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Take-Out Performance: Minouk Lim in conversation with Jody Wood
Artist Jody Wood talks with video/performance artist Minouk Lim at a café near Minouk’s studio in Seoul, South Korea. “We are all born into a theatre. I even consider the womb to be a stage—a liquid theatre,” says Lim in their discussion of art, politics, and the notion of video as a “take-out performance.” Minouk Lim’s upcoming solo show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis runs from May 31 – September 2, 2012.
Translation support provided by Saehae Chung.
Interview date: January 27, 2012
Jody Wood: Your work is exhibited as video in galleries and museums, but the videos are not staged for art, they are performative. How does the meaning in your work translate from performance to video?
Minouk Lim: I used to have this question too. I feel that we should change the museum to function more as a vernacular archive and library. When I film my site-specific performance and accept a show in a museum, I consider the video exhibit to be a take-out performance. The concept of take-out performance means an extended performance, extending the memories and sensitivities that were created in the moment. Placing this extended performance in a museum presents the audience with a choice, extending the questions as self-awareness. At the same time, they are free to openly interpret its content. A democratic spirit is reactivated in the gesture of the audience—to stay and watch, to dissent, or re-invent. They can be distant from the performance or choose to see it again and again.
Jody: What does the audience experience at the site-specific performance?
Minouk: The audience who views the work in the museum or institution is viewing art in a controlled environment, coming with their own preconceptions based on the reputation of the place. It’s an organized viewing experience. But when people are invited to be part of a site-specific performance, it is an offer to let go of their preconceptions and experience something with their entire physicality. When the audience is in an unconventional viewing environment, their perceptions have to be working in a different way, completely open to receiving the artwork. They’re reborn independent from the institution and its rules and expectations. When people come to see the resulting video in a museum, I have to say it looses a lot. In S.O.S – Adoptive Dissensus, the video is only half of the performance. The same audience who was there at the performance said they lost half of the experience when they went to see the video in the museum, because they were only seeing the storyline and their physical senses were lost. The video is just storytelling—ordered memory and narration. So we can say that it helps by extending the memory. But the performance has the power to convey the intensity and tension in an accidental moment as opposed to a virtual and controlled society.
Jody: Do you consider the audience to be a performer in your work?
Minouk: I consider the audience as a potential performer, extending their memory and feeling so they can share and form another kind of community through the experience. Sometimes we are such educated people and want to see everything inside its conventional frame—a painting in a frame or a performance in a theatre, participating in the pre-existing art community. My role as an artist is to intervene in these systems. If I’m considering the audience as a potential actor, it challenges their system and preconceptions.
Jody: Have you been successful in getting the audience’s participation?
Minouk: My most recent performance, FireCliff 2, was with a torture victim named Mr. Kim Taeryong and it took place in the National Theatre. It was my first experience in a theatre, and itwas an unexpected experience for me because I didn’t really know what he would say on stage. The young people in the audience thought it was fiction—a fake documentary, because they thought surely his story was too horrible to be true and they were suspicious. But my generation, the older people in the audience, knew it was true and had sympathy. In the second half of the performance, there was an intervention from outside, and that part was fiction. So some of the audience thought the whole thing must be fictionalized.
Jody: Do you intentionally blur the line between fact and fiction?
Minouk: We are all born into a theatre. I even consider the womb to be a stage—a liquid theatre. After we’re born, we build a concrete theatre. Half of life is acting in a fiction, and we all consider our roles in reality. I’m not satisfied with the common definition of ‘role.’ I always hear these questions: What is the artist’s role in society? The father’s role? Mother’s role? Professor’s role? These roles have been more and more reinforced. I would like to rediscover the notion of roles in order to question how much is reality and how much is illusion. I’m not thinking about blurring a borderline, but rather a coexistence of fact and fiction. In theatre we talk about an actor as an instrumentilized body, speaking someone else’s script, but I am using the term in its more active definition. As an actor, we have the potential to decide our own role.
Jody: How have you used theatricality in your work?
Minouk: I don’t come from a theatre background, but in my work I am presenting a real, factual story in a theatrical way. In FireCliff 2, I invited a real victim of torture—he was not an actor. This context of working within a documentary format reveals our doubt and produces questions. Reality is like a mist—if something is real or unreal depends on our mind and perception. Theatricality is like a hostage within the real story, and in this way, they are interwoven like a Mobius strip. People can decide for themselves what is true and what is fiction.
Jody: So, is theatricality your method for getting closer to the truth?
Minouk: I don’t like the word method; it is too institutionalized and misunderstood. I don’t use a constructed way of working or thinking in terms of pre-production and a result. I don’t intend to prepare and pass along a certain message. I can’t control the results—it is up to our condition, context, and contingency. After having an experience with art, we have potential to be reborn as critical viewers, questioning the truth we’ve been told. The whole art world now seems to be fixated on consuming a product rather than actively questioning and criticizing what we’re given.
Jody: What is the function of telling the story of Kim Taeryong through art as opposed to other forms of social activism and media?
Minouk:Â Artists, we are all invited to reinvent and restart from the ruins. Without a conventional frame, artwork can permeate our lives. It relates to what I’m saying about liquid theatre—it is more like an invisible, ambiguous thing, permeating in silence as opposed to a definitive, square message. As you know very well, artists have decided to dissent from the decisions of functional human beings. If we agree to this functionality it would be better to work in a bank or an office than to be an artist [laughs].
Jody: Your work seems to capture an ambiguity.
Minouk: I’ve become more and more sure that I want to protect these parts that are secret. I’m preserving your secret and my secret. When something is ambiguous, it can mutually activate our secrets. I welcome this type of interpretation to my work—when it reveals your secret, your suffering, your story. This is what I am referring to when I talk about the ethics of art. For me, ambiguity is the most concrete thing I believe in. Everyone tells me it is hard to understand, but for me it couldn’t be any other way. The truth is always suspended within a passage, in between the known places. Maybe I’m just not intelligent, but it is difficult for me to be certain of the right answer. I’m sure there are people who believe there is a right answer—a reason why the world is the way it is. But I think it’s better to have doubt than to believe you have the answer. I know the system today needs people who are leaders who say they know the right way. Religion has this type of role in society, but art can’t do this. Sure, there are artists who work in this way but I feel very far from this way of seeing.
Jody: What was the process of working with Kim Taeryong and his psychiatrist like?
Minouk: I never approached Kim Taeryong with the aim of wanting to represent him on the stage. I was involved with the Truth Foundation, whose mission is to protect and rehabilitate prisoners who were wrongly accused under the dictatorship. My friends are involved in the organization and I help them film their confessional sessions, aimed at helping victims release their trauma. Kim was often present at these sessions. He was always listening and writing; his behavior was unique among the other torture survivors, and I was curious about his story. When I found out about his intense background, I thought, instead of crying, what else can I do? I wanted to somehow translate and reinterpret this thing. I began wondering about the notion of empathy and sympathy, what they mean and how I could explore their frontiers. I was asking myself if I had sympathy or empathy for Mr. Kim Taeryong. International Interdisciplinary Art Festival Bo:m 2011 invited me do the performance at The National Theater Company of Korea, so I researched the space and found out that the site was once used as a garage for the transportation unit of the security command, which was responsible for transporting captured prisoners. I decided to invite Mr. Kim as a key person who could rebuild the secret hidden story of that place.
Jody: What was his response to working with you?
Minouk: At first he was suspicious. I was introduced to him as an installation and video artist who wanted to invite him to the stage, so of course he was full of confusion and hesitant. But I researched his story, and focused on what had happened in his life. I told him that I didn’t need to listen to his tragedy, and asked him to focus on his present life and what his dream was before he was a prisoner. And he could accept that.
We did two rehearsals to help Kim and his psychiatrist feel comfortable on stage. At the first rehearsal, he only talked about his present and future dreams. When he repeated the performance for the second rehearsal, he started to talk about his torture, and suddenly realized he had so many things to talk about. He is shy to admit it, but he really changed after this experience and regained his dignity. Before, he was only perceived as a “communist spy,” tortured like he was nothing. But he was proud to be on the stage, and realized he had something to share with the audience. He could help them get past their own preconceptions about what it means to be arrested by the government. Most people assume if you are arrested it automatically means you’re guilty, so he constantly carried this stigma, and developed a resentment toward people which created distance. But as an actor, he realized he could help them understand his story and didn’t have to hide his past anymore.
Jody: Why don’t you perform in your own work?
Minouk: I don’t know…when we filmed the performances, I had experience as the director. In this role, I have to be in front as a visible leader and decision-maker. But for me, it’s too hard to accept this kind of role. When I prepare a performance or video work I ask myself too, where is my compartment? What is my role? I don’t like to consider myself a director. Instead, I am acting between audience and performer, like a correspondent or editor.
Jody: You are also constructing the scenario?
Minouk: The scenario is constructed by the witness. Like in S.O.S – AdoptiveÂ Dissensus, half of the piece came from my interview with the captain, and half is from research. It’s like a textile—there are tiny threads of fiction and my own subjective perspective which is absorbed inside of an entire objective history. Does pure objectivity really exist? I don’t believe in it—this rejoins what I said earlier about the relationship between theatricality and truth.
Jody: How much of your personal life do you draw from in your work? It seems very emotional to me.
Minouk: I’m very worried about that actually [laughs]. In the art field, using emotional things like love or feelings is taboo. But I don’t agree with this prejudice or barrier, so I have to say that my private story is very present in the work. When we talk about notions of private and public, I think about the ways I am trying to learn about how to live in this reality. There are many books on this topic. Montaigne, a French philosopher, did a good job writing this type of book. He asked and answered the question: “How should I live? What should I do in my life?” And this is an important question, although it’s self-focused. An important turning point in my life was when I asked the next question: “How should I live in your reality?” I am not alone, I don’t want to be alone. I want to figure out how to live together.