Play-time is serious for radical artistAs a serious artist turned playground designer, Lim Ok-sang is dealing with a whole new notion of public art.
If the message was the most important aspect of his earlier career as a minjung artist in the people’s art movement for democracy, his job designing playgrounds for children is about something quite different. Now he must push his imagination to the extreme to create striking structures that retain an element of simplicity, so children can use them to explore their own imaginations. This is not an easy task for a man used to expressing opinions down to their last detail.
After all, Mr. Lim was an outspoken critic of Korean politics under the military regime in the 1980s, when he was a leader of the nation’s first generation of minjung artists.
When the local art scene was swamped by abstract artists and modernist painters trained in Europe, Mr. Lim was one of the few figures to bring social realities into his art, posing raw images like a chopped tree trunk or a mad rooster as metaphors for the military government’s atrocities against Korean civilians.
Much of his work wasn’t meant to be subtle. The subjects often conveyed socialist ideals and focused on issues that were vital for working-class Koreans. He was particularly concerned about the lives of peasants and factory laborers whom he felt were living in unnecessary poverty.
The vehicle of the movement in which he was a central figure was propaganda art borrowed from socialist realism, itself adapted from Chinese revolutionary art.
In contrast to that, his latest design for a playground in Seoul Forest is a creative experiment based on his version of urban idealism, which calls for extensive involvement by the community.
The place, which opened Oct. 20 is a children’s art park with special features for disabled children.
A long spiral pathway leads children in wheelchairs from the ground to the top of a sculpture that is about 9 meters tall. The entrance to the jungle gym is wide enough for several wheelchairs to pass through.
Instead of conventional features like a see-saw or a foot bridge, there is a massive sculpture of a granite snake and toad installed on the ground next to a stainless steel giant.
On opposite ends of the snake, there is a small speaker where you can hear the voice of a person from the other end. Inside the giant, a windmill vane spins in the breeze to represent a beating heart.
The artist’s intention for the park is to mix children with and without disabilities and introduce a new notion of play.
“I came to wonder about the art of play,” he says. “There is a philosophy of play which we tend to underestimate. I think what it does by the repetition of body movements is to prepare our minds for learning experiences.”
His idea quickly gained a following. He’s recently agreed to build a similar park for disabled children within the National Assembly grounds by next year.
“They really get the raw end of the deal in this society,” Mr. Lim says, referring to disabled children in Korea. “They don’t need isolation, which is why I am designing parks for children with or without disabilities. They need more hope, which I have seen them develop when they are integrated with other children.”
His playground projects are a departure from his work in minjung art, but he has not stopped being a political activist.
Aside from his works as a visual artist, he has participated in murals and public performances for political purposes. He recently donated 150 T-shirts to the Cambodian village of Dtoondpeung, an impoverished settlement of agricultural workers where he worked on drawings and posters with local children.
Earlier this year, he made a statue of Chun Tae-il, a labor activist who became a national hero for the labor movement when he immolated himself in protest against inhumane conditions in Korean garment factories during the ’70s.
He has also contributed to numerous protest shows like his installation for Maehyangri ― a village where people are suffering from lead poisoning and hearing loss allegedly as a result of the U.S. Air Force’s bombing training site nearby. Mr. Lim gave the village his “God of Liberty,” a startling work made up of fragments of bullets and shells used by American fighter planes and found in the area.
“I want people to form a new community from the spaces I create,” Mr. Lim says of his parks, revealing that even with a child’s playground he has a political agenda. “An old playground used to be a site for community gatherings. The idea of my design is an old Korean village, where housewives, children, old people and strangers would gather around a large persimmon tree by a stone gate to chat.”
He has certainly made playgrounds that create communities. In a children’s park in Siheung City, he dug 2 meters beneath the ground to create an underground space for play. When it rains children crawl inside and hide from the rain as they play for hours, a feature that has made the playground very popular. Kids climb up and down the wooden ladder to run around and play with sand.
There is also a wall made from yellow soil in which children can draw pictures and make marks with stones and tree branches.
The place has become the neighborhood’s big attraction, what Mr. Lim calls “an eco-friendly park” for adults who, on weekends, come in large numbers to watch their children or simply enjoy the atmosphere of casual enjoyment.
Mr. Lim says the success of the Si-heung park comes down to his vision for an urban community.
He’s always been very vocal about urban projects and feels strongly that the authorities do not involve the people enough in decisions that will have a marked impact on their visual environment.
Earlier this year, he heavily criticized the local government in Seoul for commissioning high-priced American artist Claes Oldenburg to design “Spring,” a controversial public art project near Cheonggyecheon that involved the extensive renovation of an ancient stream.
He called the decision “outrageous,” and wrote in a newspaper column, “Seoul belongs to its citizens, so the local government should clearly indicate the reason, process and cost of the sculpture. The citizens have the right to know.”
“Public art has an obligation to embrace the people,” he says. “Often in cities, though, it’s the opposite. They create huge dissatisfaction. They push people away from their own space.”
by Parj Soo-mee