How good an idea is it to make an exhibition about schools in a school? Or to curate a project about gardens in a garden? Or to organise
a series of projects about the conditions of a demilitarised zone right next to such a zone? The latter currently exists, on the southern border of the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. While the Artsonje Center has an exhibition titled The Real DMZ Project 2013: From the North in its premises in Seoul, it has also staged The Real DMZ Project 2013: Borderline, an ambitious endeavour presenting 13 artists’ perspectives on this border, in the province of Cheorwon.
On a bus tour to the area in late August 2013 I am sweating profusely, but forever grateful to the young art-historian who volunteers to translate what the entertaining guide says in Korean.
On the trip I encounter both preexisting and newly commissioned artworks distributed along this fertile region. This district has been central to several periods in Korea’s history: following the division of Korea in 1945 it was part of the North, and during the Korean war it was the site of intense conflict. Given that, as yet, there is no formal peace between South and North Korea (only a truce signed in 1953), it is a tense place, rigorously controlled by the military.
The works in Borderline range from the documentary and illustrative to the displaced and abstract. An example of the displaced is Dublin-based Jesse Jones’s video The Other North (2013), in which Korean-speaking actors reenact the script of a film recording a group-therapy session during the early 1970s centred around the Northern Ireland conflict. The original participants represented different walks of life, and in Jones’s staging they take turns discussing ‘the conflict’, sitting in a dark studio, filmed by a circling camera.
It is screened in the cinema of the Iron Triangle Tourist Office (during the Korean war, Cheorwon was part of a key communist Chinese and North Korean communications centre known as the Iron Triangle), the first stop on our tour and a reminder of the fact that the zone is a tourist attraction. Souvenir stands sit next to decommissioned tanks and fighter planes outside the office.
London-based South Korean Koo Jeong A’s boulders, assembled in collaboration with people living in the area and placed on the deserted plaza in front of the equally deserted D M Z Peace & Culture Hall, provide a momentary encounter with something really ‘other’. The sound of busy places in New Delhi, collected and edited by Raqs Media Collective, fills a small, quiet train station, defunct for many years. It turns out that the station was moved to its current location only after the D M Z had been established – just one instance of a much bigger staging enterprise with infrastructural additions such as a funicular and an observatory allowing for precisely choreographed encounters with the zone.
Being so close to the DMZ makes the artworks fade into the background. They are overwhelmed by reminders of reality, whether it is the constant presence of soldiers and the vast quantity of barbed wire or the variable time limit that is posted daily for how long anyone (including labourers on the region’s vast rice fields) can spend near the DMZ. It’s for this reason that the exhibition in Seoul, somewhat surprisingly and despite the fact that the artworks here are too similar to one another, has a more lasting effect. The works benefit from being inside a white cube four hours’ drive from the border. They resonate differently due to their displacement.
This is true of Sean Snyder’s blurry photographs, culled from the Internet, of the bottom parts of the legs of Kim Jong Il. All of them reveal platform shoes, a signature feature of the late North Korean leader, who also tried to compensate for his shortness with a conspicuous hairstyle. It is true as well of London-based photographer Seung Woo Back’s series Blow Up (2001), in which details of, for example, people on a street, the profile of a soldier and a political poster from negatives shot during an expedition to North Korea and subsequently missed by local censors are enlarged.
Regardless of curatorial success, it surely takes some courage for a curator to address the subject of the border between these two countries, a border that continues to produce headlines on a daily basis. Of late these have been about nuclear threats and the execution of a former girlfriend of Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader. But beyond that, the pressing nature of the situation also concerns the destinies of some of the 73,000 people in the South who still are separated from family members.
Indeed, the division of the country remains the principal structuring factor in the societies on either side of the border. Nevertheless, The Real DMZ Project’s curator, Sunjung Kim, has not shied away from implying that unification should be part of the debate, despite the fact that South Korea’s current hardline president, Park Geun-hye, has chilled diplomatic relations considerably.
Even if the topic were less charged than ‘the conditions of a DMZ next to a real DMZ’, it is rarely advisable to curate on the basis of a one-to-one relationship between content and location. At the end of the day, what made the strongest impression on me during the bus tour was a visit to Cheorwon Peace Observatory. It holds an observation deck in the shape of a cinema theatre, complete with upholstered chairs. But instead of a screen, there is a panoramic window offering a view of rice fields and hills, and in the background, some hazy mountains.
Apparently a view over the DMZ and into North Korea, this vista is obscured by two large monitors showing images of the view and featuring a loud Korean voiceover, a maquette of the surrounding landscape and several fixed binoculars. As with the shaky, more-or-less abstract photographs by embedded journalists in Iraq, the closer you get, the less you actually see in the pictures.
This article was first published in the November 2013 issue.