People / Critic

Kwon Hayoun - The True Nature of Boundaries: Memory, Image, and Space

posted 07 Aug 2019

Here she is: Kwon Hayoun, an artist who splits her time between France and Korea. She reconstructs histories or others’ experiences and memories into 3D animations, VR videos, and sound installations to relay on to the viewers reconceived fictional experiences. Blurring the boundaries between reality and virtual reality, fact and fabrication, each of her fictions presents itself to the audience as a memory of a memory, an experience of an experience. Thus the memories and experiences of the initial storyteller are infinitely expanded.

A picture of Kwon Hayoun taken at 104 Paris. ⒸKwon Hayoun.

A picture of Kwon Hayoun taken at 104 Paris. ⒸKwon Hayoun.

Kwon Hayoun was born in 1981. She earned a bachelor’s degree in formative arts and a master’s degree in visual arts from École des Beaux-Arts de Nantes in France. She also graduated from the master’s program at Le Fresnoy – Studio national des Arts contemporains. She has held seven solo exhibitions including 《The Fictional Line》 held in 2013, and has participated in several major exhibitions. She was awarded the Prix Découverte at the Palais de Tokyo (2015), the Ecumenical Award at the 62nd International Short Film Festival Oberhausen (2016), the 8th Doosan Artist Award (2017), and the Award of Distinction for her computer animation submitted to the Prix Arts Electronica (2018). She is currently based in France.

Filmmaker and media artist Kwon Hayoun works in both Korea and France. She has produced videos that question and examine the ambivalent relationship between history and individual memories, reality and fiction, and territories and their boundaries, presenting the ideas in various forms including VR and animation. Kwon has held solo shows at the Palais de Tokyo in France (2017) and the Doosan Gallery Seoul (2018) and has been invited to esteemed film festivals such as the Cinéma du Réel Festival at the Pompidou Centre in Paris (2014), the 62nd International Short Film Festival Oberhausen (2016), and the Doc Fortnight at MoMA, New York (2017). She also took part in a special exhibition co-organized by the MMCA and SeMA, and the Real DMZ Project, a contemporary art project based on studies on the demilitarized zone (DMZ), the border area in between South and North Korea.

The Art of Memory

In Patrick Modiano’s novel 『Paris Nocturne』, the characters trace back their memories, wandering through the alleyways of Paris. The old names of actual streets and the detailed descriptions of old buildings that are now gone or rebuilt create an illusion that the reader has traveled back in time. By constantly introducing archival devices such as a diary, a photo album, and a phone book that heighten the vividness of the protagonist’s memories and narrations on certain spaces, Modiano endows authenticity to the story and provides spatial compensations for the uncertain nature of memory. Not many readers would actually have knowledge or experience of the back alleyways in Paris. Nevertheless, the almost obsessive description of the environment in the novel guides the readers into someone else’s memory. While traveling through the blurred lines between the past and the present and reality and fiction, readers may lose track of the story’s timeframe, but they surely and vividly recognize the space in which the events takes place.

Kwon Hayoun, 〈489 Years〉, 2015–2016. HD Color, 11 mins.

Kwon Hayoun, 〈489 Years〉, 2015-2016. HD Color, 11 mins.

The title of Kwon Hayoun’s work 〈489 Years〉 (2015–2016) signifies the time it will take to neutralize all the landmines buried in the DMZ in between South and North Korea. This work, designed to be viewed with a head-mounted display device, is categorized as a documentary animation or a VR video. While we all have heard of the acronym DMZ, none of us have experienced the land in reality. It’s a place that clearly exists but can’t be accessed, which makes it feel unreal. It’s a place that has become more and more heavily armed since the Korean War, and ironically, it’s also a place that has evolved into an ecological paradise for all living organisms except humans. Based on the memories of a former soldier who had long served in this extraordinary region, Kwon portrays, without using any real-life images, the DMZ as a volatile yet beautiful place alternating between real and unreal. The act of remembering—the retrogression into the past led by the soldier’s remark, “Once you enter the DMZ, there’s no way of knowing what will happen next”—is an act defying of the irreversibility of time, yet with the help of the VR device, the viewers are able to negate the laws of physics and follow the soldier’s gaze into the past. This imaginary space, experienced vividly through virtual reality, is simultaneously an objective space accumulative of communal history and a subjective space projected with personal memory. The historical and personal memories of the place merge together to create multi-layered meaning, ultimately sublimating human memory transcending personal and national boundaries into a form of art.

The Expanding World

Reality and fantasy affect each other as they broaden their domains and the world continues to expand endlessly. Memory or fantasy may be understood as something attributed to an individual, but fantasies are extended by the belief of many to eventually collide with reality. On land itself, there are no lines that demarcate the border between two countries. In the case of the DMZ, only the old and rusted barbed-wire fences stand as a souvenir reminding of the promise between the South and the North to keep the land forbidden. In fact, the division of Korea may even feel more fictional than factual to some, but borderline fantasy impacts reality, and if fantasy were to intrude on reality, real bullets would be fired, leading to real ramifications. 〈489 Years〉, a virtual attempt to cross this boundary, enables us to experience the fantasy of this borderline. The imaginary DMZ constructed by Kwon based on a soldier’s memory may not look identical to the actual place, but it brings the virtual border surrounding reality into a visible realm; in other words, it stretches reality into the virtual space-time.

(Right) Kwon Hayoun, 〈Village Modèle〉, 2014. HD Color, 10 mins. A view of the exhibition 《Close Yet Unreachable》 (Feb. 2–May 5, 2019) at Arario Gallery Shanghai.

(Right) Kwon Hayoun, 〈Village Modèle〉, 2014. HD Color, 10 mins. A view of the exhibition 《Close Yet Unreachable》 (Feb. 2–May 5, 2019) at Arario Gallery Shanghai.

〈Village Modèle〉 (2014), a reconstruction of Kijong-dong, known as a North Korean “Propaganda Village,” also emphasizes the unreal existence of North Korea, a place we’ve never experienced but only imagined. This work reinterprets the appearance of the Propaganda Village through moving images, quoting a line from the North Korean film 〈Bellflower〉(1987) directed by Cho Kyeongsun to further accentuate the cinematic and empty shell of a utopia that the village really is. Kijong-dong can be observed from the Dora Observatory in Paju, South Korea, but no one actually lives in the ghost village set up by North Korea after the armistice to stage a well-off lifestyle for South Korea to see. Kwon spent good two years trying to obtain permission to film the village, but by the time the permission was granted, she had already produced plastic models of the empty houses in Kijong-dong from her imagination and had finished filming. Months after finishing the piece, she was finally authorized to shoot the village from the northern border of South Korea but the realness of the image was no longer her concern, says Kwon, for she had already told the story she wanted to tell through the plastic models. In Jorge Luis Borges’ short story 〈Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius〉, the protagonist discovers a generations-old encyclopedia that mentions the obscured region of Uqbar, a virtual nation created by the people of the imaginary Tlön. And just as the non-existent fictional country ultimately collides with and destructs the reader’s sense of reality, 〈Village Modèle〉 recreated from imagination also paradoxically captures the essence of Kijong-dong—more so than photographic images in that it penetrates the illusionary aspect of the village, its quality similar to a movie set. In essence, 〈Village Modèle〉 is more faithful to the identity of Kijong-dong than the actual village itself, and this is how illusion edges in on reality to devour it.

Kwon Hayoun, 〈489 Years〉, 2015. Sand mine installation. A view of the exhibition 《Close Yet Unreachable》 (Feb. 2–May 5, 2019) at Arario Gallery Shanghai.

Kwon Hayoun, 〈489 Years〉, 2015. Sand mine installation. A view of the exhibition 《Close Yet Unreachable》 (Feb. 2–May 5, 2019) at Arario Gallery Shanghai.

The Floating Image

The spaces in Kwon Hayoun’s video works almost feel like they’re floating. These seemingly hovering images add to the ambiguity of the existing boundaries, or intentionally obscure the subject. 〈Panmunjeom〉 (2013) features the Joint Security Area (JSA), a portion of the DMZ where South and North Korean forces stand face-to-face with the Military Demarcation Line—a raised line of cement 7 centimeters in height and 40 centimeters in width—in between them. Instead of filming the actual spot, which would have been legally impossible, Kwon decided to recreate the appearance of the area using animation. The four soldiers in the center of the impasse execute a choreography, specifically 〈Quad〉 by Samuel Beckett, also known as the “ballet for four,” making repeated movements along the set paths within a square platform without any communication or event. The image, as if filmed using an infrared camera, only detects and indicates the soldier’s body heat in red and doesn’t reveal their regiments of origin. While in real life, vivid dreams fade away like mists as soon as we awake, the effect is reversed in 〈Panmunjeom〉: the line between South and North that’s distinct in reality is erased by the heat of the dancing bodies that alternate in occupying each other’s posts, obscuring the ideological conflict. The intentional use of ambiguous images—as in 〈Lack of Evidence〉 (2011), the transparent and lightweight materials in 〈Village Modèle〉 in which the model houses hover above the black-and-white background, and as in 〈489 Years〉 where the space-time itself becomes afloat the moment the steel doors of the DMZ opens—allows for the viewers to travel between reality and utopia, existence and absence, actuality and illusion.

The Shared Space

Kwon Hayoun uses digital technology to reconstruct the experiences of others. VR technology particularly lets her incorporate spatiality beyond image into her works, making immersive virtual reality possible and creating intimacy by eliminating the distance between images and the viewers. Narrations deliver the vivid voices of others to help form a shared space occupied by both the audience and the narrator. 〈Lack of Evidence〉, a 3D animation and one of Kwon’s earlier works, does not incorporate VR technology, but it follows the perspective of the protagonist Oscar, a Nigerian refugee who requests asylum in France. Kwon’s early works deploy common techniques: reconstruction of individual memories based on artistic imagination, exploration of political circumstances and personal narratives, and inquisition into the idea of nationality and boundaries. The viewers are drawn into the perspective of the video and soon immersed in Oscar’s unstable status. They experience through Oscar’s spatial perspective the process through which his application for asylum is denied due to lack of physical evidence documented in his request. Unlike her previous works, 〈Bird Lady〉 (2017) focuses more on personal experiences, free from conceptual explorations of boundary, migration, and nationality. This VR installation recreates an individual’s memory from youth to explore the relationship between reality and illusion. While walking through the fantastical memories of Kwon’s drawing teacher, the viewers create their own space-time through physical movement. Whereas the experience of the virtual space in 〈489 Years〉 relied on perspective shifts and movements restricted to a 360-degree rotating chair, the VR technology developed over the next year or two enabled users to walk around in a virtual space. In the virtual space of 〈Bird Lady〉, the view beyond a two-meter radius is intentionally blurred and the images become sharper as the audience walks up towards them. The audience not only walks around inside the memory of another person through VR, but also experiences the memory as a first-hand subject. Because the flow of the experience is determined by the viewers’ constant interaction with the moments, their voluntary steps actively lead them to travel back and forth between reality and virtual reality.

Kwon Hayoun, 〈Bird Lady〉, 2017. A view of the exhibition 《Close Yet Unreachable》 (Feb. 2–May 5, 2019) at Arario Gallery Shanghai.

Kwon Hayoun, 〈Bird Lady〉, 2017. A view of the exhibition 《LEVITATION》 (Oct. 10–Nov. 7, 2019) at DOOSAN Gallery Seoul.

※ This content was first published in the July, 2019 release of Wolganmisool Magazine and has been re-published on after a negotiation was reached between Korea Arts Management Service and Wolganmisool Magazine.

Park Deoksun

Curator at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA)

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