Gina Kim, Tearless. Photo: SFX/West Den Haag
Sound of mourning – on the complex acts of listening
The second foreign edition of Sound Effects Seoul (SFX), titled Simple Acts of Listening, presents works that all propose ways in which listening itself can be a socio-political practice. Minsun Kim visits West in The Hague just a few days after Seoul was hit by the so-called Halloween-disaster and talks to some of the participating artists about the sound of mourning.
Sound Effects Seoul (SFX) is a Korea-based sound art festival co-curated by Ji-Yoon Yang and Baruch Gottlieb. The festival launched in 2007 and had until now travelled abroad just once, for an edition in Taiwan in 2010. This November West hosts their second foreign edition, under the heading of Simple Acts of Listening. The works on view propose ways in which listening itself can be a socio-political practice. While the participating artists can all be labelled “Koreans”, it is important to realise that all of them are, or were, based in another country as an immigrant. Given West’s history as a former US embassy, it is moreover important to note the extent to which Korea is today under the occupation of the United States. The country’s current social, economic, and cultural conditions are all deeply affected by the States’ pseudo-colonial position.
About a month ago, on the 29th of October, 158 people were crushed to death during the Halloween festival in Itaewon: a neighbourhood in the heart of Seoul. The US military base has been located there since 1950. Ever since the occupation, the foreign population has increased around the area, triggering many restaurant-, nightlife- and other entertainment venues to open their doors there.
The Halloween-disaster can no doubt be seen as a social disaster. It was caused by the government’s lack of responsibility for, attention to, the safety of the South Korean people – people who were, importantly, still recuperating from the traumatic sinking of the MV Sewol Ferry in 2014. As if trying to limit the protest-sounds that might result from last month’s traumatic event, the government had decided to name the week following the Halloween-disaster a week of “collective mourning”. Art exhibitions, events, and performances were cancelled; under the ethical censorship of mourning, sound-art is often regarded inappropriate. However, for some people, art’s sound is the closest to the sound of mourning. In fact, some people wonder: what sound could be more appropriate at this moment in time?
What sound could be more appropriate at this moment in time?
As a Korean who’s studying in the Netherlands, I participated in more workshops and events than ever during the week in which grief was strongly governed in Korea. I often found it difficult to match the grief I felt with those felt by the people around me. At the academy conversations amongst art students or colleagues recently are mainly about the Russian imperialist invasion of Ukraine and the Iranian women’s fight for freedom. Different urgencies can be shared in different frequencies, depending on their familiarity, and proximity. And even though I think of all those political urgencies as deeply important, and moreover deeply interconnected, in this week of mourning I find myself looking for ways in which to not only listen but also speak. Can I both listen to the sounds coming from my surroundings, but also hold a microphone myself, voicing my own concerns? Is this simultaneity even possible?
Just at that moment I stumble on an announcement of the exhibition Simple Acts of Listening. I invited my classmates to go there and a Chinese friend was willing to join me. Kexin is a Chinese student who feels deeply powerless in the face of the daily violence inflicted upon citizens in China these days. She finds herself pressured to become a fluent translator of the current political and cultural situation in China, in order to get the urgency of this matter accross but is unable to do so. We headed to the exhibition hoping that our visit would bring us some new (but familiar) encounterings.
When we arrived at West, the panel discussion had already started. There weren’t many people in the audience, but I could quickly tell that the majority of those present were Korean. During the panel discussion, Ji-Yoon Yang and Baruch Gottlieb discussed their curatorial intentions with this edition of SFX. Later on, artists Ha Cha Youn, Seulgi Lee, and Byungjun Kwon presented their exhibited work to the audience. Ha Cha Yeon shed tears while telling us about her work <MAT, BOAT, CARPET>, which is about someone who is forced to leave their community. Lee Seul-gi, who presented right after her, was unable to start her presentation immediately, needing to calm down first. At that moment, I also could not help but shed tears. Looking to Kexin, I wondered: can my tears offer her companionship? Does my feeling of empathy include or exclude her, since she is not from the same cultural and geographical home? Or can a wider solidarity between Asian diaspora women from different places come into being? What is in that sense is the proximity of my emotion, my tears?
What is the proximity of my tears?
Of all the works on view, Tearless most explicitly pays attention to the pseudo-colonial relationship between the U.S. and South Korea. In her work, Gina Kim takes the perspective of women that have been forgotten. Tearless is a Virtual Reality film that is accompanied by an Augmented Reality intervention as well. Rather than present specific narratives, the film chooses to take the audience along a vivid journey through the so-called Monkey House, located in Dongducheon, South Korea. Monkey House is a camp where women who were forced to perform sexual labour for the U.S. military were forcibly locked up when they had gotten infected with STDs. It’s named liked that because the women who were shouting to be freed were trapped like monkeys in a zoo. Unprofessional medical procedures penicillin drug caused women to die from shock, or from jumping out of the buildings in an effort to escape. As visitors, we move through different spaces such as hallways, bedrooms, bathrooms and treatment rooms. We are forced to imagine that people actually had to live here, in captivity.
Unlike the women who were sexually enslaved by the Imperial Japanese Army, commonly called “comfort women”, these women were referred to as “sexual workers or Western princesses”. They were commonly perceived in Korean society to have worked “voluntarily” for the U.S. military – a grave misconception that finally came to light in 2018, when the Seoul High Court ruled both South Korea and the United States responsible for the system of sexual enslavement. The U.S. military has always been able to exist outside of the Korean law, causing many victims of rape and murder. Today’s fetishism of Asian women in the United States stems from this history. In that sense, we cannot speak of history.
Asking this question in a former US embassy, Gina Kim therefore raises attention for a very present matter.
MAT, BOAT, CARPET is an installation that exists of two videos and rows of plastic bottles, connected with ropes. The two videos face each other; both depict the sounds and sights of sea waves. If you follow the bottle-ropes, you end up in two different rooms, both filled with mats, boats or carpets. Together, the video and installation imply the story of someone who had been forced to leave their land. The mats symbolize the very minimal space this person has had to live on while travelling; the small boat stands for a community that travels together; and the magic carpet finally depicts the desire to fly in the sky and reach one’s destination.
I had a chance to talk with Ha Cha Youn that opening day. We could not help but talk about the disaster that happened in Seoul a few days ago. She explained to me that her work also functions as a way for her to reflect upon her feelings about the disaster of Ferry Sewol in 2014; a traumatic wound that is yet to be healed. Perhaps with the plastic bottle she tries to project her wish of becoming a magic carpet herself, one that can fly towards the young people who drowned as a result of the sinking of the Ferry Sewol. Or, perhaps it symbolizes her wish to return to a place she misses. the work brings many overlaps in terms of traveling distance as the artist herself has lived in Germany and France for 40 years.
As we were leaving the exhibition behind, Kexin pointed out to me that this opening felt like “our” party, given the fact that the majority of the visitors were Asian, unlike many other exhibition openings in the Netherlands. I agreed with her, but nevertheless hoped that this exhibition, and the questions it poses about the relationship between South Korea and the United States, will reach much further.
For me at this moment in time this exhibition worked as an exercise for deep listening. In fact Simple Acts of Listening proposes a form of delayed listening or delayed deep listening; one that is far removed from capitalist ideals of efficiency. The exhibited acts of listening were far from simple. This text can be seen as my effort to assist in their recording and remembrance.
Simple Acts of Listening ran until the 27th of November in West, The Hague
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