If it's Minneapolis it must be English. Such is the peripatetic life of Korean artist Minouk Lim that she constantly shifts languages to accommodate her career. Within recent years her work has been shown in museums, galleries and festivals from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, Rotterdam, Liverpool, Istanbul and Yokohama, among other cities. She calls Seoul home but is equally likely to be found at her Paris studio or her place on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.
Recently she arrived in Minnesota to oversee the installation of her first major solo show in the United States, "Minouk Lim: Heat of Shadows," which opened Thursday at Walker Art Center. Consisting of three video installations and several hanging sculptures made of fake fur, beads, feathers and other organic material, the show is an immersive experience in which visitors are bombarded with overlapping sounds and images. A cacophony of drums, bullhorns, motorcycles, street merchants, construction noises and conversation assaults the senses as fast-cut images flicker on gallery walls or pulse in a viewing booth that resembles a huge shipping crate.
"I want to capture always the borderlines of the present and the future," Lim said in clear but sometimes halting English. French would be easier, she explained as she occasionally groped for a word.
Shot in Seoul in 2005, her "New Town Ghost" video is a free-form documentary about the city's mercurial transformation from provincial city to international megalopolis. Atmospheric rather than descriptive, "Ghost" focuses on a Korean poet/rapper haranguing citizens as she rides through a newly renovated section of Seoul, where Lim has a studio. Lim is ambivalent about the rapid changes in the city's fabric, especially its wholesale destruction of the old street market that surrounded the central train station. That was where young men and women came in the 1960s looking for jobs after the Korean War.
"The train station was the meeting place for country and city," said Lim. "You can imagine that after 50 years we want to get it erased and to get more modern, international buildings. But I thought it was a pity to erase everything with no time to preserve the story. ... It is very important to me as an artist to find these older things existing together with modernity."
While the construction boom provided jobs, the replacement of traditional architecture with banal modernity had unsettling psychological and even spiritual implications, she said.
"As an artist I'm not concerned to make a position left-wing or right-wing, but to get people thinking," she said.
Aftermath of Korean War
Lim's childhood was indirectly shaped by the war that left the Korean peninsula divided in 1953. When hostilities ended, her father, a soldier in the South Korean army, settled the family in Seoul. Now 45, Lim moved 12 times during childhood as her parents sought better jobs and pursued what she called "the fever of education" for their children. Remembering visits to an aunt whose rural home had a wood stove and an outhouse, Lim mused about the disconnects that persist in contemporary Korea -- between North and South, urban and rural, past and present.
"We are living with this pressure of ideology and war, of two people who are divided and enemies, but we cry in the same way," she said, recalling the way North Koreans grieved at the death of their leader, Kim Jong-il, last year.
Organized by Clara Kim, a Korean- born Walker curator, the show includes Lim's 2010 film, "The Weight of Hands," which employed infrared film to capture images of the body heat of shrouded people walking through a restricted construction site in darkness. The video images have a molten, yellow-red glow more commonly seen in iron or glass furnaces. Minneapolis choreographer Emily Johnson also collaborated with Lim on a dance performance staged in the gallery opening night.
Lim's most ambitious video is "S.O.S. Adoptive Dissensus," a three-screen blend of fact and fiction, light and darkness, history and modernity. Projected simultaneously in a seamless horizontal band, each screen presents a separate but related "story." The scenes involve a boat on Seoul's Han River populated by artist/performers and unsuspecting tourists, a fictional riverbank love-drama that unfolds under searchlights, and the true story of a torture victim who spent 14 years in South Korean prisons on trumped-up charges of being a North Korean spy.
"I'm proposing to see through the darkness and to see another kind of memory," said Lim. Viewers are left to ponder "what is fake, what is true and what can be trusted," she said.