Review: Im Heung-soon

Prayer: Jeju 4.3 and Sung Si (Sign)

Peace Museum: space99, October 7 – November 3, 2011

Im Heung-soon exhibit at space99 suggested both exhilaration and sadness, like the prayer, his show’s title invoked. For the hope and despair of the believer, it also recalls the doubts that can accompany faith, whether political or religious. Amazingly, in the small space99 Im managed to create a sense of deep and indeterminate space through a series of dark, tunnel-like corridors, which connected the three stations of the exhibit. On these paths, viewers had to make their way in total darkness, feeling a little lost and unsure of foot and direction. At the end of the first passage, the video Sung Si was projected in a large in a black box. Another, smaller, single channel video, Long Goodbye played on a flat screen with headphones was located in a long narrow space found at the end of the second corridor. In the third gallery, Im arranged Archive of the Dead, a series of four altar-like installations: Seal of Kim Bong Su; Spoon of Lee Duk Ku; Video Tape of Kim Ju Ik; and Orange and Green Colors of Poet Kim Sung Ju each made up of objects and images. In order to exit, viewers had to retrace their steps back through the darkness. Obviously, the structure of an exhibit is always important to its meaning, as much as any choice an artist makes, but especially here where the artist has taken pains to create the sense that viewers are submitting to a process within the confines of the gallery. That process it seems in Prayer was to move the viewer into a mindset of reflection, and while doing so, help each enter the claustrophobic space of conflict that is both the historical and current on Jeju-do.

Im portrays the complexities of Jeju Islanders desire to remain free from harm during the bitterest of days between the end of the Japanese occupation and the division of the Korean peninsula in Sung Si, a choppy mix of cuts from appropriated and shot footage including newscasts, a Korean language show from Japan, overdubbed narrations about the past, a conversation between two harmani (할머니), and people walking up hill in the light, and at night. Sung Si suggest in its jumps and discontinuities that every, and all perspectives are questionable, except the anguish of those left behind. In this layered and disconnected treatment of horrors performed and lived, the manifest nightmare of 4.3[1] and its latent remainders of the real underlying damage done to the identity of the place and its people overlap and conflict, like a nightmare. The second video Long Goodbye is a fantasy, but both an idyll and an ode, about the meeting of two kindred spirits: Doeck Ku Lee (1920-1949) and Joo Ik Kim (1963-2003)[2] whose sacrifices for liberty intersect. Im imagines these two men, who never met, enjoying a day on a sunny beach between darkening skies. The editing of Long Goodbye is softer, sweeter and sadder primarily because the music Im used. The song “Long Goodbyes” by Camel, a progressive rock band formed in the 70s, is, if you are from the West, tinged with a kind of clichéd emotionalism of that period and yet in the context of Im’s video it transcends its overwrought sensibilities and drags you into it’s images like the undertow of the beach where two young men are seen romping in the surf.

Certainly Jeju-do is and has always been a place apart, but not only because it is an island. The atmosphere of separation existed, even before the Japanese colonial period, when Jeju-do was the distant place where Chosun sent its exiles. This place is so unlike the mainland as to almost not be Korean, and yet it is. Im’s works defines loss and degradation of these people without falling into indignation. Moving, without being demanding, Im’s Prayer quietly implores, and beseeches. As much as art can and does call attention to issues, the merging of poetic and politics and poetics must walk a fine line to avoid being instructive or insipid. Without the didactics, Im’s homage is respectful and sincere, like a jaesa (제사)[3] he gives space to those people we should not forget.

Reviewed by Julia Marsh

[1] 4.3 or the Jeju Island Uprising, the massacre of Islanders by government forces happen on Apr. 3, 1948, just before the US sponsored elections that brought Syngman Rhee to power.

[2] Doeck Ku Lee (1020-1949) was the Commander in Chief of the Jeju-do 4.3 Partisans and Joo Ik Kim (1963-2003) was a worker at Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction.

[3] An annual ceremony in which Koreans pay respect to their ancestors.