by Lee Eunjoo (Curator, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea)
Dialectic Allegory between Earth and Body, Ego and the Other,
Settlement and Migration
Settlement and Migration
by Lee Eunjoo (Curator, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea)
In March of 2015, a three-year old boy was found dead on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey. The small body of Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee, was washed ashore. The horrendous image of the lifeless body lying on the beach sent angry shockwaves worldwide. The death of the boy, who fell victim to his parents’ choice between life and death and settlement and migration, prompted a frantic call to people around the world to act with moral responsibility. This was followed by violent protests, with voices exclaiming, “A boy died due to the wrongdoings of the world!” and “We are all at fault!” Next came the urge to revise immigration laws in every nation. Civil war in Syria had caused the mass migration of approximately two million displaced people who then attempted to emigrate to Europe.
On a winter day in December 2017, a black woman in France made an urgent call to an emergency response service, requesting an ambulance. However, the operator, who noticed the African migrant woman’s accent, did not send the one, and in the end, the woman died. When the news went viral in France, authorities initiated an investigation. The recording of the phone call, which was released to the public during the investigation, clearly indicates that the migrant woman was in tremendous distress when she pleaded, “I am going to die.” What’s more shocking is the operator’s response, “So, call your doctor,” and “Yes, you are going to die. Certainly. One day. Like everyone.”2 Human beings choose to migrate in order to survive or to search for better living conditions. Yet, they often face new threats in the region where they settle and, therefore, may choose to move again.
For instance, according to Sonia Shah, author of #The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move#, “People had fled Haiti en masse after a devastating earthquake hit the island in 2010. The U.S. government allowed about sixty thousand Haitians to stay in the country under a program known as ‘temporary protective status’ (TPS), which granted eighteen months of legal status to people from countries that suffered natural disasters or protracted unrest. Haitian earthquake survivors arrived in the United States on airlifts still covered in the dust from the rubble from which they’d been extracted. But the welcome did not last. A few months after the quake, U.S. officials sent Air Force cargo planes to Haiti to broadcast the message that anyone who dared try to come to the United States would be arrested and turned back.”3
With the recent surge in cross-border migration, politicians in favor of anti-migration policies are gaining popularity amid growing concerns that crimes by migrants and hatred toward migrants are escalating social crisis. As weakening racial boundaries appear to pose a bigger threat to racial purity, negative attitudes toward migrants have become more widespread. Recently, the philosophical views of Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, and Jean-Luc Nancy, which assert that a community needs to be built on a foundation of acceptance and hospitality toward the “other,” have become a topic of public discourse. Nevertheless, migrants are still living under unstable conditions. As they migrate — half-willingly, half-unwillingly — due to war or natural disasters, the issue of migration is no longer an issue pertaining to an individual’s life but, rather, it is a social problem.
The overarching theme of Choi Chan Sook’s artistic journey is migration. Choi’s work is presented in the form of an autobiography featuring her family history and other people’s life stories using video, performance, installation, and objects. Choi, a Korean-Asian woman artist who moved to Germany in her early 20s, was unable to assimilate completely into European society. Coincidentally, she found her existence being gradually forgotten in Korea, which prompted her to confront her status as an “existential” outsider. Human beings elect to move in search of a more stable life but, because of that choice, find themselves in a situation where they become isolated. The artist, who is not a stranger to this experience, began asking many questions of herself and others such as, “Why and how do human beings migrate?” and “Is physical migration the only possible form of migration?”
The types of migrating plant species, which move from one habitat to another due to climate change, are on the rise. This is common now both on land and sea: all living species, including animals and plants, move. Mankind is no exception, and people cross borders, often risking their lives, even as we speak. These days, satellites are used to track and take photos of migratory birds. The data collected in this way are used to identify migratory birds’ flyways. Global human migration data are also available, although the actual figure is arguably much higher than the statistics suggest. Migrants are often forced to repeat the cycle of migration, settling in yet another new place and feeling like strangers due to otherization. Stuck in the blurred boundary between theorization and dataization, Choi began to explore the concept of migration. At the center of migration were the lives of otherized women who lead independent lives despite their otherization.
One day, carrying a few photos with her, the artist embarked on a journey to Japan to trace her Japanese grandmother’s footsteps. By crossing the lives of her grandmother, who had moved to Korea during Japanese colonial period, and the artist, who is enjoying a plentiful life, wove stitch by stitch the temporality of the fragmented past onto a square fabric of the present. While tracing her beloved grandmother’s life in a distant, foreign country, Choi observed the firm fortress that was the nation’s borders and the people isolated within the fortress. Even though they had otherized and isolated themselves by choosing to migrate, they would be freed from the chains of racial discrimination, anti-miscegenation, classism, and neocolonialism had it not been for the nation’s borders.
While negative perceptions toward migrants are gaining stronger ground due to mass migration taking place of late, many theorists agree with Sonia Shah’s assertion, which strongly counters this perception. Shah opposes policies adopted by a number of governments that label refugees and migrants as intruders instead of accepting them as new neighbors. She asserts that mankind has the genetic urge to move — more so than to settle in one place — and acknowledges that Africa is where all of mankind originated4 and that human culture was originally a hybrid culture. Choi’s work embraces Shah’s view on tolerance and love for humankind in the context of migration.
Allegory of Settlement and Migration
Once she has selected a specific theme for her work, Choi embarks on a long journey of thorough research. Her new work always recalls parts of her previous works which had remained unresolved. In this way, her projects with different themes are interconnected with one another like a Moebius strip. To be more precise, personal and historical issues, memory and oblivion, and mental and physical issues are framed in a powerful, continuous allegory. When tracing the allegory of the world reconstructed by the artist, the interpretation of each work points to a consistent direction. In the process of identifying and interpreting each theme, seemingly disparate elements converge in one story. For instance, the central theme of #FOR GOTT EN# (2012) deals with religion-based, inner emigration but it also features — with no less significance — themes such as the lives of migrant women, forgotten memories, and the history of the human face. Another work, #Yangji-ri# (2018), highlights the placeness of the Civilian Control Zone and sheds light on the lives of resident elderly women in the form of an autobiographical fiction. Rather than being an observer on the periphery, the artist gets involved in the tiresome lives of her subjects living in Yangji-ri and becomes one with them. She also views the issues of the elderly women who have been living in the village through its inception from the perspective of land ownership regulated by the law and the system. In this sense, she tells the story of the body of the people who have built houses on land, which could be subject to legal dispute, and she amplifies the voices of the people who were stripped of basic rights, living outside of the boundaries of the system regulated by the nation. Elderly women of the Yangji-ri, who believe that the ownership issue will be resolved someday, live in an uncertain situation, in between settlement and migration. Perhaps Choi connected her own life, which has repeated the cycle of settlement and migration, with their seemingly peaceful lives with nevertheless unstable roots.
In all probability, this is why Choi replaces the women’s lives with her own to tell the history of migration and settlement from a broader perspective. As her work on the series progressed, it appears to have rekindled her desire to restore her past identity, which has been otherized in foreign countries. Whereas in the past she had felt as if she was standing in the middle of a vast sea all alone, as a stranger, isolated by an unfamiliar barrier of temporality, she is now standing side by side with many migrant women. Within the theme of migration, women, and land, the artist has produced #The Promised Land# (2010),5 #FOR GOTT EN, Yangji-ri#, and #Myitkyina# (2019), all of which have preceded her completion of the newly-released work, #qbit to adam# (2021). Indeed, in the end, all fragments of the finished works reconnect with the very first work.
As someone who has lived in Germany as a foreigner (‘intruder’)6 for a long while, Choi has understandably been drawn to the issue of migration and the lives of women and has continued to expand her research. Apart from the issue of who the subject or the other is, foreigners can be referred to as “people not from here.” As this statement connotes, the other can be shunned from the society and be locked up under the mandate that safe distance must be maintained between them and the rest of the society. The statement refuses to acknowledge the very existence of the other.7 Migrants are people who settle in a specific place with the hope of settling there permanently. Virtually every migrant hopes to avoid being labeled as a foreigner and dreams of stable settlement. However, for the humankind born with the strong innate desire to migrate, stable settlement is not always in the picture. This is true for many migrants: those displaced by war, those forced to live under colonial rule, or those who exist on the brink of life and death and thus are forever strangers, forever others. In consideration of such circumstances, Choi focuses on the hardships and the loneliness experienced by those who live with psychological deprivation as foreigners and forever strangers despite the ownership of physical space and stable settlement.
For Choi, the concept of migration is not merely about movement between physical spaces — that is to say, cross-border migration. Michael Arzt and Frank Motz analyzed Choi’s work saying, “Chan Sook Choi, 2012 Kunstraum HALLE 14 grant recipient, undertook fieldwork to investigate and research the contemporary status of God, belief, religion and spirituality by meeting with six women from a Leipzig parish. All were aged between 60 and 90, all were from Leipzig, and all held unwaveringly onto their faith during the GDR regime (1949 – 1989) which oppressed religious freedom. This was the beginning of Chan Sook Choi’s artistic as well as personally intensive long term research and meeting project #FOR GOTT EN#.”8 In this exhibition, a video installation presents the interviews with the six women, who reflect on their lives as they discuss faith and God, and memory and oblivion. The prevailing theme of this work is the interaction between personal history and religious perception. As she did for #The Promised Land#, Choi once again installed an apparatus for moving from one location to another: the palanquin is the means of transportation made specifically for the women in the interview. It functions as a reminder of the lives of the women and restores past memories that have been forgotten. The sentence, “Your eye is a window to your body/soul,” is written on the palanquin. According to Arzt and Motz, this is “an invitation to a journey through time and back, a trip that takes place in the personal memories of their lives as they are carried from the past into the present. Choi’s camera documented the process of memory; the women’s faces and their reactions to the film they were shown.”9 In this way, Choi provided these women with an opportunity to communicate with their own pasts, which, in turn, has expanded their present lives. Arzt and Motz continued their analysis:
“Chan Sook Choi created a mobile system, a small world allowing the old to unfold inside its frame, where they could look inward without the artist’s assistance. The artist’s personal address and her repeated visits to the women, her assistance and pastoral care, her dedication and appreciation allowed distance and inhibitions to melt, and all this radiating from an initially foreign and foreign seeming Korean, whose appearance is from another land, who speaks German with an accent and whose background is far removed from the East German region of Saxony.”10
Motz, who was the director of the project, provides a very detailed account of the process and of Choi’s perspective on making #FOR GOTT EN# while residing in Leipzig for months. As a foreigner in an unfamiliar land, Choi collaborated closely with her subjects for this project. In this process, the barrier between the objectified other — the six women — and the artist herself was torn down. The artist used this approach again when she created #Yangji-ri#. She lived in Yangji-ri for five months in order to grow closer to the elderly women — like a family member — and subsequently created this work. The endearing interest she paid to the women who had been otherized very likely provided solace to the women, who had experienced much struggle in their lives.
“While living in Yangji-ri, I was able to walk on land for the first time as part of my everyday life. Stepping out from home meant standing on earth, the land. There was this old lady, the eldest in the village, who was over 90 years old. She just casually mentioned while passing through, ‘I noticed you up late last night… I just came by and sat down here briefly because I missed my friend who used to live here.’ That was all she said… Since land is ultimately the basis for human life, it must be vital to those who want to settle down. The experience I had in Yangji-ri and the older women who lived there allowed me to contemplate land, body, and other forms of ownership.”11
The artist lived in the Minbuk Village, a propaganda village, in Cheorwon, Gangwon-do for five months and spent a lot of time with elderly women who have lived there for a long while. Since 1968, people began living in Yangji-ri, located in the Civilian Control Zone between North and South Koreas. The government had offered land for them to settle there; however, they could not have full ownership of the land. Choi heard various stories about the land comprising this village when she interviewed the women. For instance, “I came to live on bare land filled with mines. I later found out that, as the land was not in our name, should the owner happen to return, we would have been chased out and would not have been able to do anything about it.” Choi elaborated, these were “stories of hardship these women shared repetitively as they crouched to brush dust from crops they plucked from the land, stories filled with regret and frustration about the land not being theirs, told repetitively like the dust that blew around when they tried to brush it from crops.” While experiencing the history and lives of the people of Yangji-ri, she became interested in the way people owned land and about the fundamental human desire to settle on land. As a result, she posed the following question:
“Why is the land yours?”#
Land, the border between settling and migration, and
the significance of land ownership
“Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)
“But the Lord God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’” (Genesis 3:9)
Choi’s artwork can be further analyzed with the words of Alain Marchadour and David Neuhaus, “The second account of creation uses the word ‘earth’ (#adamah#) instead of Land (#aretz#). Adamah designates the very substance from which Adam is formed and from which apparently he derives his name. #Adamah# has the vocation to become a garden, a cultivated place, through the nurturing care of Adam. He is placed in the garden ‘to till it and keep it’ (Genesis 2:15).”12 Man was made from the earth of the Holy Land. In the land blessed in the name of the Lord God, man’s body may have been one with the land. Choi’s work, #qbit to adam#, is exhibited in a space filled with three large screens and a copper-textured floor. Within the texture of the land, the audience reads the narrative created by the artist about the body and the land. Choi studied the concept of land for many years — for instance, who established the borders of a given land, when the concept of ownership began to be applied to land, and how useful land would become as property in the future. With time as her resource, she attempted to answer questions about the land in social, historical, and religious contexts. The result of such deep contemplation is the one, mass allegory in which the land, the grave, the body, and the mummy converge or scatter in both video and text.
Choi explored the concept of land — made of earth and also the source of man’s body — and realized that this source is replaced by transcendence. Death, as man’s irreversible fate, returns him to the earth. From the word “land” in the Bible, where “land” is mentioned for the first time, to the word “land” as it is used in modern times, the history and the range of meaning of the “land” is vast. In search of the places where the border between land and body disappears, after a 23-hour flight, she visited the city of Calama in Chile as well as the nearby Atacama Desert. “In 1899, a mummy was found in an ancient mine located in northern Chile,” the artist recalled. “Green copper had seeped into his body over many years, turning it into mineral. Copper Man. If you look at his body carefully, you will see there is no border between the body and the land anymore.”13 Ultimately, this work originated from this scenario, from Choi linking the land to the body. The gallery floor is filled with copper-textured material, which functions as a medium connecting the land and body. It also symbolizes Copper Man, who arose from the earth covered in copper-colored minerals.
Choi Chan Sook has continued pondering the concepts of migration, land, and land ownership through such works as #The Promised Land, Yangji-ri#, and #Black Air# (2019). The flow of her reasoning proceeded like dominos, one following the next. #qbit to adam#, which she completed for the Korea Artist Prize 2021 exhibition, is a convergence of all of her aforementioned keywords: “Adam,” who had been banished from the first land to the vast wilderness; “People,” who had been swept to the margins of the social, political contexts; “Workers,” who toil on the land their entire lives but still cannot secure their rights; “Land,” sold and bought based strictly on the logic of economics in capitalistic society; “Moments,” when vast nature turns into a personal possession; and “Migrants,” who still cannot find land on which to settle. To Choi, land is the resting place for the roaming body and soul, a space for embracing and welcoming others. Here, on the land, there is no social system that mass produces refugees, workers, or migrants. This land cannot be bought or sold; it does not belong to anybody, like a grave that rises on the land. When you reach the end of such reasoning, you realize that the body and the land are one and cannot be separated — the way it used to be before Genesis. In the land, where the desire of mankind has been castrated, the senses of texture and touch embrace our bodies, and the artist asks,
How are the borders of the body and the borders of land different?
What do you see when you look down into the grave of the dead?
Three large screens have been installed in the exhibition space to visualize the texture of the land, which appears to be alive and breathing. With this land as background, apricot-colored pieces of skin symbolizing the body rotate. Pieces of copper appear frequently on the screen, juxtaposed with the animated sense of the land as a backdrop. These flesh and copper fragments in the video signify that the body and the land are separate yet one. The gallery floor, which is covered in a copper-like material, seems to interact with the copper pieces in the video, surrounding the bodies of the audience. In this way, audience members connect, become one with the floor, the land; their bodies take part in the journey across this simulated land and the difficult lives of those who had been driven from it.
Then, Choi asks:
When was the land separated from the body?
With advancements in technology, mankind is now moving toward the virtual, augmented, and hybrid realities made possible by computer data. They exert influence not only on our ordinary daily lives, but also on our societies, cultures, politics, and economies. This also pertains to the concept of land and land ownership. When virtual reality was first introduced, it was a public asset owned jointly by people — much like the way in which the land was regarded in relation to mankind through much of history. However, as the concept of common ownership began to disappear, a series of events we had experienced with actual, physical land are being repeated in the virtual world. We buy land on virtual platforms and focus on decorating avatars. I in the real world become an avatar in the virtual space I create and meet with other people — also avatars. Just like that, time and space in the real world move to the virtual. Besides eating and drinking, I buy a house there, which I decorate to my tastes, and I meet my friends virtually as well. As the concept of the land changes, the way in which humans intervene and manage the land has also changed. Additionally, the ego that exists in such a space sees the body disappear, becoming disconnected with the land, becoming an ego that has been transformed to data — to the avatar.
Moving land, the battle for the virtual land
In Ted Chiang’s short story, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” “I” from real life live together with an avatar in the same time and space. Ana Alvarado, who had failed to find a job for a long while, opens a window to Next Dimension and starts her favorite game: “Age of Iridium.” “The beachhead is crowded, but her avatar is wearing the coveted mother-of-pearl combat armor, and it’s not long before some players ask her if she wants to join their fireteam. They cross the combat zone, hazy with the smoke of burning vehicles, and for an hour they work to clear out a stronghold of mantids; it’s the perfect mission for Ana’s mood, easy enough that she can be confident of victory but challenging enough that she can derive satisfaction from it.”14 Ana is rejected by someone in real life but, in the “Age of Iridium,” her avatar is data that has an attractive item sought by all. Subsequently, Ana quickly accesses another Internet platform, “Data Earth,” to meet with a friend.
“She logs on to Data Earth, and the window zooms in to her last location, a dance club cut into a giant cliff face. Data Earth has its own gaming continents – Elderthorn, Orbis Tertius -
but they aren’t to Ana’s taste, so she spends her time here on the social continents. Her avatar is still wearing a party outfit from her last visit; she changes to more conventional clothes and then opens a portal to Robyn’s home address. A step through and she’s in Robyn’s virtual living room, on a residential aerostat floating above a semicircular waterfall a mile across. Their avatars hug,”15 and they start to talk to each other.
With the emergence of the virtual world, there are now avatars through which one can project their emotions as they do in the real world. Moreover, with the recent emergence of NFT and metaverse, land, houses, trees, gardens, cars, clothes, bags, and other items can be purchased in the virtual world just as the reality. As seen in Ted Chiang’s novel, people meet on an online platform where they can freely and comfortably do anything and everything they do in the real world. Not only should physical bodies be taken care of, but also the avatars existing in the virtual space. Separated from our physical, perhaps our minds and souls might more closely resemble non-material data. The concept of land ownership has switched to ownership in the virtual world while the body has been substituted by an avatar. I put together the images of myself, one of me standing on the vast and forlorn earth, and another of me floating in an ever-proliferating world, like the vast plains of the universe. I begin to move my body. Standing on the copper-textured floor and watching a video about the land, I sense a strong connection between my body and the land.