The Eye of the Needle

Peace Museum, The Eye of the Needle, 2.24-4.17.2011


The intimate space the Peace Museum currently occupies, located down a tiny alley in Jong-ro gu, augments the discomforts raised in The Eye of the Needle. The show deals directly with the lives of migrant and temporary workers, and more precisely our own perception of their place in society. The artists invited to participate in the show address the particular situation in Korea, although it’s easy to see how these issues reach into nearly every sector of the world, where workers in many fields are currently under siege for adequate working conditions and human rights. We have also, become familiar lately with the plight of migrant workers, from images streaming out of Libya last month, as the lives of workers there have been placed in even greater danger, making their plight visible, if only temporarily. As this exhibition demonstrates, the existence of most migrant or temporary workers is unacknowledged or ignored by the general population, unless there is a crisis or they organize and protest, as the Cleaning staff at Hongik University did earlier this year. In a modern society these workers function as the invisible hand of the developed world, without the glory, let alone esteem, granted the king-making CEO who pose as the progenitors of progress.


The works of artists Kim Young-gle, Na Kyu-hwan, An Bo-young, Im heung soon and Joseob give an accounting of the way in which workers are objectively placed, posed, seen, ignored, and considered, and how they act subjectively under Capital in their labor, lives, struggles, desires, and ambitions. When entering the space the viewer is confronted by the work of Na Kyu-hwan, who gives, perhaps the most palpable and immediate expression of the dynamic between Capital and labor in the piece I Am Living Under Your Bitter Refrigerator. This sculpture is comprised of a figure with a refrigerator resting on its back. The artist may make the worker an object equal to the object he works with, which instead of lifting him up, the wages and his position only weigh him down. This work also directly links the disposability of modern appliances with the disposability of the worker. This work gives way to the other works, such as those of Joseob, which make plain the ways in which workers are often considered objects. The photographic works of Joseob, particularly Special Container Series Ttabong and Special Container Series – Embrace depict bodies used at once as both objects and puppets. Although there is something absurd in these images, they critically manifest the use of bodies in the flow of Capital. In a contrasting work Special Container Series Rice Planting Joseob confronts the viewer with the awkward pose of the photo’s subject, while simultaneously showing the repetitive nature of work as a poetic. The image also beyond its message shows a command of picture making in the manner the artist has arranged both the composition and the setting, lending it a painterly quality.


That these works demand so much attention does not diminish that required for the other remaining works in the exhibit, which uses video to document and discuss the invisibility of these workers through durational and historical footage to highlight the plight of workers in general. Kim Young-gle shows the unseen or rather the attempt to erase the struggle of workers for their rights, while An Bo-young ‘s video follows a cleaning lady doing her work in an empty school showing the daily routine/monotony of her routine. And although Joseob and Na’s works dominate, the works of Im heung soo, including This Is Not a Dream, Dead End – Poem, Dead End – Star, and Dead End – Worker, anchor the show in the manifold plight of workers and their an ongoing saga. While the show is didactic this does not weaken its messages, because these messages are woven together by a rather well selected group of artists that allow for viewer to get caught up in those messages without feeling preached at or repulsed by the content. The show allows for our experience to be one of empathy and complicity, leaving space to interrogate our own part in this equation.


reviewed by Julia Marsh