top of page

Kim Dohee: An Artist of Symptoms


 Kim Won-bang



  • 1. Kim Do-hee is, so to speak, an artist of intense existence concealed behind silence


    Since her first solo exhibition in 2006, Kim Do-hee has demonstrated works filled with a sense of depression and anxiety.  If Freudian Pleasure Principle (the instinct to maintain safety by keeping pleasure at an appropriate limit)is one side that dominates the mind of human, it’s death drive and extreme anxiety—the other side that transcends the limits of Pleasure Principle and continuously arrives at a radical point of life —that seems to be the driving force behind Kim’s work.

    The title of this solo exhibition Strange Reversible Reaction draws analogy to a state of chemical reaction that seems to be still between two matters because the forward and reverse reactions occur at the same speed. The works on display reflect the human psychological condition constructed between the self and the world; while veiled under placid stillness, it runs rampant with anxieties like excessive self confidence, sense of futility and premonitions of death. Thus the subject matter of Strange Reversible Reaction reflects the intense existence of Kim Do-hee herself, unexposed.



    2. Hysterical Discourse Questioning ‘Inner Experience’ and ‘Identity’


    Important clues to Kim’s intentions and interests behind her work can be found in Kim’s past works such as Synthroid 60 (2003) and Concrete Clock (2011), a performative work at her solo exhibition at Insa Art Space.

    In Synthroid 60, the artist displayed a sheet of blanket-sized paper she used for a month to contain or cover herself while she suffered through the pain of going off her medication for long-term thyroid complications. In Concrete Clock, the artist chose a small space just over 6.6 m²in Insa Art Center in which she stayed for 14 days relying on the minimal provisions supplied from the outside.

    For an artist with an incurable illness, confining herself for 14 days in a ruin-like concrete space without any windows that’s hardly visited by people signifies something beyond the physical suffering, to symbolizing a time of ‘extreme confrontation’ with her own existence. It was probably an intense experience that went beyond the mere acquisition of meaning and value of the ego, to confronting the frightening subject of desire—the ‘I’ that gazes at the ego, or the ‘other in the self’ and the ‘self as void’ that drives the oneself into such cold darkness. Such act of finding pleasure through pain and fear, or the experience of verifying the meaning of ‘the self and the sensation of being alive by approaching intense anxiety, fear and death, was probably similar to what Georges Bataille termed as ‘inner experience.’

    There is another dimension to Concrete Clock besides the existential dimension: the discovery of the self through others. The confined state, or a state of ‘solitude’ in romantic term, is actually far from being a peaceful state of conversing with the self. As aforementioned, it would be more correct to define this state as ‘a moment of confrontation with oneself at the edge of crisis’, because the self as a real subject can never construct him or herself (Descartes’ idea of the ‘self’ was a pure product of imagination). Thus a moment of solitude is when doubts about one’s true form and anxiety in the belief that the self is nothing more than product of imagination reach their climax, and when such doubts and anxieties cause one to desperately strive to perpetuate the imaginary ‘self’. The depressed state of the solitary individual is a type of neurotic symptom caused by such ‘primal loss’ inherent in the formation of all human beings.

    Then when does the true ‘self’ makes its emergence?  It’s when the other appears in the field of vision and engages in a conversation with the self. I(self)) appear as a true subject only when I enter the space of the other, become confined, objectified and ‘called’ through the language of the other, and when the other starts to describe my existence(according to the established theory by Jacques Lacan). Therefore, the objective of Kim’s stay was never to just indefinitely endure a lonely battle of physical and psychological suffering from the beginning. If such were her objective, it wouldn’t have been so essential that she performs such an act in an art gallery. By ‘exhibition’ herself to others, or more precisely, by placing herself in a social relationship with others, Kim was more interested in questioning when her existence starts to truly exist.

    Endlessly going out of existence through one’s own imagination and then called back into existence through the language of others is something more than mere repetition of coming in and out of existence. Rather, it’s a psychoanalytical experience in which the ‘self’ is endlessly re-located in the circuit that passes from an imaginary subject to void, from void to language, then again from language to an imaginary subject (in other words, it moves in the three domains of ‘imagination-real-symbolic’ as defined by Lacan). Such process does not signify a course of defining and reclaiming the self, but a cycle of endlessly questioning and pursuing the ‘self’. It’s a process of ‘hysterical discourse’ as defined by Lacan.



    3. Hyperesthesia, or the ‘metonymic downfall of existence’


    It appears that all this experience is one of hyperesthesia of the self, matter, and the world. Hyperesthesia refers to sensing and feeling all external matters in a destructively over-excessive and intense extent. In such instance, the thesis that “the world exists excessively; thus I do not exist” becomes a possibility.

    Hyperesthesia is a state of consciousness that is experienced by patients suffering from hysteria or depression. The wall that distinguishes the self from the others collapses. As sensorial perception of the world becomes excessively heightened, and matters gaze at the self in a grotesque way instead of an individual looking at the world. Matters take over consciousness and appear as an excessive violence of the senses (This state, termed ‘depossession of self’ by the cultural anthropologist Roger Caillois, was also a condition of patients with hysteria found through hypnosis by the neuro-psychologist Alfred Binet).

    Excessive self –consciousness leads to the splitting of ego, because it’s not the ego but the countless external sensible matters that prevail. This is what is precisely referred to as the ‘triumph of the body’, or the ‘triumph of the subconsciousness’. In psychoanalytical point of view, all neurosis can be defined as the ‘repetitive recovery of the body.’ To put it in Lacan’s expression, this signifies the triumph of ‘the real’, and a state of ‘the real’ violating the ego. Hyperesthesia, or the gaze of matters on the self, is utterly frightening. What creates the air of schizophrenic lunacy and futility in Kim’s work is this ‘triumph of the body, senses and symptoms’.


    For reference, Kim’s artist notes demonstrate her state of hyperesthesia:

    “The cement wall at the end of my toes can always become much closer if I wanted it to. My body, which up to now has strove to sustain itself, has started to slowly turn towards a different choice it has made. Shutting down my digestive functions, making me lose my appetite, and leading me to an impulsive psychological state, my body is trying to transform into a different kind of energy. Like having bedsores, or like a rotting banana, I wish to rid myself of liquid and become solid and powder, to leave this place and gain the freedom to become whatever I wish." (From the catalogue of the 2011 solo exhibitionWatering the Dead Tree by Kim Do-hee)


    Matters reveal a trait of metonymy in Kim’s state of consciousness that subconsciously heads towards death through repetitive impulses, or in her state of ‘awakening’ of excessively heightened senses. In other words, consciousness of the ‘norm’ is a ‘meaningful text (significant text, or text that connects all outcomes of imagination such as the meaning, location, value, identity, history of oneself, and the meaning of the world surrounding him or her)’ constructed of external world and the self. On the other hand, in the case of people with neurotic depression, such text constructed through imagination collapses, degenerates and mutates into ‘sensorial fragments’ that are split meaninglessly. Now, as split fragments, all matters crash into one’s consciousness in sensorial rowdiness, and such violent fragments (which were objects with strict meaning in the past) are what are called ‘metonymy.’ Such small metonymic fragments can at times replace or even occupy one’s entire consciousness. As demonstrated in the artist’s text, an individual and the world collapses into a tiny area between the cement wall and the end of the artist’s toes, and this tiny area expands and takes over the entire field of vision and consciousness.

    Such hyperesthesia or the ‘metonymic degeneration of existence’ of depression, in other words, signifies a problem in the body recovering and exploding in a violent and grotesque way. In Concrete Clock, Kim abandons the subject as a work of art in order to focus on the presence of existence itself. All that’s left of the work is nothing of aesthetic significance, but of a few everyday objects and photographs that remain as a trace of the artist’s stay in the space. Kim fundamentally questions the value of art and its ability to express the real.



    4. Hysteria, the political power of subversion


    The video work Dream shows overlapped videos of the artist incoherently describing a number of dreams. Actually, the synchronism of the artist’s plurality that tells absurd illogical dreams (more like chain reaction of subconscious free association of words rather than story) demonstrates the splitting of consciousness, meaning, and ego.

    Like a patient suffering from hysteria endlessly describing experiences of the subconsciousness in an illogical way with her eyes firmly open, Kim denies not only the view that the human consciousness of the world is open epistemologically, but also inversely that subconsciousness is split from conscious thinking and the real.  The hysterical subject in the video traces her dreams, registering subconsciousness and lunacy in the world of consciousness and collapsing the boundaries between the two worlds. This signifies the real (the subconsciousness, or the repressed trauma) violating the symbolic.

    This rips apart the social space of communication which Lacan has defined as ‘the symbolic’, and shows the subversive process through which the oppressed reality erupts. Here lies the political meaning behind the symptoms of hysteria, and all patients of hysteria can thus be defined as the most radical executors of deconstructive subversion.



    5. Aphanisis


    In the video work Symmetry, expressionless and topless man and woman in two monitors side by side slap their own face. The slapping occurs in spatial symmetry; when the woman on the left slaps her face with her right hand, the man on the right slaps his face with his left hand.

    The man and woman continue to slap his and her own face in numbness without a hint of pain, as if trying to awaken another being that’s dead in him or herself. Although not emphasized, it’s evident that there is a sense of eroticism in the man/woman symmetry and the act of slapping.

    Symmetry is a very perplexing work of art. Although familiar symbols—symbol of sexuality in the different gender and symbol of violence in repetitive slapping—appear in the work, they don’t seem to have much significance due to the dry expression and mechanical behavior of the figures. Actually, there seems to be intentional emphasis on such dryness and absence of meaning. The work suggests a psychological state of Aphanisis (rejection of pleasure or loss of desire), a condition in which energy for life and the ability to feel pain or pleasure is disappeared. Aphanisis signifies a neurotic condition in which one rejects and fears the act of desire and pleasure itself (especially sexually). This signifies the death of the self as a subject of pleasure.

    As suggested in the meaning of ‘chemical reversible reaction’, the subconscious figures that seem cold, lethargic and non-responsive on the surface are most likely engaging in a critical struggle to resist death. It seems as though there is a type of message for themselves and others in the repetitive slapping. If there is a certain message there, however, it’s probably an incomprehensible one. Like the human neurotic symptoms that function as warped defense mechanism against unknown trauma, the message is nothing more than formless idea and slapping an act of no reason.



    6. Beastly Death (Not Civilized Death)


    The sculptural and photographic work Orange Peel and Bone are Dumped to Same Place uses cow bones used for making broth, as well as orange peels and flowers. The work is reminiscent of a corpse in a coffin decorated with fragrant flowers. On one hand, this work makes a critical parody of the human cultural custom that ‘conceals’ and ‘rules out’ death; on the other hand, it exposes the genuine subversive power and sense of pleasure in death.

    The ‘knowledge of death’ symbolized and continuously disciplined by the glorified discussions of mourners and wreaths that fill the funeral hall is actually nothing more than ‘humanized death’, ‘death replaced by cultural symbol’, and the ‘civilization of death’. Funeral is only just a procedure that establishes the ‘monument of death’. Funeral as a type of ‘symbolic political act’ is the final element that separates the genuine death as fear and meaninglessness from the world of man, and is a ‘process of subconscious oppression’ that otherizes death in the invisible realm of evil.

    By piling up garbage-like objects like animal bones, this work transforms death into something meaningless, even absurd and shallow, ‘animalizing (ridding of meaning)’ death into ‘beastly death’. By decorating the stench of cow bones with fragrant orange peels and flowers, the work goes on further to beautify death and capture fantasies about the pleasure of death.



    7. Trace of Existence, or the Allegory of Futility


    As exemplified in Synthroid 60 (2003), Kim often displays just the trace of a certain act or process. On display in this exhibition is the work Motion of Straight Line on the Road, in which the artist placed a large piece of paper on the road to allow cars and pedestrians to pass on it for a fixed period of time, and displayed the paper with the muddled trace.

    All ‘trace’ is inevitably innate with a certain mentality of futility and ambiguity. In the case of Synthroid 60 and Motion of Straight Line on the Road, all acts relevant to the trace have already vanished in the past, and no one can tell the full account of the event just by looking at the trace. In terms of the ‘truth of the event’, only the artist herself has experienced through the whole event, and knows about the subjective meaning and course of creation behind the trace.

    Unlike traditional medium of painting or sculpture that’s read as a reflection of the psychological condition of the artist, trace is nothing more than a partial ‘index’(as termed by the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce), left over from the process of a factual event. Because it appears from the beginning as ‘loss of meaning’ rather than ‘expression of meaning’, it approaches the viewer like a riddle and read as ‘allegorical’ index. Thus the audience no longer remains as a passive ‘reader’ that puts together the past that produced such traces, but partakes in the actual event that the trace entails. This signifies the act of bearing the weight of reality itself, as well as the reason the allegorical reading and the real have an intimate connection.

    Trace is resurrected as ‘post event’, and the creative reading of the ‘post event’ is allegory (Roland Barthes suggested words like ‘Punctum’ or ‘Sens Obtus’ as a similar expression). All allegory is fundamentally about ‘things that have already vanished’ or, in other words, ‘futility’. Theorists of Post-modern Allegory affirmed that the sense of ‘futility’ aroused by ancient remains is the key example of typical allegory. When standing in front of the crumbling weathered monument, what repeatedly flows in the mind is the fleetingness in the moments of rise and fall in history and memento mori rather than the brilliant glories of a bygone empire.

    Through the countless traces of pedestrian blocks and footprints left in Motion of Straight Line on the Road., the viewer experiences the ‘present perpetuation of past’, or the ‘repetition of existence within time’. On display in the exhibition is also a framed spread-out paper boat that is partially burnt and framed paper with blood-splattered mosquitoes. What would more clearly describe the allegory of futility than such works?

    Trace paradoxically brings to life a subject through futility and sensation of death. While painting of representation resurrects reality through imagination (Monet’s sunrise is always a sunrise), trace—like ruins— relocates the audience in the time of real by arousing a sense of death and loss.


    8. Conclusion

    Kim Do-hee is a young artist with art work that’s coarse and crude yet with a piercing sense of sharpness. A lot of her works still present themselves in a raw manner, without much expectations or desires to leave an impression in the art world, even from the artist herself. Questions about aesthetics, identity of the artist and the art world are considered just petty details ornamentation.

    One thing for sure, Kim’s works are completely unpredictable, unlike today’s most your artists who are too absorbed in the planning and outcome of the work. In short, Kim is an artist of ‘symptoms‘, a word which signified ‘flair’ in Romanticism, and a new term for ‘genius in psychoanalysis, semiology and post-modernism. Kim’s oeuvre in the future thus accompanies the unpredictable outbursts of her symptoms.

bottom of page