Monumental Narrative Recalling the Memory of the Public
Ma Dong-Eun, Curator / Head of Exhibition Team, Daegu Art Museum
Lee Minha’s solo exhibition titled <Black Seeds>, which was held at the Artist Residency TEMI in the summer of 2021, included ＜Etüde(2021)＞, her first methodological attempt at a sound installation work besides her works employing leather soldering that she has steadily expanded. The work, which has viewers concentrate all their senses to the artist’s voice from the speaker in a pitch-dark room, is related to a kind of Holocaust that started in Nangwol-dong, Dong-gu in Daejeon and led to the Bernburg Euthanasia Center and Auschwitz Concentration Camp.
The work, which begins with Lee’s soft monologue and reaches its highlight with the noises of air raid encircling the entire space, builds its narrative based on the artist’s extremely subjective interpretation. However, if we carefully listen to the content of the work, we can see that it’s not her personal story but it reveals a monumental déjà vu with a public nature. Her attempt is to reassemble the historic memory that we should all remember.
‘Memory’ and ‘monument’ are the keywords that the author has chosen to describe the artist’s first sound installation work. Recalling the other sides of various layers of the work, I would like to consider how such concepts as memory, memorial, monument and monumentality based on historic facts related to the Holocaust are working in her creation.
Like its ancient Latin word origin, monument connoted basic roles of ‘reminding’ or ‘commemorating.’ However, in the modern era, its concept and usage have undergone a drastic change. The traditional concept of monument, which seeks common values or ideals, inevitably comes into conflict with the era due to the World Wars II. It was because the aesthetic or socio-political changes in the 20th century had to be reflected on the inherent feature of monument that it is the intersection of political memories. As the fragmented and hybrid conditions last due to the changing times, the society is required to bestow common values to different experiences and private memories and to be integrated into a common space (physical or non-physical space). The work containing public issues, amid the absence of shared beliefs or interests, leads dispersed people to a common space-time, where the monument ‘creates’ a common space and propagates the illusion of common memory. It means that, from the moment Lee Minha started her work based on the theme of Holocaust, public narrative began to form regardless of her intention.
The artist continues her monumental monologue on the Bernburg Euthanasia Center and Auschwitz Concentration Camp in a calm and soft voice. Her monologue is a highly symbolic gesture that concentrates past situations on a present place. Short sentences using just several words and her voice carrying them enable the viewers to figure out what she is trying to say without difficulty. And this is also another power that the ‘monument’ or ‘something monumental’ has.
Then, why did the artist present her first sound installation work as something related to the Holocaust? What kind of memory did she try to make the viewers recall? When someone puts forward monumental stories like the Holocaust, in general he/she has a clear motive and a wider variety of memories than what we have expected are generated. Some monuments demand people not to forget and remember what they stand for, while some others are required to explain the past of a nation or an ethnic group. Still others are aimed at educating succeeding generations and deliver them common experiences and realizations. Although rarely, there are also a very small number of these created for the purpose of simply attracting tourists.
For example, the motive for commemorating the Holocaust in the U.S. is as complex as the multinational population that constitute the country, so it is noble, cynical, practical, and aesthetic at the same time. However, Lee’s monument — the author wants to call her ＜Etüde＞ as a kind of monument — is quite clear and efficient. It’s because her monument is placed in a landscape that can easily be imagined, and it is an intangible monument that can transcend time-space and deeply penetrate any person having sensory nerves, unlike some monuments that resemble taxidermy objects.
In her monologue in ＜Etüde＞, the artist confesses that she first experienced a kind of fear — which she never felt before, not even when she passed by the soldiers carrying guns in every alley she visited in Damascus, Syria, ruined after years of civil war – in Golryeonggol, Daejeon. Did the history of her own people, her own nation let her feel a special presence? Anyone who has listened attentively to her voice in the pitch-dark room, where you cannot be sure whether there’s anybody next to you, may have momentarily understood her fear.
James E. Young, a professor in the Department of English and Judaic Studies in the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the U.S., who is actively working on the Holocaust, genocide and cultural memories, said that a monument, which is not obsessed with permanence that cannot be achieved, embraces social interests of the present and can be extended throughout time, is necessary. In particular, he stresses that it is important to bring light to various social contexts surrounding the motivation and process of building a monument as well as the reactions of visitors after it is completed, and to focus on its public and social functions. This is because a monument is positioned according to the passage of time in constantly changing human lives and community spirit. And people (viewers) are at the center of the actions. It means that for an artist’s work to be fully completed, the monumental work should be conveyed truthfully to the viewers.
Actually, there are various perspectives on monuments. If James E. Young’s theory was based on the imperativeness of monuments, Rosalind Krauss, an art historian, claimed that the modernist period produced monuments unable to refer to anything beyond themselves as pure markers or base. She considered that an abstract, self-referential monument could not commemorate events outside of itself, and it was just dislocated sign. Furthermore, some people argued that rather than preserving public memory, the monument displaced it altogether, supplanting a community’s memory-work with its own material form. Pierre Nora warned that the less memory is experienced from the inside, the more it exists through its exterior scaffolding and outward signs. Andreas Huyssen even suggested that in a contemporary age of mass memory production and consumption, there seems to be an inverse proportion between the memorialization of the past and its contemplation and study. These claims are based on the assumption that once we assign monumental form to memory, we have some degree divested ourselves of the obligation to remember.
It has been several decades since the art circles was permeated by the idea that abstract monuments are more effective in re-creating public issues and ideal values of the society. Lee Minha has gone further to break away from the appearance of the work as material and create this monumental work depending on intrinsic human sense of hearing and imagination and using shapeless and rapidly diffusible sound media.
The work is a study, as its title plainly says. The artist will present sound installation works in more developed ways in the future. I cautiously predict that, if the themes of her works continue to touch on the public memory based on historical facts, an anti-monumental work may be created by the artist after such works reach a certain level.
(from the leaflet <Black Seed> at Artist Residency TEMI, 2021. 7)