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Memory’s gardens

July 8, 2008
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What kinds of places are these? Why the urban garden, the row of trees? What’s this bridge, this town you see when you raise your gaze? Where exactly are we today, in Dongducheon, Korea?

The garden belongs to an invalids’ center, the artist Kim Sangdon explains. The bridge is known to the locals as Drum Bridge. The ochre buildings and the chequered water-tower in the distance are Camp Nimble, recently vacated by the Americans. In the past they built the span as a goodwill gesture, where only a floating structure of oil-drums was before. Today the grounds of former Camp Nimble are too poisoned for the locals to use. Look closely at the gardens: if there is such a space in the middle of the city, it’s because of photos that you do not see. There was a simple factory on this site before, where the club girls worked when they had gotten old, fashioning the photo albums of the soldiers: group portraits arm in arm with their drinking buddies, or maybe trophy pictures with the younger prostitutes, to prove the imperial life was good. We clambered up the hillside where the kijich’on or “camptown” women were buried as pariahs, often in unmarked graves. Nobody knows how many. The blazing hot sun, the thorns, the overgrown weeds. Someone had tasted the berries. Were they sweet?

I don’t know what I expected to discover in the city of Dongducheon, halfway between Seoul and the DMZ. Tangled coils of barbed wire? Camoed jeeps on the roads? Soldiers with rifles? Trashy bars, Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King? No-one had to show me these things, the already-seen. What I didn’t understand was the white stone statue at the entry to the village, or the crazy wooden sculptures they had built up the hill.

When the U.S. tanks moved onto the so-called “reserved lands” of Soemuk Village, the locals did not yield. The firing ranges down the road were already close enough. They built pagoda-shaped cairns to block the roads to all but their own narrow vehicles. They drove their tractors to the gates of Camp Casey and made their anger clear. But the white stone statue that commemorates their victory was not made for the tales that it tells today. Instead it was an homage to the two thirteen-year-old girls, Shin Hyo-soon and Shim Mi-sun, crushed by Sgt. Nino’s AVLM on the country road near Samguh-ri on June 13, 2002. Carelessness, fatigue, the everyday disdain of the military’s business. Exercises on narrow country roads, for nothing. All over Korea there were candle-light vigils, and the money for the statue was raised by thousands of donations. But the uncle of one of the girls, who owned the land where they died, crumbled before the pressures rejecting this monument of popular grief; and it’s the U.S. Army’s memorial that stands proud at the roadside today. By a strange twist of fate, the candle-bearing dove was recovered from the stone-mason’s dump and given new purpose: it recalls not the girls’ but the village’s story. As for the wooden carvings — go ask the locals what they mean!

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This was my first day in Korea, driving around the camptowns with Kim Sangdon, Lee Seul-Bi, and Kim Heejin at the wheel. Next Wednesday, July 16, the exhibition of the Dongducheon project opens at Insa Art Space in Seoul.


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