The Flowing Settings Promoting Nomadic Life and Activities
Hendrick Hamel, born in 1630 in the Netherlands, worked as an artilleryman for a boat under the Dutch East India Company. In 1653, while heading for Nagasaki, Japan, he was shipwrecked on Jeju Island (an island off the southern coast of Korea) along with dozens of his crewmates. The men were first sent to Seoul the following year where they were taken into custody, and then they were sent to the barracks in Gangjin and Yeosu in Jeolla Province to provide labor. In 1666, after thirteen years of their stay in Korea, Hamel and seven of his crewmates managed to escape to Japan, and after a small interrogation, they returned to the Netherlands the following year. After returning to his native country, Hamel published "The Journal of Hendrick Hamel", which is known to be the first to give a detailed description of Korea to Europe, including Korea's geography, customs, politics, military, education, and trade. It is said that he died in 1692.
350 years have passed. Now, in contrast with Hamel's forced stay, there are increasing numbers of foreigners who chose, on their own will, to stay in Jeju Island. Hamel, refusing to stay, spent many years enduring all the sufferings to cross the oceanic border to realize his right to move. But in the year 2000, in Jeju Island, numerous "Hamels" are continuously moving along the routes in the sky and the sea on planes and boats that are available every hour of each day. It is difficult to understand how the drastic increase in mobility has changed the means to experience the world either in terms of time or space, and the way to unite bodies. One thing is clear, however, that it is becoming a new condition that prescribes the modern life of Korean society. "Hamel's Boat", Ok-sun Kim's new exhibition seeks to overcome the conventional limitations by working with contemporary phenomena of movement.
The mobile age is also called the nomadic age because, for nomads, moving around, rather than settling down, is the normal way of life. However, life is not as simple as to have a distinct separation or a confrontation between settlement and nomadism, and between mobility and immobility. Nomads do settle down in one place for a limited period of time, and settlers do sometimes move around from one place to another. Moreover, since mobility and immobility are not only on the grounds of rights but also of obligations, the character and the essence of the lives of nomads and settlers are not subjected to a simple distinction. One cannot call the modern age a nomadic age just because the speed and the frequency of movement have increased. Nevertheless, in Korean society, the intended representations of nomadic lives have maximized the social effects by persistently conventionalizing and narrowing the aspect, speed and form of movement.
Here are some of the conventional representations of the nomadic life. First, a career woman in the advertisement wakes up in Rome in the morning, attends a meeting in Paris in the afternoon, and has a social gathering with her acquaintances while enjoying the night view of Tokyo. The faster the speed of movement becomes, the closer one gets to achieving social success. Second, various travel packages guarantee a comfortable and safe tour with a scheduled itinerary that allows a person to visit the maximum number of touristic destinations within a short period of time. The form of movement becomes more evident not through one individualistic act but through a collective repetition that becomes visible. Third, the Internet and info-communicational technology guarantees connection whenever and wherever. A laptop in a plane on the way to a business trip, a beam-projector in the office, and a mobile phone on the road all work as a linking mechanism that allows continuous activities. Aspects of movement are dependent on the purpose of movement; therefore, the differences between them are eliminated and they work as a whole.
Within the image of the nomadic life being constructed in modern Korean society in a conventional and standardized manner, the purpose of life is placed as the central principle. Consequently, momentary or spontaneous traces of life become omitted, all individualistic and circumstantial characteristics become perished, and the local environment purely and symbolically becomes a part of the whole. It is even becoming a social index of nomadism to go beyond the physical limitations and to call upon mental movement, to move to a place where accumulating wealth and exercising authority is convenient, and to move for land ownership and expansion.
A life with a fixed purpose of movement blocks the possibility of a free life that allows movement in all directions. Such movement with restrictive and coercive direction will make an authoritarian ground that builds fences of law and order. It will, however, not be able to realize the potential of a power that tears down fences to create a new life. The photo works in Ok-sun Kim's "Hamel's Boat" allow one to question whether nomadism, something that has come under the spotlight like a hot new trend in Korean society, and the reality it supposes are nothing but a false reality without any tracings of sound, taste, and smell due to social ambitions for a quick and easy success, substantial and widespread abundance, and flawless perfection.
Rather than making a controversial issue out of the boundaries of movement, Kim's exhibition focuses on showing nomadism in the real social setting, which has been hidden and creased behind the conventional and standardized social custom. As shown many times before through exhibitions held under the name of "Happy Together", Kim's photos do not produce extremely individualistic visual images that cannot be confused with the reality itself, nor do they emphasize the touchings of the photographer, and present particular aesthetic standards through styles and manners connoted in subjectivity. Moreover, she has never conceded her work to any intentional cultural planning, which tries to add coherence, only to fancy up to her work.
Nevertheless, all of her works allow one to acknowledge photography as a social system; therefore, her works possess the power to newly discover the progressive potential of photography. This is probably because the photographer turns many stories of her life into parts of the visible world in her work rather than taking an analytical distance from the world by becoming a non-material conscience within the work.
The boat made by a Dutch man named Hamel to escape from the boundaries of "Chosun" during the period of Chosun Dynasty, a period with restrictive movement and with people anchored down to their settlements, represents realistic conditions that support and permanently allow a life of movement. Since the conversion to the unreal is more strongly required in the images of the conventional and standardized nomadic life, "Hamel's Boat" does not remove or eliminate the weight and matters of life. Moreover, it does not set dualism, referring to the one between Chosun society that strictly emphasized settlement and Dutch society that put geographical expansion on top of everything else, as a premise, nor does it purposefully make orders to move from one society to another. One the contrary, "Hamel's Boat" places importance on numerous multifaceted and complex settings that support life (i.e. traces of movement) rather than on the targeted destinations of life. This is because it believes that the flowing settings (i.e. the snow-covered mountain that one walks on alone, the wind one catches with a bare body, the smell of an empty sea, the local swimming pool one visits everyday, scuba diver's sea, the housetop, the vegetable garden, etc.) promote positive and constructive nomadic life and activities.
In "Hamel's boat", it attempts to consider, at the same time, the problem of movement having various and multiple purposes, as a macro-spacial problem through widespread basis of human activities, and also as a micro-spacial problem through microscopic and concrete physical human activities. The body, a microscopic space that can create order inside a human body or within the environment, changes by correlating with the processes of sustaining, producing and fusing itself. If the body's movement and functions develop into a technical and symbolic system by combining other objects, people and moments, movement goes beyond simple objects such as motorcycles and yachts, and beyond given moments such as an afternoon in the woods and an evening on the sea. All space and time continues as one, and it goes beyond activities on individual grounds. It even goes beyond the lifespan of an individual so that one is not dead after his/her death. Something that "is" a tree "here" may be a sprout, "yet to be" a tree "there". Likewise, somewhere that "is" a pasture "here" may "already be" a forest "there".
The movement and nomadism shown in "Hamel's Boat" vary from physical movements with actual movements of the body to technical and symbolic movements requiring less direct bodily movements. This, therefore, gives a distinguishing feature to Kim's work, one that is very different from the conventional and the narrowness that describe movement merely based on its speed, aspect, and form.
Foreigners who chose to live in Jeju Island name its beautiful nature, especially the sea, as the main reason for their decision. Therefore, their everyday life, when compared with the original residents of the island, is more closely attached to the nature, and they consider the nature as "my space". Of course, these foreigners do not all share the same cultural values and customs, nor do they all use the same language and practice the same religion. Nonetheless, the social and cultural landscape of these mobile residents does possess similar aspects, and draws indefinite boundaries while living with the natives. Through the everyday life of foreigners who chose Jeju Island as their mobile residence, photographer Ok-sun Kim persistently asks the following to herself and the observer − questions about the intentionally positioned false concept of nomadism in Korean society unified into one under the frequency and speed of movement; the ideal concept of a community presumed to be simple and self-fulfilling; and, the misconception on the identity of a settler that is related to the misconception of one's hometown.
Lim, Chung-Hi (Aesthetics·Art Critic, Adjunct Professor at Yonsei Univ.)
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