Art on the line: creative practice of no-man’s land

In 1976 the American artist Gordon Matta-Clark left for Berlin claiming that he intended to blow-up the Berlin Wall as his contribution to the New York–Downtown Manhattan: Soho show. Friends dissuaded him from such a suicidal action, and so instead he created Made in America. The performance included plastering advertisement posters over graffiti and tagging the wall with a hybrid Soviet-American flag.

Screenshot from Gordon Matta-Clark

Screenshot from “The Wall”, 1976, Super 8 Film

The work has no explicit reference to the no-man’s land caught between the fortified division-lines, though the Super 8 documentation of the project provides a remarkable record of this space.

Implicitly, however, Matta-Clark presents one of the most sophisticated commentaries on the complex nature of no-man’s land: he moves beyond obvious geopolitical forces to foreground the commodification of this space and its relation to consumerism. The documentation of the performance adds additional layers when it captures more prosaic elements of the Berlin no-man’s land – the busloads of 1970s “wall tourists” climbing up a viewing platform, or glimpses of the wild rabbits that lived between the Berlin walls (subject of the documentary Rabbit à la Berlin).

The nuances and sensitivities of Matta-Clark’s work calls attention to artistic engagements and practices more broadly, and their contribution to an evolving research agenda for the study of no-man’s lands.

The opening next week of the 2014 REAL DMZ PROJECT provides an intriguing and exciting contemporary engagement with 21st century no-man’s lands. Based on research conducted on the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) in South Korea and its border area, the REAL DMZ PROJECT is a contemporary art project now running for the third consecutive year. The sensitive approach that guides the project is evident in its 2012 mission statement:

“The REAL DMZ PROJECT wishes to examine the paradox of the areas that surround the zone where the experience and aftermath of war and its memories, cease-fire and peace, daily life and control, confrontation and coexistence, and an unclear future stand side by side. The project hopes to provide an occasion to reflect on what a “real DMZ” is, how it can be realized, and how we may envision our future.”

Though indirectly, the curatorial choices shed light on the visual-bias that often plagues the common representation of no-man’s land, with its all too familiar resort to urban ruins and militarized fortifications. An integral part of the project is dedicated to acoustic and performative formats, with the intent of investigating a non-visual approach to the DMZ, a territory whose perception seems to be determined by visual imagery.

Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 16.09.03

View of the Korean DMZ from the south. From an interview with artist Sunkyong Kim, 2013.

As we noted here before, one of the key challenges for no-man’s land research lies in the tension between the ideologies of peace and war on the one hand, and people’s realities on the ground on the other. This tension is also critical in the Korean context, with military fortifications situated in the DMZ’s wild natural landscape and unique agriculture.

The tension between the politics of military paranoia and the politics of everyday life is also reflected by the spatial strategies of the REAL DMZ PROJECT 2014. Together with the artists, the curators have selected venues and sites of intervention that span from the Peace Observatory facing the DMZ and North Korea to military infrastructures such a US-military bunker.

In an interview, the Korean artist Sunkyong Kim, who took part on the 2013 installment of exhibition points out into the lush agricultural landscape south of the DMZ and observes our own blindness as spectators of these space:

“The line of the landscape is very beautiful here. My parents were farmers and when they sowed seeds I could see that everything was started from lines. Each field has its own beauty of lines, but the lines in the fields are conceptually different. The civilian control line and the lines of the iron fence, they are the lines we see here…”

Like Matta-Clark’s work in Berlin, the Real DMZ Project encapsulates the sensitivities, nuances and complexities of the no-man’s land. Like the Chernobyl illustration-studies of Swiss visual artist Cornelia Hesse-Honegger, which expose minute, yet irreparable fauna deformations, these are more than representations. They go beyond visualizing what we think we already know. Instead they make us rethink and renegotiate the meanings and practices of these spaces. They call attention to less-than-sensational facets, to the encoded practices and to the everyday lives in sites of enclosed abandonment.

They are, in the most profound manner, a way to re-inhabit no-man’s land.

Chernobyl Fly

Cornelia Hesse-Honeger, housefly study from ‘Catastrophe Chernobyl’, artist’s website.

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