As tension with North Korea continues, the French-Tunisian artist known as eL Seed has unveiled artwork calling for unity at the demilitarized zone dividing the Korean Peninsula.
Installation of the artwork, dubbed "The Bridge," began in November after being commissioned by the Gyeonggi Museum of Art in Ansan, South Korea. It is made up of 43 aluminum laser-cut panels that together form an intricate Arabic calligraphy, spelling out a poem by Kim Sowol, an early modern poet who lived in what is now North Korea.
"I believe that artwork can truly unite and cut through divisions," eL Seed said in a statement. "For me, this artwork is truly symbolic."
As an artist, eL Seed was first inspired to produce large public works in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. He created a number of high-profile works based around Arabic calligraphy that he installed in the Middle East and later Europe and South America.
Among his best known works is a sprawling mural that he installed last year on a number of buildings in Cairo. That artwork paid homage to the Egyptian capital's famed garbage collectors, quoting a third-century Coptic Christian bishop who had said, "If one wants to see the light of the sun, he must wipe his eyes."
Attempts to build an artwork devoted to unity in one of the world's most divisive areas - the Korean Peninsula - ran into some hurdles, however. The original plan for "The Bridge" called for an actual bridge-like sculptural work that would curve upward to a height of 65 feet, but stop, dangling, at the midway point. It would remain unfinished until another part could be built in North Korea - a symbol of the hopes for reunification.
The South Korean military had other ideas, however, telling eL Seed that the artwork could not be higher than the 10-foot-tall fence nearby, so as to not become a military target. Initial plans to make the artwork blue were also shelved for fear of attracting too much attention from North Korea. "That's why I made it with a mirror finishing," eL Seed said in an email. "So it blends in with the environment."
It took several weeks to produce the work and then a few days to install it. The result is now installed permanently in Gyeonggi Province, clearly visible from the nearby North Korean observatory, eL Seed said. "What is ironic on this whole adventure is that, we installed the art piece while Donald Trump was visiting South Korea," eL Seed added. "It wasn't on purpose at all. Such a coincidence."
EL Seed said that, although the artwork was installed in November, he had first traveled to South Korea in June to get a feel for the DMZ and the area around it. "My perception got twisted totally," he explained, adding that he was able to meet with families divided by the rift between the two Koreas. "One 90-years-old woman, Kim Jae Heum, was married with a man from North Korea who could never go back there," he said. "He left his wife and kids there and never heard from them anymore."
The artist was also able to meet with underprivileged children from all over South Korea through a workshop with the conglomerate CJ Organization. "I was surprised and intrigued that the separation was still a subject that younger generations would relate to even after 60 years," eL Seed said.
Despite the fraught geography, the DMZ has seen a number of art installations nearby in the past, including the Real DMZ Project, which was launched in 2012. It has also become a major tourist attraction for visitors to South Korea, with groups allowed to tour a number of sites of political and historical importance along the DMZ.
Even so, there have been moments of high tension along the border between North Korea and the South recently. Last month, a North Korean defector made a daring dash across the DMZ in a bid to escape from the country: The former soldier, identified only by his surname, Oh, was shot at least five times during his dash to freedom. He is currently making a good recovery.
In the short term, at least, the artwork is unlikely to change the situation much.
"I expect most North Koreans won't hear about it," said Andray Abrahamian, a visiting scholar at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, noting that with current tensions it would not fit into North Korea's domestic propaganda.
However, eL Seed said he hopes soon he will be able to install a corresponding artwork on the North Korean side - something Abrahamian said he thought might appeal to Pyongyang officials because of the "concrete, non-abstract nature" of the work.
EL Seed said he hopes that Kim's poem, written in the style of a romantic folk song before the division of Korea, can offer hope to those on both sides of the border.
"The words are the words of a 'North Korean' (Kim passed away before Korea split, but he is originally from the North) facing South Korea," eL Seed said. "It was initiated by South Koreans but if you look at the art piece you are facing North Korea. This project is the beginning of a conversation, and I am happy that I am one of the actors who are initiating it."
In English, the poem reads:
"You may remember, unable to forget:
yet live a lifetime, remember or forget,
For you will have a day when you will come to forget.
You may remember, unable to forget:
Let your years flow by, remember or forget,
For once in a while, you will forget.
On the other hand it may be:
'How could you forget
What you can never forget?"
© Washington Post
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