At the Same Place as Traces of Life

Haeju Kim

As I write this article, I am about to move to an old house. It is a small two story house built in the1970s. The previous owners, a Taiwanese couple who were both born in Korea, lived there since the beginning of the 1970s. They spent their newlywed years there, raised two children, and four grandchildren there, but recently they moved to a newly built apartment. Although the house shows evidence of many repairs, it has many broken places, a Korean house past its middle age. The previous owners neglected repairing the house because they were expecting city reconstruction. Without any help from them, I spent more than ten days doing repairs on the house but there were many places I couldn’t get to, such as a ceiling or the roof, because I was unable to understand the situation. The old couple spent most of their lives in Korea but couldn’t speak Korean well. They left many marks of their identity all over the house. A huge UFO-like satellite dish is on the main gate, and red papers, with golden Chinese characters for good fortune and good luck at the beginning of spring, were stuck to doors and kitchen cabinets like tickets on seized property. Stickers on the windows showed how the children’s favorite animation characters changed with the passage of time. I found that nothing can show the metaphor of the layers of time better than layers of wall paper. After stripping the vertical-flower-pattern silk wallpaper, I found a faded laminated wallpaper, beneath that an Arabian- pattern brown wallpaper, and finally newspapers from 1985. It was too far and deep to trace back to the time of the cement wall. The reason I am talking about my move here at the beginning is because the exhibition “A Cabinet in the Washing Machine” shown in the Seodaemun-Gu Recycling Center has raised my interest in connection with my own experience of preparing to move to an old house. A recycling center is a place that gathers things that were part of someone’s life or that hold the memories of people’s lives. I think that a recycling center, a particular space, is a counterpart of an old house permeated with time and memory, dispute and love. Facing an old house causes pity and awe like when meeting an old man: both are physically exhausted but seasoned with life-long experience. Therefore it is necessary to think twice before painting the house and changing the wallpaper.This is because experience gives rise to a desire to respect the original shape and leave a trace of the vestiges of time, just as leaving wrinkles to develop naturally is better than getting Botox injections. In the exhibition in the special space of a recycling center, “A Cabinet in the Washing Machine,” the participating artists show this attitude. They didn’t try to dominate the space with their work; they respected both the environment and the given objects and read the hidden stories in those objects.

This exhibition was set up by three artists: Soyung Lee, Minja Gu, Hyungji Park, and a curator, Sunghui Lee, who together became the curatorial team, invited other artists, and participated with their own works. This exhibition started with Soyung Lee and Minja Gu finding a recycling center on a street in Gangnam, an incongruous thing in that area. After observing characteristic items and arrangements in the recycling center, they had a long conversation: the objects in the recycling center were good enough to be used as installation art works and they wanted to have an exhibition there someday. After some time, they tried to find the recycling center again, but it was gone. However the recycling center in Seodaemun-gu cooperated with them, and the exhibition opened for ten days in the middle of June 2012. The exhibition coincided with the daily schedule of the recycling center. The opening time for the show was the recycling center’s hour of operation and during the exhibition, the recycling center ran its business as usual. The art works were presented in vacant space or were incorporated with the recyclable goods. The exhibition scene was changed several times a day because objects were being both sold and brought in. So the art works used the distinct characteristics of the space and occupied their positions flexibly without disturbing the management of the space. The recycling center collects all shapes of out-of-date furniture, so it is quite a different environment from a standard white cube gallery which focuses on the appreciation of art work. The recycling center space pre-determined half of the characteristics of the art works. The rest of the works were related to the artists’ “involvement” in the form of questions or answers about the space. The art works and recyclable goods were placed in concord, finding a balance between presenting a heavy presence and disappearing into the site. In addition, the exhibition was shown in a quieter section of Seoul, a little far from most galleries and museums, so it needed to welcome people whose primary reason for visiting was not to see an exhibition. In order to bring sudden smiles from people unexpectedly seeing art work among recyclable goods, the exhibition maintained an attitude of kindness and relaxed simplicity.

There are several ways that the art works interrupted the strongly characteristic space. First, the artwork became a shadow of the scenery. Paying attention to the scenery of the space and the associations which the objects make, the artists made art works that interpreted the objects, not enveloping and covering them but modestly becoming their shades. The artist Kyungwhan Kwon’s installation work Burden is an interpretation of the inside of the recycling center: a forest of furniture as the forest of a city. The artist imagined a city skyline in the pile of furniture and added specific features of the city, like a cap, to the furniture. This included such things as a church steeple with a cross on a display cupboard, a small rooftop building on a dresser, and a steel-frame advertising sign on a tall wardrobe. These small and delicately made installations have the faded colors of old landscape photography instead of the striking colors of a real city. The reason the artist gave the title of ‘Burden’ to these signs might be that the usage and role of these signs remind one of the burden of heavy city life. The artist Minja Gu’s work is a shadow of recycling furniture. Chemical Trees, an elaborately carved wood-grain pattern on common yellow linoleum, was placed like a shadow under a table and chairs, which are covered with an imitation wood-patterned plastic film.This work twisted and emphasized the desire of furniture to be a tree and people’s desire to have wooden furniture. But as neither is possible, it is remains as an elaborate handiwork. There is no shadow with patterns and there is no tree that is not a tree. As the shadow follows the wood pattern, a fake tree that imitates a real tree becomes its reason for existence.

The works, which bring out memories and stories that are instilled in the recyclable goods, were in places which were difficult to find at a glance and have to be sought carefully, as in a treasure hunt. The artist Hyungji Park hid the work The Glacier Lost Long Ago is Found Underneath the Wardrobe among the pieces of furniture. Even though it is a colorful painting, the work is not easy to find among the piled objects. The artist’s intention is that people, who push the wheeled furniture unconsciously or turn their eyes to the floor in the empty spaces between things, will unexpectedly find the works. When moving, if we suddenly find something under a wardrobe, it is a moment of pure surprise and pleasure. Exotic and abstract scenes from the other side of world, such as a glacier at the South Pole, Iguassu Falls, and Machu Picchu, are hidden, waiting for visitors unexpectedly to find them. The artist Woo Sung Lee’s work Pinocchio Desk is very difficult to recognize as art work, because it seems to be part of a desk from the very beginning. His work is to put cartoon stills under the glass desktop of a child’s desk. Memories and stories of a family are in each picture. The artist Jayeon Kwon’s work Treasure Hunt actively changes the recycling center to a space of playful memories. She connected the characteristics of this space, which is a place for a treasure hunt for someone looking for useful things, to childhood play. When people, who come to buy something, open drawers or wardrobe doors, they find folded treasure notes and small, affectionate stationery or other gifts such as a notebook, a ball-point-pen, stickers or flower seeds waiting for them.

The exhibition contains works that actively recycle recyclable goods. Soyung Lee’s work The Second Nest is a reconstituted zoo in a pile of television monitors. These monitors show animal videos. Each monitor has an image of a single animal such as a lion, a monkey, a zebra, or an owl, to give the appearance of animals in cages. In the recycling center, various things are gathered and kept temporarily, uncertainly waiting for the next move.This overlaps with the scenes of a zoo in which animals from all over the world stay in one place and spend their days doing nothing. Soyung Lee’s other work uses recyclable goods and is for recyclable goods. A video, As Good as It Gets, of an artificial waterfall and fountain show in Hongjecheon stream was shown in the basement, where there are fewer visitors. The video was projected on the width of a wall and empty chairs filled the space in front of the video, much like a theater without an audience. An artificial waterfall circulates and recycles water. This artificial role is connected to the purpose of the empty chairs. Although the falling water is artificial, in this alienated space it gives vitality and vigor to dejected objects. It looks like a holiday resort for recyclable furniture. The artist Han Sang-hyeok’s work When the Door is Closed the Light is on is a light installation inside regular furniture. Like a timid person who closes his mouth when someone starts a conversation, this work keeps the light on when the wardrobe door is closed but when someone opens the door the light goes off. The artist Won Dong Hwa’s work was initiated from the personification of objects. Some Things Have Lived on Somehow is a work in which a used chair is covered with soft white woolen pile to give comfort to the victim of a small wound and erase the memory from the chair and Moving Objects is a work in which furniture is covered with white cloth with red drawings. The drawings – a refrigerator carrying an umbrella because of the heat, a television sitting on a chair, and a chair putting on its shoes – make stories with cute pictures, putting human characteristics onto objects. The artist Kwon Yongju considers the concept of recycling beyond the scenery of the recycling center or the use of the objects there. A large rock, engraved with ‘Live honestly,’ which seems to belong at the entrance of a village and a wooden signboard of a conservative political party which was abolished by political judgment are placed awkwardly like those things that have lost their address. Compared to the objects with simple, ordinary purposes, such as chairs and desks, these unclearly identified objects that assist ideology and opinion seem to be very far from recycling. Previously, the artist made an installation work by creating a huge pile of things found in the street. It is interesting that the artist connected ‘recycling’ to a concept, instead of to objects.

This exhibition is noteworthy in that the artists interrupted an uneasy space and contemplated the concept of recycling in addition to each art work’s artistic achievement. As it was written in the exhibition preface, this show is “focusing on the characteristics of recyclable goods which are that buying things is not simple consumption but is a connection to emotional communication by backtracking the history and memory of each object.” So the exhibition suggested methods of consumption different from buying and selling. These include exchanging and treasure hunting and it brought attention to the distinctive value of goods, which is not that of high price luxury items, but of ordinary people’s memories and remembrances. Meanwhile, the artists visited the recycling center several times to understand the space and observe people and things coming and going. It might have given the artists an opportunity to observe the specific community which is the collection of individual lives that gather in this place. Already, this exhibition gave a new meaning to exhibition space by using a recycling center.The exhibition opened the possibility to a recycling center being an excavation site. For example, the recyclable goods in the recycling center in Gangnam office town are very different from those in the Seodaemun-gu recycling center, which is in a residential district. It can be thought that this is a shadow of different lives. In this way, a recycling center can become a starting point for drawing an ecological topography of the city, a place for gathering things that have passed through people’s lives, and an archeological site for understanding the community of the surrounding area. Another interesting thing is that this exhibition was recycled right after it was finished. At this time, in Pangyo Eco Center, the artists are exhibiting their works, their ideas conceived over several months of visiting the recycling center, the process of creating their work, and the record of the exhibition process. This exhibition is site-specific to the recycling center.

What new story can be created by changing the exhibition place? A recycling exhibition can function in two, possibly parallel, ways: first as an archive of exhibition material and second in having a new purpose and concept by being re-contextualized in a different environment. It often happens that an exhibition, in its finished form, is shown repeatedly in different museums. However in the case of a site-specific exhibition, like this one, certainly there is a need to re-contextualize to repeat an exhibition unless it is being archived. When things are moved from among recyclable goods to a totally different place, what will happen to them? Like the recyclable goods that stay for a while in this recycling center, they meet new owners and have new life experiences.