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K.NOTe no.39

Ayoung Kim


K.NOTe no.39

Ayoung Kim


Publisher Total Museum Press Pyungchang 32gil 10, Jongno-gu, Seoul Korea (03004) Tel. 82-2-379-7037 total.museum.press@gmail.com Director Jooneui Noh Editor in Chief Nathalie Boseul Shin, Yoon Jeong Koh Coordinator Taeseong Yi Designer Heiin Son Sponsor Arts Council Korea Date of Publication 2018.01 Š Author and artist The reproduction of the contents of this magazine in whole or in part without written permission if prohibited.



^ Archival Images for Zepheth, Whale Oil from the Hanging Gardens to You, Shell 3, 2015


K.NOTe #39 Thwarted Texts, Floating Stages, Structures of Uncertainty 1 Pahng, Haejin Art Critic 1 Introduction The series, Zepheth, Whale Oil from the Hanging Gardens to You, 1 This essay is a condensed version of a piece of the same title printed in Vol. 12 (2015) of Visual, a journal published by the Korea National University of Arts Center for Visual Studies.

Shell (2014-2015) arouses questions. First, the fascinating title. Where did this strange mixture of nouns come from, and to what does it refer? How are we to connect the individual works in this series -- now up to three parts -- and where it is heading? But those questions are not confined solely to Zepheth series. So instead of looking for cut - and - dried answers to these questions -- which may ultimately connect with the whole of Kim’s work as an artist -let us examine them in a way that sometimes weaves around and sometimes attempts bold leaps. Perhaps like imagining a whale’s journey soaring from some ancient abyss into the skies of Babylon, or searching through the lowers of a shell that might break away paleontologically from a major oil company and suddenly assume some seaside lyricism. 2 Reconstructing Time and Space The Zepheth series is rooted in issues of modern Korean history that were first fully addressed in Tales of a City(2010-2012) and PH Express(2011). For Kim, modernity is approached first and foremost from a perspective of non-synchronicity in time and space and forces in imbalance. Kim particularly noted how the restructuring of time and space became expanded and solidified through historic inventions of means of transportation. The compression of time and space brought by such modern inventions as the steamship and railroad enabled territorial imperialism and resulted in Korea’s delayed modernization. PH Express addressed


^ Zepheth, Whale Oil from the Hanging Gardens to You, Shell 1, 4 Channel Sound Installation, 15min ; diagram on wall, digital print, 7Ă—3 m ; Voice Performance. approx. 15min, 2015


the British navy’s occupation of Geomundo Island (which was called Port Hamilton back then) between 1885--1887 as one of the seismic changes brought by the new means of transportation. Kim, who reportedly researched official and unofficial documents on the subject matter exhaustively for the project, is in a class of her own in her tenacity and meticulousness. But her excellence is not confined to the thoroughness of her research. Her most astonishing achievement with PH Express, for example, is the aesthetic determination through which she turns her exhaustive research of serious subject matter into something along the lines of a Peter Greenaway film. When everything -- from the mixture of British black comedy and mystery thriller in the plot to the gorgeous miseen-scène and rhythmic editing surrounding the theatrical dialogue, as well as the deliberate inclusion of Michael Nyman-esque background music -- is pointing (blatantly or implicitly) to Peter Greenaway’s style, one may ask a question: why should she adopt a comic mystery format that seems to undermine the very credibility of her intensive research? These questions require an understanding of Kim’s methods and attitude in “drawing stories” from the history of modernization, and more universally from the past in general. In a word, these are the artist’s “aesthetic ethics,” as differentiated from the medium ethics of a documentary filmmaker or academic ethics of a researcher. The artist is conscious of being an explorer of this world, but also an explorer of aesthetic form who does not become submerged in her theme or subject matter. Her ethics, then, involve boldly and meticulously expunge the “document” she has unearthed and condensed so that it becomes more than simply a “documentary.” This idea of destroying the information value of the research-texts she put so much effort into preparing ties into ideas of artistic form to correspond to the modern era’s temporality and issues of the medium. It is a correspondence that emerges from her determination 8

^ PH Express, 2 Channel Video, approx. 31min, 2011


that she can only access the world and history through an understanding of its inaccessibility. In the case of PH Express, the question becomes how it is possible to re-reproduce a historical record when the fateful Korean modern historical moment of the Geomundo Island occupation is not painstakingly recorded and discussed as part of history today, but is close to forgotten, and many of the few records that could allow us to access the incident are those of the invasion’s perpetrators. In terms of mise-enscène, one can perceive a sharp difference between the scenes showing the British troops stationed on Geomundo Island and those showing officials in a meeting in Britain. The latter images are more painterly, with an effect reminiscent of chiaroscuro, while the former are bust shots that emphasize a lack of spatial and temporal correspondence, where the closely shot figures seem to stick out amid the desolate remote shots of the island today. Korea’s modernization was both a form of regulation from an outside perspective and a resulting rearrange-ment of space and time. In relying on another invention of the modern era -- the video medium -- to address that unbridgeable divide, Ayoung Kim sharpens the limitations of that method to a finely honed point. Tales of a City, in which the artist began exploring the modernization issue in earnest around the time of PH Express, has produced the works Please Return to Busan Port (2012) and Every North Star Part I & II (2010). Using three-channel video,  Please Return to Busan Port summarizes Korea’s modernization --  achieved suddenly and through abnormal means -- in terms of spatial and temporal chaos through a front line and a back line. A screen showing information from a promotional national sporting events like the Asian Games and the Olympic Games are run backward, while the right side of the screen shows a young person pedaling at full strength against the backdrop of a port. This ultimately connects with the left side, a video manual of drug smuggling, so that the progression concept loses its purpose and 10

^ Please Return to Busan Port of Tales of a City, (2010~) 3 Channel Video, 5min, 2012


directionality. (The frustrated directionality is addressed by the plaintive refrain  “please return” from a familiar popular song.) This is also an obvious repurposing of the educational and promotion audio-visual materials imposed by the South Korean government during the modernization process. The issues that arise in the process concern the interpretation of the historical materials left to posterity, and the veracity of the video medium. The artist’s continued interest in means of transportation as a modern invention would lead into her integration of space and compression distance through the introduction of the railroad in the later Trans-KMS Railway(2012) and The Railway Traveler’s Handbook(2013). Trains and railways, like steamboats, resulted in space and time throughout the world being placed under the control of major powers; amid this history of colonial development, Korea was intended to serve as a route in an international railway network linking Japan to the mainland. Mixed into this is imagined expansion of space and time through a “Trans-Korean Railway,” which due to the country’s division never came to be. (Indeed, it may have been attempted because of this imaginary quality.) The sound installation method employed in this work served as a crucial turning point toward the Zepheth series. This being a work in sound, a bolder, more multiplex layering of fragmented texts is attempted: the sound design, in which texts from advertisements, newspapers, and other sources are woven and recorded in a complex mixture would become a crucial part of the later Zepheth series, and its second part in particular. In terms of subject matter, Zepheth’s shift toward oil after the works in what might be termed the “railroad series” may be seen as highly characteristic of Ayoung Kim (in the exhausting exploration of the area and the continued expansions into neighboring domains). Unlike the obviously modern invention of the steam engine, oil is a natural resource that has been put to many uses throughout the 12

^ Railway Traveler’s Handbook ; 6 Channel Sound Drama, approx. 31min, 2013


world since antiquity. In the modern and contemporary eras, the repurposing of this fluid, potential substance into a specific energy source fundamentally changed the global economic landscape. The fact that Zepheth was developed with the most complex content and form among Kim’s works to date may have something to do with the nature of the substance. Indeed, the inventions of modernity could properly called a new concept of time and space, rather than a few mere items or technologies. With her focus on adjusting the angle and gap between subject and form in addressing the topic of modernization, Ayoung Kim may have explored time-space (and its reordering) within the medium she chose and sought out new possibilities for it. Adjustments of medium time-space are, moreover, something the artist had been focusing on since before she began addressing the topic of modernization in earnest. 3 Stage and Text In her early Ephemeral Ephemera series, Ayoung Kim transforms the photomontage methodology to produce time-space that is first peculiarly swollen, then flattened. First, she collects bizarre incidents in daily life recorded in daily newspapers and other media -- most of them having to do with death - and takes pictures near the scene where they occurred. These photographs are then cut out and propped up to form a stage set; this set is photographed itself in turn. During this process of transposing mediated information into three-dimensional space, then capturing that in two-dimensional space, expanding it back into three dimensions,  and compressing it to two dimensions once again, the original titles and texts taken from the media recede from their information value and veracity, and the space-time within the photographic medium becomes crowded with the original space-time and heterogeneous symbols. “In Headless body found in Thames, 21 April, 2007”(2007),  14

^ “Headless body found in thames, 21 April, 2007�, from the Series Ephemeral Ephemera, Digital Print, 2007


for example, the terror of the tragedy is foreclosed by the limberly bent building and the depthlessness of the river water, which exists only as a surface. The result is a smoothly processed kind of peace. In “Policeman falls to death trying to save suicide-bid youth,  05 Jun, 2008”(2009), there is the emptiness of the explicit stage set and the chilling quality of stopped time; an angle that encourages the suicidal figure to jump and spatial conditions that prevent it from happening. Throughout the arduous, painstaking process of Ephemeral Ephemera runs the central thread of constructing a kind of stage for the sloping of space-time. We realize that our daily life may itself be a virtual stage that might come down at any moment -- so that everything within that ridiculously flimsy stage is fleeting (“ephemeral”), and the information that we can glean from the past is but a collection of junk (“ephemera”), its limited life futilely prolonged. When we consider this virtual space erected on a shallow surface, this theatrical stage where some empty wind might come blowing from behind the wall, Ayoung Kim’s works can be perceived a new within a kind of continuum, whether the medium is photography or film, sound installation or musical theater. In a word, The design to stage the Zepheth series as a musical theater performance is not some sudden, unexpected departure within Kim’s oeuvre, but the visible manifestation of a consistent thread pursued within large and small intrusions of the theatrical. It might add something interesting to the discussion to consider what Barthes had to say about the theatrical: “What is theatricality? It is theater-minus-text, it is a density of signs and sensations built up on stage….” 2 2 Roland Barthes, "Le Théâtre de Baudelaire", Essais critiques, (Paris: Seuil/ Points, 1981 (1954)), p. 41.

To apply this passage to Kim’s work, the “subtraction of text” ironically takes the form of assembling more intense texts and weaving them in such a way of as to make them undecipherable, or to cause failures of reading. It is a transformation of the text so that it is not intended simply to transmit particular information, but to


be experienced, so to speak, at a sensory level. Making this sensory transformation all the more devastating, and the density of signs thicker, requires not a sense for the sensory from an outset, but stages of diligently satisfying the demands of information value and then rearranging it in a way that destroys it. The Zepheth musical theater series marks the zenith of this form of “text subtraction.” To begin with, consider the layered form: the modern vocal ensemble that increases from one part to seven; the multiplex sound installation that comes and goes around the space as though competing with the ambient sounds; the wall diagrams that appear in Zepheth 1 and Zepheth 3; the highly theatrical recitation that takes their place in Zepheth 2; and, most of all, the text, which constantly competes and clashes with these elements, reconciles with them and falls out, sinks and soars. This complex mixing of layers, especially in combination with the visible protrusions of modern music, naturally calls to mind polyphonic music. Interestingly (and perhaps obviously), another text by Barthes likens this theater/theatricality to polyphony. 3

3 Roland Barthes, "Littérature et signification", Essais critiques, (Paris: Seuil/ Points, 1981 (1963)), p. 258.

The result is a kind of theater where many different sensory layers function at the same time, but in differing rhythms, to create  “informational polyphony.” Here, the text must be an informational/ sensory system on par with the other forms: the vocal ensemble, the actor’s recitations, the recorded sound and diagrams. Ayoung Kim’s methodology to achieve this is the use of an algorithmic device. Fittingly, the artist gave her algorithm program the name “Deus ex Machina,” after the presence invoked in ancient Greek tragedy to bring the play to a swift conclusion regardless of its dramatic consistency. This cheap theatrical trick, considered synonymous with foolishness and illogic, is transformed in Kim’s hands into a poetic and creative wordsmith. So the answer to one of the questions raised in the introduction -the fascinating, enigmatic mixture of words in the title Zepheth, 17


^ Zepheth, Whale Oil from the Hanging Gardens to You, Shell 2, Music Theater, 50min, 2015


Whale Oil from the Hanging Gardens to You, Shell -- lies in the prowess of Deus ex Machina. There are two aspects here worthy of admiration. First, there is the surrealistic poetic leap and the sensory beauty of the language produced through Deus ex Machina. Second, there is the fact that this is the title of an artistic work on the topic of a natural substance, oil. The odd combination of those words -- Zepheth, Whale Oil from the Hanging Gardens to You, Shell -- achieves all the more of a peculiar resonance within the context of the modern and contemporary history that is the focus of Kim’s ongoing interest. In short, one should consider the awesome scope of materials and subject matter that Ayoung Kim combined and explored in addressing the history of the 20th century and the shifting of the oil business. 4 Structural Science of Uncertainty The text in Zepheth is not easily detected. A number of different threads are juxtaposed here: the public history of international oil business shifts, as seen with the monopoly of oil resources and export restrictions by Middle Eastern countries in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the resulting domestic oil shock and policies for the advancement of South Korean construction companies into the Middle East; the personal history of the artist’s father, who lived abroad in the Middle East as one of these special forces; and an exploration of oil as a fluid substance with roots traceable back to the Bible and other ancient texts. Making this complex content all the more difficult to grasp is the complexity of the format through which the text is conveyed. First, there is the use of modern music, which inevitably appears odd in an artistic context. More important than this, however, is the activity of Deus ex Machina. The use of adjustments to subtly encourage a failure of any complete understanding of the text was a method present consistently in Ayoung Kim’s works before this; 20

^ Zepheth, Whale Oil from the Hanging Gardens to You, Shell 2, Music Theater, 50min, 2015


what is specific to Zepheth is the fact that this incomprehensibility has been systematically generated by a key tool in the artwork, namely the algorithm program. A “libretto” of sentences crafted by the artist from her research materials is passed through the device’s analysis of syntax and semantic structure, and the resulting fragments are rearranged into sentences divorced from their previous meaning. The ambitious structure of Zepheth 1 has two parallel libretti “A” and “B” -- the first a product of the artist’s consciousness, the second the accidental product of a mechanical device -- being juxtaposed and combined with two musical scores A and B, the first by composer Kim Heera and the second also produced by algorithm. While the stringency of Deus ex Machina’s role and the use of juxtaposition may have dissipated further into the Zepheth series as dramatic elements assumed greater importance, the structure and its organization of chaos remains essential. Some may approach Zepheth chiefly as a “difficult” form of music. Analysis of the method of composing used for Zepheth’s music is not especially important. What should be noted, however, is that the use of an algorithm is not new to music. Applied to the composition of modern music since the 1950s, this mathematical approach was first used to break free from the artist’s muse and allow an element of chance to operate. Ironically, it had the effect of forcing composers to devise “creative methodologies” of their own. In the case of Xenakis’s Metastasis 1954, for example, the compositional approach of having 61 performers playing different parts becomes a kind of diagramming act. What Ayoung Kim attempts in Zepheth is not merely invoking the power of modern music to create theater, or using an algorithm device to generate poetic leaps in her voluminous texts. More essentially, what she is doing is diagramming structures in which carefully woven chaos, methodically plotted happiness can arise. Indeed, the “diagram” (previously a central element in Every North Star) appears as a visual element explaining the structure of the 22

^ Zepheth, Whale Oil from the Hanging Gardens to You, Shell 1, 6 Channel Sound Installation, 40min ; diagram on wall, digital print, 5Ă—4 m ; Voice Performance. 20min, 2015


work in Zepheth 1 and 3. In a sense, the structure summarized in this wall diagram may represent Zepheth’s core. The innovation achieved in Zepheth, in other words, does not lie in the modern music sound, as is commonly understood, nor in the transposition of text by algorithm, but in the basic structure of juxtaposing and applying the algorithm with text and sound alike. (If Zepheth may be called a “non-visible work,” it is not because it centers around sound, but because this non-visible structure forms its center.) In a word, the highly sophisticated approach of accidental construction attempted in modern music composition encounters new possibilities as it is expanded by Ayoung Kim in a complex form incorporating text. 5 Conclusion The work of Ayoung Kim is build from a series of groups, where the sections constituting each group propagate different sub-groups. The relationships formed in her works through these vertical and horizontal axes could be described as linguistic and polyphonic. Having witnesses the digressions and leaps in the process leading up to Zepheth, what we must really appreciate may be the metadiagram of Kim’s work as a whole. In other words, we may be able to appreciate her early work as a series of groups and sections, as graphics of modules in layers and combinations. There are the 10 photographic works in Ephemeral Ephemera; Not in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time(2010), which is a continuation, yet one that indisputably stands alone; Every North Star I & II and Please Return to Busan Port from the Tales of a City series; the videos Every North Star I & II and the diagram series 51 Months and 12 Races; the two-channel video from PH Express, the virtual newspaper PH Express: Journal of Maritime Adventure and International Dispute about Port Hamilton, and the poster HMS Line, along with the spinoff installation piece Lighthouse  1905(2011); the loose railway series with Trans-KMS Railway and The Railway Traveler’s Handbook; and sections 1, 2, and 24

3 making up the Zepheth group, under the title of Zepheth, Whale Oil from the Hanging Gardens to You, Shell. The moment the splendid arrangement of groups and sections becomes a beautiful geometric diagram in our mind, the focus of our eager attention turns not to Kim’s next work per se, but to what modules will be interlinked in what combinations. It is the emergence of a new collection of polyphonic art.


Ayoung Kim Interested in the relationships between images, languages, voices/sounds, and formal aspects of forementioned elements, Ayoung Kim’s porous narrative structures seek potential integrations, articulations, and collisions of things in between time, spaces, structures, and syntaxes. In doing so, Ayoung Kim focuses on unlikely encounters of ideas, playing with each notion of crossing, transmission, translation, transportation, and reversibility. Open to multidisciplinary and crisscrossing collective working processes, she adopts the devices of storytelling, narrative and rhetoric to evoke alternative forms of reading, listening and thought of the human condition in a contemporary era. Her works stand as visual, sonic and linguistic experimentations with various types of writing and narrative structures. Ayoung Kim had solo shows at Melbourne Festival (2017); Palais de Tokyo (2016) and created a performance for Palais Garnier (2016) - the national opera house in Paris, while presenting her works at the Venice Biennale, Italy (2015); Maraya Art Centre, Dubai, UAE (2015); Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, Germany (2012); Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul, Korea (2012); Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), New York, US (2011); Museum of Modern Art of Rio de Janeiro(MAM), Brazil (2011); 176/Zabludowicz Collection, London, UK (2011); Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK (2010) and many others. Awarded The British Institution Award from the Royal Academy of Arts in the UK in 2010 and Young Artist of the Year Award from the Ministry of Culture in the Republic of Korea, 2015, Ayoung Kim was also a resident artist at Pavillon Neuflize OBC Research Lab of Palais de Tokyo (2015-2016), and Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin (2012).

Pahng, Haejin Critic involved in activities across a wide range of genres. Works planned or staged include the multidisciplinary art project Hypermetamorphosis Theatres (National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul), the video/ performance exhibition ¡No Dance!: Between Body and Media (ZeroOne), and the lecture performance Oblique Space (Korea National Contemporary Dance Company, ARKO Arts Theater). Pahng practices various forms of critical engagement in exhibitions and performances and explores the topic of contemporary art as an expanded domain.



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