Photographer Noh Sun-tag looks out from the terrace of the Cheorwon Peace Observatory in Korea’s demilitarized zone (DMZ), next to his work “To Survive vs. Once Arrived,” during a press preview of “Real DMZ Project 2012” in July.
/ Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
By Kwon Mee-yoo
A living witness of tension between South and North Korea, the demilitarized zone (DMZ) has divided the peninsula for 59 years since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice. Past and present coexist along the border, an area that is both a historic site and place for people to earn their livelihood.
In July the "Real DMZ Project 2012," a special art exhibition opened at the DMZ to present young artists' perceptions on international relations. Organized by Samuso, 11 groups of artists from around the world were invited to add an artistic touch to Korea's most clandestine area. Samuso is a contemporary art initiative started in 2005 to expose Korean artists abroad and bring foreign artists to the local audience. At the DMZ, the artwork ranges from painting and photographs to video and installations. The international artists spread their wings of imagination to interpret the stories and lives surrounding the DMZ.
“Korea is a divided country and people living in Cheorwon must endure some losses and inconveniences as we put security first here. We hope this exhibit sheds new light on the DMZ and Cheorwon,” an official from Cheorwon said.
While reflecting on the meaning of the high security, heavily armed area through the artworks, participants can also tour the tunnel North Korea built to infiltrate the South and telescopes allow a peek into the North.
Iron Triangle Tourist Office
The tour begins at the Iron Triangle Tourist Office. On the second floor of the Information Center, photos and information panels have been installed by the National Intelligence Service and the provincial government.
Photographer Noh Sun-tag inserted his artworks between the existing displays of propaganda works since he was not allowed to remove them. “To Survive vs. Once Arrived” consists of photos of people’s backs as they look at the promotional photos and panels. These panels shed light on the cruelty at the concentration camps or what secret agents from the North brought to the South and Noh photographed people while they were looking at them.
“I tried to capture the ‘desire of gazing,’” Noh explained.
Second Underground Tunnel
The Second Underground Tunnel is evidence of the fierce confrontation between the two sides. Pyongyang attempted to invade Seoul by digging underground tunnels in the border area.
Participants walk about 500 meters into the chilly tunnel to face a deconstructed chandelier on a mirror. This is "Chandelier 363-931," created by German artist Dirk Fleischmann and Korean artist Shin Hyo-chul.
The space was originally a resting place for workers who had dug the tunnel and the shining chandelier generates a weird look in the heart of the ground. They are accompanied by mannequins in military costumes.
Fleischmann said he did not reach the end of the tunnel when he first visited the place. “Chandeliers are special objects for special places. So I made a chandelier for this special tunnel. The whole concept was what makes art, object and a meaningful space,” he said.
Cheorwon Peace Observatory
The Cheorwon Peace Observatory’s monorail to the observatory and the monorail station have the highest concentration of artworks. Simon Morley’s “Edgemen,” digitalized images of the South and North’s border guards grace the exterior of the monorail station.
Fleischmann wrote down signs and notices he saw in Cheorwon with white marker pens on the window of the monorails in his work “Reading Meaning.” They might look irrelevant to the stunning views from the monorail, but since it is about Cheorwon, it cannot be separated from the area. The writings can be erased by hand by the monorail riders and the artist implies the transience of such phrases.
At the end of the permanent exhibit of the Cheorwon Peace Observatory on the first floor, two video works await. Amandine Faynot’s “248” is a documentary type of work. Faynot actually visited four military troops close to the borderline to film their daily life.
“My focus is on the absurdity and nonsense of this situation,” the artist said. She captured the Korean army from an outsider’s viewpoint.
Another video work is Kim Lyang’s “Regeneration of the House: A Dream House by the Border.” The Korean artist, who has been living in France for 17 years, is interested in how the people living near the border think about their life and interviewed local residents.
“They don’t live in anxiety, but are rather uncomfortable about numerous regulations. More than 80 percent of them were satisfied with their life in Cheorwon, right next to the wire fences and the armed forces,” Kim said.
Photographer Noh’s concern for the posterior view continues at the terrace of the observatory. He captured a soldier looking at the view in front of the observatory next to a “No Photography” sign.
Francois Mazabraud's "Hidden Landscape" can be seen through one of the telescopes, the one without a slot to insert a coin. He added manipulated frames to the view, offering people the chance to project their own imagination onto this inaccessible area. “The line between reality and fiction blurs here,” the artist said.
Nicolas Pelzer presented “Dislocated Cinema,” a site-specific glass folding screen on the second floor. He visited observatories for tourists in the border area and was interested in their structure ― the panoramic windows with theater seats. “The beautiful scenery is visually harmless, but it is ironic at the same time since we need a framework to understand it. It could be a vision of North Korea or how we perceive North Korea,” he said.
Hwang Se-jun’s “Tour,” Lee Joo-young’s “Waiting Together 10 li (4 kilometers as one li equals 3.92 kilometers) from DMZ” and Part-time Suite’s “Drop by Then: Video” are on exhibit on the upper floor of the monorail station.
A signboard with the words "Train Wants to Run" and a train wreck have been placed in front of Woljeong-ri Station, the closest station to the Southern Limit Line of the DMZ. The abandoned station building is now a small gallery.
Noh presented another series of photographic works here titled "The Peachy Bottom of the Second Underground Tunnel." The photos show the image of a man walking in the Second Underground Tunnel from behind.
"When I was visiting the tunnel, I thought the movement of the person in front of me was like dancing," Noh said. With Noh's photos, even the army's promotional poster starring K-pop star Rain looks like a part of the exhibition.
Berlin-based artist Kim Syl-bee exhibited a 2011 video work “Friendly Fire.” “This is about a failed excursion to a destination that cannot be reached,” Kim said.
She interpreted the tragedy of a fratricidal war in her own way through a melodrama featuring the love between twin brothers.
"It is a cliche, but I thought the video would go well with this station with a snapped railway track," she said.
Labor Party Building
Cheorwon is located north of the 38th parallel and the Labor Party Building shows how the area was once ruled by the North after the liberation of Korea. This is the only building in South Korea built by the North. The interior of the building was burnt during the Korean War and only the frame is left.
Kim Lyang installed “My Saintly Shelter” in front of the Labor Party Building. Her sense of nomadism inspired her to place a combination of different sized a-frame racks used to transport rice seedlings in front of the now-ruined but last vestige of communism. Inspired by an Israeli Kibbutz, she set up the rice seedling racks and added wheels as well as special lighting. Usually, the a-frame racks are immobile and transported on trucks, but Kim added wheels to the actual racks for her work.
“I am always interested in human dwellings. My nomadism comes from my family. My father is a displaced man, originating from the North, and he always misses his hometown,” Kim said. “This artwork symbolizes the relationship between the house and me.”
She said the DMZ and the Labor Party Building is a conceptual domain and she tried to arouse the situation of division by installing the artwork there.
Samuso said they treat this like a long-term project, considering the life and environment of the area. "With the 2012 exhibition as a starting point, we will continue with our various projects that deal with the diverse themes arising from the DMZ in an effort to draw an image that may be completed over time," the contemporary art exhibit organizer said.
The artwork is on display in addition to the sites of the Cheorwon Security Tour. Individuals should arrange their own transportation to Cheorwon. On Saturdays, those interested can take part in a group tour departing at the Artsonje Center in Seoul for 30,000 won.
For more information, visit www.realdmz.org or call (02)739-7068.