Ghosts Demand Justice

Jane Jin Kaisen’s exhibition at IAC in Malmö suggests the impossibility of representing Korea’s traumatic past, but argues for the necessity of recording its effects.

Jane Jin Kaisen, Reiterations of Dissent (stillbild), 2015.
Jane Jin Kaisen, Reiterations of Dissent (still), 2015.

The 38th parallel cuts across Danish artist Jane Jin Kaisen’s exhibition at Inter Arts Center in Malmö. Configured by the complex history and geopolitics of the Korean peninsula, the two projects comprising Of Specters – Or Returns, revisit traumatic events following the country’s division shortly after the Second World War. In so doing, Kaisen – who was born in South Korea – figures the artist-as-historian from an otherworldly vantage. «What», these works ask, «would it mean to approach the politics of memory from the perspective of ghosts?»

Established in 2011 by the Faculty of Fine and Performing Arts at Lund University, Inter Arts Center is an interdisciplinary platform for artistic research. It’s an appropriate setting for Kaisen, who is currently a doctoral candidate in artistic research at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts / University of Copenhagen. Split between two galleries flanking the elevator on the center’s third floor, the exhibition presents a mixture of recently-finished work, as well as a series of works-in-progress.

Jane Jin Kaisen, Reiterations of Dissent (stillbild), 2011–2015.
Jane Jin Kaisen, Reiterations of Dissent (still), 2011–2015.

Made up of several components including photography, video and audio recordings, Of Specters – Or Returns (2015 – ongoing) documents a trip through Korea’s demilitarized zone, which Kaisen took as part of an international delegation of female activists calling for a permanent peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice that suspended the Korean War. Displayed at the far end of the gallery and mounted on a red light box, a set of images from this trip are paired side by side with photos taken in 1951 by the Danish journalist Kate Fleron. Beside Fleron’s photographs, which were shot during an investigation by the Women’s International Democratic Foundation into war crimes perpetrated by the anti-communist South Korean President Syngman Rhee, Kaisen’s images suggest a strange continuity – a haunting, perhaps – between past and present. And yet, although they point to overlooked histories and collective acts of remembrance and protest, these photographs nonetheless withhold what would satisfy the documentary or ethnographic gaze. That is to say, spectacle, information.

On the opposite end of the space, fading in and out of two flat-screen monitors, extracts from Kaisen’s writings and notes made in and around the DMZ. One describes a «red filter» that prevents her from seeing things clearly. Another, how anti-communist sentiment has limited the historiography of the Korean war, and the women’s movement alike. On a nearby mp3 player, a recorded telephone conversation with Derrida’s translator, Peggy Kamuf, on Specters of Marx, in which Kaisen observes that ghosts demand justice.

Across the hall, installed in the center’s White Room gallery, is the seven-channel projection Reiterations of Dissent (2011–15). This series of looped videos traces a sequence of events that began April 3rd, 1948, on Jejudo, an island off the southern coast of present-day South Korea. The «Jeju Incident» – also referred to as the «Jeju Uprising», the «Jeju Massacre», or simply «4.3» – was a U.S.-supported military crackdown on members of the South Korean Labor Party that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 30,000 – 50,000 of the island’s civilian inhabitants, while displacing many others. To this day, the history of what transpired on Jejudo remains contested, in part due to deep ideological divides on the island, and a government policy of suppression that lasted for over six decades.

Jane Jin Kaisen, Of Specters – Or Returns (detalj), 2015.
Jane Jin Kaisen, Of Specters – Or Returns (detail), 2015.

Recuperating the counter-narratives that surround the April 3rd massacre, Reiterations of Dissent  incorporates an array of different elements – poems, testimonies, archival materials and original footage – into its multitude. As a voice describes the intricate politics of naming what took place, a 2006 clip of then-President Roh Moo-hyun apologizing for the massacre projects adjacent to shots of workers exhuming a mass grave. Elsewhere, archival footage from an American propaganda film plays next to a screen showing the construction site for the controversial Jeju Naval Base. Unsettling conjunctures like these occur throughout. Indeed, as we are told in a video depicting a ceremony wherein a shaman channels the voices of the dead, «mostly, the ghosts don’t speak, they just show their bodies.»

In «Against Representation», the New York art-historian David Joselit claims that forms of practice that are research-based tend to rely on a «highly motivated» equivalence between an artwork’s substrate and the images it produces – a coextensivity between signifier and signified that allows for representation to take place. Kaisen’s work, by contrast, seems to take inequivalence as its given. At the same time as they suggest the impossibility of representing events, the projects in Of Specters – Or Returns argue for the necessity of recording and archiving their effects – what Joselit might call its «economy of images». Refracted through the painful and disputed history of the Korean peninsula, is the impasse between language and experience, image and event. Kaisen’s works are ghostly insofar as they want to show. Theirs is a politics of silence. Some things cannot be said.

Jane Jin Kaisen, Reiterations of Dissent (installationsvy), 2011–2015.
Jane Jin Kaisen, Reiterations of Dissent (installation view), 2011–2015.