely raw but poetic language of video is densely remarkable. Art in Culture suggests taking seven keywords—halmeoni (elderly woman), stage, screen, image, belongings, women, and time—to delve into Im Heung-soon’s narrative. Using these keywords, the artist tells the story behind his works.
Lee Jeongsuk (1944–), Ko Gyeyeon (1932–2018), Kim Dongil (1932–2017), Jeong Jeonghwa (1900–1991)—A chronological record of strangers’ lifetimes was posted on the exterior wall of the MMCA Seoul, Gallery 5. The timelines of these halmeoni, (a Korean term used to refer to elderly women), were juxtaposed against the historical events of the past one hundred years in Korea. Lee Jeongsuk has lived through both the Korean War and the Vietnam War, got married to an Iranian husband, and settled in Tehran, only to witness war yet again with the Iran-Iraq War. Her life became the opening scenes of Reincarnation, reconstructing the Asian wars through the eyes of women. Jeong Jeonghwa was an independence activist during the Japanese colonial period. Ko Gyeyeon, in search of her family who had fled to Jirisan Mountain to avoid the anti-communist repression after the Korean War, stayed on the mountain as a communist supporter for three years. Kim Dongil stowed away to Osaka, Japan, at the time of the Jeju April 3 Incident and ended up living the remainder of her life there. The lives of the heroines of the exhibition Things that Do Us Part are reconstructed through reenactments, interviews, and symbolic representation. As figures near to death, the elderly are people who carry stories accumulated from the past. According to Walter Benjamin, stories have the power to recreate a shared experience. Unlike advice or information, stories mobilize various memories to form a narrative.
Im: - It’s important for the audience to question, “What was my own grandmother’s life like?” “How were the times?” It’s in the inducement of such questions where the women play the role of connecting the past with the present. In the womens’ lives, there are vivid stories that can’t be proved by the public records. Through these women’s lives I wanted to get a broad view of the personal events and the conditions of those times in history. Because the four lives are from different places and times, my encounters with each of them were also distinctive. I met Lee Jeongsuk during my first visit to Iran for the Nomadic Arts Residency Program arranged by the Arts Council Korea in 2012. I happened on two women over there who had gone through the Korean War as children, the Vietnam War in their twenties as military performers, and the Iran-Iraq War in their thirties after they had moved to Iran. One of them was Lee Jeongsuk. After I met with her three more times for an interview, she gave me a piece of embroidery as a gift. Reincarnation is a video piece partly inspired by her life. I learned about Jeong Jeonghwa through her granddaughter, whom I met while working on Jeju Prayer. I never got to meet Jeong in person since she’d passed away quite some time ago, but reading her autobiography, I could get a secondhand experience of being an independence activist and that sense of urgency.
As for Kim Dongil, I met her while I was looking for people related to the Jeju April 3 Incident, because I wanted to extend my work on the incident after Jeju Prayer. I visited her twice in Japan for interviews, and I also got her statements from the head of the Jeju 4.3 Research Institute. She passed away while the exhibition was coming together. Lastly, I met Ko Gyeyeon through artist Minjung Kim, who participated in a show with me in Berlin a few years back. She told me her mother used to be a communist supporter and suggested that I meet her. Although Ko had Alzheimer’s and couldn’t tell too many stories, I could get a sense of her life through her autobiography and the testimonies of her acquaintances.
Thus I came to know the four women. Coincidentally, there was an opportunity for an exhibition at the MMCA, so I wanted to look deeper into their lives within the grand context of history. If you think of the independence movement, the Korean War, and the Jeju April 3 Incident as separate events, you may wonder why I chose to combine the three stories into one show. But to me, they are fundamentally intertwined. By associating individuals to individuals, and individuals to history rather than focusing on just one subject, the narrative can be further extended. The interpretation of historical events, similar to that of individuals, is contingent on the authority that defines the enemy. When you consider an external factor as an enemy, a community in opposition can be perceived as righteous protesters, but when the protesters to internal injustice are considered the enemy, the protest becomes a riot. These issues are actually being studied by historians and academics, but there had to be a way to approach them in artistic terms. When a central institution such as the MMCA tells the stories of women that have been hovering around us, it really holds a special meaning.
The huge stones piled to make a pit at the entrance of the exhibition, the overbearing statue of the four heavenly kings under the red light, the Japanese wooden staircase, clothing hung on the old tree, the ferryboat—the installation components associated with the stories of Things that Do Us Part resemble a movie set, but the visitors who’d discovered the “Safety First” sticker behind the stone pit or the pipe framing under the artificial tree would notice that this show is not dedicated to staging a plausible scene. The artist denies building a fantasy world through these stage settings but forces a renewed recognition of reality by interrupting any immersion or illusion.
Im: - In initial planning of the exhibition, I was going to pick seven iconic subtitles from the 1990s to present and arrange an object related to each theme. And I wanted to color-light them according to the story of each video to involve senses other than vision. Later, I decided that such a matchy-matchy method would be no fun so I loosened up the links a bit. As much as this exhibition is about the invisible things, I wanted to prepare tools that would reveal the reverse side of things—like how construction sites exist before our eyes but we never observe the interior. This exhibition begins when the audience steps into the “Safety First” zone. I tend to fine-tune as I work rather than stick to the original plans. In the case of the old tree, I initially wanted to bring an actual tree into the hall, but transportation wasn’t easy, physically or expense-wise. Cutting down a live tree was also a violent option that didn’t fit the purpose of this show. A colleague who designs movie sets suggested an artificial tree and I decided to build one. I didn’t care if it looked fake. I’m not interested in high-density, high-quality, latest, sophisticated work, nor am I good at it. The crudeness seemed to suit the lives of the women. Some famous lives tend to be embellished with euphemism, but the lives of these women are different—a rather indecorous truthfulness sometimes speaks louder. Also, there’s a chance of misrepresentation with adorning their stories, and I really wanted to avoid objectifying or distorting them into someone they didn’t want to be viewed as.
The 3-channel video Things that Do Us Part flaunts its magnitude, filling up the entire exhibition hall, and the 2-channel video Reincarnation is set across the room, far away from the other. To appreciate the videos, the audience has to deal with the hassle of turning their heads left and right throughout the running time. The structure which entails effort and use of body in watching a film in its entirety calls for a different attitude of viewing from that of a movie theater, where the focus is on one screen.
Im: - Unlike movie theaters, a gallery is a space you enter into with a certain expectation of burden. In a theater, you just need to sit and stare at the screen straight ahead, but in a gallery, you have to move freely, mobilize other senses than just your vision, and that has to be cumbersome. In return, you get to think actively, rearranging the images according to your editing abilities and seeing the works from various different viewpoints. This is one of the advantages of a gallery, something you can’t expect from a movie theater. Because my works are also planned to be screened in theaters, in the gallery, I wanted to emphasize all the elements that will be restricted in the theater. So in flow planning, I contemplated ways to help the audience fully understand my work and devised a timeline to go on the back wall of the screening room. This timeline also serves as the scenario of the videos. When the audience leaves the screening room, they’re faced once again with the timeline on the exterior. I thought that linking the events on the timeline back to the images of the videos would help interpret the works in more dimensions. I wanted to create something that visitors will be reminded of in their daily lives, rather than something that could be instantly understood. The recurrent thoughts and feelings tend to last longer.
Im Heung-soon creates symbolic images through unfamiliar arrangements and integration of figures and landscapes. This characteristic runs throughout his works—the scene with a woman with a face cover on her way to find the statue of an ancestor, the scene where a ferryboat with luggage sinks into the water, and so on. The figure covered in white cloth from Factory Complex reminiscent of a René Magritte painting is a quintessential example. The artist adds the elements of a painting into the form of a documentary to create impressive, unforgettable images.
Im: - I think majoring in fine arts in college has influenced the way I make my images. I thought of Magritte for the people with faces covered in white kerchiefs, and of Goya for the old tree hung with clothes, but instead of borrowing the exact image or fable of the existing paintings, I tried to create a context in relation to current lives, landscapes, and situations. When you contemplate long enough about historical events and stories, the historic images overlap with the things you’ve seen in reality and form an endless chain. And these recreated images are used in different ways throughout the course of my work. The latter half of Reincarnation, where the person is hidden in the bushes, is also the opening scene of Factory Complex.
In my recent works, there are a lot of images that were inspired by Jeju Island. In Aewol-eup on Jeju, there is a stone sculpture park called Geumneung Sukmulwon, and its trail is designed so that you pass through the entrance guarded by the four heavenly kings’ statues into the world of hell. I got the four heavenly kings motif from this park. I actually did a shoot there of the scene where one of the women, her face covered, walks through the trail filled with dol hareubang. Her long walk leads to the stone sculpture of Grandmother Seolmundae, described in the folk tales as the grandmother who created the island of Jeju. I wanted to convey a message: The scars that the Jeju April 3 Incident left on this woman are healed through meeting the mother of Jeju.
In my work, the image of a woman with a covered face or eyes appears frequently, but the intentions behind them aren’t all the same. The previously mentioned scene was inspired by the shamanism of Jeju Island. Among the rites held in Jeju, there is one called Seocheon Kkot Nori held by women in hopes of bringing good fortune for their children in which the ritual is to cover their faces. That’s where I got the idea from. In contrast, Factory Complex is closely tied to women’s labor issues. The factories where the women work are in such a poor condition that working long hours will give them dust build-up in their lungs or even pneumonia. In a way, I wanted to put a sort of full-face mask on the women to protect them at least a little. I wondered if there’s a necessity for a new representation for these workers erased from history, and I thought of small regiments, the image of sisters, and as a result, the image of two women face-to-face in their coverings was created. Some may feel that covering of women’s faces has a negative connotation, but this is my own way of avoiding any objectification of the women. Both the actresses and the audience feel more comfortable when the faces are covered.
Walking out of the screening room at the exhibition Things that Do Us Part, the atmosphere suddenly changes. From the objects under fluorescent lighting, the flower-print jackets to stuffed dolls, the space entitled “Let’s Write a Poem of the Past” is filled with things left behind by the four women, including Kim Dongil’s wardrobe. Relics represent the dead, questioning how to handle what’s left behind. In handling of the relics, one’s present recollection of the past is reflected.
Im: - Personal belongings alone explain the years lived by the four women. With their keepsakes and effects as an objet, I wanted to imagine and connect the present and the future together. I learned of Kim Dongils passing and went to Japan to collect her personal effects. While organizing and making notes of her clothing one by one, I realized that she wasn’t quite who I thought she was. Unlike the dull and humble image that generally comes to mind when picturing “granny clothes,” most of her wardrobe was colorful and fancy. Later, as I decided to exhibit her belongings, I pondered on how to show them. Had she been alive, would she have liked for the public to see her belongings in a shabby, dusty state? I didn’t think so—so I envisioned a sophisticated boutique or a prop room. Some people told me that they felt like the exhibition was too rigid, but I thought on the contrary, that this was a more realistic and honest display of their lives. Instead of the lethargic and passive side, I wanted to emphasize the aspects of a person in charge. By grazing, touching, and smelling the clothing, the audience can get a step closer to the lives of the halmeonis. Wouldn’t the halmeonis feel glad that I got people to see and understand the different aspects of their identities? I believe this is the role I play through the mode of art.
In the archive room, which is the last portion of the show, the artist discloses the record of his previous works. Women are a frequent subject in his works: female workers, housewives, halmeonis, female North Korean defectors. These women are seen under a new light as protagonists who sustain their families and make history, overthrowing the male-centered narrative.
Im: - Since I was young, I grew up with my mother, sister, and sister-in-law, watching the lives of women up close, and their lives as women, wives, and mothers felt arduous. Not that my brother or brother-in-law were bad people in particular, but I got the impression that ordinary men just don’t understand what women go through. I wanted to discuss what it means to be a woman living in the Korean society by magnifying each individual’s difficulties. From 2007 to 2010, I participated in a public art project for rental apartments and met many housewives. I was peculiarly moved by the women’s strife to overcome the various difficulties in sustaining their families. Until then, though I had been doing critical work on social injustice, a part of me was doubtful. Then I realized that the voice of women could be an alternative and hopeful language. Afterwards, I moved into the Seoul Art Space Geumcheon and focused on collaborating with the local housewives, and the narrative naturally extended into the lives of elderly women. One may think that it’s wrong for a man to be talking about women’s issues, but any issue should be addressed from various perspectives. I could never be a woman, but I can listen. Because I can’t get firsthand experiences, it’s important that I try hard to empathize. This is exactly why I work with the theme of “memory.” To understand a person’s life, one has to strive not to forget. Only through tedious reflection, a tragedy ceases to repeat itself.
In early January, one of the heroines of the exhibition, Ko Gyeyeon, passed away, adding “deceased” to the exhibition’s timeline. Even after the opening of the show, the stories of the women are still in progress. The artist, as he uses reality as a subject matter, contemplates the upcoming future as he plans his course of work.
Im: - In the description, it says that the running time of Things that Do Us Part is approximately 44 minutes, but I edited the sequence a little since the opening. Right now, the running time is 49 minutes total; 44 minutes of video and five minutes of a countdown. The number 49 represents the Buddhist memorial ritual sasipgujae. When a person dies, he or she is believed to be judged seven times, each judgment continuing for seven days, for 49 days in total. I wanted the exhibition space to be a sort of middle world. This was intended for the victims of the generation including the four women, the people who died unjust deaths, the people who haven’t lived their full lives. Did they make it to the other life after they left the middle world? I was in doubt, so I wanted to create a consolation place for them. Both Reincarnation and Things that Do Us Part are to be released as feature films. (Reincarnation will be retitled Reborn for its theatrical release.) The presentation at the gallery is centered on imagery and symbolism, but the theater versions will have to be centered more on narratives and interviews. A movie theater is relatively more open to the public, so the film needs to be more approachable and easier to understand. The interviews play this role. There’s a unique sensation to hearing about the past in the voice of someone who actually lived it. Of course, getting all the stories in person wasn’t too easy in this case, so I would have to add some symbolic images, but in the film version, more interviews of the halmeonis and their acquaintances will be shown.
※ This article was originally published in Art in Culture magazine (February 2018) and reprinted under authority of a MOU between KAMS and Art in Culture.
Related Current Exhibition: MMCA Hyundai Motor Series 2017:
《 IM Heung-soon - Things that Do Us Part 》
To read more about Im Heung-soon:
Artist Im Heung-soon revisits unfair history, comforts dead (Yonhap News)
Award-winning filmmaker Im Heung-soon honors forgotten witnesses of history (Yonhap News)
Im Heung-soon Explores the Horrors Women Endure in War (The New York Times)
Hyun Lee is working as an editor for monthly Art in Culture. Lee organized an exhibition Nocturnal Animals in the White Night (Hapjungjigu, 2016) and co-organized Deeper Layers of the Past (Artspace Boan, 2017).