Fillip 11 — Spring 2004

Crawl and Trace
: Invisible Histories and the 
Project of Remembering
Liz Park

In a previous curatorial project, I had the opportunity to work with Vancouver-based artist Jin-me Yoon in presenting her 2003 video series Unbidden. _The way the artist crawls and scurries through an unspecified landscape in _Unbidden: Underbrush captured my attention and made me question what moved her in this way, along an inhospitable ground marked by jagged rock and scraggly bushes. Dressed in black, she uses all four limbs to negotiate the rough terrain as she grimaces and pants, going around in circles in an endless video loop. In Unbidden: Jungle Swamp, Yoon similarly scuttles, leaps, and falls, and in Unbidden: Grassland, she crawls on her hands and knees. It is only in Unbidden: Channel, that we see her body finally at rest, floating serenely on the water with closed eyes, a still body evoking death.

Known for her photographs from the 1990s, such as A Group of Sixty-Seven (1996) and Souvenirs of the Self (1991), in which the artist inserted herself into various re-creations of iconic Canadian landscapes, Yoon has consistently explored how her own body disrupts the reading of these landscapes and creates new meanings. Her body—that of an Asian woman—questioned national identity and body politics, as well as gender and race relations, against a predominantly white, patriarchal tradition of Canadian nationalist landscape paintings made most famously by the Group of Seven artists.[1]

In these representations of a rugged Canadian wilderness, Yoon’s body became a monument set in opposition to the myth of male-centric individualism embodied by European pioneers who tamed the terra nova. Unlike the still images of 
her photographs, Unbidden releases Yoon’s body from a previously stoic monumentality and stillness, granting her a movement and fluidity as well as artistic control over the space and time her moving body creates. No longer fixed to a place, namely an archetypal depiction of Canada’s wilderness, the videos in Unbidden mark the beginning of the artist’s interest in a particular type of movement: crawling.

Since Unbidden, Yoon has crawled in video projects across various landscapes in the same nondescript black clothing she wore in the first series. Equipped with a rolling platform, she has crawled on the streets of Seoul, Korea, and Beppu, Japan—two countries with overlapping memories of occupation, war, and suffering—in The dreaming collective knows no history (US Embassy to Japanese Embassy, Seoul) (2006), As It Is Becoming (Seoul, Korea) (2008) and As It Is Becoming (Beppu, Japan) (2008). The common act of crawling in these three works compels us to ask what the motivation is behind it. Why would she choose to perform an action considered lowly or infantile? I begin by looking closely at the ground that the artist’s body skims—the asphalt and dirt roads that are mute witness to the violent conflicts that have ravaged both Korea and Japan.

It is well known that the early twentieth century was a tumultuous time for Korea, a then pre-industrial, hermit nation occupied by Japan from 1910 to 1945. Its colonial occupation brought the usual tragedies of economic exploitation, military invasion, and cultural suppression, all involving rampant and systemic violence. Japan’s surrender after the atomic obliteration of Nagasaki and Hiroshima effectively ended its rule over Korea. However, even after Japan’s surrender, Korea did not have sovereignty, since the US controlled the South and the USSR and China strongly influenced the North. With the division of the nation in 1945 and its subsequent civil war from 1950 to 1953, much of the country was left in rubble and its people without many resources. The period thus left a deep and trenchant wound on the cultural psyche of Koreans, with political tensions continuing to characterize the relationship between Korea and Japan today. I am not a historian of this period, nor do I have direct memory of any of these events, but I grew up in 
a Korean family in Seoul and Canada and absorbed this history through the memories of 
my now-deceased grandmother and through 
my parents. For Yoon, born about seven years after the armistice, a levelled horizon would have been the backdrop of her childhood in Korea, 
a childhood familiar with the immediacy of the ground and its rubble—its tactility seared into 
her memory.

As I watch Yoon crawl from the American embassy to the Japanese embassy in Seoul in The dreaming collective knows no history, I sense that the histories of war and colonialism in Japan and Korea haunt her humble movement. The route that Yoon takes in the video is symbolically loaded with references to the Japanese colonial occupation of Korea, the American intervention, and the continued influence and presence of the American military and diplomats in the country. Considering that Japan’s exploitation of Korean labourers motivated much of early modern Korean diasporic movement, the artist’s journey, on all fours, to the Japanese embassy is not trivial. The Japanese Empire coerced and forced Koreans into moving throughout areas in Manchuria and the South Pacific as military conscripts, labourers, and comfort women forced to serve the sexual needs of the Japanese military.

The video does not carry any explicit 
reference to the history of this forced mobility; 
instead, it focusses on what is visible on the surface—the imposing concrete structures of the embassy buildings and the walls that protect them, busy roads and sidewalks, and men in business suits. Sandwich boards and street signs that the artist passes advertise translation and notary services for travel documents and international marriage certificates, as well as lunch specials at various restaurants and sale items at the 7/11 convenience store.

The video depicts a typical metropolitan 
centre. However, the artist’s crawl leaves the viewer feeling visually disoriented, unable to connect to this urban landscape. The camera is angled low and at times bobs up and down, mimicking the artist’s field of vision. Rather than focussing 
on the verticality that characterizes most urban centres around the world, the video accentuates the horizontal axis that the artist travels along. 
Accompanying this visual disorientation is a painful, grating sound from the wheels of the platform the artist uses to support her horizontal body during the crawl. She pants audibly, and, at times, stops to catch her breath, or to assess potential danger from cars and pedestrians. The passersby and the guards at the embassies pay no attention to this vulnerable figure and offer no help. After eighteen minutes of crawling, Yoon finally arrives at the Japanese embassy, and, for the first time, the camera tilts up. After registering the Japanese flag flying from the top of the building, the camera quickly returns to Yoon’s eye level and focusses 
on guards wearing riot-gear and buses with window grates positioned strategically and threateningly in front of the embassy. The artist then resignedly rests her head on her arms as the video fades out to white, only to loop back to the beginning of her crawl.

The setting of Yoon’s performance and the subtitle of her work specifically resonate with the history of war and colonialism in Korea. Yet it is only when the camera pans across the riot police stationed outside the Japanese embassy that the viewers sense a political tension. The two embassies depicted in the video are contested sites and places of frequent protest. For instance, every Wednesday since the early 1990s, a group of elderly Korean women, former sex slaves of the Japanese Army, gather peacefully to demand a long overdue apology and compensation from the Japanese government. The area near the US embassy is also a frequent gathering place for anti-American demonstrators. Much of the troubled history remains invisible on the surface in the ever-changing and fast-paced city of Seoul, and, similarly, the video does not and cannot fully capture the deep rooted conflicts that have affected not only the current diplomatic relationships but the collective psyche of people in Korea. [2]

In response to this invisibility, Yoon appears to 
be incessantly searching for something during her crawl. Unable to rely solely on vision, the artist uses other senses, tilting her head to hear and smell and touching the ground as though it may give her some clues to the past. Sometimes, what cannot be seen can be sensed and felt in other ways. As she crawls forward, she gently touches the ground with her bandaged hands, perhaps recalling the tactile experience of contact with rubble and the ground from her childhood in war-ravaged Korea. By crawling, Yoon creates a different space and time for herself; she does not keep up with the quick steps of the passersby, nor does she operate on the same vertical plane. She is a lone, horizontal figure in a city of sky-scrapers who deliberately slows down her tempo in search for the past that exists only as memory.

Seoul is a city that has developed into a high-tech, post-industrial powerhouse in a matter of a few decades, dramatically contrasting with its early and crumbling post-war landscape following the armistice. For the generations that have no direct experience of the Korean War and the Japanese Occupation and know Seoul only as the futuristic city that it is today, connecting to the past is an extremely difficult task. Yoon, whose crawl is an open-ended search for what remains only as memory and ephemeral traces, recognizes this difficulty; yet, in an endless video loop, she persists in crawling and searching, contemplatively moving from the US embassy to the Japanese embassy. By doing so, the artist highlights the presence of the two nation-states, questions their political and historical relationship with Korea, and insists on re-examining a past that has informed the diplomatic relationship that exists today.

Memory, as an actively constructed basis for collective cultural identity, and its written record in the form of history, have profound political implications for the present. For Dora Apel, a Holocaust scholar and art historian, “memory is not a passive repository of longing but a catalyst to action.” [3] In her book Memory Effects: the Holocaust and the Art of Secondary Witnessing, Apel illuminates different representational strategies employed to deal with the compulsion to reenact events from the Holocaust by those who did not experience it first hand. Apel recognizes the impossibility of bridging the past experiences of the survivors with contemporary representations and the cultural narrative frames that produce memory. Yet she insists that the enterprise of reconstructed memory produces a site of resistance. Evident in the title The dreaming collective knows no history is Yoon’s interest in exploring the unstable nature of memory and its larger implications for the present. The title also reflects the ambiguity and complexity that characterizes the problem of memory, especially regarding the recollections of tragic histories. How can we know the past when we want to move on from tragedy but are unable to come to closure, trapped in a state of limbo between forgetting and remembering? Apel identifies “the paradox of memorializing in order to forget.” [4] Convenient memory vaults contained within certain sites and monuments allow us to go about our daily lives. The quick steps that passersby take in Yoon’s video demonstrate how the present has no time for the past. The past is stowed away for remembering at certain times and places. For example, the Korean Memorial Day is an annually designated day for state commemoration of those who died in military service or for the independence movement. Such holidays allow people to go on for the rest of the year without the burden of constantly remembering past conflicts. Similarly, memorial sites are constructed to serve the same function spatially.

At the heart of Yoon’s motivation to crawl 
is the problem of remembering exclusively through memorials and monuments. Apel articulates this problem succinctly: large public memorials...allow a certain forgetfulness by becoming repositories for memory that displace the actual memory sites. [5] Yoon’s horizontal movement formally topples the verticality of such memorials and challenges their immobility and objecthood. The crawl as an exercise in constructive remembering frees the idea of memorialization from a monument’s stoic fixity and opens up the possibility of remembering as a flexible process that is open to revision. Feminist thinker and film scholar Kaja Silverman encourages a similar recollection process, which she aligns with forgetting more than memorialization. She suggests that the constantly shifting associational field around memory from the present allows for the past to be “freed from its ostensible fixity, moved from the having-been to the not yet.” [6] Apel takes a similar position in her statement that: _the past and present are not only linked but become inseparable, producing in the process a complex of memory effects that addresses cultural memory as the most responsible and meaningful basis for cultural identity and agency._” [7]

The interlinking of times past, present, and yet-to-come that both Silverman and Apel advocate is vital to Yoon’s conception of memory and the pluralities that mark the diasporic subjectivity of the artist. Resisting a linear conception of time that equates the past with regress and the present and future with progress, Yoon’s work insists on “the continuity and simultaneity of the past with both the present and the imagined future.” [8] This temporal framing of her work not only speaks to memories of war and colonialism discussed previously, but establishes her position in a world haunted by past wrong-doing and current suffering. If the artist can exist at a juncture between times past and yet to come in her work, she can also exist at a point of intersection between different cultural, geographic, and political spaces. As the artist states, “history’s haunted places are stretched further by synchronous spatiality.” [9] Yoon’s performance of As It Is Becoming in both Seoul and Beppu is an effort at the synchronous spatial mapping of the here and the now of her body as well as an invisible and no longer accessible layer of past experiences.

Unlike The dreaming collective, As It Is 
Becoming does not have specific departure and destination points, and it is a much more open-ended exploration of the sites themselves. In As It Is Becoming (Seoul, Korea), the artist crawls in a dozen different places around the city—all remarkably different sites representing a range of economic and social classes. The twelve-channel installation features eleven monitors dispersed on the floor, showing Yoon as she makes her way through places as varied as an alleyway flanked by old hand-painted signs, a subway corridor where busy commuters speed-walk by, and the street side of a modernist concrete building housing an haute-couture Gucci boutique. Contrasting with these low-lying monitors is a video projection that spans down from the top of the wall, revealing a cityscape turned upside down. In this projection, Yoon inches along the ceiling like a fly. The comparison to vermin grows stronger as she becomes dwarfed by cars speeding by in hectic traffic, which renders her body increasingly more vulnerable. Just as no character in Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella Metamorphosis questions why the human protagonist is transformed into a giant insect, no one in Yoon’s videos appears to pay any attention to the artist as she crawls. Here, Yoon’s activity serves no practical function for others because she does not play a prescribed role within their daily narratives; instead, it is a nagging reminder of another level of existence that they refuse to contend with directly. In fact, the only living creature that takes a long look at her is a dog, who is confused but interested in her horizontal figure making its way down a narrow street.

As in the case of Kafka’s fine balancing act between absurdity and seriousness, Yoon’s work 
is humourous in its deadpan depiction of an unusual and pathetic form of locomotion, even though it explores sites carrying memories of a horrific past. In As It Is Becoming (Beppu, Japan), subtitles identify the sites of her movement: Park, Former US Army Base; Atomic Treatment Centre, Onsen; and Kannawa District. As in her other crawls, the past remains invisible and inaccessible in the charged sites of these videos. For instance, in Park, Former US Army Base, bamboo blows in the wind as the artist covers ground next to a park that betrays no clues about its former military past. Similarly, the quiet neighbourhood Yoon explores in Atomic Treatment Centre, Onsen appears at first glance to be like any other small Japanese onsen town.

Many victims of the nuclear bomb during World War II sought refuge and treatment in Beppu’s Kannawa District because its springs were well known within Japan for their healing properties. In Yoon’s framing of this area, white steam from the springs relentlessly spews out of the chimney stacks to blanket decrepit buildings in a phantasmagoric atmosphere. Ironically, this town is also known for an extraordinary geothermal phenomenon called _jigoku_—a Japanese word for hell according to Buddhist sutras—ranging in physical form from bubbling, hot mud to a reddish pond to a geyser that intermittently shoots steaming water. Today, tourists come to gawk at these natural phenomena, while in recent history, this place had given refuge to those who experienced a man-made hellfire on earth first hand. The steam clouds that spew out of the chimneys in the video whites out the screen periodically, leaving the viewer to imagine, perhaps, the relief that the hot springs might have provided to victims of the atomic bomb.

Although the number of casualties that resulted from the bombing continues to be contested, the scale of destruction remains undeniably one of the worst in human history. Hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom were civilians, fell victim to the two atomic bombs in a matter of a day. Given such a horrific past, I return again to the task of remembering. Can we, from the perspective of the present, construct more than just memory centres and monuments in order to remember? If, as Apel argues, reconstructed memory provides a basis for resistance, the colossal task of remembering should also be an exercise in forgetting. Silverman’s ideas suggest that forgetting is not to obliterate the past but to encourage each of us to release ourselves from certain, fixed memories that have been culturally constructed to form public reality. When past experience becomes fixed and rigid in meaning, remembering leaves us trapped in the past. But remembering, combined with productive forgetting, can also be an activity that is grounded in the present and the yet-to-come as much as it is in written history.

In preparing to write about Yoon’s work, 
I came across an investigative journal report that provides incredible insight into the active reconstruction of memory and its political and social ramifications today. The report examined the long-ignored issue of non-Japanese victims of the atomic bombs. In an interview, Korean historian Han Hong Koo stated that 10 percent of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—tens of thousands of them—were Korean. [10] This staggering statistic, which I had never heard before in any account of the incident, made me question what other memories have been overshadowed by the dominant cultural accounts of the atomic bombing. It was only in the last couple of decades that marginalized memories of Korean victims—who initially received little care in Japan and only social stigma in Korea—could find expression. In fear of being ostracized for being pro-Japanese even though most of them were in Japan as forced labourers, the Korean survivors largely suppressed their terrible memories until a few individuals began to break their silence in the 1990s.

Also important to note is that in the collective memory of Koreans, the atomic bomb holds a different kind of significance. As horrific as this event was, it meant an end to the brutal Japanese colonial occupation of Korea. The memory complex involving the tumultuous decades of Japanese-occupied Korea and the mass murder of innocent Japanese civilians is riddled with conflicted sets of cultural narrative frames. The construction of public reality through a memory complex of this sort is not as neat as some memorial centres would like us to believe. Remembering is a messy undertaking, weighed upon heavily by the cultural narrative framing specific to each place and time. No doubt some memories are more marginalized while others surface as the collective memory regardless of competing narratives.

The task of remembering, however, provides us with the opportunity to continually construct the cultural basis of identity, and to examine the different cultural narrative frames of shared experiences. In the case of the overlapping histories of Japan and Korea, marked by successive waves of pain and violence, it is neither constructive nor possible to compare the pain of one to another. Rather, the shared experience of pain is what is significant in Yoon’s crawls. The past is invisible in both Seoul and Beppu, yet remains an underlay in both places, providing a charged stage for Yoon’s performance. Seen together, As It Is Becoming (Seoul, Korea) and As It Is Becoming (Beppu, Japan) read as a continuing journey of the same figure in black, incessantly in search of something that is hidden under the layer of the visible material world.

The interlinked sites in these videos provide a basis for understanding affinities and exchanges that have marked the experiences of these two places in the past and present. Yoon’s interest in what she calls “the spatial constellation” that highlights interconnectedness between “disparate yet related peoples and places” is abundantly clear in her decision to crawl in Beppu. [11] Instead of a place like Nagasaki or Hiroshima—original sites of trauma—Yoon chose to crawl in a small hot springs town that was the site of healing for survivors of the atomic bomb. In doing so, Yoon looks toward the shared goal of healing and the relationships that can be cultivated in the present, rather than dwelling on the trauma that entraps memories and a part of our collective cultural psyche in the past.

Yoon’s crawls are an attempt to get closer to the earth that has borne witness to these histories. This text has been a tracing of her crawls through fraught sites in an effort to sift through the memories buried there. Looking at the artist’s body, which scrawls long, ephemeral lines across the video frame, I find punctuated moments of rest, and wonder if she is inscribing invisible stories of her generation—of global migration and transnational subjectivity—onto the loaded sites she covers. With hope that the enterprise of remembering and reconstructing memory will also remain with those yet to come, I watch Yoon crawl.

For A Group of Sixty-Seven, Yoon took a series of sixty-seven portraits of Korean Canadians from all walks of life, standing in between the works of iconic Canadian landscape painter Emily Carr and a Group of Six member Lawren Harris. Harris’s painting of lakes and mountains in Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies, which remains a popular tourist destination, has defined Canadian nationalist art for decades.
  1. In an email conversation, the artist recounts how she was escorted away from the unmarked front of the US Embassy because she was deemed a security threat. Therefore, the video does not actually capture the embassy building, further attesting to how sites of conflict are rendered invisible in the daily experience of the city. E-mail message to author, December 5, 2009.
  2. Dora Apel, Memory Effects: the Holocaust and the Art of Secondary Witnessing (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 90.
  3. Ibid., 127.
  4. Ibid., 142.
  5. Kaja Silverman and Martina Pachmanová, “The World Wants Your Desire,” in Mobile Fidelities: Conversations on Feminism, History and Visuality (London: KT Press, 2006), 35.
  6. Apel, Memory Effects, 90.
  7. Jin-me Yoon, unpublished research statement in e-mail message to author, July 20, 2009.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Andreas Hippin, “The End of Silence: Korea’s Hiroshima” Japan Times, August 2, 2005, online edition,
  10. Yoon, unpublished research 
About the Author

Liz Park is a curator and writer committed to creating discursive spaces and generating forums to engage an audience with discussions of contemporary political and social realities. She received an MA in Art History/Curatorial Studies at the University of British Columbia. In 2011–12, she was Helena Rubinstein Fellow in the Curatorial Program at the Whitney Independent Study Program. She recently received the Whitney-Lauder Curatorial Fellowship at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.

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