Kim YoonSeo, “Heavy, Too Heavy: Words Engraved on the Rock”

Perhaps because Moses climbed up Mount Sinai and received two stone tablets on which God’s commandments were written, and the code of Hammruabi is carved into a stele, it became customary that stone, rather than wood or paper, are used to preserve important messages, generation after generation. Texts carved into rock are easily regarded as eternal truths because the words themselves are not readily erased, even by many years of weathering. Moreover, that no one can simply erase, add a playful line or rewrite such texts, they evoke a seriousness to what is written.

Coerced Watching 1: Mount Kumgang

Engraved Rock, Mount Kumgang, North Korea, 2012

Recently, I read about such rocks, inscribed on Mount Kumgang. In April 2012, the North Korean government engraved “OUR ETERNAL LEADER, COMRADE KIM IL-SUNG” on a boulder around Bak-yeon Falls.[1] According to the press, the overall size of the text was five by 37 by .45 meters, making the last Hangeul character “ㅣ,” which is the same as the vowel “i,” easily the size of an adult man. Since 1970, the North Korean government has produced these engraved works wherever there is a large floating population of workers, carving words such as “The great leader Kim Il-sung is always with us” or “Chosun, let’s be proud of the fact that we had Kim Il-sung as our leader, who was the greatest leader in the 5,000 years of our national history.” This work is ongoing.

Coerced Watching 2: Seoul, Daejeon, Daegu, Busan

Engraved Rock, Seoul, South Korea, 2007

In many places around Seoul, people can find boulders engraved with the words “LET’S LIVE A RIGHT LIFE.” Additionally, the text: “YOU CAN SEE THE FUTURE WHEN LIVING A RIGHT LIFE” is also engraved on the back of such rocks.[2] After seriously researching this type of engraving I found that these rocks are found not only in Seoul, but all around the country. These carvings on huge boulders are the result of a national project conducted since 1999 by the “Central Committee of the Right-Way-of-Life Movement.” This organization, which is a government-run advocacy group affiliated with the Ministry of Public Administration and Security (MOPAS), placed more than 300 of these “LET’S LIVE A RIGHT LIFE” stones all around the country with the help of the government finances in all eight provinces. Their goal is ultimately to place 1,000 such stone inscriptions.[3]

The texts selected and engraved by the government are obviously designed to reach individuals and make them think in accordance with the state’s own logic. It is a different matter whether this strategy succeeds or not. According to Michel Foucault, power can modify and discipline individuals through various apparatus. At this point, the concept of the apparatus can be defined as something impelled upon individuals from outside, which is the externalized power that artificializes, manages, and governs beings. These apparatus are imposed upon individuals who then internalized them as beliefs. In the situation of the inscribed boulders, if individuals follow the given texts literally, such controlled bodies have no choice but to accept the given ideology the incumbent regime administers. This happens easily when there is no tension between the beings and the apparatus. Although this is generally acknowledged as a truth in structuralist theory, it should still be taken into account that no matter how terrifying a given system may be, there always remain possibilities, which can be created by ordinary people in their daily life. What is important here is the interconnection between the demand of the text and the possibilities suggested by certain art practices.

The sentence “LET’S LIVE A RIGHT LIFE,” which the government says is devised “to guide” citizens, is grammatically a suggestion, but looks more like a demand to follow, when it is writ in big, black bold font carved into a huge boulder. Such coercion could be tiresome and sometimes even scary for any pedestrian who has eyes to see when they face one of these overwhelming and unilateral texts throughout the nation. No pedestrian can be free then from this persuasive monitoring. That these bullying messages are still being placed around Seoul even in 2012 is somewhat surreal.

Stoning the Stones?

Michael Asher, Engraved Rock, Daejeon, South Korea, 1993

Michael Asher (b. 1943),[4] an American conceptual artist, engraved a stone inscription similar to “LET’S LIVE A RIGHT LIFE” when he visited Korea in 1993. It is an exciting discovery considering that Asher, who is well-known for leaving very few physical remnants of his artistic work, left a permanent work in Daejeon. It was even more interesting to me as I was writing my thesis on his oeuvre.[5] In 1993, as many Koreans will recall, there was an EXPO in Daejeon a city that was advertised as “Science City.” At the same time, an exhibition was held to celebrate the science event. Entitled Future Lies Ahead, the show was curated by Pontus Hulten, who invited 35 artists from all over the world to participate in a museum exhibition and sculpture park. Asher’s participation in the sculpture park, consisted of a simple stone with an inscription, which was, to Koreans, rather banal. The text engraved into the stone is as follows:

“ASSUMING THAT THE ARRAY OF STRUCTURES WHICH CONSTITUTE THE IMMEDIATE SURROUNDINGS WERE DESIGNED FOR US SPECTATORS, IT ENABLES US TO ASK: WHO BENEFITS FROM OUR NAVIGATING BETWEEN DISPLAYS OF CORPORATE LEGITIMATION AND REPRESENTATIONS OF POWER?”[6]

Last summer when I visited the EXPO Science Park in Daejeon to see this rock, I saw that the organizers where devoted to the goal of “creating a sculpture park,” and the giant sculptures were displayed throughout the park, each with an appropriate placard indicating the name of the artist and the title of the work. However, Asher’s work was not placed with the others; instead, his unimportant looking rock was positioned by a sidewalk entering the sculpture park. Also, unlike the other sculptures, there was no placard. (In fact, as a practice his works have no title, and they are not “Untitled” but actually have no name whatsoever.) Unsurprising in light of his titling, Asher chose the street corner for his work’s placement, rather than the sculpture park, so visitors would pass by it on the way into the sculpture park. This work, like the one’s sponsored by the government, consists of a rock engraved with text in black Ming-style font and a supporting rock. The place where the work is set and the form of the rock follow exactly typical stone inscriptions found throughout Korea. Indeed, Asher’s stone doesn’t look like art, except that text is a bit strange.

When he visited Daejeon in 1993, Asher may have seen other stone inscriptions like “LET’S LIVE A RIGHT LIFE.” Indeed, even on the street corner of the EXPO science park stands a memorial stone inscription announcing “Daeduk Science Town.” This rock, which commemorates facilities just installed or constructed in town, functions as a message-board letting people know the fact, which can then undoubtedly be considered like a signpost. While there is no special interest for Koreans in stone inscriptions because of their familiarity or banality, there is something intriguing, even startling about Asher’s stone engraved with its message written in Korean.

Considering Asher’s past work that had humorously criticized spectacular public sculptures, which colonized public spaces, or as the banal symbols of city marketing, his work in Korea can also be considered in the same context. By using a commonly found form of a stone inscription and providing a more than different text, he used a strategy of throwing stones at the stones, or simply “stoning the stones.” As with much of his work, the stone inscription is never recognized as art at a glance, and its function as message sender overrides any need for the artist’s name. In this respect, this work’s significance lies in critical reflection or awakening, which is aroused by the coerced seeing of locals in ordinary places, rather than by the stone itself. By ending the engraving with a question mark, rather than forming a statement imposing information, he provides pedestrians with an opportunity to critically reflect on it.

In short, Asher’s work criticizes and raises a question to the apparatus of domination, which is coiled up in our daily life and its familiarity, and thereby produces that missing tension, which had disappeared between being and apparatus. What he tries to create is not a great solution or alternative, but an “attitude.” The radical character of his work is urgently needed in Korean art discourses. If people begin questioning the nature of the abundant power apparatus existing under the label of “public art” in this land, this, I think would begin to satisfy Asher’s hope.

Yoonseo Kim, Curator, Hongik University Museum of Art


[1] On April 6, 2012, The Labor Press of the North Korean government, reported that “the texts engraved into the Bak-yeon Fall reflects the will of our military and people, which tries to honor the revolutionary exploits of our great leader Kim Il-sung, who is the Sun and most merciful parent of our nation, for thousands of generations to come” and said “It was engraved with the infallible belief of our military and all people to honor our leader Kim Il-sung.”[2] On another rock underneath, about 30 people’s names who contributed to the project are engraved.[3] According to the National Assembly’s budget policy team’s “Analysis on Financial Balances of Government Departments in the Financial Year,” the “Central Committee of Right-Way-of-Life Movement” received 1 billion won under the name “Public Projects” in 2010, and received 1.5 billion won in 2011, which is an increase of 50% from the year before. The “Ministry of Public Administration and Security” budgeted 1 billion won for the Central Committee in 2012 again. The National Assembly’s budget policy team pointed out that “in the current situation where other non-profit civic organization and many public interest groups experience financial difficulty, it could be seen as an unfair practice that the government keeps budgeting billions of won only to government advocacy groups such as the “Central Committee of Right-Way-of-Life Movement” or the “National Council of Saemaul Undong Movement” without any procedure of public competition or contest.”[4] Asher, regardless of whether he likes this reputation, is well-known as a conceptual artist, or specifically, the first generation of institutional critique artists.[5]Asher”s stone inscription, which had been set in the interior of Daejeon EXPO Science Park since 1993, was moved into the exterior plaza of Daejeon Museum of Art in February 2012.

[6] Andrea Fraser, “Procedural Matters: The Art of Michael Asher,” Artforum (Summer 2008), p. 464 (fn. 4).
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