What Makes Us Human?
Sylbee Kim
Seoul, South Korea
by Sonja Borstner
Sonja Borstner 19-04-19, 7.02 pm
Hi Sylbee,
happy that you are into the idea of the conversation. I made a mind map the other day – maybe you can get an idea about which parts I see as fundamental concerning the notion of being human.

Courtesy: Timo Lenzen

Sylbee Kim 05-05-19, 7:29 pm
To your question, firstly, I’d like to reflect upon how we’ve come this far: how humanity came to use fire, settled through sophisticated agriculture, started wars to secure surplus resources to one’s community instead of being deprived by others and came to maintain longer periods of peace, through inventing religions, agreeing on political structures and sharing value systems. Following the news around the development of biotechnology and AI and observing the flux of capital and power that feed their entire development, it seems that the notion of being human in general is destined to change. Will the historical driving force of development, namely the desire to possess things to make it to eternity, ever change? At least at this point in time, where it feels like running faster and faster on a track toward the end of the current chapter, it is this archaic drive what draws our projection of a future. Thus, I think what makes us still human – in the sense adhering to our understanding what we have been – is a desire to believe in something.
SB: 05-06-19, 1.54 pm
The speed of our collective race towards the end of the present and the beginning of something we still can’t comprehend in total, is clearly noticeable, I agree. There are a few controversial attempts to handle the tremendous acceleration circulating, though. Besides omnipresent glorifications of ever evolving and rapid technological innovations, some approaches emphasize the slowdown of that progression over the past years. Lately, the celebration of slowness pops up in all kinds of areas and the “Fear of Missing Out” turned into something rather positive. A celebration of absence and non-attendance that people start to feel when they disconnect themselves occasionally. Practices with a long, archaic tradition and specific background like meditation and yoga are renewed and adapted to the needs and desires of the 21st century. By finding the inner peace and calmness we all lack in our daily lives, these qualities turned into a main purpose that people long for. Do you think there is potential behind these trends, or is it just another trick of late-capitalist tendencies to commercialize and digest the idea of contemplation?

Sylbee Kim: 'For Better or Worse', installation view, 2019, Kunstverein Göttingen. Photograph: Marius Land © Kunstverein Göttingen

SK: 10-06-19, 8:52 pm
I imagine this urge to escape derived from the condition of being connected all the time – even in the moments when you are physically isolated. But it might be a rather basic desire, like when you are too tight and besieged, you seek for relaxation and seclusion. Probably it is just a natural defense mechanism of our body and mind to keep the balance.
But on top of the phenomena, I think whatever we wish for ourselves with the purpose to achieve something or even to escape from something, capitalism will invent the ways to use it for its own procreation. Jenny Holzer’s assertion “Protect Me from What I Want” is as valid as it was in 1984. I get information what those remedies and solutions are about, but from where? I am afraid every impulse is somehow stimulated, to push us to related consume nowadays. But it is also just a condition of life, and we will gradually transit to something coming up next. I find all that irrevocable and we can only try to stay alert when we decide to do something…
SB: 12-05-19, 5:19 pm
It’s amazing how Holzer’s quote, after more than 35 years, still succinctly describes the crux of our current existence today. Staying attentive to our own decisions and what drives us in particular seems to be a fundamental task of our generation. In which ways do you think the notion of being human is further challenged by the vast speed of (bio-)technology? And in turn, how would you describe the human desire to believe in something? Do you have a personal approach to this feeling?

Sylbee Kim, Spiny Device, 2019, 3D PLA print, 16 x 8 x 13 cm. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Marius Land © Kunstverein Göttingen

SK: 15-05-19, 06:16 am
Biotechnology in the current era seems to voraciously absorb the desire for eternal life. This desire, I believe, has been a perpetual motivation for humankind. Religion for example attempted to relieve our fear of death by pointing out the idea of a next or afterlife. Yet as biotechnology is beginning to show us clearly that reaching immortality could actually become possible, I also see a kind of counter-response arising. As eternity could be given as a new option – for those who could finance it – the freedom of choice regarding death could be emphasized and regarded as another value.
Be it life or death, one could choose to go either way when imagining the future within new technological possibilities of being. Or rather, maybe our decisions will draw a chain of constant trials and failures toward interim decisions between the two.
Speaking of desire, it is hard for me to imagine any value to live or die for. I have to confess I am rather a skeptic than a believer. Maybe that is why I have a great admiration for those who seem to really believe in something, who wish to apply themselves fully to reach something. Most of the time, the object of desire won’t be achieved. But I don’t need cynicism to look into the phenomena of belief. I think I make art to learn how it works. It is less about what the ones who believe might or might not reach, but how that desire arises.

Sylbee Kim, Trinity: Finance-Credo-Spirituality, 2019, Single Channel-video. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Marius Land © Kunstverein Göttingen

SB: 29-05-19: 4:15 pm
I agree that the increasing desire to extend our lives to a maximum and bypass our finite nature seems to be a conspicuous phenomenon of modern society. The repression of death on a daily basis happens in most of the Westernized countries and infiltrates a lot of our decision-making. The idea of an everlasting life is tempting for those who find themselves in a pleasant situation and want it to last. If one imagines a future in which life can be extended towards eternity, then the choice of death could actually become a sort of freedom. But what is concealed behind the idea of an eternal life? On the other hand, death becomes a taboo, which fundamentally overwhelms us when we are confronted with it in our personal lives. It seems like fear is what drives us – the fear of getting old, of losing control over our bodies, of missing out. But isn’t death what creates the meaning of life, too?
SK: 31-05-19, 3:19 pm
I definitely agree that life and death are inseparable. From where I come from, I think this notion is more entrenched into our daily perception than it is in Western Europe, where my current base is. Even among artist colleagues here, I often witness a certain reluctance to talk about death, and there is a certain inertia that makes them sweep it under the carpet. Of course, it is nothing new: we all die. No fuss, the fact could be still the only democracy! Accepting death as the ultimate chapter of life might help to reveal what this inertia attempts to conceal: fear and anxiety for loss of anything, suppression of others and necropower. I wonder if we could confront this mere fact more directly with less fear and fuss, whether things could get simpler and make us finally see what makes life worth living with some more appreciation. And only by recognizing the meaning of one’s own death, one could stop alienating the death of others.
SB: 06-06-19, 4.05 pm
Since I am living in Seoul at the moment, I experienced a different perception of life and death in a personal situation here too. It was the moment when a close friend of mine let me know about the recent death of her grandfather. She told me that her family gathered at his home to see him for the last time, washing and dressing his dead body, crying over him for three days.By comparing the Korean ritual of washing the dead body and staying with the deceased for days with the traditions of my home country (Austria), a difference in customs became clear to me. When my father passed away two years ago, I had to drive for more than ten hours to be at the place where he had died. I could see his body only the next day when it had already been cleaned, prepared and dressed up by strangers. I was only allowed to touch and see him for a few minutes and there was no room to really feel his presence at the place where he was laid out. His body was surrounded by furniture of the undertaker’s place that had nothing to do with the life of my father. On the other hand, sharing time with the dead at the place where he lived and died, cleansing his body, touching it over and over again, makes death more real and natural, and perhaps helps you to accept the situation, maybe even let go?

Sylbee Kim, Spiny Face, 2019, 3D PLA print, acrylic spray paint, adhesive PVC tape, UV varnish, 52 x 50 x 50 cm. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Marius Land © Kunstverein Göttingen

SK: 10-06-19, 9:15 pm
I think your Korean friend’s family kept the ritual in a real traditional way. The few funerals I visited were hosted in specialized buildings, often on the “funeral floor” in large hospitals: there is a long corridor along which rooms are arrayed. On each door, there is an electronic panel marking the name of the passed followed by names of the family members. Preparing the dead for the funeral is also a professional job, I am not sure whether it is still very much practiced, to do it for your passed family member, that must be pretty rare! This kind of professional and ‘optimized’ service industry for life events is very common in South Korea, like wedding castles. They have quite similar principles as well. But yeah, you would still spend three days to mourn, inviting friends and relatives to join the family. I guess the three days’ time is relevant, to give yourself time to process the loss along with the physical exhaustion. For the guests, there is always food and drink served. You eat and drink constantly in Korea, when you gather. I miss that! I hope your father was not too much in pain.
SB: 30-05-19, 10 pm
In your last installation Trinity: Finance-Credo-Spirituality (2019) at MMCA you open up a mystical cosmos of its very own by using visual, sculptural, sound- and text-based elements that evolve a multi-layered allegory of humankind in the 21st century’s living conditions. Looking at your work, I found space to reflect on myself as a physical entity surrounded by a tremendously two-dimensional and constantly moving world. I could feel a sense of affiliation to the three female protagonists of your video-installation, being in a mantric search with them for something. Completely drawn into that feeling of connection, your work confronted me with my own desires and fears that I share with these women on screen. You mentioned that your interest is not mainly about the specific object of desire, but how that desire arises. Did you discover some specific mechanisms of the desire to believe within and through this work? And can you tell me how the audience in Seoul reacted to it?

Sylbee Kim, Trinity: Finance-Credo-Spirituality, 2019, installation view, MMCA, Seoul, 2019. Photograph: © MMCA

SK: 31-05-19, 3:40 pm
I am always amazed and delighted how every viewer is able to project their own psyche into what I unfold to their perception. Thank you for noticing those hints! That is also one of the points that are dear and challenging to me, to keep the work open for the viewer in a certain level between mystery and immediacy. My job would be to structure all the elements into an environment or a database. Someone who was at my MMCA talk described the work as seeing light through stained glass and I was quite impressed by that association and it lingers in my mind. It is those moments of connection that make me continue proposing things, I guess.
Actually, this investigation of the desire to believe started from perceiving different incidents of death that occurred since around 2014: the rise and fall of Daesh, a suicidal flight of an airliner pilot and the tragedy of the sunken Sewol Ferry. They all involved premature deaths. They were all unrelated incidents, but I was trying to figure out why those things happened in that specific period. What destroys people and what keeps people going? How do we survive?
Specifically, in the exhibition Vertiginous Data at MMCA Seoul, which focused on data technology as our new condition of everything, I observed the financial flux that feeds its development. And there I had the leap of logic connecting credit, trust and belief as the fundament of any exchange, for example, in the cryptocurrency speculation. And that belief ultimately derives from the desire for survival and a vague hope for eternity. This linkage is imaginary but universal at the same time and I saw how the work got communicated almost immediately. Especially for South Koreans, there is always a bonus from my account, hidden memes or hints to recent political history we witnessed. Also, MMCA being such a central and civic institution, it was crucial that the work was graspable for the general audience. I think they are always much more interesting to consider than art professionals!

Sylbee Kim, Trinity: Finance-Credo-Spirituality, 2019, installation view, MMCA, Seoul, 2019. Photograph: © MMCA

SB: 05-06-19, 1.29 pm
I totally support the description of the person who saw your work as light illuminating a blurry scenery. For me personally, art carries that potential to visualize a seismographic image of current, social and political phenomena – in your case it even draws an affirmative and utopian image, as well as an eschatological and destructive one simultaneously. One phrase that reflects this two-sided narrative stayed in my mind while looking at Trinity: Finance-Credo-Spirituality: “We ought to watch out for each other / since the world is a lonely place.” These words give hope although they contain a sad truth.
SK: 10-06-19, 9:38 pm
When I start drafting my scripts, I go through the notes in my phone. There I collect impressive quotes and information as well as sporadic lines that occur to me. A new work is sort of a chapter comprising those lines that aren’t expired yet in my mind.
During one of my visits to Seoul last year, I was struck by an advertisement of a private loan company. In the first scenes I couldn’t tell what the ad was about, since it was addressing young people describing the symptomatic difficulties of survival. Then, its final invitation would be to approach those banks that give you loans more easily than first banks but in reality, they charge you huge interest to pay back. In reality, it would cause you in grave misery. But I found the language so convincing and inviting, and I could imagine the audience feeling touched in their most vulnerable side of life. Those lines are inserted as a quote in Trinity.
Along with them, the lines I wrote such as “We ought to watch out for each other / since the world is a lonely place” represent a similar position. It lures, consoles and invites to believe. It is certainly an undeniable wish, but you already know it won’t be fulfilled.
I think continuing art is similar, you need to maintain a certain idealism and vague hope that you will manage to create something really cool and unprecedented that will communicate to everyone in the best way, then get turned down over and over but end up choosing to be back on track again.

Sylbee Kim: 'For Better or Worse', installation view, 2019, Kunstverein Göttingen. Photograph: Marius Land © Kunstverein Göttingen

SB: 30-05-19, 10:47 pm
Can you share with me some of these experiences between Seoul, the city you were born, and Berlin, the place where you have been living and working for many years, that have influenced your artistic research?
SK: 31-05-19, 4:20 pm
I moved to Berlin in 2005 and traveled a lot to Seoul for projects. Seoul is a dynamic place where Confucianist patriarchy, postcolonial aftermath and technology-driven neoliberalism merge. In comparison to that, Berlin feels more historically social and culturally liberal, but I am also aware that under the mask of the correctness it is governed by tenacious Eurocentric supremacy.
I had some lucky chances and met a few lifetime comrades here and there. But it has also been a continuous experience of rejection and isolation from both sides, which I had to learn to accept after my choice. In the end, situating yourself always in-between gives you a tremendous freedom that you have to cope with, but it also helps you to come to terms with your basic conditions of life and death. In the end, as a worker in art, it feels like our condition of working, characterized by polarization and underpayment under the dominance of neoliberalism is the same everywhere.

Sylbee Kim, Spiny Face, 2019, 3D PLA print, acrylic spray paint, adhesive PVC tape, UV varnish, 52 x 50 x 50 cm; photograph: Marius Land © Kunstverein Göttingen

SB: 06-06-19, 5.15 pm
This vague in-between you are talking about is a rather unpopular and forbidden place in our current society, as people prefer to position and categorize life in measurable and well-defined terms, I guess. But at times I believe these areas are the only ones left that offer much neglected space to let things and thoughts grow there. Talking of growth – have you already planted some ideas on new works/exhibition in the near future? And if so, can you give me some insights into the ripening-process of these?
SK: 10-06-19, 9:52 pm
I am leaving soon for Amman, Jordan, for a collaborative workshop with local and international artists. I happened to have just started learning Arabic more properly, and it is my first visit ever to the Middle East. I am thrilled about the chance. In July I am showing Trinity in Kunstverein Göttingen in a different arrangement. I am preparing another group show opening at Times Art Center Berlin in September. All three projects are initiated by very engaged groups of women and have challenging exhibition titles that feel curiously connected in my heart. I am looking forward to them.
SB: 15-06-2019, 1.20 pm
Thank you for this conversation, Sylbee. Looking very much forward to seeing your upcoming projects! Keep on throwing your personal light into our obscure future.
Sylbee Kim is an artist based in Seoul and Berlin. Recent solo exhibitions include Cradle of Regrets, Hapjungjigu, Seoul, 2018; Garden of Regrets and The Red Liquid and Narcissus, Nevan Contempo, Prague 2017. Recent group exhibitions include For Better or Worse at Kunstverein Göttingen, 2018; Vertiginous Data, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, 2018; Monstrous Moonshine, Gwangju Biennale, 2018 and Neriri Kiruru Harara, SeMA Biennale: Mediacity Seoul, 2016. Her work is currently on view at Neither Black/Red/Yellow nor Woman, at Times Art Centre, Berlin.