Oct 09 2017

Discovering New DMZs: Profile of Soyoung Chung

by Cleo Roberts

Portrait of SOYOUNG CHUNG. Photo by Cleo Roberts for ArtAsiaPacific.

In Soyoung Chung’s room at the Delfina Foundation in London, a geological map of the United Kingdom hangs above an empty fireplace. Patches of faded pink, mustard yellow, grays and washed out browns represent the soil composition of the country; these colors are matched by the small postcards pinned onto the wall beside the map, showing cross-sections of the River Thames and British coast. Chung almost strokes the British Isles as she tells me about the meetings she has been having at the Royal Geological Society, the lectures she has attended, and visits made to the Brunel Museum. She moves to the bookcase and leafs through an exhibition catalog detailing the Brunel’s impressive Thames Tunnel built under the river in 1843, while enthusing about her time in Rotherhithe collecting items from the river shoreline. Chipped ceramics, tiles and small stones have accumulated on her desk. These mementos will be the artist’s departure points for future artworks.

Exploring new terrains is a significant part of Chung’s artistic practice. When she returned to South Korea following her studies at Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris, she found herself drawn to a project organized by Art Sonje Center in Seoul. This resulted in a residency in Yangji-ri, a former propaganda village that was set up in the 1970s to attract South Koreans to the North. It is now in the Civilian Control Line, which runs along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in South Korea’s Cheorwon region, a section of land measuring 160 miles long and approximately 2.5 miles wide. For four months, Chung was immersed in the lore of the village. The artist recounted to me her daily routine of attempting to pin down how residents negotiated gunfire, propaganda radio programs originating from North Korea, and the comings and goings of military trucks.

The artist was struck by the constant uncertainty that hung over the village. In Yangji-ri and villages like it, communities could exist in a vacuum, yet there was an awareness of their neighbors—if they could be called that. She described to me how she was engrossed with the overlaps and intersections across the DMZ. Her candle sculptures in Ori Mountain (2016) gave form to this. A series of basalt rock formations composed from beeswax collected in Yangji-ri mimicked the geological qualities of the Cheorwon region, drawing attention to the range of boulders that remained after the area’s destruction in the 1950–53 Korean War, when it was the western front of the Iron Triangle Battlefield. When the wicks of Ori Mountain are lit and burning, the formations dissolve into puddles of silky black wax, recounting the origin of the land, which was composed of molten lava from a volcanic eruption in what is now North Korea.

Some of Chung’s other artworks respond to the geographical and political tensions within the region. Light Temperature Wind (2016) is a suspended maze of opaque components—vinyl plastic, shade net and windshield material—which directly reference the greenhouses that stud the Cheorwon plains. As the artist told me, these give a misleading appearance of a robust agricultural industry, when in reality the area is restricted from public use. She hopes that visitors will walk through her installation and turn on the lights suspended within, then consider the path that they navigated to reach that point, and in turn recapture some form of freedom. 

SOYOUNG CHUNGOri Mountain, 2016, beeswax from Yangji-ri, pigment, wick, variable dimensions. Courtesy the artist.

SOYOUNG CHUNGLight Temperature Wind, 2016, shade, vinyl, windshield, stainless steel pipe, switch, fluorescent tube, variable dimension. Courtesy the artist.

SOYOUNG CHUNG, Light Temperature Wind, 2016, shade, vinyl, windshield, stainless steel pipe, switch, fluorescent tube, variable dimension. Courtesy the artist.

By scrutinizing the landscapes around her, Chung challenges the integration of nature and imposed topographies. She talks me through her future residency on Gapado Island in South Korea, and excitedly tells me about her upcoming visit to Berlin, where she will work at Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik, a space dedicated to investigating the impact of cities on ecologies, economies and communities. Being able to explore new locations is important for her practice. She is captivated by other “DMZs,” taking a definition that refers to the “inbetweenness” of a place. “The term, for me, can travel,” Chung explains. She suggests that it is the fragility, process and power of space that excite her, motivating the artist to tap into the space that, in turn, occupies the people within it, governing their movements and emotions.

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