Bam islet, or Expurgated Nature
Nature can remove what civilization has achieved in a substantially shorter
time than we thought.
- Alan Weisman, <The World without us>
Bam islet is a little island on the downstream of Han River. A map made during the Joseon Dynasty marks Bam islet and Yeouido, an island next to it, as two points on a big alluvial island because they were connected by a sandy plain which used to turn into a shallow stream during rainy seasons. The islands would unite when the water level of Han River fell, and separate when it rose.
As Yeouido gets urbanized, however, such a scenery is soon to disappear. In 1968, the City of Seoul decides to blow up Bam islet and build a bank around Yeouido by the blocks of stone that came out from the explosion. At that time, there were about sixty households living on the island, making boats or breeding silkworms. They had no choice but to watch their hometown disappear with a blast. Bam islet, which once had stood in the middle of the river, displaying a gorgeous scenery, couldn’t be found anymore. Only little remains were telling that the island had been there once. This is the story behind the development of Yeouido. In this area we can now see the House of Parliament, the financial district and apartment blocks instead of a white sand beach.
For a while, people forgot that Bam islet ever existed. Time passed. Then they found out something amazing. During all those years, the remains of the island was getting larger and larger! As the sediment brought by the river accumulated, Bam islet grew nearly six times the
original size. While humans stayed away from there, a diversity of plants got a chance to grow until they covered the island. Various wild animals found the place a home, especially birds. Bam islet is a habitat for migratory birds, which is an unusual thing for a place in such a big city.
Thousands of birds fly all the way from Siberia to here to spend their winter. As people started urging protection of Bam islet from reckless urbanization, the City of Seoul prohibited public access to this place by designating it as an Ecological Landscape Preservation Area in 1999.
Seunggu Kim’s Bam islet spotlights the landscape of this secretive place with his unique point of view. Those who had expected an image of rich nature- something that the epithet ‘Migratory Birds’ Paradise’, brings to our mind- might be perplexed when they come across his work. You
see willow branches like delicate lines carved on copperplates and thorny vines like pieces of green rags hanging in the air. This nature that fills our eyes is a total stranger to us; it is unlike the tamed nature in suburban areas. It does not resemble the pristine scenery we find in documentary films, either. Concrete piers washed in the rain and wind make the place seem even more abandoned. Here we find the silence and peace that only ruins can have; the serenity finally recovered in a world free of human beings.
In The World without us, Allan Weisman imagines what would happen in New York City after the humans disappear. Without them, the subway stations of New York would be flooded with the ceilings falling down within two days this underground space can be maintained only when people keep pumping the groundwater out. The repeated freezing and thawing would make the asphalt and cement split. As pavement separates, weeds would make their way down the new cracks, widening the cracks further. “In the current world, before they get too far, city maintenance usually shows up, kills the weeds, and fills the fissures. However, in the post-people world, there’s no one left to continually patch New York.” Within two decades, lightning rods would begin to rust and snap, causing lightning to strike the buildings and set them on fire. Rain and snow will blow inside the broken windows. Poison ivy will cover the mossy walls, and falcons will nest on what were once roofs but are merely skeletal remains now. Within 500 years, the houses in the sub-urban area would turn back to a forest, and most of the structures set up by the humans will collapse in thousand years.
Why are we consoled by this kind of description? It will be over-optimistic if we expect that nature would slowly return everything in its place, so that another humankind could begin its own history someday. Without human beings, the nuclear reactors out of coolant would explode all over the world and it would take millions of years for the radioactivity of the Earth’s surface to decrease to the natural levels. It would also take millions of years for plastic waste left by the humans to decompose completely. The reason why we feel liberated in imagining a world
without us is elsewhere: without us, nature has no meaning. It is therefore meaningless to discuss the destruction and resilience of nature. Nature is just there- outside of the human world, refusing our judgements.
Seunggu Kim’s Bam Islet captures this nature outside the meaningful world, or marks its place at least. Bam Islet doesn’t represent the abstract we call “nature” but something expurgated to give way to it. Something that has been expelled but keeps coming back, drifting and proliferating
through our unconsciousness.
The messy willow trees of Bam Islet form a contrast to the cherry trees neatly planted in Yeouido. Replacing the former and erasing its existence, the latter takes the place of "the natural" in the confrontation between the artificial and the natural. It is this tamed nature that people expect when they come out for fresh air after being stuck all day in their office.
Reproduction of faux nature and expurgation of the real nature is a more apparent theme in his other work, Jingyeong Sansu. In this work, the artist shows the artificial mountains and waterfalls, which produced for the landscaping of housing complex. The title "Jingyeong Sansu" is quite sarcastic, since “Jingyeong Sansu” originally means 'a painting of real scenery.' painters of the late Joseon Dynasty showed their intention to paint nature just as it is, instead of adopting the Chinese style of drawing idealized nature. However, the structures Jingyeong Sansu shows are reproductions of the landscape as an idea. Seunggu Kim named the piece
after the name of a landscaping firm. He displays the “real scenery" that had been carefully copied by the firm as if it were an authentic landscape. Visitors can take a walk in front of the display.
Did he intend to criticize kitsch in this work? He could have. The visitors can easily come up with words associated with kitsch looking at the artificial structures displayed in Jingyeong Sansu; insincere, fake, sloppy, commercial, lacking uniqueness, etc. However, the artist's attitude towards exhibiting this kitsch is rather serious. Instead of ridiculing people who willingly pay for these kitsch structures, the artist tries to understand their desire. The desire to bring nature inside their homes is universal. Building a house in somewhere picturesque, tending a garden, decorating the house with flowers… All these activities seem to present the same desire with decorating apartments with artificial structures of Geumgang Mountains, don’t they?
It is easy to criticize kitsch because it is everywhere : we can even say that kitsch is one of the most noticeable characteristics of the megalopolis in Eastern Asia. The photo of a giant castle hanging on the wall of a restaurant (Better Days) can be an example.
Better Days is another series of photo that shows the weird balance between the natural and the artificial. The work is about the places where people can take a rest and enjoy after their hard works, “going back and forth between boredom and desire”, according to the artist: the giant
attractions located ‘in the arms of nature’, called theme parks. These artifacts are advanced forms of the sceneries that photographers carried in their carts in old times-those made so that people can put on ‘happy faces’ and ‘make memories’ in front of them, for taking pictures is one of the most popular activities in theme parks. In this sense, we can compare them to the faux garden of “Jingyeong Sansu.” However, here again, criticizing pop culture is not the artist’s interest. In Better Days people often spend times in closed theme parks or those in construction, as if emphasizing that they aren’t illusioned by the fantastic images of happiness. People realize that they are stuck in a ‘stage set’. They are just there to stop the set from collapsing.
It happens that the stage-sets collapse. Rising, tram, four hours in the office or factory, meal, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the same rhythm- this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.
- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
Bam Islet is on the antipode of all of those efforts. Like the maronier of Sartre, it breaks through peaceful daily routines. Bam Islet is a spot in the landscape, causing cracks and growing bigger and bigger. It is a hole in the stage sets; it’s a gigantic eye kept on us. Even while we are not looking at the islet, it is staring at us. Here we find the unique comfort that Bam Islet gives us. For those who try to put a meaning to life, the islet seems to say, “You don’t need to try so hard.” When the sunsets and the memories of the busy day slowly sink into the overflowing river, Bam Islet glows indifferently in the gleaming sunlight.
By Hyonkyong Kim, Cultural Anthropologist