Cheorwon-Gun, South Korea/Seoul

Koo Jeong-A, Dearest Young Hoi (detail), 2014, enamel, stainless steel table, 29 1/4 × 78 3/4 × 29 1/4". From Real DMZ Project 2014.

Koo Jeong-A, Dearest Young Hoi (detail), 2014, enamel, stainless steel table, 29 1/4 × 78 3/4 × 29 1/4". From Real DMZ Project 2014.

Real DMZ Project 2014

Various Sites/Art Sonje Center

Koo Jeong-A, Dearest Young Hoi (detail), 2014, enamel, stainless steel table, 29 1/4 × 78 3/4 × 29 1/4". From Real DMZ Project 2014.

It has been twenty-five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a fact that acutely informed the Real DMZ Project this year, thanks to the participation as guest curator of the German architect and theorist Nikolaus Hirsch, who worked in collaboration with Real DMZ artistic director Sunjung Kim. Now in its third year, the annual exhibition takes place primarily on the edge of the border zone between South and North Korea. Several contentious “realities” were under examination in this most recent edition, among them the outright paradox of nomenclature—the Korean Demilitarized Zone remains the most militarized place on the planet. The shops and monuments around the zone, like the guided tours to the area, all seem to incorporate the term peace into their names, but this is a peace maintained by the balance of intense mutual threat.

The best way to access the exhibition was on a daily bus tour departing early in the morning from Art Sonje Center in Seoul, where additional works were on view in the 1F Project Space, and returning after dark. After about two hours’ drive, right around the point where the suburbs recede and the other vehicles on the road suddenly appear to be mainly tanks, the tour guide would lead the group in a brief meditation followed by the reading of a text by critic Ingo Niermann on the still-present difficulties of German reunification and on what it would take to change the DMZ into something other than the seemingly immutable geopolitical problem that it is now. As the text progresses, its tone mutates from prescription to fantasy.

The first stop on the tour was Yangji-ri, a small farming village and former anti-Communist propaganda center inside the controlled area around the border, where some of the invited artists took up residency while installing their works. A few of these projects, such as Florian Hecker’s intense and layered three-channel electro-acoustic sound installation in a fluorescent-lit evacuation shelter, Reformulation (all works cited, 2014),sought to integrate themselves into their sites. Others, such as Adrián Villar Rojas’s installation El momento más hermoso de la guerra (The Most Beautiful Moment of War)—an array of Christ-bearing crucifixes in rice fields—traded on a nonspecific incongruity between context and object.

The next stop was the Cheorwon Peace Observatory visited every day by busloads of tourists hoping to get a glance at North Korea, view models of the DMZ, and learn about the conflict via loud instructional videos. Alongside a line of stationary binoculars trained across the border was Tomás Saraceno’s Degrees of Freedom, a custom viewfinder allowing for a full 360 degrees of movement, so that a person could look up to the sky or back toward the room with more fluidity of motion. The idea behind the piece, that reflexivity is essential to any functional peace process, was fitting, yet so obvious that actually using the device became more of a polite acknowledgment than an interactive experience.

Among the several installations nearby at the DMZ Peace and Culture Hall was Dinh Q. Lê’s What Lay Beyond, a five-channel video profile of South Korean children living near the border; we see them answering a series of questions about their own perception of the likelihood of another war, and what life might be like in the North. The tour ended at the top of nearby Soi Mountain, with a somewhat inscrutable site-specific installation by Albert Samreth, Dancers on a Plane (DMZ), and Koo Jeong-A’s Dearest Young Hoi, a fictitious durational residency set up in a bunker. Like the other works on the tour, this one acted foremost as a lure to its site, and to discussion about this evidently unresolvable situation.

Rachael Rakes