IM Heung-soon has been using film and video to give voice to the voiceless since the late 1990s; he won the Venice Biennale Silver Lion in 2015 for one such work, Factory Complex, 2014. That film dealt mainly with the inhumane working conditions faced by female factory workers when the South Korean economy started to grow rapidly in the period following the Korean War. IM confronts issues of power, inequality, and the sovereignty of individuals as well as nation-states from the viewpoint of those at the bottom of social pyramid, people who suffered and often lost their lives struggling for what others take for granted.
IM’s solo show “Ghost Guide” reflected on two disparate events: the 1980 Gwangju Uprising against South Korea’s brutal military regime under Chun Doo-hwan, and Argentina’s Dirty War, in which the military junta “disappeared” tens of thousands of people between 1976 and 1983. In the three-part exhibition, the strongest work was the forty-two-minute two-channel video Good Light, Good Air, 2018, commissioned by the 2018 Carnegie International exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and remastered for this show. The story begins with the testimony of a pharmacist who worked near the Chonnam (now Jeollanam-do) Provincial Office in Gwangju—the epicenter of a massacre in May 1980—and saw firsthand the army’s brutal clubbing, stabbing, and shooting of demonstrating citizens, many of them students. Though he appears calm, his facial expressions are still full of rage, disbelief, and fear as he swallows his words in tears. A bereaved mother recalls in a hoarse but strong voice the day she discovered the corpse of her son. Searching through rows of dead bodies amassed in the provincial office, she found herself strangely drawn to one whose face was half blown off. Confirming it to be her son’s body thanks to an old scar, she passed out. Recalling the gruesome event now, she speaks in a lively manner; she seems fully in control of her turbulent past.
Later in the film, an Argentinean survivor of abduction, seemingly unperturbed, recounts how she endured beatings and rapes; she begged the soldiers not to torture her anymore whenever she heard footsteps approach her cell. The stories are at once real and surreal; incredible, yet too concrete in their detail to be ignored. Many of the interviewees are women—some are survivors; others are mothers of the deceased. All look fearless and speak with determination. Their intense accounts are frequently interrupted by scenes of forests, insects, streets, highways, and interiors of ruined buildings, and an aerial view of a memorial park in Buenos Aires dedicated to the victims of the military dictatorship. These caesuras give a poetic edge to the otherwise straight documentary, offering relief from painful recollections and at the same time redirecting viewers’ attention from specific events to an expanded and universalized vision of life and death.
Though film is his forte, IM’s ongoing efforts to expand into the gallery space are sincere, albeit perhaps not yet as engaging. At the entrance to the show was Dear Earth, 2019, an installation encompassing archived stones from historic sites in Gwangju, the Korean DMZ, and Buenos Aires, along with photographs, and VR video. Ghost Guide, 2019, which was shown in the adjoining room, is an eight-channel video showing a former hospital and houses of the victims in Gwangju and Buenos Aires, projected onto a white, stagelike setup evoking an architectural ruin. The continuum between film and objects was not quite seamless, either formally or narratively, yet it could soon become a powerful tool for IM’s project of bridging past and present.
May 2, 2020
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