Ecology and new border paradigms: The Real DMZ Project 2015

Lee Sun Young on practices that shed light on the division and possibilities for reunification of North and South Korea

Tatsuo Miyajima
Tatsuo Miyajima, Counter Skin at 38° in South Korea 9, 2008, digital silver halide print. Courtesy the artist and SCAI The Bathhouse, Tokyo

The 2015 (fourth) iteration of The Real DMZ Project was shown recently at the Art Sonje Centre in Seoul and in the village of Dongsong adjacent to the Demilitarised Zone. Featuring the collective work of four organisers and 53 different artists and groups, a great portion of the exhibition was seen in Lived Times of Dongsong, a series of installations placed in real-life spaces in Dongsong, including a shop, a church, a gallery, a market, a coffee shop, and a bus terminal.

The event commemorates seventy years since Korean independence from Japan, as well as the division of Korea. Up until recently, the issue of division and reunification has been dominated by the political and cultural rhetoric of either the far left or right, and this rivalry between political extremes still controls the issue. This exhibition has gathered architects, poets, cultural organisers, and people of various other professions to team up with artists of diverse backgrounds, some of whom are from abroad, and have engaged over many years with this same theme, resulting in fresh and original perspectives expressed mainly through installations and media technology.

We need a new frame for dialogue addressing the issue of division and reunification as a nation and populace, one that befits an era of diversity rather than a single mainstream. The Real DMZ Project 2015 proves that an unyielding and singular topic can spawn a variety of experimental forms and in doing so can also surpass the hackneyed battle between content and form. The political dichotomy of progressive versus conservative that controls Korea's cultural and artistic community is as oppressive as the Korean division itself. Such a dichotomy may appear to have two sides, but a closer look reveals them as possessing the same logic.

Korea’s contemporary art scene is largely dependent on the institutional stronghold of universities and while its forms of contemporary art may be avant-garde and progressive they are often inaccessible to the general public, forming an esoteric institution that is actually quite conservative. Contemporary art is often centred around not one or two figures but a collective of artists, giving it massive potential for innovation. This multi-faceted effect makes it difficult to understand as a narrative, but it can also grace a bus terminal or marketplace in a small town in the countryside.

The town of Dongsong became South Korean territory after the armistice of the Korean War, but directly after the end of Japanese colonisation it was part of North Korea, giving it a complex historical character. Furthermore, the DMZ itself is a no-man’s land, a purgatory that belongs to no one, making it the perfect stage for the avant-garde. The borderlands near the DMZ that are portrayed in the exhibition are serene, seemingly frozen in time, making it possible to momentarily forget that it is the world’s most heavily fortified border, a region of strategic military importance. A closer look reveals an extreme state of tension, something the exhibition’s artists have chosen to focus on.

Depicting the stark reality of Korean division, Kim Dohee followed a trail of barbed wire along the coast and filmed her journey with a video camera; by displaying the resulting video on repeat she depicts a senseless, never-ending war. Choi Gene-uk depicts a historical wasteland that is desolate and without any remaining vitality. LeeHaiMinSun chemically broke down photographs of the former headquarters of the North Korean Labor Party and recrafted them by hand. An image of a demolished building resembling crushed rocks immediately returns human civilization to the basics of nature.

By layering a photograph of Lake Cheonji on Mt. Baekdusan – often considered the sacred mountain of the Korean people – over an image of a cement pile from a construction site, Kwon Yongju turns a normally heavy subject into a piece of kitsch. History is written into the land and our bodies. Kim Taedong depicts small but undeniable traces of history by depicting a wall full of bullet-holes, while Tatsuo Miyajima held a workshop with residents who live near the DMZ, producing a photo series capturing people with significant numbers written onto their bodies.

Youngjoo Cho outfitted female DMZ guides (whose job is to convert a grave matter of national security into casual tourism) with wedding dresses and had them dance in various spots throughout the region, producing a surreal effect that satirises anachronistic customs. Jin Chul kyu’s balloon-kite is reminiscent of machines used to propel propaganda leaflets across the border, which only serve to exacerbate tensions.

The chaos of soldiers depicted by Park Kyung Jin shows the underbelly of rigid and militaristic institutions. The rampant accidents that occur within such institutions show that we are not really at war with an enemy so much as we are fighting ourselves. Ko Young-taeg’s video offers a vision of reunification, depicting a walking couple looking ahead towards the future, rather than facing each other. HongLee Hyun-sook’s video portrays an underground tunnel that could have been used for an invasion or spreading ideological propaganda, converting it instead into an artistic statement. Yoo Mokyon reflects on peace as if it were no more than a simple bowl of noodles. Using a structure made of three ping pong tables, Yoo implies that division and reunification is a complex issue involving several elements, and is about more than just the two parties of north and south.

The exhibition’s artists hint at what is necessary to overcome Korean division by portraying a land that has become an ecological repository in the midst of a political divide. Two mutually dependent parties who were born in the same ecological system can get nowhere by trying to control and own each other. By depicting dinosaur eggs on the verge of hatching, Heo Su Bin portrays the dormant potential of a land where humans are on the whole absent, while Kang Hyunah captures the rare species that have managed to thrive on such land.

All of the works across this project reflect profoundly on the local character and historicity of the DMZ – a rare level of consistency for an exhibition with artists from so many different backgrounds. Given that most group exhibitions feature some artists who ignore the theme and focus on their individual voices, The Real DMZ Project 2015 is an instance of how the issue of division can actually unite people.

The Real DMZ Project 2015 was on exhibition 29 August – 29 November 2015 at the Art Sonje Centre and Dongsong Village |

Lee Sun Young has worked with the editorial board for the e-zine Art and Discourse and the journal Art Criticism. She has won several important prizes for young critics.