I follow the evolution of my own consciousness.
For the Korean artist Atta Kim, the process of making art has been an ongoing journey of discovery. While each step has led to the next, there is no predetermined destination. This is no pilgrimage. Each image becomes a site of reflection that in turn suggest the next. Each series points a little way further on. It is a philosophical trajectory that he pursues, the photographs being (as he calls them) ‘by-products’. They mark the path of his journey but do not document it. Each image is a metaphor for the distance travelled not a record of the terrain trod.
The journey begins with the unique nature of being – that each of us, that all things on this earth and beyond, are to be understood as distinct and individual. Each is worthy of being regarded at one remove, as though preserved in a museum. Yet many of these display cases are not to be found amid the erudite objectivity of an institution, but appear at large in the world. Here the vitrines that encase and mark out the uniqueness of the thing also separate it from the environment from which it draws its context and meaning. Is the body revered or imprisoned? Can we be uniquely individual and also part of the world?
As he journeys on through fields of thought – from the psychology of Freud and Jung through the philosophies of existentialism and phenomenology to ideas drawn from Buddhism and other spiritual teachings – concerns with the uniqueness of the individual melt into an awareness of the transience of all things. It is perhaps at the heart of the human condition to at once believe oneself unique and recognise one’s impermanence. In Buddhism, Nirvana is a state attained by freeing oneself from all desire, letting go of one’s sense of individuality. Emptying oneself in order to become one with the whole. In his pursuit of the ideas, if not the beliefs, of Eastern philosophies, Atta Kim uses his evolving visual metaphors as a kind of field work. And, little by little, he relinquishes his control over the creative act, leaving Nature to take the lead.
Deep in its foundations, below the verdant topsoil of consciousness, there is an underlying sedimentation of paradox in the work of Atta Kim. Meaning is not settled, and its eddying ambivalence can be unsettling. Each work is, perhaps by its very nature, its own contradiction: the visible seeking to illuminate the invisible.
Alasdair: Your early black-and-white series explored a number of themes that subsequently recur in your work – both philosophical and formal. How did your ideas develop?
Atta: I am not interested in the trends of contemporary art. Philosophy is my priority. The overall project has a beginning, but I do not know its conclusion. As each stage matures, it takes the project to a new level. I follow the evolution of my own consciousness.
My early series were reportage. I made work about the second generation of the atomic bomb, a report on children with leukemia, one on childbirth, another about a circus troupe. I was fascinated by the writings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. I visited a mental hospital and spoke with some three hundred and fifty patients there. In doing so, I came to realise that even if I attained enlightenment the human mind would remain beyond understanding. It was a dark time in my life, but it was a very precious opportunity because it led me to explore Eastern philosophy.
The extensive series that first brought you to international recognition was ‘The Museum Project’. This has many parts, but first, how did it begin?
Museums display objects of historical or cultural value in glass cases. My private museum similarly encased contemporary daily life – including sex, violence and ideology – in transparent boxes. Everything that exists is precious, with its own unique identity. Placing something in a glass box emphasises and preserves it, revealing its unique presence. The act of boxing the present object turns it into a precious relic of the past.
The first part of this extended series was called ‘Field’ (1995–1996). What ideas or feelings were you exploring in this work?
Boxing is not only the act of placing something in a rectangular container, but also a fight between opponents contained within a square ring. Melissa Harris, writing in Aperture magazine [No 163, 2000] called me “Boxing Kim”. It was a most appropriate name. ‘The Museum Project’ is boxing; each transparent case marks a struggle, a square of jungle. So it was that the glass box that ought to be in the museum was dismantled and installed in the field: in the city, in nature. The world became a museum. All objects became relics. The bell rang. The boxing has begun!
The second part was much darker – ‘Holocaust’ (1997).
This series is a reflection on humanity’s original sin. Humans are the most dangerous creatures on earth. Rotten water cannot beget life, but still it lifts a ship that it may sail. The human history of conflict and barbarism is one that cannot be ignored. Nevertheless, the Holocaust is an intensely sensitive subject to attempt to sublimate into art. It is absurd to try to make evident the unimaginable sin of human beings with just a few photographs. And yet… I could not escape it.
In 1999 you made three series that focus on different types of people: the first was general, while the other two featured prostitutes and war veterans respectively.
War and prostitution are still prevalent in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Ordinary people and prostitutes, war and daily life are intertwined chaotically. You may want to ignore it, but that does not make it go away.
I boxed them, coolly and honestly.
To a western view it is a little surprising to show the prostitutes so elegantly dressed and the war veterans without their uniforms.
The cultural contexts of the East and the West about war are no different. Life, death and human instincts transcend cultural contexts. Human history is a history of war. Among all creatures on Earth, the sex trade is unique to humans, a paradox of evolution.
I spent a year speaking with disabled soldiers in the Vietnamese Veterans’ Hospital before making this work. Eventually they opened the door to their hearts and stood in my glass box, although they told me that being inside the rectangular frame was scarier than the war. Their wives were watching. In ‘The Museum Project #076’, a Vietnamese war veteran sits naked in the box, his Order of Military Merit medal in the place where his leg had been.
Not all of the women in the Prostitute Series are actually prostitutes. But we cannot tell which is which. Not even a good psychologist could tell, because human nature contains within it all of these possibilities.
Next came Eros and Thanatos in the form of a series on sex (1999) and a series on suicide (2000).
All living things eventually disappear. To live is inevitably to die. This is the fate of all living things. So death may also be understood as a form of life. That is why I boxed the instinct of death. Thanatos is the final horizon of all human beings.
The concept of The Museum Project’s sex series is that of an erotic relic. It is different from the way I approached sex in the later ‘ON-AIR’ series, where I was exploring notions of Nirvana.
And finally, the largest section of the series is ‘Nirvana’ (2001).
I respect all religions though I am not religious myself. Nirvana is the flower of Buddhism, a liberation from everything.
The Nirvana series was the climax of ‘The Museum Project’, but it was also the most difficult to make. Korea is a conservative country and Buddhism greatly affects the emotions of Koreans. It is unimaginable to take off one’s clothes in a temple. It may well be a crime for which one could be prosecuted, but first and foremost it would bring societal opprobrium. Artistic practice is not an extraterritorial jurisdiction. I respect the norms and manners of human society. Like that of the ‘Holocaust’ series, the ‘Nirvana’ work raised in me conflict and doubt.
Nonetheless, it was crucial to the development of ‘The Museum Project’. I thought about it for four years and decided to find the answer through a conversation with the Great Monk at Tongdosa [Tongdosa is the largest temple in the south of Korea]. As our conversation unfolded, it was the purity of intention that was our central concern.
Nirvana is a place where there is no boundary between one thing and another, between beauty and ugliness, between happiness and unhappiness, politics and religion, one ideology and another. No boundary between life and death. It is complete freedom. Everything we hear, see, and say is an idea. Complete liberation from ideas, that is Nirvana.
The Great Monk agreed to my request. The next day, before photographing in the main hall, an old monk shaved my head. During the afternoon, after preparing for the shoot and before releasing the shutter, the Great Monk was invited and, seeing the scene, said “I have never seen such a beautiful living Buddha”. From that day on, the Great Monk became my teacher. But still I have no religion. Our relationship transcends religion.
While the intention of a museum is to preserve the things within its collection, nothing, in the final event, lasts forever. This was the starting point of the next phase of this on-going project, which you call ‘ON-AIR’. In this project you study the concept of impermanence by exploring the effect of time in changing and ultimately effacing things.
One of the ways I went about this was by using very long exposure times to make images of busy cities where all that moved disappeared, leaving only the inanimate. In 1827, Nicephore Niepce made a photographic image that took eight hours to register on his photographic plate. He did this to construct an image [because photographic materials were very insensitive at that time]. Today we can capture and freeze even the quickest movement. But I again exposed my film for eight hours, looking down the Champs Elysees from the top of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. My purpose was not to construct an image, but to discard from it all that lived and moved.
The ‘ON-AIR Project’ contrasts the properties of photography to remember, record, prove, and reproduce, with the law of nature, that everything that exists will eventually disappear. Moving things disappear in proportion to their speed. Things that move fast disappear quickly, and things that move only slowly disappear more gradually. But, everything that exists disappears, that is the paradox. ‘ON-AIR’ is a powerful metaphor.
In your works involving ice, even buildings melt and disappear – for example The Parthenon…
For this work I had a model of the Parthenon carved from ice at one-tenth size. It took three months to create, all the time kept frozen. Then for the next month, I watched and photographed as it melted. The Parthenon is a symbol that encompasses Western aesthetics, philosophy, and theology. It is a treasure trove of human history … and yet it too will pass away, another example of existence and nonexistence, permanence and impermanence.
Other works in this project seem to suggest not so much disappearance and transformation. I am thinking of the work where you return to the theme of sex.
In ‘ON-AIR Project 030’, two couples, three men and a woman, made love for an hour watched only by a large-format camera for a single exposure. On the film, human love became Andromeda. Love makes humankind a God. Love makes God a human. Love turns humans into a galaxy. We are living and cosmic.
Finally, could you tell me about the most recent stage in this on-going project, this time called ‘ON NATURE’.
‘ON NATURE’ has been running for eleven years and consists of paintings made by Nature. A blank canvas is placed in a natural setting and left there for two years. Over time, the environment leaves its marks on the canvas: the splash of rain, a branch brushing against the cloth as the wind blows, sand and insects embedded in its fabric… Currently, canvases have been erected and retrieved from over one hundred locations around the world.
It is the elements of nature such as light, wind, and humidity that created ‘ON NATURE’. As I progressed through this project, I realised that the environment is the most important factor in forming the identity of a person or a thing. I am completed under the influence of everything that is not me. I am a canvas that spent sixty-five years on Earth.
So, in the process of making work over the past four decades, what have you discovered about yourself that you did not previously understand?
I get a lot of questions. “Why are you living as an artist?” “Why do you work like that?” “Why did you build a Parthenon of ice so that it could melt?” “Why…?” The answer is simple: because I am human. It is why I have been living as an artist for forty years.
And what is it that humans do?
Let me give you an example…
The space probe Voyager 1 was launched on 5 September 1977, leaving the solar system on 25 August 2012. It continues to travel out in interstellar space carrying a golden audio-visual disc containing images of Earth’s ecosystems, greetings in fifty-five languages, and twenty-seven songs. ‘Sounds of Earth’ is a message from Earthlings sent to any extra-terrestrial civilization Voyager 1 might encounter on its journey through space. Even though there is very little chance that the aliens will understand the message we have sent, we nonetheless sent it. The reason we sent ‘Sounds of Earth’ is because we are human.
Atta Kim was born in 1956 on Geoje Island off the southern coast of the Republic of Korea. He has exhibited widely in Asia and in Europe, Oceania and the Americas. In 2002, he represented the Republic of Korea at the twenty-fifth São Paulo Biennial – the first Korean photographer to do so – and his solo exhibition, ‘Atta Kim: ON-AIR’ featured in the Collateral Events of 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009. He has presented one-person shows at the International Center of Photography (ICP), New York in 2006 and the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul in 2008.
His work is held in many prestigious public and private collections including The Museet for Fotokunst (Odense, Denmark), the National Museum of Contemporary Art (Gwacheon, Republic of Korea), The Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art (Seoul, Republic of Korea), Houston Museum of Fine Arts (USA), and Los Angeles County Museum of Art (USA). Atta Kim’s work has been published in a number of monographs including ‘The Museum Project’ [A&A Publishing, Seoul, 2002; Aperture Foundation, 2005], ‘Atta Kim: ON-AIR’ [International Center of Photography, New York / Steidl, 2006], ‘Atta Kim – Water Does Not Soak In Rain’ [Hatje Cantz, 2009] and ‘Atta Kim ON-AIR EIGHTHOURS’ [Hatje Cantz, 2009]. In 2020 he built Arthenon [Art+Parthenon] in Gyeonggi-do, South Korea, a space for thinking and reflection.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.