Assistant Editor Caitlin Doyle: Brian Ma’s nonfiction piece “Shadows on the Korean Peninsula” artfully engages difficult political material via evocation, juxtaposition, and figurative suggestion. Moving between a lyrical meditation on Moon Joon-yong’s art piece Augmented Shadow and fact-driven vignettes about Korean culture, past and present, Ma refuses to let us shield our eyes from the nuclear standoff between North Korea and the United States. “Shadows on the Korean Peninsula” invites us to look at life through the lens of art, and we’re left haunted by the view.
To hear Brian read his piece, you can click below:
“Shadows on the Korean Peninsula”
By Brian Ma
In 2010, a twenty-eight-year-old Moon Joon-yong created an interactive art piece later picked up by MoMA for the exhibition Talk To Me. It is now listed in the online archive under the category Worlds and under the tags Liminal Spaces and Mutant and Fairy Tales. The interactive installation, Augmented Shadow, first appears as a bright yet ghostly table on which glass blocks, symbolizing houses, can be moved by museumgoers like old men shuffling dominoes.
Upon moving closer, you see that the tabletop depicts a shifting monochrome landscape, now brighter, now darker. Most vital to the ecosystem is the economy of light. Skeletal trees sprout and cast oblique shadows whose angles change depending on the nearest light source. The origin of all the light in the ecosystem is somewhere in the woods. Birds fly across this landscape, which in almost any configuration evokes the northeast winter dusk. The blocks cast shadows that take the shape of houses, which may or may not be lit.
After a time, the light of the bright houses becomes feeble, they grow dark, and the nearby trees die. Out of the houses come long shadowy characters to fetch a piece of light from the forest. They carry luminous spheres to a dark house, which then begins to cast its own light onto the ground, causing new trees to grow. The first time I saw this exhibit, I thought that when the houses’ radiance dissipated, the reliable figures, like monks, or doctors making house calls, were also able to carry light from a bright house to a dark one.
The artist Moon Joon-yong is the son of Moon Jae-in, leader of the South Korean Minjoo Party and the newly elected nineteenth president of South Korea. On March 10, 2017, his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, was removed from office following the largest public demonstrations in modern Korean history. After much celebrating and an emergency election, Moon Jae-in was sworn into office on May 10. Park herself is a figure of powerful symbolic resonance and dissonance. Her father is the military dictator Park Chung-hee, a former officer in the Japanese Army often credited among South Koreans as having brought the war-barren country out of its dire poverty.
Little more than a month before Moon’s election, North Korea celebrated its own country’s late founder with a military parade flaunting intercontinental ballistic missiles that might one day be able to send nuclear warheads to the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. In response, President Trump announced that the nuclear-powered USS Carl Vinson and its strike group, which includes a cruiser and two destroyers, would arrive at the Korean Peninsula for tactical exercises with two Japanese destroyers, the JS Ashigara and Samidare. A few months later, at the end of summer, North Korea detonated a hydrogen bomb, triggering a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in the country’s northeast.
Perhaps the augmented of Augmented Shadow refers to augmented reality, wherein computer-generated images are superimposed on the user’s view of reality. A person holds his hand out into blank air, and a computer-generated bird lands on his palm, cocking its head and twittering. In this case, however, reality—a glass tabletop, a few glass blocks—is completely overtaken by computer images, such that whatever was originally there becomes a dream that isn’t ours, so minimal, so wintry.
(Here’s a video of Moon Joon-yong’s Augmented Shadow, the interactive art installation that Brian Ma discusses in this piece.)
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