I first saw Hayoun Kwon’s work at the Centre d’Art et de Photographie de Lectoure, in southwest France, in summer last year. The curator of the exhibition, Francette Pacteau, presented four works by Kwon about the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that divides North from South Korea. Each work offers, in Pacteau’s words, ‘a representation not simply of the DMZ as a geopolitical entity, but of the imaginary of an impenetrable and unknowable terrain’. Since its creation in 1953, the DMZ has been closed to all human incursion other than military patrols. It has also been repeatedly sown with antipersonnel mines. In the more than 60 years since its inception, the DMZ has become a world apart, a zone of great natural beauty and biodiversity that threatens death at each intrusive step. The title of the Lectoure exhibition – 489 Années (489 Years) – refers to the length of time it has been estimated it would take to clear the DMZ of its more than one million mines. It is also the title of a 2015 work by Kwon: a single-screen digital projection, also presented in a virtual-reality version. On the soundtrack of the work is the voice of a former South Korean soldier, ‘Mr Kim’, recounting his memory of a patrol in the DMZ at night. On the screen is an evocation of what the soldier might have seen, in a computer simulation of the DMZ ecosystem commissioned from a videogame-environment designer. The artist deploys her virtual camera to accompany Mr Kim as he recalls his personally transformative nocturnal journey. The effect is at once informative and uncanny, a staging of documentary fact as a midsummer night’s dream.
Kwon's analytically precise, poetically complex and self-effacing works offer a timely corrective to the facile political posturing
Another of Kwon’s works in the Lectoure exhibition, Village modèle (2014), is a large maquette of a ‘model village’ constructed by North Korea on a margin of the DMZ visible from the South. The ‘village’ is in reality an uninhabited set, built purely for propaganda purposes. Kwon’s model, assembling buildings of transparent plastic in a white-painted terrain, is accompanied by a digital film composed of camera movements through the maquette that emphasise its play of evanescent light and shadow. Her reduced-scale imitation of a full-scale fake, in turn mimicked and doubled in projection, is accompanied by a soundtrack from an official propaganda film about ‘life’ in this village that no one may visit, in a place where no one may live. In Kwon’s installation, the architecture of propaganda is shown as essentially immaterial – known only through the shadows it casts, shadows with more substance than the entities that cast them.
The word ‘great’ has become the property of nationalist demagogues. Moreover, given the world’s needs, the expression ‘great artist’ is surely an oxymoron. Philosopher Michel de Montaigne said that the opposite of stupidity is not intelligence but humility. It might be fatuous to call Kwon ‘great’, but her analytically precise, poetically complex and self-effacing works offer a timely corrective to the facile political posturing and self-aggrandising stunts now as much a staple of the ‘political’ art biennale as of electoral politics.
Kwon is based in Paris. In 2015 she was awarded the Prize of the Friends of Palais de Tokyo. Her work was recently screened at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, and at the 2016 San Sebastian Film Festival.
From the January & February 2017 issue of ArtReview, in association with K11 Art Foundation