Grass and Honey: An Interview with Heejin Kim
In advance of her talk at the Freer on Thursday night (April 5 at 7 pm), Heejin Kim chatted with Bento about art, Seoul, and her work as director of Art Space Pool, an alternative art space.
Bento: How would you describe the contemporary art landscape in South Korea?
Heejin Kim: The current contemporary art scene of Korea, whether be it in Seoul or in other cities, seems active and dynamic. Compared to the time of liberal government 4 years ago, the current climate of the cultural scene of Korea is relatively depressed and exhausted. But seen from the average pace in other regions, the Korean cultural scene is still super fast and prolific.
What I am concerned about is this disparity between the quantity and quality, and psycho-political depression heavily looming over creative workers. Among the art people, there is to be sure a general disappointment at the populist cultural policy of the conservative government that cared only for the number and spectacle, and drastically cuts down the budget for an infrastructure and long-term, immaterial, not-market-friendly cultural production. However, the reason is not just a bad cultural policy or a subsequent poor art market situation. It’s coming from many other comprehensive social concerns, about labor, social welfare, economic polarization, unemployment rate, education, environment, and recurring corruptions, censorship, and surveillance. No wonder there emerges an undeniable number of off-the-road informal pursuits among cultural producers as a way to sustain themselves while detouring smartly around pitfalls.
This complex strategy makes tired cultural producers. At this point, the Korean contemporary society is exhausted, yet excited about two [upcoming] elections, one of which is on April 11. We don’t expect an absolute ideal, but at least here comes a chance for reformation and change, hopefully in a better way.
Bento: What was it like growing up in the 1980s in one of the headiest times in Korea for artists and politics?
Heejin Kim: It would be a lie if I say I knew what was going on in society as a teenager. When I was in high school, students stayed at school from 6 am to 11 pm [to prepare] for college entrance examinations, repeating drills and memorizing tons of textbooks, especially English. Generally youngsters shared this sense of suffocation. I felt like there’s a huge hand oppressing and binding so hard from nowhere. And unconsciously we all knew if we shake ourselves from the grip, it will choke you in a minute.
There came some sporadic shocks right into your face, like flyers strewn at the school playground by college students’ guerilla actions. They were mostly on the Gwangju massacre of May 18, 1980, with vivid journalistic images. The shock used to last for some months, making you physically sick and full of guilt. Simply the fact that we were alive while not knowing the recent history that had occurred in our country made us sick.
Meanwhile, we heard about serial suicide protests ongoing among college students and factory workers, sometimes four times in one month. I felt sorry to be alive, in a way, and intimidated by what might come in my near future. I was mad at the reality that trapped me in the time of paradox. I entered college in 1989 and I saw the last chapter of democratization struggle getting on a sad, anti-climatic path.
Bento: As director of Art Space Pool since 2010, what do you envision as the collective’s aims for the near future?
Heejin Kim: I used to have a long-term master plan for Art Space Pool, but who can guarantee what will happen in a year? At this point, I can only tell what I’ve done so far. [There are three] very challenging goals: 1) sustaining the value of integrity and productivity without being institutionalized, 2) balancing between the artist-run space quality and realistic, efficient professionalism, and 3) balancing between regional criticism and internationalization. Practically? I wish Pool could get away from the annual nightmare of in-between fiscal year hardships at a minimum survival level.
Bento: Can you give us a little preview of your talk on April 5?
Heejin Kim: I will convey some stories on the art practices by local fellow artists around my two spaces, Pool (meaning “Grass”) and Ccuull (meaning “Honey”). Since my spaces, compared to museums, are situated almost at the forefront of artists keeping intimate and everyday relationships, I think it is my role as a curator to portray what’s going on, instead of analyze. I hope my talk could be useful for those who want to complement the Korean film and video screenings currently ongoing at Freer|Sackler, and to explore more information on contemporary art practices, art resources, art spaces, and the art system in Seoul.
Bento: For you, what is the role of the artist in society?
Heejin Kim: Helping you see, sense, recognize, remember, think, and dream better in reality by means of imaginary languages.