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Korea’s division seen through art

Exhibits near the DMZ explore ideas of history and national identity

June 30,2005
For years, the Demilitarized Zone between South and North Korea has been a tragic symbol of the country’s modern history. It’s a vivid reminder of the desperation left by the Korean War that divided parents from their children, sisters from their brothers, North from South.
To average Koreans, the tensions that still exist between the two Koreas only reflect an ironic political reality. In an age where top leaders from the two countries have appeared on national television shaking hands and some South Koreans now travel on visa-free access across the North Korean border every morning to work in the Gaesong Industrial Complex, the situation at the buffer zone, where more than a million armed soldiers still face each other along the military line as enemies, is conceived of as a social paradox, if not a tragedy or comedy.
A half century after the war, it’s artists who are starting to raise the uncomfortable questions that remain between the two countries. The DMZ, which was established in 1953 under the international armistice agreement that ended the fighting, has now become an artistic symbol of history and the right of the state to control humanity and individual suffering.
The 60th anniversary of independence from Japan provides a chance for artists to look back on the history of the divided country that raises the meaning of peace at a time when tensions have heightened on the peninsula over the North’s suspected possession of nuclear weapons.
The DMZ 2005, a contemporary art exhibit, is a giant cultural project that installs works by international artists in the vicinity of the DMZ, including the Mount Odu Unification Observatory, Paju Book City and Heyri Art Valley in Gyeonggi province.
“The artworks in this exhibition will explore concepts about territory, the zoning of memory, the division of national identities and control and access to information,” said Yu-yeon Kim, the Korean-American exhibit commissioner who has chosen Paju and Heyri as the main sites to discuss the politics of information. “It’s an invitation to international artists to renew a focus on the philosophical, political, social and cultural ramifications of the DMZ between North and South Korea.”
The exhibit, which opened last week, brings together artists from around the world to present works based on notions of territorial divisions. The project at the DMZ is part of the international movement by a collective of curators and artists whose ideas focus on the social and political dynamics and consequences of borders and divisions of all types in Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Israel, the Palestinian territory, Mexico and Korea.
Lin Yilin, an artist from China, questions the oppression and alienation caused by the increasing standardization of everyday life by making walls out of objects like massage machines, television sets and other products of the modern age. In one of his performance works, the artist builds a vast wall out of bricks, eventually surrounding himself within the wall, becoming imprisoned in it.
Elgaland-Vargaland, an artist group from Sweden, uses a more playful strategy, traveling around the world’s cities to install the Kingdom of Elgaland-Vargaland, an embassy the artists have created that is supposed to be part of a no-man’s land.
The two artists have occupied the entire Memorial Hall of Jeong Han-suk in Heyri Valley to create a space in which visitors are invited to apply for an official passport and have the right to citizenship solely by their own choice. (Note: Citizenships cannot be inherited or transferred at the artists’ kingdom. One of the manifestos from the group says, “Every citizen of the Kingdom of Elgaland-Vargaland will have eternal life. We abolish death.”)
Lim Ok-sang has spread letter cutouts from a poem yearning for the peninsula’s reunification on a pathway leading up to the entrance to shelters at the Mount Odu Observatory, which were constructed after the war for citizens to hide in in case of bombing or war.
If DMZ 2005 delves into the irony of the local history viewed from the outside in, “Berlin to DMZ” shares the German experience with division and the fall of the Berlin Wall from inside out.
The exhibition, comprised mainly of local artists at the museum inside the Seoul Olympic Stadium compound, was organized by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture to commemorate the Korean War, with concrete fragments of the demolished wall between East and West Germany donated from SVO Art, a French project group that has been holding exhibits of the concrete pieces. This exhibit encourages Korean artists to look at the issue of separation from a global perspective, using the fragments from the Berlin Wall as a metaphor for peace.
One of the most controversial works in the exhibit is “The Great American Phallus” by Lim Ok-sang, also a participant at the DMZ Korea, who inserted actual bullets from Maehyangri, a village on the peninsula’s west coast which the U.S. Air Force used as a bombing site, into the chipped holes in the concrete. A work by Kim Seok uses overhead loudspeakers that were typically used by the North to promote its political slogans, turning them into a sound device featurung the loud sound of a man’s laughter.
Gangwon province, which sees its geographical position as the epicenter of the DMZ, has also arranged a series of cultural events in the area under the title “DMZ: Peace, Life and Future.”
Following the international peace forum last week, the organizers have arranged a marathon, a concert and a film festival that delves into the history of the DMZ. One of the festival’s notable events will be a peace concert by the Sejong Soloists, a group of Korean and international classical musicians, on Aug. 3 in Cherwon county, one of the main battlefields during the Korean War. It will be held in front of the Communist Party’s headquarters shortly before the war.
Separately, at Imjingak, a site seven kilometers (four miles) from the Military Demarcation Line, French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand, who is widely known for his aerial photographs, has received special permission from the Defense Ministry to take aerial shots of the DMZ area, a historical first for a civilian photographer.


by Park Soo-mee

“DMZ 2005” runs through July 24 at several different museums and outdoor spaces in Paju Book City, Heyri Art Valley and the Mount Odu Unification Observatory. There will be an installation by Ahn Seong-geum of an ad balloon showing the artist’s design of a national flag of the reunited Korea on Jayuro, a freeway leading to the book city. To get to Paju and Heyri, take exit Nos. 4, 5 or 6 of Daehwa station on line No. 3 and take village bus No. 200. The exhibition is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, call 031-948-9831 or visit www.dmz-2005.org.
“Berlin to DMZ,” an exhibition at the Olympic Stadium (02-410-1060), runs through Aug. 21. It will then travel to Jeonju and Busan. To get to the museum, get off at Olympic Park Stadium station on line No. 5 and walk toward the south gate. The exhibition of Yann Arthus-Bertrand (02-322-8696) runs from July 31 to Sept. 11 at the festival site at Imjingak. The show is part of the peace festival by Gangwon province. The DMZ marathon will take place from July 5 to 9 at Mount Mani in Gangwon province through the Reunification Observatory in Goseong. The peace concert of Sejong Soloists will be held on Aug. 3 at Nodongdangsa in Cherwon, followed by the DMZ festival of films by college students from Sept. 22 to 24 at the National Museum of Chuncheon. For more information, visit www.dmzplus.com.


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