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Memory – both collective and individual – not only contains memories, but helps cull them as well. It aids in forgetting, too, as part of the active and passive factors involved in the memory process. The mass media shares this quality as well, in that it simultaneously reflects and forms collective memory and the public consciousness; in other words, the media takes note only of that which it does not forget. Thus, in order to understand and overcome the past, it becomes necessary to continually reactivate and relive memories.

In her work, the South Korean artist Minouk Lim (*1968) examines issues of individual memory, especially processes of collective mourning as well as the memory of taboo subjects like historic or politically-charged events. The political situation and historical backdrop of her divided country are featured prominently in her work, such as the now-forgotten massacres that took place in Jinju and Gyeongsan in 1950. At the start of the Korean War, the first South Korean president Syngman Rhee ordered the execution of people accused of treason, including Communists and sympathizers of North Korea. Never publicly discussed, these crimes left its victims stigmatized and in a state of shock. In her intervention “Navigation ID” (2014), the artist created a dignified public memorial for family members to pay their last respects. During the tenth Biennial in Gwangju, the artist exhibited two containers holding the remains of victims who never received a proper burial, along with a helicopter and ambulance. Gwangju is also scarred by a massacre: Doohwan Chun, who came to power in a military putsch, stopped a political demonstration by ordering that demonstrators be mowed down, thus gambling away the lives of over a thousand protestors. As part of Lim’s piece, the families affected by both disasters mourned together in an act widely seen during its broadcast on Korean television.

In her exhibition “United Paradox” (2015) at the Portikus in Frankfurter, Lim continued to examine the function of media coverage in society and how it shapes public consciousness of the darker chapters of history. In the piece, she staged the exhibition space to look like a rudimentary television studio, complete with cameras and monitors, whose dry technical character was counteracted by the “portable sculptures” and suggestive “unfinished walking sticks” made of found twigs and roots by the Korean artist Eijin Chai. In 1949, when Chai was a child, he survived a massacre committed during the run-up to the Korean War only by hiding under the corpses of family members.

Lim formally develops these painful memories of officially-sanctioned mass murder in the performance series “FireCliff” (since 2010). In cooperation with torture victims, psychiatrists, musicians, dancers and other creative professionals, the artist trains her attention toward the liminal spaces that exist beyond the realm of that which can be visually experienced, and transforms them into her “perfomative documentary theater” exhibitions in the living theatre. Her stagings are filled with analytical and emotional moments, as well as sounds and smells, in order to active memory without forgetting the underlying historical facts: her protagonists communicate and interpret eye-witness statements, offering alternative individual narratives to their officially sanctioned counterparts. By contrasting these two versions of memory, the artist reveals the mechanisms behind political propaganda and demonstrates how an official consciousness can be created for the unforgettable.

Text: Angela Rosenberg

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