Sung Hwan Kim: From the Commanding Heights…
At the cave-like entrance to Sung Hwan Kim’s solo debut in New York, a tunnel forked in two directions: veer left and enter the Queens Museum’s celebrated Panorama of the City of New York‚ a scale model of the five boroughs built for the 1964 World’s Fair—or, veer right and head into Kim’s show. This alteration to the doorway, which allowed visitors to catch a glimpse of the Panorama first, seemed an extension of Kim’s previous films, performances, and installations—particularly those that are inspirited by stories of place and displacement, migrations and mistranslations. But the exhibition didn’t necessarily begin at that bifurcated path. In an interview with Anthony Huberman for Mousse, Kim asserted that the show “starts on the 7 train,” a route that snakes through Queens, mostly on an elevated track that affords passengers a panoramic perspective of the borough and beyond.1
The title of Kim’s show, From the Commanding Heights of the Earliest Natural Fortification to the Architectonic Innovations of the Watch Tower the Development of Observation Balloons Satellites Surveillance there has been no End to the Enlargement of Field of Perception Whether I Know You or not Matters Less than How You Appear to the Objective Eye, reinforced this notion of a supervision, albeit in a disquieting light. A mouthful, the title poaches part of a line from “A Traveling Shot Over Eighty Years,” an essay by the French theorist Paul Virilio regarding the introduction of searchlights into warfare.2
Still, war, power, and vision weren’t quite the themes of the show. Kim’s dismantling of Virilio’s sentence, and his assertively poetic recasting after the word “perception,” point to his longstanding penchant for blurring the lines between private/public and personal/ political boundaries in order to expose questions about identity and notions of belonging to a specific place. As Larissa Harris, the show’s curator, ponders in the exhibition’s illuminating brochure, “The title of Joan Didion’s Where I Was From made me think: Is it possible to have been from somewhere once, and one day, not be from there anymore?”3
After entering through the architectural intervention, which some may not have even noticed as such, visitors arrived in a dimly lit, grotto-like space. Two video projections on the far ends of the room faced one another and were accompanied with simple wooden seating that recalled Donald Judd furniture. Around the projections Kim hung tinsel and green and white paper bunting. On the black-painted walls were chalk drawings of shape-shifting figures, a morphing combination of a tree, snake, and dog’s face. As shades of darkness and light washed over the room, the drawings seemed to appear and disappear in a strange form of animation.
The space was filled with the artist’s voice. Frequently, Kim narrates his works in the first person—at times breathlessly and at other times as if he were recounting a well-worn legend. Some of these works trace a historical event through personal anecdotes and imagined stories. The video From the Commanding Heights (2007), for instance, begins: “I know that it doesn’t matter if things are true or not, but this is a true story. I know this woman…” More often than not, the works go on to mine, build, and blur elliptical myths of self and origin.
Unlike many young artists, Kim borrows heavily from a strain of American video and performance art from the late 1960s and early 1970s. A 2004 retrospective by Joan Jonas, also at the Queens Museum, shared some common ground, literally and metaphorically, with Kim’s show. (Full disclosure: I worked at the museum at the time.) Jonas was Kim’s professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Kim seems to have inherited Jonas’s legacy, specifically her use of pseudonyms, elements of disguise, and stand-ins, such as “Organic Honey,” Jonas’s masked double from the performance and video Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy (1972). And as in Jonas’s work, Kim’s characters utter lyrical prose and weave together nonlinear narratives drawn from a wide array of literary sources—poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and folk songs. Yet, Kim’s work departs from Jonas’s with his specific interest in movement and resettlement, or more precisely, how “multiple leavings create multiple differences, and with those differences you can start to see a pattern.”4
“People in Amsterdam ask me how it’s different where you’re from,” begins Dog Video (2006), a seven-minute rumination on the psychic patterns between two homes. One is a large loft attic Kim rented during his residency at the Rijksakademie, filled daily by sounds of various church bells. The other is his childhood apartment in Seoul, where his father would ring pang-eul, a cluster of Korean bells, when he desired water, a massage, or his newspaper. In a heartfelt series of vignettes about the family’s dog, Kim evenly recounts his experiences, as one would do in psychoanalysis. One particularly stunning report transpires as a Freudian screen memory of the pang-eul, which the artist connects to other dominating and submissive actions, with the occasional suggestion of homoeroticism and bestiality. “My father, he was a strict man,” Kim says before we see the artist, dressed in a seventies-era suit and tie, giving orders to his frequent collaborator, the musician Michael DiGregorio (aka dogr), who obediently performs as the pet, sitting, taking orders from his master, and other canine routines. Although both men wear masks, the fantasy is paper thin in this work; often the camera’s lens is trained on the men from the vantage point of the floor, saturating the scene with an air of animal and human voyeurism.
At the end of the video, DiGregorio hauntingly sing-speaks, “The forgotten gesture, the additional act,” a line from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Orchards, a book of poems written in French that traces the Prague-born poet’s anxiety and his nostalgia.5 And then the video begins again, as if to make Kim’s memories more reliable and concrete through relentless repetition. Rilke himself was no stranger to the semi-autobiographical; his only novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, published in 1910, recounts his childhood memories and family home.6
From the Commanding Heights…, a longer looped video, blurs personal biography and myth to a greater extent and focuses on Kim’s childhood residence in Seoul and its frequent blackouts in the late 1970s. “We didn’t know her. But how we knew her face,” croons DiGregorio in another melancholic, lo-fi ballad, following a recording of a long-distance phone conversation between Kim and his mother, who provides a basic outline of a story. At the time, the South Korean dictator (General Park Chung-hee) was rumored to be having an affair with a famous actress who lived in the same apartment complex as Kim’s family. When the dictator visited he would shut off the neighborhood’s electricity to veil his activity. To stop gossip from spreading, various locals, including Kim’s mother, were questioned by the secret service and forced to say that they were unaware of any hearsay. The narrative is made hazy by Kim’s layering of media and the various characters and storylines that become interwoven within the work. For instance, a whimsical fairytale of a woman with an impossibly long neck, which the artist renders on a transparent screen placed atop the lens of his video camera, is combined with fuzzy, repeated images of the actress “C–,” who appears in Pal footage captured from a TV screen. it all ends with yet another sad pop song.
It seemed only fitting that the sounds of the show were wafting into the space of the Panorama. New York, Kim’s current home, is the third place in this configuration, a historical site of resettling and displacement. But the songs also drifted onto the 7 train on my way home, and were still lingering many days later when I couldn’t get that chorus or the masks and faces out of my mind. No less haunting was Kim’s proposal that “it doesn’t matter if things are true or not”; indeed, what counts is how something is recounted, how it’s given meaning over time, and how a simple story becomes enduring. This brings to mind a quote by Greil Marcus, who wrote that it is “a sure sign that a culture has reached a dead end when it is no longer intrigued by its myths (when they lose their power to excite, amuse, and renew all who are a part of these myths—when those myths just bore the hell out of everyone.)”7
Kim’s works show us that the survival of a myth is dependent on two conditions: it must not bore us and it must be repeated. Myths gain strength through this enduring cycle of reiteration, refusing to disappear. But Kim’s works also reanimate such cultural lore through deeply personal accounts (his mother’s, his own). His compound myths make the global more local—more specific and personal. In turn, the artist, like many others before, has begun not only to make myths from myths, and rumors from other rumors, but also he has begun to mythologize himself. Kim’s unpacking of the lessons gleaned from history—personal and otherwise—is in many ways a fitting tribute to his mentor Jonas, but it also moves beyond her breed of performance into something else, a realm that is at once old (or at least familiar) and entirely new, uncharted, and unmapped.
Lauren O’Neill-Butler is a New York-based writer and the managing editor of Artforum.com.
- Anthony Huberman and Sung Hwan Kim, “Some Stories in a Room,” Mousse 28, April 2011: 122–28.↵
- Paul Virilio, “A Traveling Shot Over Eighty Years,” War and Cinema: The Logics of Perception (London: Verso, 1989). Virilio’s line is: “From the commanding heights of the earliest natural fortifications, through the architectonic innovations of the watch-tower, and the development of anchored observation balloons, or the aerial reconnaissance of World War I and its “photographic reconstruction” of the battlefield, right up to President Reagan’s latest early warning satellites, there has been no end to the enlargement of the military field of perception.”↵
- Larissa Harris, “Sung Hwan Kim: From the Commanding Heights…,*” exhibition brochure (New York: Queens Museum of Art, 2011).↵
- Huberman and Kim, “Some Stories in a Room,” 28.↵
- The entire stanza is “Oh longing for places that were not / Cherished enough in that fleeting hour / How I long to make good from far / The forgotten gesture, the additional act.” From Rainer Maria Rilke, “Orchards,” The Complete French Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. A. Poulin Jr. (Saint Paul: Greywolf Press, 2002).↵
- Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge was first printed in English, in 1949, under the title Journal of My Other Self, in 1949.↵
- Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock n’ Roll (New York: Plume, 1997), 123.↵