Interview with Kim Heejin

Kim Heejin photo:

Kim Heejin is the current director of Pool (formerly know as Alternative Space Pool) since 2010. Her curatorial projects include Unconquered: Critical Visions from South Korea at the Museo Tamayo, Mexico City (2009); John Bock: 2 handbags in a pickle on view simultaneously at Arko Art Center and Insa Art Space (ISA) (2008); Dongducheon: A Walk to Remember, A Walk to Envision at the New Museum, New York City and, ISA Seoul (2007-08). Most recently she curated 2012 pool <Local Studies and Art Series>: “Gunsan Report : Operators of Survival and Fantasy” and From Blank Pages in collaboration with Reuben Keehan, also at Pool. Before joining Pool Kim was the director of Insa Art Space (2006-09). I first met Kim while looking at the Jon Bock exhibit of video works housed at ISA. Kim was very kind and invited me to tour the upstairs to the space where ISA had amassed and housed an archive of Korean artists’ documentation and their works. One thing was clear from my conversation with her that day: she was critical and direct. She spoke was without guile and more importantly she was a fierce advocate for good and meaningful art. Kim’s opinions are illuminating and crucial to any understanding of the whole of Korean culture, let alone the Korean art scene. When we sat down on a very cold day last winter she jumped right in, speaking about the interwoven problematic of internationalism and the regional context faced by both artists and culture.

The following interview questions, which where answered via email, are based on the conversation we had last winter.


Julia Marsh: Most of your research and curating has involved alternative spaces. In Korea how is that kind of space defined and utilized as a platform of culture?

Kim Heejin: For people participate in art and culture once in a while in Korean society alternative spaces are defined as a gateway for rising artists, who make “experimental and nonprofit” artworks.

Watching movies once a month, or buying expensive theater, musical or performance art tickets for the year may be the only culture Koreans participate in. This happens, not because their lack of interest, but because people do not have time or experience with various types of culture and art; in reality, Korean society is already too busy resolving the problems it has now, beyond building up easy access for culture and art. There is then no space for “culture and art.” It would be great if there were viewers who participate in culture and appreciate it at the very least as a “consumer good,” “entertainment” or “aesthetic experience.”

However, people in the art world and the culture in general know about the existence and importance of “alternative spaces.” This achievement is possible because it is not necessary to understand the evolution of art and its various strategies. The “existence” of alternative spaces is understood as “general alternative culture” like experimental films and indie music, viewers consider its’ value as “experimental” “young” “ideal” “active,” etc.; a place of superficial and romantic liberalism. These same viewers have grown tired of subjects like the “autonomy” of the anti-establishment minority, “criticism and discussion” of anti-consumerism and “independence” based on colonialism, which contain the value of socio-political ideology.

As a person directing an alternative space, I am not satisfied with the perspective of alternative spaces by experts: intellectuals and so-called art lovers. However, this is not a problem of enlightenment; it is about showing character and the perspective of each space and creating spaces for experience. The space that has a specific character is easily remembered and meets the approval of audiences, supporters, and corporation partners who associate with the concept of each space. Alternative spaces cannot be understood as democratic by a wide range of people and in the frame of public responsibility, because they are corporate bodies, which are semi-public or individual business.

JM: Do you think there is anything unique about it’s presence in Korea? How do artists think of these spaces?

KHJ: Korean society seems very active and organized, but the community has a very simple structure and it is institutionalized to allow for the predictable variables of the corporation. The combination of a few elements, such as anti-communist national security, economic growth, nationalism, Confucianism, militarism, wealth, personal connections/educational background determines the majority, or mainstream. The social structure has not changed that much as each generation changes, since these boundaries have been reinforced to strain and isolate or loosen relations. When the Western art world sees Korean alternative spaces, what gets missed is the context or region. Alternative for art spaces in Korea does not mean only liberal. The real life of each region is subordinated to politics, so people who talk about “alternative” in the art world automatically are placed in a minority, which leads them to have a sensitive understanding of the current political administration. In reality, nonprofit alternative spaces in Korea operate within the social political position of their regional contexts, not under the its expected pretexts.

The second characteristic is the “peripheral” in the regional context.

As previously stated, majority, or mainstream strength relies on old and infirm values that make it appear that they number in the many, but actually they are a minority of the people. These tired values are consequently not affective on the many. Therefore, there are many people who support minority alternatives. Then, how to accept “minority” as a position of otherness for each of us is crucial. Korean modern history was heartless to the “minority position.” The elimination of the minority insured the survival of the rest. Everyone lived with the fear of guilt by association. The collective fear caused people to hesitate to be in the “periphery.” It is then a choice for each of us to be involved or not to be involved in the “periphery.

Artists’ opinions on “Art Space POOL,” where I work, are various and their opinions depend on their social, political, alternative, awareness of the minority. However, I have no objection to the fact that the space has been faithful to its duty as a place for artists who are marginalized in society and as a place for those artists who participate in that reality. In other words, POOL was a place for artists who were willing to live the reality of this position and place, and not dependent on any theory of making art. I think alternative art spaces in general are positioned as places that reveal the artist’s stance, a differentiation from co-called “trendy” or “popular,” in short, “artists with ideas.”

Also, the space is absolutely a gateway for the artists who oppose the art market which is subordinated to an illogical exhibition system and consumerism, art production dependent on market opportunism, and consumptive production without communication.

JM: Can you speak to the ideological aspects of exhibition and art making in Korea?

KHJ: I am not sure about which ideological aspects you are referring to. If you mean political ideological aspects, as there is no chance to meet artists who have different opinions, which is like people who have different “thoughts” cannot be friends. Even though the artist who has a firm political ideology, their artwork itself is created with a mixture of many different ideologies: artwork = ideology doesn’t make sense.

The exhibition is made in a process of organic fusion between artist and exhibition manager, plus, they all have to face the enormous conditions of the system, budget, space, time, people and unforeseen affects. Even after all those things are met, the “exhibition experience” can be changed and open differently depending on the influence of other variables.

JM: How do you feel the interaction between Korea and the global art world has changed in the last 10 or 15 years?

KHJ: Of course, the number has increased and method is diversified, naturally. The conditions of the so-called horizontal relationship and the equality of collaboration have been much improved. What I am worried about is not the quantitative, visible index, but the problem of mutual realization, which is the hidden side of this paradigm. For example, the toadying attitude towards the West is far from being stamped out. The media has worsened this situation. I feel a sense of shame when the media acts hastily on a very, small exhibitions in the countryside of foreign countries, or superficial exhibitions that have no impact, or rating artists depending on overseas experiences. It seems like the media leads with this obsequious attitude and also sets the scene for hectic reproduction. Since the economies of North America and Europe are faltering, the essence of toadyism is being redefined as a regressive orientalism that is a stubborn expression about the West. The worst part is the colonialist attitude towards many other regions. Consciousness is always the critical point.

JM: What are the challenges facing Korean artists today in contrast to the past?

KHJ: The main challenge is the method of operating in the market and the overall system. “System” here means not only the public system, but includes planning, criticism, and distribution. Artists are very good at managing the environment for making art, however as individuals they are actually very weak in managing the various systems of the artworld. The backwardness art education curriculum and the lack of practical experience of the artists has been pointed out, so I think the current environment, which was created by the “system” in the late 90s, needs time to develop. The more serious problem we have is the system is unprofessional and corrupt, therefore, artists cannot learn from their experiences in this system. Without experts in society, appropriate methods are being ignored for expediency. We cannot blame this on the artists.

As I stated earlier, we have to believe that we are equal players outside of Korea and accept respect individuals, while balancing the challenge and coexistence of these counterparts. The problem of language comes after that.

JM: What role does globalism take in the scope of art making in Korea? How would you describe how Korean artists think about this dynamic?

KHJ: Globalism has been referenced many times but we are far from feeling that we are in the same playground. In reality, it is not the problem of the individual, rather it is the influence of the socio-political situation, like the media and government. Since our government often lies to foreign countries, how could people feel easy about globalism? With transparent duplicity, they bury their heads, ostrich-like, in the sand. Is it globalism when you do an exhibition in another country? Does It mean globalism if you have a dinner with non-Korean artists in Korea? There are many artists from other countries living in Korea for years but have found creating a relationship with the local scene in Korea doesn’t work well. Globalism is not affecting projects, artworks by individual artists and moreover the direction of the art world in Korea.

Opening a global gateway within the institutional system is good, but it has to unfold with a qualitative improvement, and not numerical value any more. How could you expect globalism to impact artwork since we lack human resources in the field, such as professional translator and coordinators who can makes statements about their thoughts?

JM: From our earlier conversation I understand you have a particular interest in Doorung movement, which was active alongside the Minjung movements of the 1980s. What kind of impact did these movements have on artistic practices then and now?

Can you elaborate on the differences between the two, but more specifically your point of interest in Doorung as a methodology?

KHJ: There is no frame on how Doorung influenced perspectives on art in the 80s and the present. Because Doorung movement was already active outside art circles, there is no archive or criticism in the art world; even if there are, there will be differences of opinions on Doorung between the art scene and art historians. Therefore, when you asked me about the methodology of Doorung, there may not be any innovative, experimental formation or radical attempt that will be accepted extraordinarily by the Korean art historians. The few archives that I have show their methodology is not organized well and it arises from many ways of living.

I would like to point out the Korean art circle’s narrow-minded categorization and hypocrisy because they consider Doorung a social movement, not “Art” just because Doorung gave up on authorship. Additionally, I highly respect Doorung’s suggestion that culture can move beyond class and their ideas about role models, like the worker who reforms society or the shaman who purifies, at a time when our society was separated clearly between classes like Artist-Citizen-Worker. They were fighting for a sense of identity as artists, remaining aloof about the method of making these works, while trying to build up a practice and theory to communicate with the people in the role of citizen and workers. There was also Minjung Misul (Korean Folk Art), which was already the artists’ democratization movement and did not represent only one method of making or one small group. Therefore, Doorung is the part of Minjung Misul. In my opinion, Doorung is the movement that took part on the edges of the outskirts, in low places, existing hidden from sight in Minjung Misul. The most realistic Realism? For many artists who tend towards realism, Doorung is perhaps the movement that possesses the already beautiful and extraordinary. So how can you evaluate it by only the outcomes in artworks?

For 21st Century cultural producers, both “work” and “life” are still miserable, however these problems and issues are not a focal point in the general society, let alone for labor relations. Of course Doorung, which was concerned early on with work and life on the ground, which can be a reference for our current situation. For people who are concerned about the “reality” of work and life, Doorung has been highly esteemed even though they had a different methodology and strategy, organization.

JM: In our earlier conversation you mentioned that POOL is doing outreach in the provinces. Can you discuss these plans and how POOL’s interaction is important to both partners?

KHJ: As I wrote in the proposal for Gunsan Report: “People Who Manage to Survive and Fantasy”(, POOL has been working on the “Area Study and Art” series since the 1990s. To describe this project by the geographic region is pleasing perhaps, so here it is: it started from Sungnam to the Middle East, Balkan, and Cairo and continued to Gunsan. To run this specialized public project, research and study started when the conditions allowed without any systematic plan. Why we did this is very simple, and my ideas are very realistic. The most selfish reason is to extend and add introspection to my existence, and the next is to meet and learn from others. In other words, to communicate beyond isolation, and to create a wide view of the world through the place we are living and the spatial theory from other regions.

As to whether the project has been successful with local residents can only come from the recognition that the artists’ contributions are weak although reasonable, expressive, introspective, and visionary, which are things that artists are best at. The problems that local residents have have to be solved between them and their local politicians. The artists have a role to show both to the government and local residents by responding and expressing their perspective of the society, history and sentiment so these groups can maybe see better.