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Kim Kulim in London: 4’33” and the meaning of 1/24”

Kim Kulim at Tate Modern, 18 September 2015
Kim Kulim at Tate Modern, 18 September 2015 (photo: LKL)

One of the highlights of the two-day focus on Korean artist films at Tate Modern was the opportunity to meet veteran avant-garde artist Kim Kulim. Kim was a leading experimental artist who first achieved prominence in the 1960s, exploring new frontiers such as performance, mail art and land art as well as experimental film. “I do not feel bound by media, and my decisions about media are always spontaneous and accommodating. My ideas and philosophies should convey themselves independent of media,” says Kim.1

Kim Ku-lim Leaflet for The Meaning of 1/24 Second (1969)
Kim Ku-lim Leaflet for The Meaning of 1/24 Second (1969). Off-set print.
Courtesy the artist

In the discussion at the Tate, it was entertaining and slightly depressing to hear the difficulties experienced by Kim in making and presenting this landmark film, The Meaning of 1/24 Second. Kim was assaulted by Chungmuro thugs who didn’t want experimental films being made. He couldn’t get an editor, so had to all the editing and splicing himself. The resulting film was physically fragile and so he worried that the print would break during the screening. As a back-up, he loaded 300 slide stills from the film into 3 projectors so that they were ready to give a flavour of the film if required. He lined up performance artists to provide additional interest. The event took place on 21 July 1969, the day (in Korean time) that Apollo 11 landed on the moon, in a music hall which otherwise wouldn’t have been available for hire. Everyone wanted to watch the moon landing on TV rather than an experimental film. Even some of the people credited in the film didn’t want to come.

Ku-lim Kim The Meaning of 1/24 Second (1969)
Ku-lim Kim The Meaning of 1/24 Second (1969). Film still. Courtesy the artist

The film is a series of 1 second edits, at 24 frames per second. The images flash by, emphasising the speed of modern society – cars zoom along an expressway, buildings flash by, smoke rises from something that is obviously overheating. Interspersed with these pulsating scenes, we get recurring cuts of a man yawning – perhaps signifying the boredom of a man unable to find employment in a world where everything seems to be passing him by.

Reflecting the multi-disciplinary nature of his artistic practice, Kim Kulim was a leading light in the formation of AG and other artistic collectives, which  aimed to break conventions: normal networks were of alumni of the same university. Kim Kulim’s aim was to find partners for collaboration as he himself was not multi-skilled.

The group for which he was best known is perhaps 4th Group, a nationwide organisation which included members who had not been to university. 4 is not a good number because of its association with death. The group was launched on 15 August 1970 – Independence Day – with a march from City Hall to the Han River. In the procession was a coffin filled with all the books that the group did not approve of. Needless to say, Kim Kulim, as the leader of the procession, was arrested.

Kim Kulim in Trafalgar Square on 20 September
Kim Kulim in Trafalgar Square on 20 September after his impromptu walkabout (photo: LKL)

Kim had not had any direct encounter with foreign or Western avant garde film-making and art, and The Meaning of 1/24 Second was very much his own initiative. But his experimental work was rubbished in Korea, although it was well received in Japan during his three year stay 1973-76.

Kim Kulim is still very active today, 47 years after the debut screening of The Meaning of 1/24 Second. Coinciding with his London visit, he had an audio-visual exhibition in Seoul’s OCI Museum (till 15 October) entitled Past Rose. A small dot on the screen expands to form a red blossom, like a pair of lips. Text rains down on the screen – words of wisdom from Taoist and Confucian texts, while Kim himself reads a voiceover of the words. The piece explores the power of words both to kill and to heal.

Kim’s work is often concerned with NOT performing, with creating a situation where he is part of a bigger “happening” rather than the centre of attention himself – though perhaps Zen, a 1970 work in which he meditated almost naked in a gallery all day sitting on a tree stump is an exception to this.

His plan for a performance in Trafalgar Square was to present a piece entitled From Phenomenon to Disappearance. The plan was to partner with a British poet, who would read some of his poems; after finishing each page he would tear it out of the book and pass it to Kim, who would write random words from the poem on a large piece of paper or canvas on an easel. When the poet had finished reading his poems both performers would leave the square leaving behind the words on the paper for the audience to do what they will. The voice of the poet and the words written on the page disperse into nothingness.

Kim Kulim in Trafalgar Square
Kim Kulim in Trafalgar Square, 20 September 2015 (photo:LKL)

The plans came to nothing – a performance of that length in the square requires permission from the public authorities, something which had not been sought in advance. Instead, Kim performed his own minimalist version of 4’33”, in which he wandered around the square examining its potential as a performance space, photobombing one or two buskers and blending inconspicuously into the crowds of tourists. But in his all black garb, his stylish hat and is grey pony tail it was not hard to pick him out as not a normal visitor to Trafalgar Square. His interpreter was enigmatic about the meaning of the performance. But one of Kim’s early tenets was that “the meaning of an art work is complete in the realm of reception not creation, and the individual and subjective interpretation of the work is as important as the original intention of the artist.”2

Poster for MMCA 30th anniversary performance of From Phenomenon to Traces – The Event with Fire and Lawn
Poster for MMCA 30th anniversary performance of From Phenomenon to Traces – The Event with Fire and Lawn. The charred black triangles of soil are from the 1970 performance on the banks of the Han River in Seoul.

At the time of writing, Kim is in the final stages of preparation for a re-performance of one of his seminal pieces of Land Art: From Phenomenon to Traces – The event with Fire and Lawn. 46 years after its first performance, it is being re-enacted at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Gwacheon as part of their 30th Anniversary celebrations. The event is to be held at 1pm on 18 March 2016.

Kim Kulim’s The Meaning of 1/24 Second (1969) screened as part of Tate Modern’s event Embeddedness: Artist Films and Videos from Korea 1960s to Now on 18 September. LKL is grateful to Hyunjin Cho and Jessica Kim for interpreting during a conversation with the artist in Trafalgar Square on 20 September. 

  1. Roberta Carasso, An interview with the artist Ku-lim Kim, 1991, quoted in Sook-kyung Lee’s 2013 essay which introduces this comprehensive retrospective catalogue published in 2015: Kim Kulim catalogue  []
  2. Sook-kyung Lee, ibid. []

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