Minouk Lim, a video and multimedia artist, has had museum exhibitions throughout Asia and Europe. A decade ago, the Walker Art Center held the in-depth solo exhibition Minouk Lim: Heat of Shadows (May 31–September 1, 2012), curated by Clara Kim. The show featured three large-scale video installations and a series of wearable sculptures the museum had commissioned. And yet, despite this serious attention, her work is not well known in New York. Perhaps this will change with Fossil of High Noon at Tina Kim Gallery (May 1–July 1, 2022), her second solo show with this gallery, and her first in New York since 2017.
Roughly three bodies of work comprise this exhibition and on the surface, they seem disconnected. A longer look proves otherwise. In an interview with curator Jessica Morgan, printed in the catalogue Minouk Lim (2017), the artist stated:
For some time I have developed relationships with victims of torture. Some were wrongfully accused of being North Korean spies and others were friends working in civil rights organizations. I did not form these relationships as a result of my artistic research, but they arose from a deep respect for their work and personal values. But my personal world and dreams for a better future came back as something like a two-edged sword as I learned more about Korea’s past. I felt a range of emotions like touching something that emerges from a prohibited excavation site. I was haunted by a sense of guilt and mystery. […] The whole process of digging and confronting my discoveries was like a Hydra; the information snowballed and became very complicated but functioned as a guide as well. It felt both impossible but possible as I continued my research; it was someone else’s story but I too felt hurt. The past had been ruined, destroyed, but I felt that I should restart and imagine another version.
I have cited such an extensive passage because, after looking at Lim’s work as it was being installed and being touched by it in ways that I did not have words for, I decided to research her. Lim considers the complications and challenges of exploring traumatic historical and personal events that she did not directly experience. I was also able to talk to her about her work.
As I did so, it occurred to me that her desire to “imagine another version” is a rejection of narrative, with its insistence on a beginning, middle, and end, and of the literal. Lim wants to offer a very different perspective on how one might deal with a grim history whose effects continue to be felt in the present. This history includes the Japanese occupation, the division of Korea into two separate nations technically still at war, and the brutally repressive dictatorship of Chung Hee Park, South Korea’s third president, who declared martial law in 1972.
Closer to home, South Korea’s history includes the massacre of civilians (mostly farmers) suspected of aiding the North Koreans, and their burial in more than 160 mass graves, only a few of which have been exhumed, and the 1980 Gwangju Uprising protesting the South Korean military government’s suppression of protests that resulted in the death of between 200 and 2000 civilians, depending on which report you believe. Today, a national cemetery in Gwangju and a museum commemorate the uprising. May 18 is a national holiday marking this event. In 2005, the South Korean government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the period spanning Japan’s occupation in 1910 to the end of government dictatorship in 1993. The United States could learn from Korea’s attempt at self-examination.
Behind the sculptures made of tree branches in the first gallery space is a story that needs to be told. They were originally collected and sculpted by Eui-Jin Chai, a survivor of the many massacres that took place during the postwar struggle for Korean liberation and, subsequently, the Korean War. The farmers and their families living in the isolated mountain village of Seokdal-dong were massacred by the South Korean army, which was trying to subjugate the people and the land it could control — a military action approved of and supported by the United States government. Chai, who was lying by his older brother’s body, pretended to be dead.
Nearly 40 years later, in 1987, in order to inform the public about the Seokdal incident, and learn more about what happened in Korea during those years, Chai quit teaching English and started the “National Association for the Bereaved of the Victims of the Massacre of Civilians Before and After the Korean War.” He also made many trips to the United States to research different archives, where he learned the extent of these massacres, of which the United States government was aware. These killings took place because the people were suspected of having Communist sympathies.
It was around this time that Chai began gathering wood sticks from the forest. According to Lim, Chai was initially only interested in collecting, drying, and cutting them. Eventually, he made them into canes. By the time he died in 2016, he had carved more than 1,000 canes, which are in the collection of the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History.
Lim, who was friends with Chai and his children, was given the canes that were broken or rotting, where they lay in her studio for a long time. Using cuttlefish bones and resin castings of them, hermit crab shells, glass balls, carved wooden birds (also made by Chai), polyurethane resin, metal plates, and artificial hair, Lim protects them from further decay, and creates the illusion that they are sprouting leaves. Leaf-like in shape, the cuttlefish bones introduce multiple readings into the work, including the joining of earth and ocean, domesticated parrots sharpening their beaks (for which they use the bones), and healing (they are believed to have medicinal properties).
By preserving and embellishing the canes, Lim creates something that can be said to remember the past while suggesting that growth, renewal, and healing are possible. While I did not get all of this when I first looked at them, they struck me to the point that I was compelled to begin researching them. As I did so, I was reminded of Jasper Johns’s observation about using the American flag as subject matter — these are “things seen but not looked at.” Lim extends the parameters of Johns’s statement to include the fallen tree branches Chai collected, preserved, and eventually carved into canes; the artist’s subsequent additions, and use of polyurethane resin to stop time, enables us to see a thing that looks both back and forward in time, as well as to imagine “another version” that does not deny what happened. (This imagining has yet to be embraced by Americans who wish to remove books from public libraries and sugarcoat the country’s history.) At the same time, Lim’s work embodies a counterpoint to the view of the collector as trophy gatherer, instead presenting the role as a temporary guardian of a legacy that must be protected and passed on to the next generation.
The next gallery features a five-minute single-channel video projection, “Portable Keeper _Sea” (2020); a freestanding frame-like sculpture (“discreetly,” 2021) strung with fishing line; three sculptures collectively titled Dudu Mulmul; two buoys made of cast resin containing artificial pine needles, a stuffed Winnie the Pooh, cuttlefish bones, feathers, and shells.
The canes suggest that Lim’s preoccupations include the relationship between time and preservation, as well as erosion and our ability to contemplate time passing and our place in a changing natural world. Visible but inaccessible within the epoxy buoy, the Winnie the Pooh adds a note of humor and wistfulness, along with a sense of lost time and innocence.
Sitting on tables, the works in the Dudu Mulmul series resemble three-dimensional models of the earth’s strata you might see in a geology classroom or natural history museum, and point to the artist’s interest in excavation and archives, connecting these works to the canes.
Detritus is encased in the cloudy epoxy resin of these sculptures. (According to the gallery the title means “everything (all beings, be it objects or phenomenons) in the world,” a phrase derived from the Chinese.) The sculptures are impure forms. “Dudu Mulmul No. 32” (2021) contains a partially eaten waffle, a piece of a photograph, earphones, and a skull — evidence of our carbon footprint. History, Lim seems to be saying, is never inactive. Nothing is motionless, even things that are preserved, as the items attached to and rising out of these sculptures (in one case, an artificial frond) attest to. Is this what we’ve given to future generations? What will be our individual and collective legacy?
“Portable Keeper _Sea” depicts multiple views of a young woman swimming, floating, and treading water inside a ring of buoys somewhere at sea: we see her from above, close up, and below, her legs kicking. Lim offers no clue as to how or why she is there, and to my mind those considerations are irrelevant. We see a rubber donkey mask drop to the sandy bottom at one point, but the reason for this is never explained. It seems to me that Lim is suggesting we all live in a state of suspension, simultaneously protected (by buoys in this case) and vulnerable. Surviving requires constant consideration. We live in a state of suspension as the world hardens around us.
Minouk Lim: Fossil of High Noon continues at Tina Kim Gallery (525 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 4. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.