The Ethics of Encountering: On Kim Dohee’s Body Works​

1. The Energy of the Raw, the Immediacy of the Senses 

    Most of Dohee Kim’s works begins with the artist removing her body from familiar conditions and placing it under new conditions. According to Kim, the new conditions account for a state in which the “the embers of the sense are flamed up to the maximum”. As hinted by the expression “maximum”, Kim places her body in the most uncomfortable and extreme conditions where the human body would experience confusion and pain. For example, in Kim’s early work Synthyroid60 (2003), the artist quit her medication which alleviated her pains and lived on and under a piece of paper the size of a blanket for one month. The piece of paper became a document which vividly captures the trajectories and sufferings of the artist’s body in the month period of time. In another work Concrete Clock (2011), Kim confined and locked her (sick) body in the cold concrete exhibition space for 14 days. There, she thrust her own body to the changes that “took over without allowing even the slightest room for thought”, forcing herself to “adapt, venting at the countless elements of unfamiliarity with her entire body.”

​     The human body tends to become more sensitive when it leaves familiar conditions, or is placed in “an environment where its everyday frequencies and energies are rendered useless.” Think of the body’s response when there’s suddenly a foul odor or sound. What’s interesting is that the precise moment the body responds to such foul odor or sound, it experiences the world in a more vivid and dynamic way. Indeed, the artist mentioned in many interviews that her work is driven by “what captivates and motivates my mind and body”, and “whether my body knows it or not”, rather than abstract concepts or imaginations. From Sontopsansoo (2004), drawn with finger nails rather than with brush on large sandpaper, to Coding Conversation (2009) which attempts at the “complete combustion of concept” based on hostility towards the so-called impossible language, the artist’s tendency to reject the medium of concept and approach the immediacy of the senses is quite apparent in Kim’s work in general. This attitude becomes even more manifest in works that appeal primarily to the tactile, olfactory and auditory senses rather than the visual sense which is more particularly vulnerable to the mediating effect of concept. In works like Moon Illusion (2012), in which breast milk marks its brilliant presence, reeking and rotting vividly on the floor of the exhibition space, and Bed Wetting (2014) which filled the space with the stench of a child’s urine, Kim shatters the pleasant rhythm of the gallery space that pulsates with visual contemplation, and forces the audience to fulfill (live) her very own living body. After all, as rhetorically questioned by Kim in an interview at the time, “isn’t what’s living as intense as the stench of urine?” Kim refers to this intensity as the energy of the raw.

2. The limits of the senses and the threshold value of the heart

​            Nevertheless, the human body adapts to any powerful stimuli somehow when a certain period of time passes. The schéma corporel changes with the situation, and the body is newly restructured. What the psychologists call threshold value is the limit or standard that gauge and determine the minimal or the maximum level of the human senses. Kim also focuses on the change of scale in her senses, and sensitively responds to the minimum or maximum liminal value of stimuli. In particular, the point at which powerful stimuli no longer becomes powerful has a significant meaning. Numerical value (or the “pulse and pressure of the body” as expressed by Kim) appears a lot in the 14-day record which documents her every moment in the work Concrete Clock (2011), as in the following statements: “14:00 After a drink of water, I ate half a bagel I received this morning with strawberry jam on it. Blood pressure 108-67, heart rate 98, body temperature 38.2 degrees” (8th day), “11:00 Slowly drank date latte and took my blood pressure. 86-55-90 Heart rate has slowed down a bit. I feel too lethargic to even lift up my pen and write anything” (10th day) “12:00 Listened to the laundry machine and walked around the refrigerator laid on the floor for the 99 minutes the laundry machine was running” (11th day) This daily record ends on the 14th day because it’s the point in time when Kim determines that her body has adapted to the conditions given to her body. “It means that the neurons in my brain… have now been thoroughly reset and have entered a stable stage. I have decided to end this.” In other words, the body that has gone through confusion and suffering in a new environment begins to no longer feel confusion and suffering at a certain point in time, even though the physical intensity of the environmental stimulation on the body is still the same. In the same manner, a mother of an infant becomes desensitized to the stench of her baby’s urine, and the families of schizophrenic patients become numb to their yelling and shouting. How about Kim? It seems that what is evidently manifest in Kim’s work is her will to decide a point where the senses become desensitized or insensitive to stimulation. To quote Kim in her interview, what’s important is, as I would like to emphasize, is a “point where one nears the limit, examines it, and overcomes or internalizes such state of inability”. In this interview, Kim also states that “there’s a strange sense of slight relief or satisfaction when I arrive at the front line.” In this sense, what’s more important in Kim’s work is not about the new environment and new stimuli, but the act of adapting the body to its environment and stimuli, or becoming one with it. In the reminiscing about her performance Howling (2015) in which the artist yells to the sky standing on top of a hot rock under scorching sun in the middle of the day, Kim talks about her experience of “all layers that hindered me stripped away as I stepped out of my shell and became one with the world”. What catches my attention in this statement is the expression “to become one with” the world, which then begs me to question the artistic implication in this idea of becoming ‘one with’ something.

3. Synchronization of the senses and moral rhythm

​             In 2015, Kim conducted the one-person project Wall_Stealth_Floor in what’s popularly known as Mia-ri Texas district (Hawolgok 88-beonji). In this work, Kim went undercover in defunct prostitution buildings deserted after a fire which broke out 10-or-so years ago, cleaning up the piled-up garbage in the site and wiping off the ashes. In the reeking stench, Kim wiped the wallpapers, black in ashes. Underneath the rose-patterned wall paper was a wall paper with wildflower pattern, and underneath it, wall paper with pink flowers snowing down. Underneath that layer was wall paper with black roses, and beneath that, the concrete wall finally. By the time she’d arrived at the concrete wall, Kim’s body must’ve somewhat adjusted to the dust and stench that dominated the space. However, this work is much more meaningful than forcing her body to the threshold of senses that her body is capable of reaching (as in her previous works). The process of constructing the body frame, or newly reconstructing the body by maneuvering stimuli, is about encountering, face-to-face, the traces and trajectory of lives of those who at a certain point in time resided in that space. The laborious gestures of bearing through the stimuli that throw one’s body to agony ultimately conclude with confronting the other. It was a work which attempted to “fathom those that share capillaries”.

​            Thinking about it, forming a relationship with another begins by enduring and familiarizing with their stimuli, such as smell, sounds and colors. The same goes for meeting the world, which begins by becoming familiar with the unfamiliar sounds and smells presented by the world. Perhaps this can be referred to as the synchronization of the senses. Having spent her childhood in Yeongdo, Busan with her grandparents, Kim began her relationship with the world with sounds of loud high-pitched banging and clanging of steel, and the sound of peeling off rust on vessels with grinder. “Having been left to my grandparents to be cared for, I opened my eyes in the morning to the sound of grinding rust off vessels even before I learned to speak” (excerpt from the artist’s note, 2017). The artist, at a young age at the time, would have had to learn to live with that sound, or become one with the bodies that have embodies such sound. This is precisely the context through which to understand her work The Beach Under the Skin (2017) in which Kim grounded the wall of the gallery with a grinder to expose its layers underneath (with inner layers of history), in the similar passion she demonstrated in grinding off the walls of a building in Hawolgok88 project. Perhaps The Beach Under Skin was an attempt to ‘become one with’, or synchronize herself with the rhythm and beat of the intense labor of the old women engaged in the task of clanging steel hammers to peel off the rust on the bottom of boat at the shipyards. Meanwhile, the wall painted over with blue glossy paint in Waves in the Blood (2017) is juxtaposed with the odor of the broken fish boxes and stir up an ambiguous aura, reviving the rhythm of the blue wall which the artist had to familiarize herself with when she lived in Yeongdo as expressed by the artist in her statement: “The blue glossy paint on the wall peeled off easily thanks to my grandpa’s habit of taking a hot piss on the wall next to the faucet. He would frequently coat over the piss-covered wall with blue paint. The odor of fish blood, piss and alcohol in the blue painted wall, mixed with body fluid, would intensify in the scorching summer sun.” (Artist statement, 2017)

However, it’s not an easy task to synchronize one’s rhythm to the rhythm of another, and to live amongst such intense subjects. Rather, one could say that it’s agonizing. Also, in many cases, synchronizing one’s senses to a given situation is considered not a matter of choice but a matter of survival. A father’s voice and a mother’s scent would be elements of adaptation, rather than something escapable, for a laying baby. However, enduring such stimuli in adulthood becomes an issue of will and manners. When I experienced the hot and damp smell in Waves in the Blood, my body immediately rejected the odor. I escaped the space, in the fear or reaching an unbearable state. This was probably because my body wasn’t ‘worked-in’ enough to thrust it to the ‘wave of the blood’. However, my body remembers it alarmingly well. Thrusting myself to the boisterous rhythm of a fish market in the basement exhibition space, the damp fishy stench stabbed at my nostrils. Nothing smells there but I still smell it. I tasted nothing but I can taste the fishiness. Perhaps ‘the root of my tongue’ remembers it? Then coming home after a few hours later, a forgotten memory from a long time ago flooded my mind. One hot summer day, I sat with my father who was struggling against an illness at the time, side by side in a small joint in an old fish market in Busan, taking in the fishy smell and drinking soju. I couldn’t remember much, but all I could think was why the warm, damp and fishy taste of soju and the smell of that chair so fresh. And so heartbreaking.

Hong Ji-Suk (Art critic, Dankook University research professor)

  1. Kim Dohee, 「Artist note」, 2016 https://www.kimdohee.com/

  2. Synthyroid is a hormone medication prescribed to patients with thyroid disorders. Kim has been taking this medication since her teens due to a thyroid disorder.

  3. Insa Art Space. Kim’s solo exhibition Watering the Dead Tree was held at Insa Art Space from May 22nd to June 8th, 2011.

  4. Kim Dohee, 「일지 이후의 편지」, 2011, p57. A Letter after the Dairy??

  5. Kim Dohee, 「일지 이후의 편지」, 『Watering the Dead Tree』 (Solo exhibition catalogue), 2011, p56.

  6. 『Limit and Condition』, Interview on the leaflet of the two-person exhibition by Kang Seok-ho and Kim Dohee, 2015, Jean Gallery

  7. Coding Conversation was a relay exhibition organized by Kim Dohee which showed her works as well as work by Yeon Kibaek, Kin Seongbae and Kim Hakryang. Kim described this exhibition as an “experimentation with experiencing a fixed meaning as a vivid reality through the process of wiping it out”. Kim Dohee, 「실패를 위한 전시」, 『Coding Conversation』(2009, exhibition catalogue), p10.

  8. Marurice Merleau-Ponty, Phe’nome’nologie de la perception (Paris: Gallimard, 1945), p90.

  9. Kim Dohee,「일지」, 『Watering the Dead Tree』(solo exhibition catalogue), 2011, p56.

  10. Kim Dohee, 「일지 이후의 편지」, 『Watering the Dead Tree』(solo exhibition catalogue), 2011, p56.

  11. 『Limit and Condition』, Interview on the leaflet of the two-person exhibition by Kang Seok-ho and Kim Dohee, 2015, Jean Gallery

  12. Kim Dohee,『Hawalgok 88』, 2017,p.35.

© 2019 by Dohee Kim