Gwangju Biennale 2014

Opening Ceremony of the Gwangju Biennale via gwangjubiennale.org

Last week Art in America was the first Western source to reveal first hand information about the censorship of Hong Seong-dam’s Sewol Owol and subsequent resignation of the current president and cofounder of the Gwangju Biennale, Lee Yong-woo. The satirical painting includes criticism of the current president, Park Guen Hye and references the Korean ferry that sank last spring tragically taking many lives. The Korean Herald also covered the topic quoting Mr. Lee saying “‘From an art critic’s point of view, the painting should be on exhibit. I don’t think it is taboo to satirize a country’s president,” said Lee. “Freedom of artistic expression should not be restricted by the government just because they have the exhibition budget under their control.”‘

Among the controversy, some sources were able to shift focus back to the artwork. Art Radar Asia reviewed eight artworks from the Biennale including Minouk Lim’s Fire Cliff 3. I wrote about Lim’s Fire Cliff series when she came to Chicago in 2013. The Economist also touched on some of the artwork and the head curator, Jessica Morgan. Morgan has continued to progress; Art in America just announced  that the curator will be the new director of the Dia Art Foundation.

Layers of Seeing: Minouk Lim’s Fire Cliff 4

This post was originally published on Sixty Inches From Center.

In his famous speech from 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. professed his dissatisfaction with the status quo of equality in the great United States of America. Fifty years later, inspired by Dr. King, South Korean artist Minouk Lim inserted herself into the conversation of race and equal rights in the United States. In doing so, Lim guided the audience through a performance that freed fixed and multi-layered notions of the visual.

Lim’s Fire Cliff series (2010—present) transpired organically. When she began the series Lim was reminded of moments in history of self-immolation as protest—specifically labor protests in South Korea during the dictator-like reign of former President Park Chung Hee in the 1960s and 70s. According to Lim, the individual protestors became glimmers of hope and reminders to the people. Activists make statements, they stand apart from the masses; it’s as though they are at the top of a cliff, which serves as a stage for their performance. Hence, “fire” is a reverent nod to essential activists and protestors, and “cliff” refers to the stage from which they expound. The series responds to physical surroundings and social issues in various ways.

Image courtesy of Hyde Park Art Center

The iterations of the series are specifically crafted and researched, culminating in multi-media productions. Fire Cliff 1 (Madrid, 2010) was an installation and sound performance based on Lim’s research and interviews with former tobacco factory workers who were part of a labor movement that was sparked in the very factory in which they worked. Fire Cliff 2 (Seoul, 2011) was an onstage performance with a South Korean who, along with many others, was falsely accused of being a North Korean spy. This took place in the very building where the torture occurred, which is a theater today. Fire Cliff 3 at the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis, 2012) was an esoteric collaboration with a local choreographer involving materials such as a large aluminum box, wearable sculptures, and infrared video. Fire Cliff 4 (Chicago, 2013) was part of Lim’s residency at Hyde Park Art Center and her simultaneous participation in the IN>TIME Performance Festival. For the performance Lim collaborated with African-American, Chicago-native, and musician Chris Foreman at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. Lim was the director behind the scenes, and Foreman faced the audience.

Preceding a plethora of curated material at the start of Fire Cliff 4, Lim guided Foreman to the stage where he sat down and gracefully took in his surroundings through touch and sound. Mr. Foreman is blind. With Foreman as the audience’s guide, Lim directed a performance that unfolded a packed experience that was not dependent on visual experience.

Image courtesy of Hyde Park Art Center

Fire Cliff 4 was a menagerie of poignant sounds, words, and sites interwoven to create a critique on that which we perceive as merely visual. The aural part of the performance included a Zoltán Kodály cello sonata, Johnny Cash’s “She Came From The Mountain”, The Doors’ “Light My Fire”, various incidental music (including that from baseball games, theme music from the cartoons The Jetsons and The Flintstones, and game shows), music by Jimmy McGriff, church-style organ improvisation, and clapping. The sounds were conveyed through a mix of recordings and Foreman playing the keyboard. The words delivered included a passage from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Colloquy of Monos and Una, a chat with Foreman about his life and incidental music, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, which was first played over the speaker system and then read by Foreman using brail. The lights were curated in a way that made the audience conscious of a blind person’s experience. For example, the lights were off during the recording of Dr. King’s speech, but the lights were on while Foreman discussed and demonstrated incidental music. The layers of material were topped with Lim’s fluorescent and neon, liquid infrared video. As the materials knitted in and out of each other, each act was punctuated with lightless, pregnant pauses, moments for contemplation, in the dark and in silence.

The material inspiring Fire Cliff 4 became increasingly powerful when performed by this blind, African-American musician. Lim’s choice to collaborate with Foreman was motivated by her interest in blindness and the idea of “seeing” without vision, or “tactile vision” as she calls it. As Lim prepared the performance, the depth of Fire Cliff 4 grew as she discovered Foreman’s musical talent. Foreman’s skin color was not a factor in his participation but did create yet another layer of depth combined with the powerful material Lim chose.

Image courtesy of Hyde Park Art Center

Guiding the audience through exercises of metaphorical blindness, Lim simultaneously awakens conversations of race and visual normativity. When describing an experience we habitually use visual words based on the assumed mutual experience of site. In Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self (2006) Linda Martín Alcoff states that, “Though the commonly accepted definition of race explains it by ancestry, the ideology of race asserts its impervious visibility, despite the fact that the two are not always in sync” (196). Racial identification may begin with visual information, but it is also a combination of culture, tradition, and history.

Imagine sitting in a dark room and listening to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech. His voice rolls through the darkened room as though he were standing before you. He is still poignant, clear, and inspiring. The room is dark enough to encourage the listener to close his or her eyes and let the words cascade into their ears, attempting to remove oneself from the distractions of the visual world. King proclaims, “One hundred years later [after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation], the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.” His eloquent descriptions of the United States at that moment are filled with brutally honest yet unfailingly hopeful metaphors. “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” Darkness allows the mind to paint a picture. What would that picture be if the observer had never actually seen a mountain or valley? One may understand the words intellectually, but can he or she truly grasp the profundity of the Dr. King’s description? The picture verbally painted is a collection of rich, non-visual elements that are, in turn, harnessed by Lim.

Image courtesy of Hyde Park Art Center

The inclusion of the Martin Luther King, Jr.’s renowned speech in Fire Cliff 4 unavoidably shifts the lens to race in the United States. It highlights a racial binary, black and white, that is a terrible pillar of U.S. history—one that shows regression instead of progression, ignorance instead of compassion. Some may think that fifty years later Dr. King’s speech is almost too poignant and timely. Others may hear it and reflect on the progress that has been made. His speech wasn’t meant to be timeless, but in a way it is.

Following the “I have a dream” speech, in the final portion of Fire Cliff 4, visual logic is obscured again with Lim’s infrared video. This time it’s a more familiar viewing scheme, almost like a silent film. Foreman played along on the keyboard as Lim’s video splayed ahead. The abstracted neon images flowing before the audience were not directly discernable, but once could detect the form of a body. That body was not black, white, or any other categorical skin tone, instead the body glowed, flowed, and changed based on an external element—temperature. In a more traditional “viewing” scheme Lim shows a body that cannot be classified through mere visual perception.

Image courtesy of Hyde Park Art Center

Through her performance Lim invited the audience into a “blind” practice of seeing. Removing one familiar layer, she created an experience that heightened the effects of conventional visual modes of seeing. When Lim invited the audience into the darkness a visual veil was lifted—darkness creates a productive space that allows one’s experience to move beyond the visual—an experience that is not often had by someone who isn’t blind. While freeing perceptions on seeing, Lim refocused the lens framing how we see each other.