The Universal Language of Hope: Cynthia Gray’s “don’t give up” Project in Korea

            Since I moved to Seoul a year and a half ago, I’ve found that concepts in English don’t always translate well into Korean. Few, in fact, do as precisely as “don’t give up,” or pogi hajima (pronounced “poh-gee hah-jee-mah” and written in Hangeul as포기하지마). Actually, Pogi hajima is a very popular phrase in Korea. As one of my Korean graduate students explained: “In our culture, we often say this to children growing up. So when I hear pogi hajima, I think of my father and I feel encouragement.” There is even a K-pop song with pogi hajima in the refrain. But I didn’t know any of this the first time I saw one of Cynthia Gray’s “don’t give up” magnets, which she created “to acknowledge and confront despair in everyday life.” The magnets were in part a response to her brother’s suicide, as well as a way to encourage other artists to continue their work. Since she began the project in 2000, over 11,000 magnets have been given away for free by distributors who fund the project’s production costs.

            Julia Marsh, founder and editor of sitecited.com, has been one of about 48 of the “don’t give up” distributors since 2007, when she moved to Seoul. Last year, she brought these magnets to a dinner party in Seoul, and there the Korean incarnation of Gray’s project was conceived. One of the guests, a friend who is a nurse at a large public hospital, had come to the party from a continuing education course in public health. The “don’t give up” project clearly resonated with her as she had just been discussing Korea’s high suicide rate in her class earlier that evening. In 2010, Korea had the most suicides per capita of the 30 countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Our conversation that night got me thinking about a Korean version of “don’t give up,” and sitecited.com seemed an ideal platform for launching such a project, since the website is “an online venue for the exhibition and discussion of art with a special emphasis on site-specific works in and around Seoul.” My initial conception was that the website could feature photos of “포기하지마” magnets situated in various public locations throughout the city, as there are a lot of metal surfaces around Seoul. When I suggested the project to Marsh, she was enthusiastic and thought the idea fit well with her original goals for the website to feature projects proposed by other writers and artists. Gray’s “don’t give up” magnets in Korean offer an active art project that is both reflective of and enhanced by the environment of Seoul.

            But before Marsh approached Gray about producing a Korean version of her magnets, I wanted to be sure that pogi hajima would resonate among Korean speakers. I was concerned that the phrase might actually send a detrimental message to recipients in the context of this high-pressured and fast-paced society. After all, isn’t it possible that certain ingrained cultural paradigms should be given up in order to allow for a more contented population, which would hopefully reduce suicide rates in Korea? The intense societal and familial pressure that students face to excel in school was surely a contributing factor to the suicides of four students and a professor last year at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), one of South Korea’s most prestigious universities. A KAIST student council member explained in a New York Times article about the suicides, “Day after day we are cornered into an unrelenting competition that smothers and suffocates us. We couldn’t even spare 30 minutes for our troubled classmates because of all our homework.” If students under such pressure were to be given a “포기하지마” magnet, would they read a message of hope or simply feel pressed to work harder?

            My concerns about the phrase pogi hajima, however, turned out to be baseless. Every single Korean speaker whom I queried (including friends, colleagues and my graduate students) unequivocally extolled the positive message inherent in pogi hajima. When I asked my own Korean teacher what pogi hajima means, she launched into the refrain of Shinee’s song A-Yo, “Jeoldae pogi hajima ah, ah (never give up),” with what I assume were dance moves from a music video, and explained “Oh yes, this is a very good thing to hear. You cannot help feeling better if you tell yourself pogi hajima.” As another Korean speaker said, “If I see this phrase pogi hajima, it gives me positive meaning. If I’m in trouble, it inspires me to overcome my problem.” Furthermore, every native Korean speaker whom I asked provided the exact same translation of pogi hajima into English. There were few variances even in regards to the contraction “don’t” versus “do not,” which I find very interesting. “Don’t give up” is truly one of the few expressions in English that seems unambiguously translatable into Korean!

            Although it was a discussion about suicide in Korea that initially led me to suggest a version of the magnets in Korean, my research into the phrase pogi hajima has led me to realize that “don’t give up” is expansive as a message of hope. Most people at some point in their lives could use a little encouragement, and “don’t give up” is a simple directive that offers both inspiration and reassurance. Gray chose this particular message because it is unassuming and to the point. As she explained, “in ‘don’t give up’ we place a value on the process of working towards something, even if it is difficult, and even if it doesn’t work out as planned.” Gray’s magnet design with its simple font and muted background mirrors its plain language. She does not sugar coat her message with flowery phrasing or overly cheerful images, but rather allows the words to speak for themselves and reach their audience in whatever way they happen to resonate. And because Gray had never translated her “don’t give up” project into another language, she was also especially interested in the cross-cultural perceptions of her message. As she explained, “I know suicide is a major health problem in South Korea, [which] is obviously a concern for me. I realize the magnets are a very small gesture, but we can still hope they will touch someone – in a simple way – at a difficult place in their lives and acknowledge; validate what they are going through.”

            Art historically, Gray’s “don’t give up” project can be traced back to the concrete poetry movement and other text-based conceptual art of the late 1960’s and 1970’s, as well as the site specific works of the same period. Comparisons to Jenny Holzer (b. 1950) immediately come to mind, especially her early works like “Truisms” (c. 1977-1979), in which Holzer plastered printed lists of phrases on buildings and street signs around lower Manhattan. In contrast to Gray’s magnets, Holzer’s phrases such as “Raise boys and girls the same way” and “Abuse of power should come as no surprise,” printed on plain bond paper, were anonymously pasted to public surfaces, and intended primarily as social critique, rather than social outreach. That Gray’s magnets are not a public service announcement, but are, in fact, a type of site-specific art is evident in that each is nonetheless specific to its giver and receiver, and the interactions that occur between them. And being that the magnets are quite small and exist in multiples, they are more ephemeral as art than icons of site specificity, such as Richard Serra’s monumental metal sculptures or Robert Smithson’s earthworks. Other differences between these projects and the “don’t give up” magnets are that they are portable and free, with the distributor’s name hand-stamped on the back of each. In this way, even magnets that are left in public places have a personal dimension to them. Furthermore, the primary intent of “don’t give up” is to encourage anyone who receives or views a magnet, and although social commentary about the causes of suicide can be read into Gray’s project, that is not her main purpose. While, Holzer’s current works are more visibly part of established art world institutions, Gray’s “don’t give up” magnets persist as understated and their continued circulation through individual distributors can be read as a means of connection and, therefore, a rejection of the alienation these other works point to.

            German artist Klaus Sievers (b. 1962) creates art magnets that are somewhat similar to Gray’s. His “Streit” and “hier” series feature phrases related to the themes of “dispute” or “conflict” and “here” or “this,” respectively. However, like Holzer’s text-based work, Siever’s art magnets provide social critique by repeating common colloquialisms that German speakers often use during times of strife or conflict. Furthermore, Siever’s magnets are more abstruse in their purpose and less unequivocally kind in tone than Gray’s. For example, a magnet from the “hier” series that says “hier kennt man jede Form der Liebe” (here one knows any form of love) conveys an ambiguous message. Siever has combined the impersonal article “one” (man) with the more intimate concept of love (Liebe). As such, his magnets have a dry, distant tone while referring to love, which we typically associate with romance, passion, warmth and/or kindness. In most of his art magnets, Sievers’ tone can be read alternatively as caustic, sarcastic or sympathetic. I first encountered Sievers’ magnetic works on the refrigerator of Chicago-based curator Teresa Silva. From the “Streit” series, “das kann doch nicht so schwer sein” (it can’t be that difficult) initially reminded me very much of Gray’s “don’t give up” magnets. However, upon further reflection, I found “it can’t be that difficult” alternates between an encouraging message and a demeaning one. Some things certainly can be that difficult indeed! On the other hand, “don’t give up/포기하지마” is unambiguously kind and obviously intended as help.

            Gray’s goal as an artist “was to engage with people as they dealt with despair or crisis in their lives.” She created, for example, a trio of bluebird sculptures that sang to the audience about depression. However, Gray felt that museum and gallery-based art works kept her too removed from the people she hoped to reach. She has since shifted her focus to socially driven, collaborative projects such as the “don’t give up” magnets, the Writing Machine, and the Love Letter Collection, all of which collaborate directly with her audience. With the Writing Machine, Gray invites authors and poets to engage in a collaborative writing exchange, with Gray acting as a responder. Texts are published on the website as a working space, with language and content often crossing over between authors. The Love Letter Collection invites people to anonymously submit love letters that they have sent, received or would like to send. Gray and guest editors publish a selection of these letters three times a year. The collection, which has been published since 2001, expresses an array of desires, frustrations, triumphs and tribulations concerning the complex emotion of love. Gray’s artistry lies in her ability to tap into personal experiences that are both individual and collective, and help her audiences to understand that the seemingly singularity of their emotional landscape can actually be shared. It is, after all, the connections to people, places and things that give our lives meaning. Through socially-engaged and participatory projects such as “don’t give up,” Gray creates opportunities for us to connect with one another. Going about our busy days, it is all too easy to ignore the people we pass because of obstacles, such as language barriers, inattention or any number of distractions. A small magnet that says “don’t give up” or “포기하지마” provides a means to overcome such obstacles and connect with another person whether it be a stranger or a close friend. The small object with a simple message says, “Hey, I see you! I recognize you, and you are not alone in whatever you are going through.”

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Kristina Dziedzic Wright teaches writing and art history at Seoul National University, and works as a freelance curator. She is the author of Jua Kali Lamu: Art, Culture and Tourism on an Indian Ocean Island (2009) and is currently co-curating an exhibit of paper-based art at the Nairobi National Museum in Kenya.

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