Nostalgics on realities

Curated by Sungwoo Kim

26 January—9 March 2024

Thaddaeus Ropac Seoul



Boxing  Sketch

20 March—29 March 2024

13:00 – 19:00

Simjae boxing studio

Disaster beyond Representation

Yoshihiro Komatsuda

RUN (2022, Museumhead)

If you ask about the image of a disaster that Koreans are familiar with, what image would they imagine? It is a question I have been wondering about for a long time. If you open a history textbook, you will imagine the collapse of Seongsu Bridge or Sampoong Department Store, and if you lift your face from the textbook and turn your eyes to the outside world, you will imagine downpours, floods, and the heat and drought that come after that. Or, if you use your imagination or enjoy watching movies, you might imagine a landscape where aliens or zombies occupy the city. Or for those who live in the world after 2020, without recalling images of the past or imagining future disasters, the unprecedented situation of Covid-19 may conquer the image of disaster. Today, we are living in an era of disaster to the extent that the word disaster has become common in Korean society as well. 


Not long ago, I had an opportunity to talk with young Korean artists about the topic of disaster at a seminar titled <Imagination of Disaster>. At the seminar, I asked the question that I have been curious about for a while. Whether it was a sudden question or if they were reluctant to talk about these topics in front of strangers, the participants looked perplexed. Perhaps the gap between the participants who were asked this question at a time when the image of Covid-19 has become so powerful and I, who wanted to know what the realistic image of a disaster for Koreans would be may have created this silence. After all, the images of various disasters thrown through the heavy silence between us – the Sewol Ferry incident, floods, Pohang Earthquake, etc. – did not deviate much from my expectations. 


If we think of disasters again at this point after experiencing Covid-19, we realize that there are no borders in disasters today. What we have witnessed in the face of a global crisis is a world that tracks people’s movements on a national basis and manages (restricts) movement. This move may seem to be a trend that goes against the globalization that the world has been following so far, but this paradoxically shows the fact that disaster itself has the power to transcend borders. In other words, the disasters of our time show off their power by crossing the artificial boundaries of borders without hesitation. In addition, it can be seen that certain disasters, which were considered to be regional in the past, have become more common around us. Just as earthquakes, which have been an unfamiliar concept to Koreans, are no longer an unfamiliar word after the 2017 Pohang Earthquake. 


On the other hand, as if responding to various disasters that occur frequently in reality, literature and film work dealing with disasters are rapidly increasing in Korean society in recent years. Of course, the recent trend of disaster-related cultural content is found in other cultures beyond Korea, and the genre itself boasts a relatively long history (especially in the West). Nevertheless, it is no exaggeration to say that Korean contents dealing with various disaster situations starting with the “zombie genre”, to the extent that the name ‘K-zombie’ is given, are at the forefront of the ‘disaster’ trend. If there are no borders in the actual disasters we are currently experiencing, the imagination of disasters also crosses borders and is in the spotlight around the world. If so, we cannot help but ask the question of the uniqueness (specialty) of Korea’s ‘disaster genre’ in this situation where disaster content produced in Korea is welcomed in other cultures.


To answer these questions, it is necessary to start by carefully examining the two phenomena and the relationship between them: the reality where disasters occur frequently and the proliferation of disaster content. What is important at this point is to check the desire to simply view literature or film works, in which disaster as an imagination unfolds, as a mirror of the increasing disaster in reality. While fully respecting the value of the imagination of disaster as a record or reproduction (imitation) of an actual disaster or the role of a ‘disaster genre’ that preemptively images the upcoming disaster, it is necessary to think about new possibilities outside of this framework. By examining the new way of looking at disaster as imagination, it will be possible to point out the Korean context hidden in the Korean ‘disaster genre’ which is recognized as a global trend at a glance. 


As long as we keep our distance from recognizing disaster as imagination as a reproduction (imitation) of reality, we can be free for a moment from the compulsion to view disaster negatively. Disasters that occur in reality sometimes leave us with traces beyond what is described as difficulty, but when they appear in novels or movies, they do not just make readers and viewers sad. Of course, someone can question how reasonable it is to think of disasters as fiction that is far from the real situation where disasters have already become commonplace. Nevertheless, some things can be seen new only when we take these risks and think about disasters. Focusing on the incident of disaster in novels and movies and the gaze that captures it will open a way for us to reconsider the relationship between reality and fictional disasters. It is of utmost importance to pay attention to the gap between reality and fiction. 


Around the time I had this thought, I read “Goliath in the Water” (2010) by Ae-ran Kim, The Disaster Tourist (2013) by Ko-eun Yun, “A Bird in a Black Mask” (2020) by Seonran Cheon, and Snowball Drive (2021) by Ye-eun Cho. I have to yield to another opportunity to analyze these works in detail since the length of this text wouldn’t allow it, but nevertheless, I was able to discover some interesting commonalities while reading these works. This discovery is made possible only by following the gaze that captures the disaster, because for a simple event to be ‘disasterized’, a gaze that accepts it as a disaster is necessary. Even at this moment, lightning might be striking somewhere, but it is difficult to call the event a disaster if no one recognizes or experiences the phenomenon. Only when there is someone who experiences the event, the event becomes a disaster (for that person). Therefore, in front of the powerful image of disaster, it is necessary to focus on the gaze that sees it. 


Following disasters appear in the respective fictional worlds: a flood that engulfed a city due to the prolonged rainy season in “Goliath in the Water”; a tsunami that attacked an island in Vietnam in The Disaster Tourist; a hole (sinkhole) is suddenly discovered in the Demilitarized Zone of the Korean Peninsula in “A Bird in a Black Mask”; and snow that damages the skin in Snowball Drive. What is interesting is that the main characters in the novel do not run away from these disasters (natural disasters), but rather show their gestures moving toward them. The movements such as building their own boat and wandering around the flooded city (“Goliath in the Water”), volunteering for the dangerous job of investigating the sinkhole (“A Bird in a Black Mask”) clearly show this. Why do they ultimately choose to jump into disasters (natural disasters) on their own will even when they were at a safe distance from the disasters? 


If we turn our eyes for a moment to the situation where the novel characters are placed, the infinitely weak young people standing in front of the overwhelming power of disaster are highlighted. A mother and a young man are isolated in an apartment designated as a redevelopment area (“Goliath in the Water”), an office worker who is pushed out of competition and deprived of his future (The Disaster Tourist), a young man suffering from economic pressures such as student loans and rent (“A Bird in a Black Mask”), and a young man who is exposed to threats to his livelihood due to the absence of a guardian (Snowball Drive) suddenly encounter the disaster (natural disaster) one day. Looking at the background of the characters in this way, we are faced with the fact that all of them were already living a ‘disaster life’ before the disaster arrived. In other words, the young people in the novel throwing themselves into a disaster symbolized by a natural disaster is in fact trying to escape from another disaster, what we call ‘everyday life’. At this point, ‘jumping into disaster’ coincides with ‘escaping from everyday life’.


The precarious trajectory of the young people who were looking at disasters from a safe distance and then jumping into them paradoxically reveals that even if the place they were standing at is at a ‘safe’ distance from the disaster (natural disaster), the place itself is never ‘stable’. Moreover, as long as everyday life is defined as a disaster, they were not even at a ‘safe’ distance from disaster in the first place. The disaster of everyday life is also a clue to the unique problems of young Koreans, but at the root of it is the capitalist system. Therefore, the disasters (natural disasters) appearing here function as a kind of escape that can save young people from the disasters of everyday life rather than exposing them to danger. If so, on the contrary, it can be said that the mind of a human (young person) who can no longer hope for growth or progress or is tired of the repetitive life without an exit creates disaster as an imagination.


The desire of young people to escape from the disastrous everyday life they live in eventually summons disasters (natural disasters). Here, naturally, the focus of the narrative is not to overcome disasters (natural disasters) but to escape from the disasters of everyday life. At this point, I would like to emphasize that there is another common point revealed in the four works, that the world to come after the disaster is not depicted. It remains entirely up to the reader to imagine the future outcome after the disaster. As such, the series of stories focuses on emphasizing the experience of an event called a disaster (natural disaster), which stems from the desperation to escape from everyday life and defense against returning to normal everyday life (another disaster) from a disaster. If we imagine the ending of the novel from the perspective that everyday life was already a disaster, the post-disaster world that will come to the young people in the novel never guarantees happiness or hope. 


Overcoming the impending disaster and returning to everyday life is at first glance accepted as a positive and natural direction, but for young people living in Korean society, it is no different from returning to a disaster disguised as everyday life. In this context, it may be impossible for a person whose everyday life is ‘already’ felt as a disaster to be ‘post-disaster’, which means the true end of a disaster. If we apply these reasons to the reality in which we live, we arrive at a rather pessimistic conclusion that the everyday life that will come after Covid-19 has passed may not be the everyday life we knew and wanted. More precisely, the time that has been considered as everyday life will inevitably feel different after experiencing Covid-19. The experiences of disasters (natural disasters) redefine the time of our everyday lives that we have never properly reflected on. 


Through this seminar, I came to think about the possibility of looking anew at the relationship between real disasters and disasters as imagination. Now, it is an insufficient explanation to say that the rapidly increasing number of ‘disaster genre’ in Korea is a simple reflection of an increasing number of disasters in reality. Rather, what recent works dealing with disaster narratives show in common is that disasters are the product of the mind that senses the dangers of repetitive everyday life that can no longer hope for growth. Behind the full bloom of the imagination of disaster, the reality is that Korean society’s entered a stage in which it is no longer certain of the growth or progress symbolized by the slogan “A Better Tomorrow than Today.” A series of ‘disaster genre’ shows more fundamental daily fears along with the direct fears of disasters. This conclusion makes us afraid once again, who are experiencing the Covid-19 situation, but as I write this, I don’t think this text can be concluded like this. 


Like the world in the novel, Korean society is experiencing a double disaster: the disaster of everyday life and disasters as an event. Even if we overcome the disaster as an event, a more fundamental disaster of everyday life awaits beyond that. If so, the key is to suggest a way to overcome the disaster of everyday life. At first glance, this is not an easy task, but I think it is the role of art to constantly challenge this fundamental problem. Thinking about disasters entails re-examining the time of everyday life that we have lived at the same time as events such as natural disasters. In the face of the ‘static’ disaster of everyday life, which is opposite to the image of a ‘dynamic’ disaster (natural disaster), the struggles the writers have shown so far are the dynamics of a drive (Snowball Drive) and travel (The Disaster Tourist). Eugene Jung’s project, which forms the core of the book this text is included in, is also titled RUN. If so, we cannot help but look forward to what will be at the end of this run.