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Summer of 1969, Seoul: Film The Meaning of 1/24 Second and Kim Ku-lim’s Urban Imaginaries

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작성자ART 댓글 0건 조회 649회 작성일 19-03-28 14:13



Summer of 1969, Seoul : Film The Meaning of 1/24 Second and Kim Ku-lim’s Urban Imaginaries

Shin Chung-hoon

1 On appearance and disappearance, restoration and embracement of The Meaning of 1/24 Second (1969)

In the summer of 1969, a small pamphlet was produced for promoting a film screening that was to take place at Academy Music Hall next to Chosun Ilbo building at Taepyeongro on the evening of July 21st. The fact that the film screening was to be held at a ‘music hall’ instead of a movie theater suggested that the very work appeared from the outside of Korea’s ordinary film production and distribution system. Indeed, it was produced not in Chungmuro but in the field of Korean “avant-garde art.” Directed and edited by artist Kim Ku-lim (1936- ), the film suggested its close connection to “avant-garde art” through the cover image of the pamphlet. Designed by Kim himself, the image featured an asymmetrical series of concentric circles, of which pattern had been employed in one of his 1968 drawing Spatial Construction. Described as “bullet shell shaped” by Korean art critic Lee Il, the asymmetrical series of concentric circles constituted a grid of seemingly rotating circles in his drawing. This was one of his “Op” art works which made him a rising figure as an “avant-garde” in Seoul art scene in 1968. Kim’s pamphlet design, however, was a mere reiteration of his signature “Op” style; rather it took the form of a radical recasting. Kim complicated the abstract pattern’s spiral play with the optical by the insertion of photographic fragments into the pattern. This recasting should not be understood as coincidental. It seems to have been highly calculated since the cover image represented the film’s dual intentions: sensory stimulation and visual documentation.

These dual intentions were in fact the main content of contemporary articles of the film project. Even before the pamphlet was distributed, contents and making process of the film were well publicized by weekly gossip magazines such as Sunday Seoul or Weekly Kyunghyang. At the end of the 1960s, Korea’s weekly magazine market became overheated, with many magazines being launched. As a result, they competitively covered incidents or events that could draw attention from the public. The Meaning of 1/24 Second was an interesting enough item, in that it was an “art film” or “avant-garde film” that lies somewhere between high culture and pop culture. According to these articles’ review, the film showed “our everyday affairs from morning till night.” Planned to run for 20-25 minutes without plot and lines, this 16mm film would feature scenes—overpass, elevated expressway, automobile, traffic police, a yawning man, smoke rolling up, shower—every one second, in a fast pace. And this representation of such “daily affairs” was reported to convey “the absence of human who lost his/her sense of direction in a life of a mechanized modern life” and “boredom of modern men.” As such, this film’s plan was to document the urban life of its time and cynically capture the very experience.

And yet at the same time, attention was drawn to the fact that the screening was intended as a perceptual event which would stimulate its viewers’ bodily sensation. It was introduced that images, which “are cut up and swiftly pass by in one second intervals”, would be projected onto 20 or so dancers and objects made by artists, instead of a two dimensional white screen. Along with the staccato rhythm and flicker effects of the film itself, external factors such as “moving screen” (dancers and objects), psychidelic lighting and strange sound effects were added which ensured that what the viewers at the music hall would see was not a simple two dimensional image. They would be placed in a three dimensional image-sound “environment”, and experience various perceptual stimulations that are imposed on their retina and body. Like this, instead of being a simple film, The Meaning of 1/24 Second was a kind of “environment art” that would surround the music hall with light, image and sound, and also a “total art” in which music, art, film, dance and drama were aggregated. These terms were in fact favored by Kim Ku-lim to describe his film project, and differentiated itself from conventional “avant-garde film” or “experimental film” which frequently appeared in mass media at that time.

The film’s emphasizing of both referential and perceptual aspects was not unexpected. The Meaning of 1/24 Second was not Kim’s first film making project. Kim had had produced Money and Love and Woman (or Civilization, Woman, Money) at the beginning of the same year. In an interview with Kim conducted by Daegu Daily’s newspaper in January 1969, Kim stated that his film would depict “human imagery that lies on the base of machine civilization” and “indolence and decadence brought by overflowing of sex”. And moreover, he also stated that he would “built a rhythmical sense” that is different from existing films, and thus “pursued an avant-garde image aesthetics.” In this sense, intentions of The Meaning of 1/24 Second—achieving social referentiality and perceptual effect—was already made clear by his first film project. Nevertheless, in his second attempt, such intentions took on a more experimental underpinning (from a melodramatic title which used words such as money, love, woman, civilization to a self-referential title “The Meaning of 1/24 Second”—in that a film is made up of 24 frames per second).

However, despite the fact that the project was thoroughly prepared for quite a time, instead of being improvised, the screening that was to take place on July 21st 1969 couldn’t be realized due to technical issues. What instead greeted the audience was a performance considerably downsized from the original plan. Chung Chan-seung, an artist who appeared in the film, operated three slide projectors instead of a film projector, and the images from slide projectors were projected onto Kim Ku-lim and Jung Kang-Ja, who was dressed in white, instead of 20 or so dancers as initially planned. In spite of such downsizing, Kim’s original plans were not totally lost; the performance would have had created a three dimensional multisensory environment, giving the audience perceptual stimulation. But of course, the other intention of The Meaning of 1/24 Second, social-spatial issues such as “daily affairs”, “disorientation of modern man” and “boredom”, were left out. What the audience saw was “environment art” or “total art”, both removed of their social context; former being perceived as merely dynamic, and the latter, an aggregation of various art forms.

The performance, which achieved only half of what it intended, might be a mere episode in the history of modern art. However, in a sense, one can say that it contributed to our reductive understanding of Korean art of late 1960s. This is because art of that time was usually understood only as experiments with perception and media for a long time, and their social context, attitude or comments were simply overlooked or intentionally neglected. Indeed, in the field of Korean art at that time, an unprecedented drive to experiment in and out of the canvas was erupting; op-art, geometrical abstraction and film as mentioned earlier, and happening, assemblage, earth art and conceptual art as well. And it was Kim Ku-lim who took the lead in this new wave of art. However, this wave was received as not more than an expansion of medium and form for diverse artistic expression in Korean art history, and its relation with social issues outside the inner composition of art discourse wasn’t fully explored. The period of the late 1960s was described as “diffusion”, “stupefaction”, “groping” and “confusion”; many artistic practices from the period even received harsh derogatory remarks such as “hollow avant-garde gestures” that kept silence about “our political and social reality or the 60s.” Either way, Korean art in the late 60s was undervalued for a long time, left out of the spotlight in art history. This situation changed in late 90s and early 2000, as 60s’ Korean art began to receive historical legitimacy under the name of “experimental art.” Materials that were scattered around weekly tabloids, women’s magazines, daily newspapers were collected; unpublished works, photographs, memos were discovered; most importantly, artworks began to be understood in their social context, and some even went further to be deemed as a “social commentary.” These attempts on recovery, or restoration, continued to the publication of papers and books, especially Experimental Art in Korea by art historian Kim Mi-Kyung, and exhibitions such as Korean Contemporary Art from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s: A Decade of Transition and Dynamics (2001) and Performance Art of Korea, 1967-2007 (2007). 

The Meaning of 1/24 Second, which was previously not well known, was physically and art historically recovered also during this era—after the unsuccessful screening of 1969, it was opened to public for the first time, and was registered as a major example of “experimental art”. Recovery of this film, which shows “daily affairs” as mentioned earlier, was itself a proof of the fact that Korean art of the late 60s did not show back to social reality, and thus was important evidence that changed the idea of artistic practice which was at that time regarded as no more than formal experiments. However, at the same time, social statement made by this film was not as overt as that of many outdoor rally type happenings that were art historically recovered together with the film. Therefore, The Meaning of 1/24 Second confirmed that there in fact was social imagination in the then Korean art, but the film failed to be understood as anything further, or a critical remark.11 It was described simply as “symbolizing slices of modern man who live Korea’s modern industrialized society.”

2 Seoul during new mayor Kim Hyun-ok’s tenure (1966-1970) and Korean art’s Turn to the Urban

However, this film, a collection of ordinary urban environment, is more than just an extensive sketch of subjects such as “industrialized society”, “mechanized life” or “modern man.” The film should be read as both an exhaustive document and a nuanced comment of rapidly changing Seoul in the late 1960s. This ambivalent aspect is structured by the film’s basic format; a spatially and causally discontinues sequence of the metropolis is often interrupted by shots of the ‘modern man’ meaninglessly wandering about the city.

First of all, in this film, Seoul does not remain as a mere background, and becomes the protagonist together with the ‘modern man.’ The metropolis exposes itself to the camera, which with its urge to archive, attempts to exhaustively collect images of transforming daily environment and lives. The film begins with a scene from the side window of a car running on the Samil elevated expressway (it passes Joongang Theater and St. Mary’s Hospital at Myeongdong). What follows is a series of short, unrelated urban scenes such as pedestrians, traffic policeman at work, buildings in construction, neatly lined up pipes and cement blocks, show windows, an abacus, burden carrier, outdoor plaster cast, empty cans, inside of a bus, play facilities at Changgyeonggung and so on. Subsequent scenes are similar in that cars and buses, marketplace, machine shop, textile factory, outdoor advertising, women in mini-skirts, psychedelic lighting, optical store selling sunglasses, porch of an apartment, children on their way to school, office workers going to work and families at an urban park appear. As such, by providing fragmented images of visual, built, and material environments and social organizations, The Meaning of 1/24 Second documents Seoul as a metropolis of production and consumption in which the city is described as a place where work, residence and play are simultaneously performed.

Despite the seeming attitude of capturing exhaustively what is inside the metropolis, the film does not conceal its special interest in newly appeared things in Seoul’s cityscape. In this sense, it should be noted that the first scene of the film features a scene on Samil elevated expressway which opened just in March of the same year. From then on, in a similar way, overhead walkway in front of Shinsegae department store (completed in October 1966) and Chosun hotel, a new building which was under construction (began in October 1967) appear. Also, Sewoon sangga (completed in 1968) and Samil elevated expressway repeatedly form the background for the scene of ‘modern man’ Chung Chan-seung. Thus, the film shows a deep interest—though it doesn’t show fascination or praise—in new architectural events that arise in Seoul. This is not at all accidental. At the moment, Seoul underwent one of the most rapid transformations in history, and moreover, this new urban condition became both challenges and opportunities to the then Korean artists as well as the public.

Late 1960s, Seoul was changing fast. Compared to the total number of buildings with 10 stories or higher in 1966, which was 18, it was 122 in 1970.12 Also, according to a newspaper article that was written in 1970, 30 overhead walkways, 6 interchanges,  overpasses and 22 underground passages were installed, and 27 bridges were extended during a similar period. The three-dimensionalization of the cityspace and transportation networks was fast paced and at a lightning speed. At the head of all of these Seoul rebuilding efforts was Kim Hyun-ok (1926-1997), the newly appointed mayor of Seoul. In April 1966, President Park Chung-hee promoted Kim, the ex-mayor of Pusan, to be the mayor of Seoul due to the former mayor’s “poor progress in building,” and thus Kim Hyun-ok’s top priority was unequivocal. In his inauguration interview, Kim stated that he will place emphasis on urban planning, and will be evaluated for this performance within the year of his appointment.

His spatial practice during his term of 4 years was vast and aggressive: In 1966, year of his taking office, Kim began planning and constructing underground passages, overhead walkways, overpasses and interchanges. While this was his “emergency measures”, he would take decisive actions and perform a “full-scale surgery” in 1967.16 One of the most relevant examples would be the inner-city redevelopment through extraction of squatter settlements. Sewoon sangga, a megastructure that runs across inner Seoul and reaches 1km, was a major output of such “surgery”. 1968 was the year that “Han River Comprehensive Development Project” was established and redefined Seoul’s central axis to move from inner-city to Han river. Yeouido’s layout and Yeongdong Region Development Plan was also realized during the same year. Then, in 1969, as a housing project named Citizen Apartment Plan was realized, outline of inner-city ridges began to change. However, the devastating collapse of an apartment building in April 1970 caused the mayor to resign in disgrace.

Development and construction projects of Seoul in the late 60s were implemented in a lightning speed by this military officer turned administrator; in a way similar to a military operation or a surgery performed by a “surgeon”. Of course there were differing opinions at various levels and concerns over cultural properties being destroyed, but Seoul clearly owed its “modernization” to widespread public support. Especially, as Seoul’s built environment changed in a tangible way, optimistic images of the future and utopian discourse were widely circulated.

What constituted these included future promises made by bureaucrats such as Kim Hyun-ok (for example 815 Urban Planning Showroom that opened at Seoul Plaza on August 15th 1966) and encouraging slogans (“Charging Seoul”, “Year of Great Construction”, “City is a Line”), but there were also professional knowledge and specific plans (representatively “Yeouido Master Plan”) of an architect known as Kim Swoo-geun. Transformation of Seoul’s physical and discursive scenery matched its tone with the argument made by technological utopianism, including the then globally popular futurology, and spread optimistic expectations of a new to come society.

This transformation of urban environment in late 60s became a new condition for production of Korean art. First, it was obvious for Seoul, which was being “modernized”, to become a subject matter of pro-government propaganda paintings. Indeed, for Nine Artists for Korean Thematic Art, held at Korea Press Center in August 1969, a painting of Samil elevated expressway was submitted. 3.1 Elevated Expressway, painted by Son Eung-sung, an ex-jury member of the National Art Exhibition, selected this new and massive urban infrastructure as a propaganda material for Korea’s modernization. Such an increasing investment in the city, however, was by no means exclusively channeled through the context of mobilization; rather, more self-oriented turns to the urban were performed by other sectors of the Korean art world. A typical example of it is geometrical abstraction. Art critic Lee Il, on “the rising of geometricism” of that time, mentioned, “today’s art seems to be constantly aiming at something ‘architectural’ and ‘like design’. This, in other words, might be that our reality, our ‘nature’ itself is becoming architectural and design-like”. What made Lee Il notice the close relationship between changes of daily environment and transformation of art form was The 12th Chosun Ilbo Invitational Exhibition of Modern Artists opened in May 1968. At the exhibition, Ha Chong-hyun and Kim Young-ju displayed White Paper on Urban Planning and Seoul-1968 respectively, in which angular lines of geometric, playful and smoothly made zigzag patterns replaced expressionistic gestures of rough brush strokes that were formerly pursued by them. Furthermore, they used the titles of their works to make clear the fact that adoption of geometry in a post-informel at that time. In fact, in his article Welcoming the 70s of Korean Art that was published in AG Vol. 2 (1970), Ha Chong-hyun stated that “development of urban culture” has brought about “great change in aesthetics” in late 60s’ Korean modern art, and mentioned “urban art”. Meanwhile, Kim Young-ju went beyond the canvas and inscribed his urban aesthetics on outer walls of a building. On December 1967, he completed two murals on a Sewoon sangga apartment, a megastructure designed by Kim Swoo-geun. Kim Young-ju’s mural projects, which utilized his signature zigzag patterns, were concrete results of an interexchange of art, architecture and sculpture that himself and Kim Swoo-geun so dreamed of, and on the other hand, were a paean to the city by symbolizing a “growing vine.”

3 Seoul in The Meaning of 1/24 Second and the politics of “boredom”

In a surrounding of Seoul’s changing physical conditions and Korean art’s urban transformation that is closely related to it, The Meaning of 1/24 Second holds a unique position. As mentioned earlier, its interest in Seoul changed into praise or expectations; it was rather close to a research trying to cover everything. Although the film captures transformation of Seoul and its energy during Kim Hyun-ok’s tenure, it was in no way an exclusive emphasis of its subject. Rather, by capturing beggars and rags, old man carrying an A-frame and a old gate turned into ruin, juxtaposes them with Seoul’s new built environment and its energy. Thus, Seoul is described as a mixed world of new and old, and not as a world of grid pattern urban planning, high-rise buildings or overpasses. Considering the late 60s’ historical conditions of Seoul in retrospect, capturing the city, in which non-simultaneous temporality is kept, in this way doesn’t come as much of a surprise. As well shown by scenes of the film, Seoul at that time was a centripetal city of the past, placing its focus on the north of the Han River; it was before Gangnam and Yeouido, massive residential areas for middle-class whitecollar workers, was formed, and before the era of mass production/consumption of durable consumer goods such as white goods—the city’s industry was still confined to simple labor-intensive goods including cotton fabric, clothing, and wigs. What enabled to realistically capture the social-spatial conditions under which the old system didn’t disappear was the film’s taking of pedestrian view. This view serves as a counterpoint to the bird’s-eye view commonly taken by bureaucrats, technocrats, or urban planners who make blueprints and Korean artists who monumentalized modernity’s spectacles and extracted geometrical pattern from it. These two kinds of views are often discussed to be adopted upon facing a city; French philosopher Michel de Certeau described the latter as the scopic drive of “voyeur-god,” which “must disentangle himself from the murky intertwining daily behaviors and make himself alien to them.” The Meaning of 1/24 Second opens itself up to those mysterious “daily behaviors” instead of averting or abstracting them.

Seoul’s metamorphosis at the moment was not so simple to Kim Ku-lim. Moreover, great expectations associated with the transforming Seoul was also problematic for him. Chung Chan-seung’s scenes, which are sporadically inserted in between the city’s ordinary landscapes that rapidly pass by, make The Meaning of 1/24 Second a more complex comment on Seoul. Indeed, the scenes are in complete antithesis to the city’s fast moving montage. A lumpen proletarian, dressed in suit and wandering about the city, appears in the film, motionless and far away from other urbanites. This anti-urban agent appears alone against overpasses or buildings, or repeatedly yawns indoors. And as most of the scenes are done relatively in long-takes, they are in conflict with urban energy, crowding and fast rhythm which are emphasized throughout the film.

Chung Chan-seung’s scenes could of course be read as a description of “modern man” who feels “bored” or “a disoriented man in a mechanized life”, as mentioned by the news article at the time of the making of the film. To elaborate on this, in connection with the overall flow of the film, the scenes may be interpreted as depicting a modern man who, by being constantly exposed to excessive stimulation and fast paced rhythm of the metropolis, exhausted the strength to react anymore, or deprived of his/her energy. Highlighted in this narrative is the passive and lethargic mental state of the subject.

However, it should be noted that although these scenes may represent “boredom,” they work neither passively nor lethargically in the context of the film as a whole. Rather, they literally function to cease, interrupt, or annul, if temporarily, the accelerated rhythms of fast-changing urban montages, which “quickly passes by in segmented one second intervals”. As relatively durational and motionless scenes are inserted from time to time, audiences actually take moments of pause from the overload of senses provided by The Meaning of 1/24 Second. Then, wouldn’t it be possible to read the sense of boredom performed by Chung Chan-seung as less a nihilistic or passive enervation than an active or proactive blockage of energies, a defense mechanism or avoidance behavior? If so, new meanings are given to certain scenes of the film. Considering such actions of the protagonist in this film as deliberately repeated and exaggerated yawns, staring at the camera, and posing as if competing with Samil elevated expressway or Sewoon sangga, all of which dramatize the sustaining of subjectivity rather than simply its loss. In this respect, ‘boredom’ in this film can be best understood in terms of anger, refusal and dissatisfaction rather than of frustration, lethargy and fatigue. It is not quite a mental illness of urbanites, and more of a prevention or cure to such illness. Also, rather than a surrender to stimulation by new things, it looks like an attitude of active and preemptive interruption to it. In this sense, The Meaning of 1/24 Second becomes a nuanced commentary, if not an outright critique, of the Seoul of its time. Through rhetorical devices—ceasing, blocking, pausing and interrupting—this film intervenes in the urban imaginaries of Seoul in the late 1960s, in which terms like “flow”, “function”, “prospect” and “order” reigned supreme. It does not raise objections to such changes. However, it denies the expectations that are overlaid with.

4 Kim Ku-lim’s Photo-Collage and the Dysfunctional City

The Meaning of 1/24 Second prefigured his own later fantasies of an obstructed city in his photo-collage works the following year. In May 1970, he unveiled total five photo-collage works through AG Exhibition catalogue and Space magazine. He inserted images of signposts, glasses or urban structures into desolated sites such as the moon or a desert, or he made a collage of a chaotic urban environment by using images of its detritus. Insofar as these works took the form of leaving “traces” on natural and artificial environments, the photo-collages could be understood as a visionary earthwork. Indeed, he was then particularly interested in “earthwork” as an art form, and actually presented his earth art project From Phenomenon to Traces at a bank near Salgoji bridge across Hanyang University on April 11, 1970. On the pamphlet for this event the art critic Oh Kwang-su described it as “an earthwork that runs away from galleries and museums, finding materials in the infinite earth and preparing a place for performance,” highlighting that From Phenomenon to Traces marked a significant expansion of the boundaries of art. This line of thought was also applied to Kim Ku-lim’s photo-collage works. Oh Kwang-su, who was also the chief editor of Space magazine, in its May issue for 1970, introduced Kim’s four pieces of collage as an “ideational art,” having “realistically impossible scale”, and observed that the motive was “the expansion of the field of plastic art” or “experiment”. Oh’s critical support for new aesthetic attempts in the late 60s was obviously a major factor that enabled an explosion of experimental ethos in Korea’s art world of the time. However, largely ignored by this modernist critic who tended to reduce art’s meaning to events taking place in its form or medium was apocalyptic urban imaginaries conveyed by Kim Ku-lim’s collages.

One of Kim’s photo-collages most sharply displays the imaginary. Here, the city is filled with a colossal stack of fragments that may not be clearly described. My research uncovered the source of the photographic images as an article of Life magazine’s November 7th 1969 edition. The article, titled “The Garbage Can Crisis,” reports that the United States’ cities are flooding with wastes, and that “nobody is optimistic under such circumstances”. The artist made a collage of images he took from the main images of the article—urban waste dumped in a landfill and the upper part of the Miesian-inspired UN Plaza condominium complex located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Through this, the photo-collage envisions a city in which instrumental flows come to a total halt and all functions stop, with discarded consumer goods which used to cast spells of spectacles (there’s a refrigerator on the bottom of the collage) and bridges, a major means of the metropolis’ networking, being blocked by such waste materials. A similar kind of imagination can be found in Traces, another photo-collage work he prepared for AG Exhibition. This collage seems to have registered Kim’s own continuous interest in large urban structures—a huge vertical structure composed of wires and steel frames, standing on a no man’s land. And yet, here as elsewhere, Kim took these images from Life magazine. Interestingly enough, Kim made a partial image of New York’s Brooklyn bridge stand on the surface of the moon which was sent by Apollo 12. Here, again, the bridge loses its original function, and is used for composing an apocalyptic vision of artificial environment.

Lee Gu-yeol, a reporter-cum-art critic, wrote in December 1969 that “the most comprehensive cultural phenomenon that could characterize the 60s is the visual revolution of urban environment”, and noted that that revolution was driven by “beauty of neon lights on night streets, juxtaposition of competing high-rise buildings, TV antenna in residential areas, owner-driven cars running elevated expressways and highways and influx of information on international culture”.29 Many Korean artists of the time incorporated this “visual revolution of urban environment” in any way they can as the condition of their art production, and thus Korean art experienced an explosion of experimental ethos in the post-informel era, though briefly. Kim Ku-lim was clearly at the center of such major trend. However, at the same time, he was the most heterogeneous being in it. The importance of this artist—who reacted to the transformation of visual, architectural and material daily environment more sensitively than anyone—in the topography of Korean art at the moment cannot be simply understood in terms of experimental attitude toward various forms of art production. Conveying anxiety over Seoul which is becoming increasingly new, more spectacular, more orderly and changing faster, Kim Ku-lim’s urban imaginaries make him a witness and a commentator of his time, rather than a mere “avant-garde artist.”

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