30 May 2012
The State of Official-ity
Two States that are Officially at War
The Korean peninsula is officially at war because the Korean War (1950-53) ended with an armistice instead of a peace treaty. Over the last 6 decades there have been occasional acts of aggression across the border, and both sides have maintained and strengthened their military power. Behind the confrontation between the two Koreas is the ever-escalating arms race between China and US, the nations that drew out the armistice agreement. The US has 82 military bases in South Korea, and China has heavily invested in weapons to catch up with the US.
The armistice can be viewed as a ‘performative act’, an authoritative gesture that exhibits its own power, in this case maintaining the hostile division between North and South Korea. Through this project I’d like to investigate the potentials that lie underneath the performative acts of the armistice, diverting attention away from what it declares (the two Koreas officially at war) and towards the violence and oppression it inflicts upon people on both sides of the border. Furthermore, I am introducing two existing projects, ‘Pizzas for the People’ and ‘Nostalgia’, that criticise and dream of potentially subverting the states by highlighting the irony at work in the confrontations between North and South Korea.
The dear leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, died last December, 2011. The world media displayed images of a lavish funeral and people mourning hysterically: North Korea was back on television. Every time North Korea comes back on the media, it feels like a travelling circus is back. They appear to be doing all sorts of spectacular acts no one else would do. People whisper that something sinister is going on behind the scenes, but there are plenty of impeccable military marches and dehumanised performances on show. I wonder why they choose such bizarre images to represent themselves. On the other hand, we hear about people being brutally tortured in concentration camps and suffering from famine. Hardly any brutal image leaks out of the country due to an ultra-rigid media control.
On the other side of the border lies South Korea, that successful economic democracy. That is where I grew up, with nationalist propaganda warning of the evil communists that would one day attack and kill all innocent South Koreans, lest we be vigilant. I took it too seriously at the time. When I was a child I used to have nightmares of another war, and often got scared when I heard noises outside at night. I was like a girl who screaming her head off at the presence of a giant clown.
I learned about the red-taped history much later, a history that has been silenced for the sake of national security. Three years before I was born, more than a hundred people were arrested, tortured, and forced to falsely confess to be North Korean spies. When I was 3 years old, in 1980, in the city of Gwangju, where a pro-democratic movement was rising, a massacre took place. The next year the military leadership, which had ordered soldiers to shoot anything that moved, won the bid to host the 1988 Seoul Olympic. A year before the Olympics, South Korea elected a president by direct popular vote for the first time in 26 years. However older generations, who remember the Korean War, still view labour unions and human rights movements as pro-North Korean.
Not long after I moved to the UK, I realized that South Korea is best known for its evil cousin. When North Korea is back on the media with its undeniably bizarre acts I get asked about both Koreas. I am reluctant to give people an answer. I probably know as much as anyone else. Moreover I may have been brainwashed by military regimes of the south, so I cannot be sure whether I can make a right judgment on the matter.
Instead of providing direct answers I would like introduce two projects that approach the issues. ‘Nostalgia’ by the performance artist Solmoon mourns for a South Korean village that was destroyed in 2007 to build a new US army base. ‘Pizzas for the People’ by the designer Hwang Kim seeks for alternative ways and contents to communicate with North Koreans.
Nostalgia by Solmoon
One day I came across someone carefully wrapping a rock inside a piece of cloth, and placing it in his bag. I was drawn to the fact that he was handling an ordinary looking rock with that much care. He told me the story of where the rock came from.
In September 2004, South Korea and the US agreed to relocate some US military facilities in South Korea, in a new base in Pyeongtaek. The US closed down the bases near the North and South Korean border and built a new one on the west coast facing China across the Yellow Sea. Villagers who lived in the area for generations resisted the compulsory purchase order so as to keep their land, and peace activists protested against building military facilities. However in 2007 they surrendered to several attacks by thousands of police and army units. Now it is U.S. territory, with a military base of 17,000 U.S. soldiers.
A man who grew up in the village dug up a small rock and kept it in order to remember his hometown; he then asked the performance artist Solmoon to look after the rock. Solmoon created the performance ‘Nostalgia’, in which he stands on the rock on one foot. As the rock wobbles under the weight of his body, he balances precariously on the small piece of land saved from a place we can no longer access.
The story is being repeated in Jeju Island, located in south end of South Korea, only 300 miles away from China’s coastline, where a new naval base is to be built for the US battleships to harbour. In spite of worldwide protests during the last 5 years, tons of dynamite has been detonated on the beach in order to flatten the ground for the arms’ race between China and the US.
Pizzas for the People by Hwang Kim
For decades the North Korean authorities have strictly regulated the information that flows in and out of the country to sustain the world’s most secretive and brutal regime under the ‘Juche’ (self-reliance or self-dependence) ideology. The ‘Juche’ ideology provides the regime with the reasons for protecting North Koreans from foreign influences.
Ironically, in 2008 the ‘dear leader’ Jong-Il Kim (the deceased) opened a pizzeria in the capital Pyongyang that only a few political elites could afford to eat at. Coming across a news article about the pizzeria, the South Korean designer Hwang Kim produced a film which included a pizza recipe, an introduction to South Korean pop musi and dance, as well as tips on packing when traveling abroad; Kim distributed 500 copies of the DVD through smugglers trading across the border of China and North Korea. The performance ‘Pizzas for the People’ is composed of the letters and video messages smuggled out of North Korea in response to the DVD, performed by South Korean actors and North Korean exiles. The live performance is accompanied by the video material sent to North Korea, and documentation of the whole process of making the video and meetings with the broker and smuggler.