Interview: Marcus Cheong
Edited by: Racy Lim
Photography: Andrew Ananda Voogel
Can you tell me more about the gigantic prayer bowl?
The form of the bowl itself represents my own sense of void. It’s a structure that holds a space and a form but is filled with emptiness. Its emptiness is what allows it to vibrate, something I find very peaceful and powerful at the same time.
This particular piece is a stainless steel sound sculpture weighing 300 kilograms that we have calibrated for various tones and vibrations. When touched even lightly, it vibrates with a strong resonance. The Unification Bowl, which is the title of the sound sculpture, sits next to the Imjin River in Yeoncheon County, South Korea. For me, this exact location was extremely important to the conception of the project.
The Imjin River weaves between North and South Korea, and the bowl has been strategically placed at a location where the river bends on the Southern Side of the border. I’ve been visiting the site for the previous two years and it has become an interesting source of beauty and contrast for me personally.
Were there any difficulties getting approval from the South Korean Government for the installation?
It’s not an easy task to construct and place a prayer bowl in a military-controlled area. That being said, both the municipal government and the local community made the process as smooth as possible.
What is it about the Imjin River that attracted you to the site?
The river flows peacefully through the landscape, and has no idea that it exists between two opposing political spheres.
In that respect, the Imjin became a point of inspiration for the prayer bowl. It has its own vibration, its own sound, one of peace and singularity. I wanted to create something that emitted a similar feeling, one that had power, but also contained the peace of a flowing river. The geographical region of the site is also deeply interesting to me.
Will you be working in any interior spaces in the region?
I’ve planned an indoor experience where I’ll explore the nature of division between the two sides of the Peninsula in a way that allows people to gain a unique, individual experience of the division within the region. It will be opening in April 2018.
What kind of space will you be installing in?
It’s an old a repurposed military building which has been retrofitted to host dialogues in art and culture for the local community. The great thing about it is that there are two spaces that are divided within an old cold storage on-site that are perfect for video installations. People will enter the space and immediately they will be separated from each other because of the interior architecture.
What about the border intrigues you on both human and art levels?
These borders are extremely fragile in theory.
Many of our contemporary global borders have been shaped hastily and often by outside nations that aren’t experiencing the physical division that they themselves are creating.
What’s left when those nations depart, and of the land divided before it was unified?
In this way, I find borders unique. Time moves forward, people go about their lives, but there’s history and its volatility to contend with. At the site of the prayer bowl there are soldiers, farmers, grandmothers all walking around in the same space, going about their business. However, this zone could erupt into conflict at a moment’s notice. This is what I find unnerving.
At a time where the world is so globalized, take Singapore or any other major hub for example — it seems strange to me that there exists a major push to deny the effects of economic and cultural globalisation mainstream understanding.
In that same vein, national governments are pushing agendas that have very little relevance to the way the actual structures of the world are evolving, including the continual discussion of border fortification.
In my mind, I see borders as symbols of disagreements that happened a long time ago. That kind of over simplifies it but it shows how disagreements left unresolved can intensify through time.
I guess that’s what borders are coming to signify for me, disagreements left unresolved. In that way, I want to be part of this conversation, to research ways in which we can deescalate the disagreements of the past, in hopes that can avoid mistakes that we won’t be able to undo.
How do you think art can affect politics, if at all?
I find this fascinating and I do think that art is implicated in politics. It’s not just something being hung on a wall or installed in a gallery space. At this point in time or any, it’s important to go beyond the aesthetics.
Art has always acted as a vehicle to measure the political and social climate of the time it exists within.
In this way, art can be a complex vehicle for communication and can pick up conversations where language falls short. This provides art with a great deal of agency and a great deal of responsibility. My own responsibility as an artist goes beyond my identity as a citizen of any nation and extends to being an inhabitant on the planet. In this way, I am also implicated in what’s occurring globally. If I can make a small gesture as an artist that allows me to question something I’m deeply concerned about, I’m going to do it.
What do you think is the importance of politically and socially charged art?
I believe the most important thing, whether an artist or a citizen is to act from the most informed vantage point you have available.We can be active participants in our communities, local and national policy, and also engage in global discussions that affect us and those we care for.
Art has a long history of influencing social and political movements—in lecture halls, in museums, in public space, in print and now on screens. So I believe it’s a very important mode of critique for our societies and our political institutions. Throughout history, you’ll always find that there were plenty of artists up to no good, in-order to resist the powers that be when needed.
From my personal experience, getting involved in these types of projects, I’ve been able to interact with many government officials—decision makers. Their dialogues happen at a very different level than mine do. So even working with the government becomes a very productive process in engaging with a relevant social issue. One of the benefits is working with people that think completely differently to how I do, which has forced me to become more creative and more disciplined in how I execute a project.
How do you feel that borders or man-made categories such as sexuality and religion affect the way we interact with each other socially and creatively?
That’s a great question and is at the heart of why I’m doing this. Ultimately, I think we can have millions of categories to label ourselves by but once those categories begin to alienate me from you and us from others, we run into a problem.
Of course, that’s also why more and more borders are popping up. The definition and redefinition of different geographies... Everyone needs those in some regards, but I think there’s a point in which it becomes less about land management and more about fear and ideology.
We all have our own history, narratives and identities and it’s crucial that we accept and understand them. However, if they start alienating us from each other, then I think it’s a good time to begin questioning them. Ultimately, I believe respect is the foundation of this process.
Do you think it’s important for different artists to share the same ideologies to be working together?
I think there are many different pockets of art and great things happening among creative individuals of all kinds all across the globe. Culture is becoming more experimental, more hybridised and more community-focused.
I can be speaking with an artist from New York, Mumbai or Berlin and we can be on the same page instantly, regardless of our backgrounds. This is one of the incredible moments we have currently because of globalisation and technology. For me, I think a big part of being in East Asia is that I also get to learn many languages of art that I was previously unfamiliar with—which gives me insights into life that I never would have had previously. That’s been a big thing for me too, learning that.
How do you personally find your experience of landing your art in their respective homes and places around the world?
So far so good. A lot of my practice is pretty self-motivated so often I know where I want to have my work shown and I get involved in the process of doing that. I also try to work a lot in areas and geographic regions where I have a specific interest.
If you had a choice how would you personally like to unite the North with the South? Do you think they can be united?
It’s going to happen in time, Marcus, but it’s not going to happen overnight. Sometimes history moves extremely quickly and other times, more gradually. So let’s see where things go from here. What’s important for me is to be present and act in my time.
In relation to the ongoing conflict, it’s something that could turn into a global catastrophe very quickly. That is something I hope we can avoid till there is a truly peaceful solution for both sides.
How would you like your artwork to impact its viewers?
The biggest thing for me is that there exists an experience of some sort of calm or peace, no matter where the artwork exists or where the viewer is coming from. When someone experiences my work, my only hope is that it allows that person to expand from within the self—even if just a little.