Mapping without Mapping, Psychological Occupation Verses Real Estate

This is the first installment of this essay introduces one part of five areas of inquiry related to the process of evaluation and ideas for my new project.

This essay is an attempt at picturing the development of an idea for a work in progress I am calling: Mapping without Mapping, Psychological Occupation Verses Real Estate. The project started with an interest in investigating into the geographical history of the American presence (official and unofficial), and includes addressing more contemporary issues related to being non-Korean, in Korea. However as time has passed it has become more broadly a study into the concepts of place, in the sense of both belonging and creating. At this point this project is highly theoretical, and this essay is one part of an effort to respond to my previous works, in an attempt to understand, and address my prior intentions and to some degree alter my methodology. This text is broken into five parts that lace together inquiries and objects from different sources, existing in works completed or ideas left hanging. Here I hope to more cogently interrogate ideas of space and site for this future work; outline the project’s parameters to date, such as notes, image ideas; express some ideas on mapping; define space and place as related to this project, while making an inquiry into the theoretical differences between place and space.

  • An Investigative Search of Previously Used Space and Sites

In relation to a presence like the United States in Korea three terms came to mind as I thought through my subject: stains – starting points – soil. These words reflect critical and visceral ways of thinking; and also how the waters get muddy. We don’t hear it much anymore, but driving much of American exceptionalism is the idea of manifest destiny. In general nationalism is driven by the idea that there is something distinct held within borders drawn. So I am seeking a sensitive address to such issues—ways to look at this idea of entering space metaphorically, psychologically and materially. These distinctions are crucial, especially when considering how one culture rests in, resists or rejects another.

Recall, this is a work in progress and this essay is a part of the progress of realizing the work. So I’ve often thought this effort here is a little like the work of performance artist/monologist/actor Spalding Gray, in that I am setting out to tell you something but that while I am telling you I will never get there: to my point, and instead I will make another point, perhaps equal to my intended, but perhaps not, but that it will all lead to an anxious attempt at coherence. That I suppose is the nature of defining something.

Crucial to this and all my work, I have been concerned with site specificity since I was an undergraduate in the 1980s when I was asked to make an architectural model and place in a context—in Central Park. The directions: seek scale and moorings that could hold your model so as to not look artificial or outsized led initially to an indirect search for the place in which art happens. Then one more directly about place formed of space. There have been, including this first, at least nine moments, some of which are no longer available or merit description; however it was in the text that site really took hold. In book arts, I realized a space that was portable and specific. Later an exhibition Outside (1990) in the woods allowed the idea of sighting to arise. Meaning that rather than announcing itself as art, the value of the random person seeing the work outside of the institution began to form. This inclination towards the discreet gesture, a thing present, but only accounted for by those who found it, drove my projects EveryDaySky (2000-2002) and Occurrence 

Occurrence: view from east along sidewalk (2000)

Occurrence: view from east along sidewalk (2000)

(2000). Both of these projects are defined by how site and sighting interacted. Of course it can be said of any work, but when these works were activated/realized by seeing them, it was in the context of the passage way the sidewalk or the street, not places where one then expected to find art. Therefore recognition and access are defining characteristics of both works. EveryDaySky was also concerned with memory of non-events. Using

Occurrence: view from south across sidewalk (2000)

Occurrence: view from south across sidewalk (2000)

a camera to photograph the sky everyday for a year, and then a year later upload that image to the web, I was commenting on the transfer and slippage of memory related to days and time, and its mediation through the apparatus. My last sited project, re:location (2004-2005), directly utilized sight and the apparatus to document a space. Rather than take photographs I scanned Dogmatic, like eyes brushing across much of its surfaces, with a flatbed scanner. The importance of re:location was in its making. It was perhaps a failure in its later incarnation as an installation of printed images. Still, the transfer of space into information, as a map is important to my next work.

Julia Marsh, re:location: composite West Basement Wall 150 scanned images actual size 85 x 210” (2004)

Julia Marsh, re:location: composite West Basement Wall 150 scanned images actual size 85 x 210” (2004)

These projects are now diagrams for siting and the sighting of work, and most, if not all, were denials of the institution. My reasoning then centered on capitalism’s grip, and my want to make works that functionally were only gifts, exchange without currency. I’m still interested in this as a strategy of resistance, yet I feel this work needs to be as immaterial as possible for many reasons. So, as I’ve gathered information for this new project I have found myself asking: how to make a map without making a map. Clearly these earlier works are maps that are not maps, but they come with copious amounts of materials. As well, this work, that I am prefiguring, is very much about institutional power, power great enough to deny its own existence. So here the intersection of mapping and the denial by the institution is much like a double negative, or rather a Mobius strip, folding back onto itself without end.

To be continued …

Julia Marsh, Editor, sitecited


무거운, 너무 무거운, 김윤서

바위에 새긴

모세는 시내산에 올라 하나님으로부터 율법과 계명이 새겨진 돌판 두짝을 내려받았다.(1) 대대손손에게 보여지고 지켜져야 할 계명이라면 나무나 흙바닥이 아닌 바위여야 할 것이다. 바위에 새긴 글은 영원불변하는 진리이거나, 진리에 가깝게 느껴지기 마련이다. 바람이 불고 비가 와도 바위에 새겨진 글은 쉽사리 지워지지 않기 때문이다. 누군가가 장난스럽게 작대기 하나만 더하기도, 다시 고쳐쓰기도 어렵다. 껌종이나 담뱃곽 위에 쓰느냐, 바위에 새기느냐는 쓰여질 그 내용의 무게를 대변한다.

강요된 보기1: 금강산

Engraved Rock, Mt. Kumgang, North Korea, 2012

최근 금강산의 바위 소식을 전해들었다. 2012년 4월 북한이 박연 폭포 주변의 바위에 “영원한 우리 수령 김일성 동지”라는 글귀를 새겼다는 내용이다.(2) 신문이 제공한 정보에 따르면 이 문장의 총길이는 37m, 글자 개당 높이는 5m, 가로2.9m, 깊이 0.45m이다. 마지막 글자 ‘지’의 모음 ‘ㅣ’에 사람 한명쯤은 쏙 파묻힐 수 있을 크기다. 북한은 경치가 뛰어나거나 유동인구가 많은 곳마다 “위대한 수령 김일성 동지는 영원히 우리와 함께 계신다”, “조선아 자랑하자 5천년 민족사에 가장 위대한 김일성 동지를 수령으로 모시었던 영광을” 과 같은 문구를 새겨 넣는 글발사업을 1970년부터 진행해왔으며 이는 현재진행형이다.

강요된 보기2: 서울대전대구부산

Engraved Rock, Seoul, South Korea, 2007

서울시내 곳곳에는 “바르게 살자”는 문장이 새겨진 바위가 있다. 관심을 갖고 보기 시작하면 이 바위는 서울 시내 뿐 아니라 전국 곳곳에서 찾을 수 있다. 바위 뒷면에는 “바르게 살면 미래가 보인다”는 문장이 덤으로 새겨져 있다.(3) 이 커다란 돌덩이는 ‘바르게살기운동 중앙협의회’가 1999년부터 전국적으로 진행해온 사업의 결과물이다. 행정안전부 산하 관변단체인 이들은 전국 8도 기관의 전폭적인 지지와 도움으로 현재까지 전국에 300여개 이상의 ‘바르게 살자’ 표석을 세웠으며 1천개를 설치하는 것이 목표라고 한다.(4)

“바르게 살자” 일상생활에서 시민을 ‘계도’하기 위해 고안되었다는 이 문장은 문법적으로는 청유형이지만, 묵직한 검정색 서체가 커다란 바위에 새겨져 전달되는 방식은 지키고 따라야할 법규와 같다. 이토록 압도적이고 일방적으로 다가오는 텍스트를 전국 8도 거리마다 종종 마주치게 되는 일은 시력을 가진 보행자로서는 피로하고, 때로는 무서운 일이다. 보행자 그 누구도 강요된 보기에서 자유로울 수 없다. 2012년 서울 어딘가에서 지금도 이러한 표석이 세워지고 있다는 사실은 꽤 초현실적이다.

바위로 바위치기: ?

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

미국의 개념미술가 마이클 애셔(Michael Asher, b. 1943)(5)는 한국에 왔다가 ‘바르게 살자’ 표석과 비슷한 돌덩어리를 하나 세워놓고 떠났다. 좀처럼 물리적인 실체로 남는 작업을 하지 않는 애셔의 영구 작업이 대전에 있다는 사실은 한국에서 그의 프로젝트에 대해 논문을 쓰고 있던 나로서는 신나는 발견이었다.(6) 경위는 다음과 같다. 1993년 과학도시 대전에서 열린 ‘대전엑스포’를 기억할 것이다. 당시 과학 행사 중 한켠에서는 이를 경축하기 위해 ≪미래 저편에Future Lies Ahead≫라는 주제의 전시가 열렸다. 전시를 기획한 퐁튀스 훌텐(Pontus Hulten)에 따르면 전세계에서 초대된 35명의 작가들이 실내 전시와 조각공원 두 부분으로 나누어 전시를 진행했고, 애셔는 조각공원 설치 부분에 참여했다. 이때 그가 조각공원 조성을 위해 한 작업이라는 것이 한국인들에게는 흔하디 흔한 표석을 세운 것이다. 그가 바위에 한국어로 새겨놓은 텍스트는 다음과 같다.

“이곳저곳에 설치된 건축-구조물들의 나열이 관람객인 우리들을 위해 설계되었다고 가정한다면 다음과 같은 질문이 제기될 수 있을 것입니다. 기업의 정당화와 권력의 표상 사이를 오고가는 우리들로부터 이득을 보는 자는 누구입니까?”(7)

지난해 여름 이 바위를 보기 위해 대전 엑스포 과학공원을 찾았다. ‘조각공원 조성’이라는 당시 전시 목적에 충실하게 무대처럼 틀지워진 조각공원 안에서 대형조각들은 작품명과 작가명을 달고 일정한 간격으로 나열되어 있었다. 애셔의 작업은 그곳에 없었다. 대신 조각공원으로 향하는 인도 곁에 특별할 것 없는 바위로 세워져 있었다. 또한, 조각공원에 설치된 조각들과는 달리 애셔가 설치한 바위 앞에는 작가와 작품 제목을 알리는 그 어떤 표식도 없었다. (실제로 애셔의 모든 작업들은 제목이랄 것이 없다.) 애셔는 바위가 놓일 장소로 ‘조각공원’보다는 그저 방문자들의 여러 동선 중 조각공원으로 향하는 길목을 택했다. 텍스트가 새겨진 바위와 이를 받치는 바위 두개로 이루어져 있으며 글자체 또한 검정색 명조체를 사용했다. 놓인 자리와 바위의 생김만 보더라도 전형적인 표석의 형태를 그대로 따랐다. 결국, 애셔의 작업은 ‘예술작품’으로 보이지 않는다. 바위에 새겨진 내용만 조금 생소할 뿐.

애셔는 1993년 대전을 방문해 이곳 저곳을 다니면서 곳곳에 설치된 ‘바르게 살자’와 같은 표석을 몇차례 마주했을 것이다. 실제로 엑스포 과학공원을 향하는 길목에만 해도 이곳이 ‘대덕연구단지’임을 알리는 기념바위가 서있다. 동네 초입이나 건물 건축을 기념하는 한국 곳곳에 설치된 표석은 보는 이들에게 발신하는 장치로 기능한다. 한국인에게 특별할 것 없는 기념바위에 애셔가 발신하고자 하는 메시지를 한국어로 새겨 넣은 이 작업은 몇가지 재미있는 지점을 안고있다.

애셔가 스펙터클한 대형 조각으로 공공장소를 작가 개인 또는 도시의 상징적 장소로 식민화해온 공공조각의 관례를 유머러스하게 비판해왔다는 점을 감안하면, 이 작업 역시 그가 해온 작업과 같은 맥락에서 볼 수 있다. 그는 ‘바르게 살자’ 바위와 다를 것 없는 대형 기념비의 형태를 그대로 빌어와 텍스트만 교체함으로써, 바위로 바위를 치는 전술을 펼쳤다. 이 표석은 그의 여느 작업과 마찬가지로 한눈에 작품으로 인식되지 않을 뿐더러, ‘애셔’라는 작가의 이름 보다 텍스트를 전달하는 발신장치로서의 본디 기능이 우선한다. 그런 면에서, 바위 그 자체 보다는 바위가 세워진 일상적인 장소와 상황 안에서 지역주민들에게 요구되는 시선과 보는 행위로써 유발되는 ‘각성’ 에 방점이 찍힌다. 정보 주입으로서의 문장이 아닌, 물음표로 끝나는 텍스트를 새김으로써 보행자의 수동성에 각성의 계기를 제공하는 것이다.

요컨대, 애셔의 작업은 일상생활과 자연스러움 속에 똬리를 틀고있는 지배의 도구를 비판하고 의문을 던진다. 이로써 개인의 삶 속에서 사라진 긴장관계를 생성하고자 한다. 그가 만들어내고자 한 것은 엄청난 대안이나 확실한 해결책이 아니라 개개인의 ‘태도’다. 애셔 작업의 급진적 성격은 오늘날 한국 미술계의 담론 차원에서 절실하게 요청되는 과제이기도 하다. 지역주민들이 이 표석을 통해 공공조각이라는 이름으로 이 땅에 넘쳐나는 장치들에 대해 물음을 가져볼 수 있게 된다면 그는 원하는 바를 이룬 것일테다.

김윤서 (예술학, 홍익대학교 현대미술관 큐레이터)


1)   출애굽기 24: 12

2)   2012년 4월 6일자 북한 노동당 기관지 노동신문은 “박연폭포의 글발에는 민족의 태양이시며 자애로운 어버이이신 위대한 수령 김일성 동지의 혁명업적을 후손만대에 길이 빛내려는 우리 군대와 인민의 의지가 어려있다”면서 “김일성 수령님을 높이 받들어 모시려는 천군만민의 불변의 신념을 담아 새겼다”고 전한다.

3)   이를 받치고 있는 또다른 바위에는 이 사업이 진행될 수 있도록 공헌한 서른명 남짓한 이름 목록이 빽빽하게 새겨져있다.

4)   국회 예산정책처의 ‘회계연도 결산부처별 분석’ 자료에 따르면 바르게살기운동 중앙협의회는 행정안전부로부터 공익사업 명목으로 2010년 10억원의 예산을 지원받았으며, 2011년에는 2010년보다 50% 증가한 15억원을 받았다. 행안부는 올해 예산에도 바르게살기운동 중앙협의회에10억원의 지원예산을 편성해놓았다. 국회 예산정책처는 “다른 비영리 민간단체나 많은 공익단체가 국고 보조가 충분히 이뤄지지 못해 재정적 어려움을 겪고 있는 상황에서, 정부가 별도의 공모절차 없이 바르게살기운동 중앙협의회, 새마을운동중앙회와 같은 관변단체에만 연간 수십억원 규모를 교부하는 것은 형평성에 부합하지 않는 측면이 있다”고 지적했다.

5)   애셔가 원하든 원치않든 그는 개념미술가, 세부적으로는 1세대 제도비판미술가로 알려져 있다.

6)   1993년부터 대전엑스포 과학공원 내부에 있던 애셔의 표석은 2012년 2월 대전시립미술관 야외광장으로 옮겨졌다.



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:


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).

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, 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 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.”


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.