Located about 27 miles North of Seoul, a 2 1/2 mile wide (4 kilometers) buffer-zone and demarcation line stretches 155 miles (250 kilometers) across the neck of the Korean peninsula from East to West - dividing North and South. Established in 1953, with the signing of the Armistice Treaty that ended the Korean War, it is a No-man's land, inhabited only by an extraordinary range of fauna and flora that has reclaimed the abandoned dwellings and countryside. It is ironical that this territory, enforcing as it does the painful schism of Korea after the fratricidal Korean War, has coincidentally aided a renewal of nature by providing sanctuary to tigers, white-naped cranes, swans, and rare plants, some of which were thought extinct. Certainly, none of these would survive easily in the modern industrial environs of either the North or the South, yet in this land, originally a rice farming area, the eco-system has restored itself, even rebuilding the forests - all owing to the absence and non-interference of humankind.
However, to the people of Korea, both of the North and South, the DMZ represent the cruel severance of their country, the loss of homeland, irrecoverable memories, the separation of parents from their children, of husband and wives, and - above all - fear. Fear that one-day the invading troops and tanks of either side might storm through the zone, bringing destruction, death, and terror - perhaps even a nuclear holocaust.
Yet, and in spite of the paranoia spun out of Cold War rhetoric, and the very real threat of invasion, Koreans on both sides of the DMZ long for the reunification of their country and the abolition and reclamation of the DMZ territory. They invest their imagination, hope, and longing for the reconstitution of the entirety of their nation in this stretch of wilderness where no one has set foot for the last 50 years.
Indeed, this liminal Zone between the two Koreas, each a society in contradiction of the other, can only be accessed via the imagination, and by the projection of desire. We might conjecture, perhaps, that soldiers have furtively scurried across the terrain under cover of darkness, or that they have dug a labyrinth of tunnels to facilitate a surprise invasion. More likely, the tigers, cranes, owls, and other wild creatures, by day and night, pause once in a while to peer cautiously at the soldiers watching each other in ceaseless surveillance across the wide divide. Perhaps these creatures wonder at the absurdity of it, this disconnection of humanity, or listen, with nervous trepidation, for an advancing tank bringing destruction to their refuge. Perhaps the soldiers wonder what their counterparts on the other side are thinking as they view each other through high-powered field glasses. Brought to such close proximity by the magnification that they can distinguish beads of facial sweat in the humid Korean summer, or the frost chapped fingers clamped around binoculars when the severe winter cold blows from Siberia across the peninsula. Perhaps they wonder if that person on the other side is the same as them. Perhaps they wonder, in moments of reverie or ennui, that they are there, secretly (as in a Rousseau painting) in the midst of the Zone, amongst the tigers, the cranes, and the rare flowers - that they are a part of the wilderness of this forbidden territory.
It is incredible that in an era of global access, cultural exchange, and the Internet, a situation like this exists at all. It is especially tragic that a country, which had existed as a unified country for 1,200 years, should continue to suffer such a physical and ideological separation. Of course, the history that has led to this calamity is well known. Korea was divided at the end of World War II when, Japan, who had forcibly occupied Korea since 1910, surrendered to the Allied Forces. An unjust and artificial division was imposed on the country with the Soviets supporting the North, and the US occupying south of the 38th Parallel. The signing of the 1953 Armistice Treaty drew a 250-kilometer barrier across the country from Kyodang, Kanghwado Island, to Myongho-ri, northern Kosong. It is traversed at one point by a bridge, poignantly (and officially) named "The Bridge of No Return".
DMZ_2005 is an invitation to international artists to renew a focus on the philosophical, political, social, and cultural ramifications of the Korean DMZ, by addressing global and local issues of specific concern to them. Their works explore concepts about territory, zoning of memory, division of national identities, the politics of information, control and access to information, territory, and memory. Although the exhibition primarily references the Korean schism, artists have been encouraged to relate this to their personal and national experiences, for example - Northern Ireland, the Berlin Wall, etc. DMZ_2005 is both a conceptual and political exhibition that embraces many contradictions - as it deals with both imaginative and physical zones.
Like their Western counterparts, Korean artists today have a diverse language that is not easily labeled. However, they share in common a need to explore the political and psychological relationships of society and to examine their roles and responsibility in changing its course. Moreover, they are intensely aware that they are part of an international community of artists and that their cultural practice has the potential to reach minds not only in Korea but also internationally. The conceptual and aesthetic actions and collaborations of these artists can provide alternatives to the problems of cultural and national separation that exists worldwide and encourage communication and exchange across the divide thus contributing to a cultural impetus that will bring an end to DMZ's wherever they exist.
Yu Yeon Kim
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