Exhibition Visit: Sung Hwan Kim – Temper Clay in Tate Modern Tanks

So far I’ve probably spent seven hours over the course of five visits trying to figure out the massive installation in the Tate Modern by 37 year old Sung Hwan Kim (김성환). I haven’t succeeded yet, and indeed I’m not at all sure it’s possible fully to resolve the into a coherent whole the many conflicting strands in the installation, but I’ll still be going back for more.

Sung Hwan Kim: The Tanks Commission, 2012 (installation view)
Sung Hwan Kim: The Tanks Commission, 2012 (installation view)
© Sung Hwan Kim. Photocredit: Tate Photography

It’s the most baffling, mystifying, tantalising exhibition I’ve seen in a long while, but it also holds out the hope that each time you visit it you’ll get some more enlightenment. You return, you take more notes, you go away and google the fragments of poetry you note down to see where they came from, trying to piece together more of the puzzle. You find out more about Seoul’s urban development in the 1960s and beyond, or about Park Chung-hee’s rumoured dalliances. And then you return again for more.

As you enter the East Tank – whichever door you enter – you’re likely to bump into someone exiting as your eyes struggle to adjust to the darkness. Once inside the space, as if to add to the confusion, you are likely to trip over loudspeakers or little platforms which are designed for sitting on or which conceal the film projectors. Much care has been taken in the staging of the installation, particularly in the main part of the tank, with projection screens defining the focus of individual spaces, but there being little formal definition between them as you wander around the huge area enjoying different angles of view, and watching the changing reflection of the videos in the reflective surfaces in the room.

From the Commanding Heights…

The first door takes you into a small, sectioned-off portion of the tank, in which Kim has installed his film “From the Commanding Heights…” (2006), which lasts for about half an hour. Just inside the door is a piece of text from which the title of the work is taken:

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 Eye1

The text prepares you for a work which addresses themes of surveillance, appearance and reality. But while the work does in fact touch on those themes, it is more intractable than that.

As you turn the first angle of the space, avoiding the gallery attendant who is watching you from behind a table in the dark corner, you come up against the second essay on the them of surveillance: a two-way mirror which allows you to look into the main part of the tank, where you can see other visitors walking in front of another video projection (Washing Brain and Corn). You can see them, but they have difficulty seeing you – though some of them may be trying to peer through the mirror to see what is but dimly visible.

To your right is a room lined with black carpet in which From the Commanding Heights… is being screened.

The film has several sections which seem to have little connection to each other. One section touches on surveillance by the KCIA (the Korean secret police), while in another the artist plays with the idea of reality by prefacing a story which is obviously a fable with the words “Everything I say is real”.

The section that will appeal most to the Koreaphile is a recording of a phone call between Kim and his mother chatting about her memories of living in the Hyundai apartments in 1970s Seoul. It was a time when there were frequent power cuts, and it was rumoured that Park Chung-hee always engineered a power cut when he was planning to visit his mistress, the actress Chung Yoon-hee (정윤희), who lived in the Hyundai apartments. The KCIA rounded up and interrogated anyone suspected of spreading such gossip – including Kim’s mother and aunt.2 A frisson went around the Korean members of the audience as a commanding photograph of Park Chung-hee dominated the screen for about a minute.

Sung Hwan Kim: From the Commanding Heights (video still) 2007
The woman with the third ear on top of her head
Sung Hwan Kim: From the Commanding Heights (video still) 2007 Single channel colour video
© Sung Hwan Kim Courtesy Wilkinson Gallery, London

Another section of the film talks about a strange and beautiful woman with a third ear on the top of her head. When it rains, the ear lets water into her head which then leaks out of her eyes and nose. The woman has beautiful long black hair and a neck so long that snakes made a home in it – the woman is perhaps a reference to the Chinese legend of the white snake, or perhaps a whim of Kim’s own invention. The woman is trapped in an abusive relationship with an evil man. This fable is intercut with tantalising images of a real-life beautiful woman, her head turned away, who was first introduced to us during the narration of Park Chung-hee’s affair with Chung Yoon-hee. Are we supposed to make a connection between the two stories? The suggestion is there – the actress has long black hair as does the snake woman. And the two figures are further linked together by a song which Kim Sung-hwan’s collaborator, the composer and musician David Michael DiGregorio (aka dogr), sings in the soundtrack to the film:

O how this city has changed
finding your way around just to reach me
has never been so complicated
Always the highways shift
and the byways make it impossible to move

The terror of knowing you’re with me
the terror of knowing you’re not
if I get pulled under this city
may the snakes constrict all of my thoughts

O how your face has changed
did you fight your way through all those years of acting?
hiding behind that long black hair
o as the buildings fall
and the sands swallow up the automobiles

The din of the traffic below you
the dust blowing over your head
though I no longer know you
please swaddle me in your hair when I’m dead3

The poem brings together the themes of urban change and an ageing actress with beautiful hair which dominate the film as much as the blurring of the borderlines between fable and truth.

A final, more mundane segment, depicts Kim’s sometime home in Amsterdam, showing his alter ego, dogr, enjoying a cake at a patisserie, and puzzling scenes of a hyena in a zoo and a butterfly in a greenhouse. While entertaining and interesting of itself, the section seems disconnected from the remainder of the film. Maybe on a subsequent revisit a hitherto unobserved connection may unite the whole.

Temper Clay

In the main part of the tank, entered through a second door in the entrance hallway, the largest work is Temper Clay (2012), which dominates the space physically and aurally, as dogr’s haunting musical soundtrack echoes throughout the space. Around the circular wall are strange installations – a tinsel curtain; black panels behind which are coloured light bulbs mirrored in reflective paper; a couple of sketches; and at the furthest extremity a forest of LEDs in front of some cartoon-like sketches, painted in white onto a glass panel. It all adds to the mystery of the room as the darkness and the music envelops you.

In Temper Clay, which is shot largely in black and white, Kim returns to the theme of the Hyundai Apartments. The apartments were built on landfill on the banks of the Han River in what is now glitzy Apgujeong-dong. The construction of this modern apartment complex followed the failure of government-funded housing with the collapse of the Wawu Citizens Apartment building (와우 아파트) in Mapo-gu in 1970, leaving 33 people dead. We learn from the video From the Commanding Heights… that when first built a unit there cost 2,000 Euros. Now, reflecting Seoul’s property boom, the same units change hands for 3 million Euros. In Temper Clay, Kim approaches the Hyundai Apartment narrative from the viewpoint of his 17 year old nanny who came to look after him and do household chores in the 1970s. Her voice is grotesquely distorted by a strange electronic device as she tells of her brief stay in the apartments. “It was rather embarrassing” she confesses. No time for anything, least of all studying. The footage is interspersed with film of woodland, shot from above, in which children seem to be playing. Two or three girls fight over an axe which maybe was used to build Kim’s parents’ family house in the country, which is where they planned retiring to – but never did.

Sung Hwan Kim: Temper Clay, 2012 Fireplace
Sung Hwan Kim: Temper Clay, 2012. Video Still. Courtesy the artist and Wilkinson Gallery © 2012 Sung Hwan Kim.

We see footage of a woman’s hands mopping up spilt milk in a corridor of what might be a high school. She wipes in circular motion, milk is spilt, and she stops mopping without finishing the job; another pair of hands takes her place, as a succession of men walk barefoot down the corridor.

In yet another episode the artist stands alone on the banks of a river in the countryside, swinging a burning paint-pot around his head. For those familiar with the history of Seoul in the 1980s the parallel with Molotov cocktails in the widespread anti-dictatorship demonstrations is hard to avoid. But in this work, the cocktail is never thrown, and even if it were, it would fall harmlessly into the river.

The theme of fire is repeated a couple of times in this work – in one scene three girls dance around a camp fire, and in another a paper mask is burned in front of a girl’s face. But once again, the connection between the episodes is elusive.

But possible the most difficult aspect of the work is understanding the relevance of all the quotes from Shakespeare’s King Lear which ultimately give the work its title. The texts used include the following lines, some of which deal with Lear’s strained relationship with his daughters:

Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?

See what breeds about her heart.

Strike her young bones,
And from her derogate body never spring a babe to honour her!

and finally, from Act 1 Scene 4

Old fond eyes,
Beweep this cause again, I’ll pluck ye out,
And cast you, with the waters that you loose,
To temper clay.

Parent-child relationships are explored further in Dog Video, in which Kim talks about his father, a strict disciplinarian, but in Temper Clay are not to the fore. In a video on the Sotheby’s website4 the artist describes Temper Clay as a poem:

In a difficult essay in the catalogue of the exhibition, Kim talks about the “tempering” process which connects cause with effect – a process which gives the work its title. The essay takes a considerable amount of reading, and applying it to the video takes a similar amount of effort. Other commentary on the film suggests that female relationships are a theme, but this theme is not to me particularly evident. As with the other videos in this installation, it’s best to let the experience wash over you, enjoy it, ponder it, and maybe try again.

Washing Brain and Corn

Washing Brain and Corn (2010) has other bizarre elements, again mixing fantasy with a brutal reality like From the Commanding Heights…. In the fantasy narrative a man has an extra brain implanted into his head which then expands until it seems to ooze out of his nose. In the more brutal sequence, we first hear a tuneful folk melody sung to guitar accompaniment. It’s a 1960s song to which the lyrics are “I don’t like the Communists” (나는 공산당이 싫어요). A party of hungry North Korean infiltrators raid an impoverished family in hte winter of 1968/69. They ask to be given rice but there is only popcorn (강냉이) available – ends with a brutal interrogation in which a boy has his cheek sliced open for not being quick enough to say that he supported the communists.

Sung Hwan Kim: Washing Brain and Corn, 2010 (Video still)
Courtesy the artist. © Sung Hwan Kim

As with Temper Clay, the narrative is interspersed with enigmatic scenes of the countryside – people seeming to play hide and seek in a bamboo forest.

Dog Video

Dog Video (2006) is the shortest of the four videos in the installation, in which Kim, in the persona of his strict father, disciplines a dog played by his musical collaborator dogr.

Sung Hwan Kim: Dog Video (2006)
Sung Hwan Kim: Dog Video (2006) Video, colour / sound (Duration 7 min)
© Sung Hwan Kim Courtesy Wilkinson Gallery, London

What is one to make of the installation as a whole? To be honest, I’m not sure. But I do know that it’s something that stays with you and draws you back again and again.

Other Links:

  1. Text inspired by Paul Virilio. []
  2. Ask a Korean which famous actress Park Chung-hee had an affair with, and they will probably say Yoon Chung-hee / Yoon Jeong-hee (윤정희), who recently returned to fame with Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry. But diligent searching on Naver and other tools will, I’m told, reveal Chung as well as Yoon mentioned as the President’s object of affection. A Korean informant with a memory for 1970s gossip told me that Yoon was smart: she moved to Paris to escape Park’s attention, where she later married pianist Paik Kun-woo. Chung, who was less smart and perhaps flattered by the attention, is the actress in the Hyundai apartments who entertained the important visitor. []
  3. Text sourced from dogr’s website, where you can listen to much of the music that you hear in these videos. []
  4. Sotheby’s sponsered this installation. []