Sung Hwan Kim, Line Wall (detail), 2011, mixed media. Installation view.

Sung Hwan Kim, Line Wall (detail), 2011, mixed media. Installation view.

Sung Hwan Kim

Sung Hwan Kim, Line Wall (detail), 2011, mixed media. Installation view.

“The aspirations of those who would isolate art from the social world are analogous to those of Kant’s dove, which dreamed of how much freer its flight could be if only it were released from the resistance of the air. If we are to learn any lesson from the history of the past fifty years of art, it is surely that an art unattached to the social world is free to go anywhere but that it has nowhere to go.” Victor Burgin’s statement sets the tone for Sung Hwan Kim’s spectral, socially invested works—and not just because Kim alluded to Kant in titling a 2007 performance Pushing Against the Air. The Korean-born, New York–based artist’s films, performances, and installations offer the enigmatic, half-articulate, and ever-necessary poetry of individual being that exists in tune or, often, in discord with the larger structures (be they social, political, architectural, or military) that contain them.

Nevertheless, Kim’s adroit works bear their social engagement lightly. In Basel, the humming, hallucinatory, cinema-like rooms at first seemed lessons in light and dark, architecture and film and song—not global politics or social relationships. The Kunsthalle’s light-filled Neoclassical main gallery had been turned into a riot of dark planes—black and dark-gray carpets crept over the floor, and black fields of paint slid up the walls—with glowing screens on which videos were projected, and illuminated vitrines that punctuated the noir. Wires swept diagonally above one’s head, like guitar strings writ large. The back rooms featured deft, childlike wall drawings, and a table, also at a diagonal, surreally set with a guitar and a cobbler’s stand. Colored, transparent fabrics hung like veils from above in the exhibition’s last, smallest room.

Kim favors such scrims. His videos often feature tracing paper obscuring the screen, or other dreamy effects that mantle and poeticize his subjects. The works presented in Basel included Drawing Video, 2008, which details an extract of In the Room, a 2007 performance at de Appel, Amsterdam, in which Kim interrogates his frequent collaborator, musician and composer Michael DiGregorio (aka dogr), while illustrating their conversation in real time on paper. Washing Brain and Corn, 2010, meanwhile, elliptically retells a cold war–era Korean story about a boy whose mouth was ripped open by North Korean spies. As his narrative unfolds, Kim begins drawing on foil and projecting the scene onto the faces of the actors—dogr and Kim’s niece—an act of strange finality and haunting humor. In their assembly of song, image, and voice-over, the films propose a poetic logic rather than a narrative one, a logic of surface and sound and space rather than story. And yet the socially potent narrative (the fable, or the apocryphal or political tale) is at the base of Kim’s language-prone practice.

“Line Wall,” the exhibition’s title, is the artist’s homophonic translation of Leinwand, the German word for a movie screen or canvas. This act of mistranslation is a central motif for Kim, whose works can explore dislocation and the misunderstandings that arise from geographical dissonance and personal relationships. Perhaps it is no surprise then that Kim’s uncanny oeuvre seems strangely anachronistic in today’s art landscape, embracing neither ironic formalism nor political grandstanding. Kim studied with Joan Jonas at Harvard, and his work instead bears traces of her influence and that of 1970s experimental performative practices in general—the use of his body and others, of video, screens, and mirrors, as well as a certain lyricism of the everyday. Like the themes they address, Kim’s works are subtly, beautifully out of sync, broadcasting a luminescent discordance that enacts the very experience of being in the social world.

Quinn Latimer