Kang Ik-joong’s installation entitled Floating Dreams is a symbol of hope for the unification of Korea. Moored on the Thames outside Tate Modern, the installation is an assembly of 500 drawings in the shape of a cube – four square sides and a flat upper surface each featuring a grid of 10 x 10 pictures of 70cm square. The drawings, by refugees from North Korea who fled south during the Korean war, represent memories of their childhood and home towns. South Korea’s Unification Ministry has official records of around 65,000 such displaced individuals, and given that not all such refugees will have registered with the ministry the artist estimates that there could be around 200,000 of them in all.
It is symbolic that the work floats on the Thames, which was once London’s main highway connecting the commercial hub of the City of London with the centre of power in the City of Westminster. But a river, as well as facilitating connection and communication, can also act as a barrier and a boundary.
The boy on the top of the floating cube is modeled on the son of the artist’s assistant. He is the same age that many of the refugees would have been when they fled south and thus looks back to the past; and of course a child also represents the hope for the future. But this boy seems to be more than that – a symbol of refugees throughout the ages. At the base of the cube is the boy’s luggage, slightly battered as if it has been pulled a long distance. At least he has had time to prepare for his journey.
Although the finished object is an assembly of drawings, the artist’s motive in collecting these pictures from the refugees was to collect their stories. At first many of them were reluctant to contribute; but as they began drawing the memories flooded back, and with the stories came the tears. The project was an emotional experience for all the participants.
The lights in the cube are turned on by hand each afternoon, giving staff the opportunity to check on the condition of the installation. A door on the north side of the cube gives access to the maintenance staff so that they can turn on the lights and get the boy to move. The boy was originally intended to have a laser torch, but that idea was vetoed by the authorities, and instead he holds a conventional torch from a hardware store.
Inevitably, with an open air installation in place for a while things are at risk of going wrong. When I revisited on 11 September the boy had managed to rotate through 180 degrees: his shoes facing south but his body facing awkwardly northwards – much maybe as the refugees might look north longing for their hometowns and their ancestral graves at the time of Chuseok.
Along the side of the Thames, some of the stories told by the participants are displayed, along with the picture they contributed and, to give added immediacy, a photograph of the participant themselves.
“How can I even begin to express in words the continuous longing for my family and my hometown? I have waited so many years with hope that one day I may return but I am getting old … and tired. It hurts so much to even think about it so I try not to think. But it’s difficult to erase a part of my life that is so dear to me – a place with wonderful memories where I laughed and cried with my family and friends. Do you think that one day I will be able to go back and fulfill my dream?” (Lee Jemeng, 87 years old)
Kang Ik-joong’s Floating Dreams is on the Thames until the end of the month.