An Exhibition Called “Kaesong Industrial Complex” / Emiko Kida [Contribution Text for Group Exhibition “The People of Kaesong Industrial Complex”]
Starting with the joint North and South Korea team that competed at the Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang and followed by the summits held between the leaders of the two Koreas and then between the US President and North Korean Chairman, 2018 was a year full of anticipation and momentum regarding the unification of the Korean Peninsula. In South Korea, a contemporary art exhibition with the name of “Kaesong Industrial Complex” also opened at Culture Station Seoul 284, a cultural facility renovated from a former station building, and attracted much attention.
One of the collaborative economic projects planned and implemented following the North–South Joint Declaration in 2000, the Kaesong Industrial Complex is a place that symbolizes the hope for unification as well as the pain of the continued division of the peninsula. Located in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the city of Kaesong lies very close to the Korean Demilitarized Zone and was long threatened by the military tensions in the region.
For the construction of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the DPRK withdrew its armed forces from the area and the employees of small and mediumsized South Korean corporations who took up residence in the complex would travel by car to their jobs, where they worked alongside colleagues from the DPRK. These citizens of North and South Korea attempted to make rules to ensure they could cooperate without conflicts arising due to the different systems in their respective countries. Given that linguistically even their very vocabularies diverged, it became necessary to reconcile this. During the course of the more than ten years that the complex was in operation, it did not merely manufacture things but also created a new culture and community.
Though difficult to see from the outside, a tranquil everyday life was gradually obtained by building up mutual trust between people in the workplace. What did they see there? What did they experience or crave? The exhibition in Seoul focused on the people who worked at the complex and honed in on their ordinary lives.
The exhibition curator Park Carey assembled a team of artists and spent two years carrying out painstaking research and planning, including interviews with the people who had actually worked at the complex. The results of this were realized in the works created by the artists about various phenomena as well as gathering and opening an archive of information related to the complex. For the curator and artists, the exhibition itself formed a process of learning about the Kaesong Industrial Complex and their North and South Korean compatriots who had worked there, the fruits of which were shared interactively by the viewers.
The Kaesong Industrial Complex was suddenly closed for no apparent reason by the Park Geun-hye government in 2016 and, as of July 2019, has yet to reopen. It is then especially profound that this kind of exhibition could be doggedly prepared under such difficult circumstances.
What is exhibited here in Kyoto is only a small selection of the works shown in Seoul, which does make one wonder how far the original intention of the curator can be conveyed. When considering that the cause of the peninsula’s division lies in its history as a Japanese colony, that Japanese interests are complexly intertwined with maintaining this division, and the locality that is Kyoto, home to many Zainichi Koreans (ethnic Korean residents in Japan) who embody the anguish of the division in this context, it becomes particularly important that the exhibits do not simply end up as something arranged so that “Japanese” people simply consume, as a detached third party, the “novelty” that is “North Koreans.” We must beware of any arrangement that allows Japanese people to make one-sided judgments on matters related to the Korean Peninsula while disregarding Zainichi Koreans, who are directly involved in the issues. These exhibits are a kind of Litmus test, something made complete by the approach of the viewer.
A professor at Otani University, Emiko Kida is a specialist in Korean modern art history, the cultural history of North and South Korea, and colonialism. She gained a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies, Kyoto University. She subsequently started a doctoral program at the same institution, which she completed after studying for a year at Hongik University, South Korea. Her main research until now has centered on such issues as Korean art exhibitions and the reception of art in Korea as well as on Japanese and Korean exchange within the proletarian visual arts movement.