3.15/3.21: The Memories of Objects

Working as part of the International Artist Residency Program at Espace Rhizome in Masan South Korea, I was tasked to remember, through my work, an important political event in the city and country's history. This is the protest that happened on the 15th of March 1960, in the area that is now Changdong Art Town and the location of Espace Rhizome. This protest, against electoral corruption, led by labour and student groups, is often referred to as just 3.15 (March, 15) and formed the basis of the April Revolution in the same year, which overthrew the autocratic First Republic of South Korea under Syngman Rhee.

On March 15, 1960, over a thousand residents of Masan gathered in protest against the Democratic Party Headquarters in Masan. After this demonstration ended in a violent clash between police and protesters, the discovery of Kim Ju-yul's body in the harbor of Masan, on the 11th of April 1960, sparked a national revolution. Kim, a student at Masan Commercial High School, disappeared during the 3.15 protest and despite an announcement by the authorities at the time, that the cause of his death was drowning, many citizens of Masan rejected this explanation. Some protesters forced their way into the hospital where his body was kept and found that Kim's skull had been split by a 20 centimeter long tear gas grenade. The severity of the explosion indicated that the police had shot the tear gas grenade with the purpose of being fatal- directly into Kim’s face. The brutality of this incident and the attempt to censor its happening by Rhee’s regime, caused Masan to erupted into three days of mass protests which led to further violent clashes with the police and rippled through the country, which became known as the April Revolution.

The preoccupation with the personal archive in my work and the interest in processes of memory- the making, erosion and evolution of memory- has naturally led me from questions around ‘personal remembrance in art practice’, to the research questions that underlines this brief study of public remembrance, in collaboration with the South Korean Novelist, Kim Yoseob and Film Director, J. Min. These questions being: “How can artists add to the creation of public instances of collective remembering?”; “How do we highlight histories of precarious groups- histories that still resonate in bodies of individuals and spaces present in our societies- the  histories of exclusion, victimisation and discrimination?”

Without saying, these questions brought me to South African history in more than one way. Since, in trying to research 3.15, I was not only confronted by the inability of finding more than two limited, unreferenced English sources; I was also, despite being deeply convinced that political incidents like this one should be remembered through art, confronted with the question of how? Not is an art formal ‘how’ in terms of medium, composition etc., but a conceptual and political ‘how’.

I find it difficult to negotiate the speaking of a history to which I am an outsider, a history which might not be my story to retell, comment on or enact. This uncomfortable awareness together with the repeated instruction from the residency curator to remember this event (3.15) led to questions about my role and responsibility as a white Afrikaans artist. How can I contribute, through art, in creating spaces that recognised the the injustices that form my country’s past? Spaces that can lead to reconciliation, while still honestly admitting the violence and damage brought about by a system created in my favor? Is it at all possible for me to contribute and if so, how?

Maybe my role at this point should be just to underline these events as important to remember- maybe not even that? Maybe I should use my practice and every opportunity I have to let these histories play over my body and work, to let it interact with me and not me with it? Maybe I am not the one that should be trying to answer these questions in the South African context at this moment in time? So, instead of answering these question in the very short period I was given to remember this South Korean protest (that took place only six days before the South African Sharpeville Massacre of 1960), we just paused in this collaborations at these questions.

Under the title, 315/321: Memory of Objects, J.Min, Kim Yoseob and I investigate how public and personal memory intersect and what this intersection might offer artists in creating works about complicated, traumatic public events. We focused on how public history is projected onto objects in the private space. By placing objects such as a degree certificate from the University of Stellenbosch, amongst other things, in a projected grid, we call to attention the problem of free education in Post-Apartheid South Africa. While also pointing to the fact that access to a university is a symbol of my white privilege. Simple repeated actions are used in this piece to bring prominence to the “how” question mentioned above- illustrating the importance of asking “how” in considerations of remembering on behalf of, or as a collective.

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