A Terrible Beauty


Like an inventor returning to the laboratory where—just as he hoped—the laws of nature have run gloriously amok, Young Sun Lim walks slowly through his installation, “The Room of the Host,” admiring the mutants. Two hundred jars hang from the ceiling in this darkened room, each glowing a phosphorescent blue or green with the occasional flash of yellow or pink. In each jar lives a different silicon critter, wiggling and crying a tiny cry.

The installation seems to be alive. But what lifeforms are these? A spinal cord with rat’s tail, a spongy mushroom, stacked crustacean legs, someone’s indefinable guts, menacing deep-sea plants, flat snakes, deformed jellyfish, a possible fetus, a porous bulb growing hair, assorted creatures from the proverbial lagoon. They shudder and spin and flex. They twitter and chirp and sing. They’re clamoring.

Visiting from Seoul, the artist hasn’t seen his handiwork since he installed it last May. “Egg of an alien,” Lim declares, pointing to a jar in the corner. “Tornado,” he says of another. In the jar right in front of him, what appears to be a wild sea anemone whirls around fast as a top, and he jabs a finger at it. “Troublemaker!”

Each jar has a motion sensor, and the little monsters stop wiggling and humming if one gets too close, but Lim demonstrates how to sneak up. He says a couple of them are asking, “Where are the angels?” (This turns out to be the refrain from Jane Siberry “Calling All Angels.”) Lim explains that he structured the room like a bird trying to ascend but unable to fly.

It’s a monument to incompletion, the mutant organisms representing hopes and desires that will never be realized. On at least one tinny speaker, words from the same Siberry song repeat plaintively and endlessly: “The heaviness, the heaviness.”

Two years ago, in his first appearance in New York, Lim exhibited a wall of 48 lifelike heads, each one turning slowly, mashing its features against the sides of its Plexiglas case in apparent anguish. It was a highlight of Exit Art’s show on contemporary Korean art, ‘the Eye of the Tiger.”

Last August, on his 39th birthday, a fire in Lim’s studio in Seoul destroyed that piece and everything else he had ever made, except for a couple of works he’d sent to exhibitions abroad. He explains (through translator Joohee Ham) that “The Room of the Host” is his first show since the fire. He relates the installation to his own loss, but also to the state of Korean society. “Everybody raises her or his own voice,” says the artist. “Everybody demands something.” But there’s no cohesion. People seem unable to communicate across class lines. And then there’s the fact of North and South Korea.

This inability to look past oneself and to connect with others is an old theme for Lim. In one of his earlier pieces, a naked man and a naked woman face each other on pedestals, but, as the artist explains, mirrors between them allow them to see only themselves.

Lim says he knew he would be an artist by the time he was seven. “It was a very definite thing. It was destiny.” That same year, he created his first political piece when, looking at the mud in a cliff, he saw the figure of his boyhood hero, General Douglas MacArthur (supreme commander of the UN forces in Korea) and sculpted the old soldier’s head.

He was in college during the years of martial law in the ’70s and ’80s and participated in the infamous demonstrations of those days, both as a student and later when he became a lecturer. With an embarrassed laugh, he mimes throwing a stone. “Very sad situation,” he says. “I don’t like to remember that.”

During this time, Lim also participated in the Min Joong (People’s Art) movement, a broad network of artists who never embraced any specific aesthetic but who committed themselves to the struggle for democracy. Their work was routinely censored and their exhibitions closed. Those who went so far as to suggest reunifying the Koreas could be jailed. Asked to describe his work from this period, Lim replies, “Sculpture of workers.” Now, some of the old Min Joong people themselves hold government office, according to Lim.

His own favorite piece recalls the worst moment in this fight to end the military regime. A Patient With Skin Disease, a sculpture of a head and folded hands, is covered with photographs of the Kwangju Massacre, a crackdown on the protests that killed hundreds of students as well as innocent bystanders. He’s offended that the city of Kwangju now hosts Korea’s Biennale. “Massacre cover,” he declares vehemently. “Understand?”

Korea has now had democracy for about 10 years, and Lim’s work has evolved to address both personal and political suffering. He had lost interest in an ideology that struck him as out of touch with ordinary people like his uncle, a garbage collector who complained that student demonstrations were going to cost him his job. So Lim’s subject matter shifted to the unusually long list of tragedies affecting his own friends and family. For example, he found the body of a friend after he drowned himself. (Lim tried to rescue this man, but he was dead when he pulled him from the water.) The artist also witnessed his father’s death from lung cancer, his sister’s death when she was hit by a car, his grandfather’s dementia, and another sister’s mental illness.

He became preoccupied with showing “the faces of death” in sculptures like Suicide by Throwing Oneself Down—a naked body that seems to be hurtling through the air. He created a bust of his grandfather in the throes of dementia and another of his sister, Astonished Woman.

This is still political work, but it’s a politics of empathy, not dogma. He seems to feel that this connection is what’s missing from his society. He told me, for example, that in Korea there is a particular word for others who are not your family and “we have less caring for others.” So some of his pieces convey an empathy with the downtrodden outside his own circle. For example, he created a life-size motorized sculpture of a homeless man crawling on his stomach, following a moving spotlight but never quite reaching it. Another piece shows two naked men standing cheek to cheek, one holding the other’s shoulder. They represent homosexuals, says Lim, who are outcasts in Korea. They have red eyes. Lim explains, “They’re tired.”

Lim pulls out the new Alice in Chains greatest hits CD, featuring another of his lost pieces on the cover—a man floating in a large cylinder, part of a series called “Wandering Spirits.” He’d made four of these floaters. They resemble dead bodies pickled in formaldehyde but have an eerie beauty.

Art is often about such paradoxes, so it’s no surprise that “The Room of the Host” is repulsive yet incredibly attractive. It’s like the pain he feels for all his lost work. He was there when the fire began, and as he stood there watching everything go up in flames, he thought, “It’s quite beautiful to watch it burn.”

“The Room of the Host” continues at Liebman Magnan Gallery, 552 West 24th Street, through July 30.