Breakdowns, Misappropriations, Possibilities: The Art of Gimhongsok

Iris Moon
The breakdown of grand narratives—personal, historical, and artistic—and their subsequent reconfiguration are present throughout “Antithesis of Boundary,” Gim’s latest exhibition at Tina Kim Gallery. Influenced by a post-colonial discourse that challenged master narratives produced by the West, Gim’s counter-myths have evolved from fictionalized forms of history into a subtle interrogation of the artistic process itself. Gim not only exposes the complicated terrain of contemporary art, as artists navigate intellectual property laws, censorship and an uneasy division of creative labor in the production of their work. His latest exhibition furthermore questions a relational aesthetics founded upon a forced notion of community, communication and shared ideals.
The first thing encountered in “Antithesis of Boundary” is Donkey (2008), a figure in a grinning donkey suit reclining on a plush green sofa, with one hand propping up his oversized head. The figure is not meant to conjure perverse thoughts of a furry convention at a hotel in Florida. Instead, a text preciously painted in cursive handwriting explains that the motionless figure is James Kim, paid to pose in the donkey costume for six dollars an hour, despite his status as an illegal immigrant from South Korea. The lounging figure, at ease within his costume despite his powerless status, intrudes and encroaches upon our personal space of fantasy. The donkey sets up the first in a series of boundaries and antitheses arranged like an obstacle course throughout the exhibition space.
Gim explains, “There are always boundaries, and I am interested in the boundaries among people rather than in forms of communication.”1 “Antithesis of Boundary” resulted from the interpersonal issues that continually arose when he came up with a new idea for a project. In his attempt to address the marginalization of social minorities such as transvestites, prostitutes and migrant workers, Gim constantly encountered ethically complex situations. What sorts of internal resistances and external social mores prevented him from undertaking risky projects? Was art allowed to go that far or does it too have distinct boundaries? In the case of Pickets (2004), the underwear of women in their twenties were collected and sold as part of a benefit for an underage victim of sexual assault. In 6-Way Talks (2005), Gim asked foreign workers living in South Korea to sing the national anthems of the countries then involved in the 6-party talks, negotiations aimed at dismantling a nuclear North Korea. Gim’s employment of migrant workers could have potentially saddled the artist with legal problems. Instead, the piece served as one of the starting points for the fictional “performance series” involving foreign laborers performing in animal costumes.
Major historical events are also toyed with throughout Gim’s oeuvre. Marat’s Red (2004), an earlier installation piece shown at the Total Museum of Art in Seoul, creates a side story in the afterlife of the sans-culotte journalist and revolutionary fanatic, Jean-Paul Marat. Next to a glass box on a pedestal that has been painted red, a wall text indicates that contained in the box is the blood of Marat, salvaged by Georges Danton, another leading figure of the French revolution guillotined shortly after Marat’s assassination. Alongside Gim’s confabulation of Western historical events, particularly moments of revolution or crisis, are pieces that respond more immediately to the historical context of recent Korean art, in particular the aesthetic hegemony produced by the minjung misul movement. 
Minjung misul, roughly translated as the people’s art, emerged during the 1970s and 80s in tandem with the pro-democracy minjung movement, which brought about South Korea’s first democratic elections in 1987. Minjung artists employed a realist aesthetic of ugliness in order to communicate the brutality, torture and corruption of the South Korean military regime to the public. Gulgaegurim, or banner art, and mural paintings championed a new national myth based upon the apotheosis of the people. Gim attended Seoul National University in the 1980s, when the university was a seat of student activism. Students such as Gim had no choice but to join in the protests organized by undongkwon, or militant activist groups.•2 “As someone who attended college in the 1980s, I had to find my political position rather passively through protest strikes and demonstrations. In fact, the confrontational binary continues to the present, and it has the very convenient structure that if you are not on our side, you are an enemy.”•3 
Minjung art lost much of its momentum with the arrival of democracy and the subsequent liberalization of the South Korean economy in the late 1990s. Yet the confrontational binary between left and right persists in South Korean society. Public Blank (2006-8) draws attention to the different kind of opposing political realities that are necessary for public monuments to be built. Public Blank consists of 16 framed drawings and texts featuring project proposals for various sorts of public monuments and spaces. Eight images are accompanied by texts explaining the purpose, criteria and requirements of each project.
The artist’s projects are clearly meant to remain on the paper. In “The Tower of Ethics,” Gim proposes a tower for social pariahs, misanthropes and drug addicts, where such people will be paid 30,000 won (roughly $26) to climb to the top of the tower and stand for one hour. The social uproar caused by the tower would, Gim argues, end up creating ethical problem-solvers and charity organizations to help the victims created by the public monument. “Triumph Plaza” can only be constructed “when a nation has succeeded in programming people to believe that personal satisfaction is just a natural outcome of the history of progress.” The plaza consists of a vacant lot of 30,000 pyeong (10,675 square meters) where people will drag red or blue epoxy-based paint on their footprints into a star formation. The end result is that “our past will have been glorified and we will sing of the bright future and gain in self-confidence.” Gim’s proposals call to mind the Korean government’s ludicrous attempt to bring culture to the public through futile projects such as a 1995 law requiring that large buildings spend at least one percent of the construction costs on a form of art, usually resulting in a giant steel sculpture or a nude woman.•4 Yet rather than fulfilling the criteria of a public commission, each of Gim’s proposals requires that social conditions be met before they can be built. In other words, the world has to change for the artwork to become a reality.
From an engagement with broader historical and social issues, Gim’s latest work has turned toward the terrain of contemporary art. His artistic process actively engages with the critical debates on appropriation art once championed by Craig Owens and Benjamin Buchloh as a means of critiquing modernist notions of originality and the commodification of culture. But like his fabricated histories, Gim produces a set of mis-appropriations where at each step of the production process—from the conception of ideas to the execution of the work—Gim uncovers resistances to the possibility of the artist as original producer or point of origin. Donkey is already a derivative piece of Bremen Town Musicians (2006-7), an earlier work by Gim, which in turn is the bastard offspring of Santiago Sierra’s controversial pieces on labor and exploitation and Maurizio Cattelan’s sardonic Love Lasts Forever (1999). Despite the declaration of his first exhibition title, I’m gonna be number one, Gim’s works thrive on an inferiority complex that insists on the artist being number two. Take for example READ—Francis Alys p38,39 (Re-enactments) (2008-9). A part of Gim’s ongoing READ series, the piece features three framed images placed alongside each other on the wall. The piece includes pages 38 and 39 cut from Francis Alys’ catalog. The image is a still from Alys’ two-channel video piece, Re-enactment, a performance of the artist walking down the street in Mexico City while carrying a gun shown on one screen, with a reenactment of his uneasy stroll and subsequent arrest on a neighboring screen. Next to the catalog image is a framed painting by Kim Aram, who Gim asked to copy the video still. The final white canvas on the far left is a cast resin sculpture of the painting created by Kim. This process of extracting a minimalist tabula rasa from a video piece is baffling, ridiculous and fascinating, both heavy-handed in its clever transmutation of Kim’s painting and unnerving in its refusal to engage with the content of Alys’ “original” work.
There are no final lessons to be learned from Gim’s exercise in mis-appropriation, the donkey performance or in his proposal for a dismal tower of ethics. But by refusing to pronounce a social message, Gim’s sardonic works highlight the dilemma of the ethical judgment: it is dependent upon taking a distanced stance, a disinterested interest in the political and social issues that demand our attention. To preemptively adopt a particular position is to foreclose the possibility of others’ points of view, to divide the world into two sides. That Gim still continues to make art despite a genuine skepticism in its ability to make a difference suggests that perhaps in art, boundaries can make things possible.

  1. Author interview with the artist, December 30, 2010.
  2. For a perceptive analysis of the cultural politics of the larger minjung movement, see Namhee Lee, The Making of Minjung: Democracy and the Politics of Representation in South Korea (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2007).
  3. Kim Sunjung, “Interview with Gimhongsok,” in Your Bright Future 12 Contemporary Artists from Korea (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 96.
  4. Park Sun-young, “A city of art, but not for art’s sake,” Korea JoongAng Daily, 27 May 2010. Article accessed online January 20, 2011.