Won Ju Lim

For 24 Seconds of Silence, 2008, Korea-born, Los Angeles–based artist Won Ju Lim charted her reactions to Beijing—a city completely foreign to her, recently under intense international media scrutiny, and burdened by a full arsenal of preconceived notions. The work was commissioned by the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, arguably China’s most globally high-profile art space. Rapidly adapting to that country’s Wild West art market, during the twelve months since it opened, the UCCA has functioned as museum, gallery, and sophisticated venue for luxury product launches. Lim’s installation simultaneously brought an international art dialogue to the local community and baffled Beijing’s fashionistas.

Employing the full volume of a long, irregularly shaped room, the fourteen sculptures and five projections that composed 24 Seconds of Silence spread organically over the dim space. On a total of five projectors (three stationed in corners and two on centrally located, rotating platforms), images of Beijing culled from Lim’s short visit illuminated the space and mingled with the sculptures, casting haunted shadows.

The sculptures were of four varieties, reflecting architectural motifs. Wooden columns were covered in vertical strips of industrial tape; these echoed other works modeled out of thin strips of colored Plexiglas and glued together into tall, sleek towers. Plexiglas and foamcore models of floor plans based on blueprints from the Case Study House Program were stacked into an organic sprawl on the floor. This program is aimed at constructing low-cost residential solutions, also a priority of contemporary Chinese cities, albeit urban density here demands solutions quite different from those suitable to the American suburb. Finally, detailed models of cityscapes seen in the visionary films Metropolis, Things to Come, The Wizard of Oz, Logan’s Run, and Dark City were encased in Plexiglas vitrines, alluding to the theatrical sense of how a city might orchestrate its public image, a craft perfected in Beijing.

The installation was a complex pastiche of shifting elements: forms, light, perceptions. This was a city in itself, as was clear from the component forms, but with no distinguishing features, no narrative, no intellectual center. Via Lim’s experience as a newcomer in Beijing, in 24 Seconds, we were suspended within an ever-changing environment, a space that was constantly new, and that created a perpetual romance with the unknown. There was no sound accompanying the work, but every thirty-eight and a half minutes, the contents of the entire installation coalesced into a visually “silent” twenty-four seconds: The projections went white and the sculptures were exposed in a vibrant burst of pure light, abandoning theatricality and bringing us back to reality.

This complex installation was a challenge for the UCCA, but it was well executed. The elementary raw materials of the work might have perplexed some viewers in a town where art is usually assumed to hang on the wall, and where installation art often strives to prove its worth with high production value or feats of incredible man power. Here, the artist’s status as outsider underwrote her basic vocabulary of Plexiglas, foamcore, and urban-industrial projections. Even though 24 Seconds is not a direct reflection of the city itself, Lim’s encounter with Beijing was fortuitous, as the ethos prevalent in the city (outside its art galleries) is similar to that of her practice. As she commented in a post-installation interview with exhibition curator David Spalding: “Even at a conceptual level, it’s again not about the sum of the whole thing; it’s not about a certain kind of thing relating to another thing. It’s more about a mixture of recognizable things, combined and repeated until they finally erase each other. Such erasure does not lead to nothing, but to something else entirely.” Will China’s modernity eventually delineate itself as that “something else”? Lim’s work has only shown us the surface.

Lee Ambrozy