Behind the Masks Lies a Sense of Community

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Behind the Masks Lies a Sense of Community

KYOTO, Japan - "Are you Korean or Japanese?" goes the question. The Kyoto-based artist Kim Myong-hee finds it both amusing and disconcerting. Why do people always ask that? And what difference does it make?

Korean by birth, and proud of it, Ms. Kim has lived half her life in Japan. She is accustomed to having Koreans mistake her for "one of them" and vice versa. Years of having to deal with persistent questions about who she is and where she is from haven't dented her tolerant nature and good humor but have piqued her curiosity about human identity. In fact, she has just launched an ambitious international art project designed to push the identity question to its limits, to the place where the "boundary of nationality disappears."

To do this she is making impressions of 2,002 faces to celebrate the Korea-Japan World Cup in 2002. Masks are normally made out of hard, unbending materials such as plaster or wood, a seemingly inappropriate way to represent something as soft and vulnerable as a human face.

Ms. Kim wanted something traditional but light, something resilient that almost breathes. She turned to rice paper, which she knew well as a painter. Properly prepared with glue, rice paper can retain a three-dimensional impression with surprising tenacity.

"Rice paper came to Japan from China via Korea," she explains. "It's actually made from pressed pulp of mulberry twigs, boiled, peeled, soaked, strained and held together with natural glue, then heated on a plate or wood block." Japanese paper is more highly processed, embossed with a faint grid pattern. Korean paper is coarser and thicker with a distinct off-white tone, tensile and strong.

Ms. Kim's Kyoto studio is located in an old pre-war elementary school that now serves as the Kyoto Art Center. The place looks and feels very much like a school; one can almost hear the echo of voices reciting rote lessons in the dark wood-paneled halls and the shouts of victory and defeat on the sandy sports pitch in the courtyard. Back in the 1930s when the school was new, the entrance vestibule held a revered portrait of the emperor.

While the schoolchildren inside were learning katakana and kanji, Japanese scripts, Japan's Imperial Army was gearing up for war and conquest, with Korea and Manchuria already firmly under boot. This was a time when Korean kids, if they were lucky enough to go to school, were forced to study Japanese and pay homage to Japan's emperor, and when Korea was considered part of Japan, but an alien part. Korean families were broken, roped into serving Japan's Asian Co-prosperity Sphere, as girls were dragged off to entertain soldiers and boys enslaved in Japanese-run mines and factories.

"We are all the same humans on earth," Kim Myong-hee says as she welcomes me into the classroom that serves as a temporary studio. The blackboard is now bare of the chalk strokes of flowery ideographs, but covered with the white petals of paper masks that, grouped together, look almost like flowers from a distance. As you move in closer, individual faces, lit only by the soft shadows of ambient light, come alive - each unique and yet linked to all the others, cut from the same fabric.

The idea of using a subdued imprint of the human face came to Ms. Kim in the aftermath of a tragedy that initially left her speechless. She had an art exhibit planned in Kobe in 1995 when a sudden, wrenching earthquake took thousands of lives without a minute's warning. Her response to the horror was mute but eloquent: 48 paper mask faces exhibited without explanation. Her art had a soothing effect at a time of great dislocation. Kobe survivors were hungry for art, eager to get on with living, and not without hope.

Ms. Kim's Korea-Japan mask project is supported by a peace scholar, Anzai Ikuro, at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto and local governments in Korea and Japan including Suweon, Kyongju, Taegu, Chonju, Yokohama, Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto.

The collection of 2,002 face-masks of people on both sides of the sea dividing Korea and Japan is testament to the simple fact that any imagined community, whether a nation-state or linguistic group, is made up not of generalized types, but discreet, idiosyncratic individuals.

"Painting is very lonely," she says. What makes this project so special is the constant interaction with others, giving her not just a chance to talk to strangers, but to touch and remember their faces, making a durable record of the interaction.

Musing about the artificial boundaries is not an idle exercise for an artist from South Korea, as the Korean Peninsula, split by a heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone, remains a monument to the folly of humanity.

Ms. Kim acknowledges the difficulty of getting North Koreans involved in her project, as she sorely wants to, but she was able to find volunteers among "North Koreans" in Japan, that is to say Japanese residents of Korean descent who trace their family roots and political affiliations to the North.

A middle-aged man arrives exactly on time for an appointment to have a mask made. Ms. Kim turns her complete attention to the sporting, but slightly apprehensive volunteer, answering his questions and putting him at ease. She gives him a smock, a headband and shower cap and has him lie down on the cot next to the blackboard, offering a blanket for added comfort.

Ms. Kim leans over to work on the volunteer with the earnestness of a doctor attending a patient. She applies a protective layer of cream onto the subject's face, with special coating for his mustache, to make sure the mold comes off as easily as it goes on. She then places paper tubes in his nostrils so he can breathe while she brushes on layer after layer of pure plaster. He will have to stay put for 15 minutes as the plaster mold hardens and dries out.

The classroom is eerily quiet, punctuated by the blood-curdling screams of an experimental drama group rehearsing next door. A Japanese assistant starts blow-drying damp paper masks containing the likeness of an earlier visitor, while a woman who had a mask made earlier proudly points out her likeness. "At first I didn't think it looked like me," she says with a laugh, "but I guess it does."

"When I first did my own face, I too was surprised," adds Ms. Kim reassuringly. "I like wearing makeup; the mask was so plain and unadorned!" She adds that some people find it scary to encounter a lifelike mask, never mind a mask of themselves. Ms. Kim attributes this in part to the fact that most people never get to experience their own face as others see them, "even in the mirror, as it's all backwards."

Inasmuch as a mask, like a photographic portrait, captures a constant human likeness frozen in time, it is a reminder that the body is ever-aging and subject to decay.

Thus even an eye-pleasing mask of a living face raises the question of mortality, which may be one reason why Ms. Kim's work resonates so powerfully with tragic events.

But even if you don't want to have a mask made, there's no escaping them, she observes. "I wear a mask as a Korean, as a resident of Japan, as an artist, as a mother and wife," she says thoughtfully. "I guess we all wear lots of masks, don't we?"

The writer is an American free-lance journalist based in Bangkok.

by Philip J. Cunningham

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