A pile of teddy bears sits on a tiny white dresser in one room. In another, there are plastic piggy banks and a boy’s portraits. The pink curtains of another room are drawn and a 2014 calendar hangs by the side of a desk. They look like ordinary, cluttered bedrooms, but the children who once animated them will never return.
These are the bedrooms of the South Korean pupils who died when the MV Sewol ferry sank off the coast of Jindo Island on April 16, 2014.
Photographs of the victims’ bedrooms are part of an exhibition titled ” April: the Eternal Voyage ” held in the southwestern industrial city of Ansan, which runs until June 26.
A ‘duty’ to remember
In mid-June, South Korea began operations to raise the ferry , which sank with 304 people on board, including 250 children who were on a school trip. Nine bodies are still missing . Of the 172 people who were rescued, 22 were members of the 29-person crew.
As victims’ families continue to grieve, amid hope that the salvaging will yield some answers about how exactly the disaster happened , the exhibition at Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art (Gyeonggi MoMA) is a show of support to the families and a remembrance of the victims.
It brings together the works of 22 artists and groups, including seven commissioned artworks, and features some of the country’s leading contemporary artists.
Gyeonggi MoMA is located a couple of kilometres from Danwon High School, where most of the victims were pupils. For the past two years, the museum has doubled up as an ad hoc community space for the families to meet and hold press conferences.
“Making the exhibition is kind of like our duty,” says its curator, Chaeyoung Lee.
Many Koreans remain angry at the government’s handling of the disaster.
People watched the ferry, overloaded with cargo, sink live on television. When the it capsized, the crew – who were among the first to flee – told passengers to stay in their cabins. The ensuing rescue operations were mismanaged and t he coastguard initially only rescued those who had evacuated the sinking vessel. F ishing boats later came to help in the rescue.
Over time, the national tragedy grew more politicised as many considered it a symbol of deeper dysfunctions hidden beneath the country’s image of economic prosperity. The families of the victims and their supporters called for a thorough investigation and greater accountability from the government.
The exhibition reflects these issues. “Artists describe situations,” Lee says.
“After this accident Korean society has been divided,” she says. Right-wing, pro-government groups depict the victims’ families as clamouring for financial compensation and reject calls for a deeper probe as a waste of money . Some believe tightened shipping regulations and jail sentences for 15 crew members and shipping officials are sufficient. Lee believes the government has isolated the families. After announcing compensation, they “act like it’s over”.
Lee says many others have now moved on from the tragedy, and the exhibition was conceived to make people remember it. It’s also important, she explains, that public institutions and artists show their support for the families.
“Healing is one of the impacts of art,” Lee says.
The bedrooms they left behind
“The Rooms of the Children”, photographed by a collective of photographers, is part of an ongoing collaboration with the 416 Memory Archive , an NGO working with the victims’ families.
The 19 photographs on display show the private spaces of pupils who were in classes 1 to 10.
Jin Hwon Hong, 35, a photographer based in Seoul, is part of what he calls this “loose gathering” of photographers who have been documenting social issues since 2009.
After the accident, Hong says parents started packing up their children’s rooms out of grief or because they couldn’t afford to stay in their homes and had to move. Seventy of the victims were only children.
“I thought that the only traces of the victims who had to leave so abruptly were left in those rooms, and that ironically, these traces could emphasise the absence of the victims all the more clearly,” Hong says. “So I concluded that we should start to record these rooms before they all disappeared.”
To date, they’ve photographed about 200 bedrooms. While Hong himself hasn’t photographed any rooms, he arranges the photographers’ visits with the families, many of whom welcomed the initiative.
Suntag Noh, the 2014 winner of the Korean Artist Prize, the country’s most prestigious art award, is one of the photographers documenting the children’s rooms.
“The families wanted to appeal to the Korean society that ‘these children had real existences [and] … lived a life as normal as yours’,” he says.
The photographers spend a day taking pictures of the child’s bedroom, and parents will often take out certain belongings to explain their significance.
Staying in the room of the dead for a day “will evoke emotions that you find hard to deal with,” Noh says.
“When you come across things that are contrary to death, such as the dried umbilical cord that the parents cut at the birth of their child and had stored ever since, or a podaegi [Korean baby sling] that is worn out because of having being used hundreds of times, you have no choice but to look at them absentmindedly before shooting,” he says.
The exhibition, he suggests, shows that a “tragedy must repeat itself when it is prohibited [in society] to reflect on it”.
Noh often critiques social and political issues in his work. His “Drought” series in the exhibition depicts police water cannon, directed at people protesting against perceived government ineffectualness in the Sewol investigations and farmers’ rights in Gwanghwamun in central Seoul. In late 2015, a 69-year-old rice farmer who travelled to the capital to protest against falling rice prices fell into a coma after being hit by a water cannon.
“What I saw on the flooded streets of Jindo, Ansan, and Seoul was the cruellest drought, the drought of politics,” Noh writes in the exhibition catalogue.
Reading to the victims
Lee says it was important to feature well-known artists. One of those commissioned was Jeong Hwa Choi , who is known for his huge, kitsch sculptures. He created “Breathing Flower”, a large, black lotus installed outside the official government alter next to the museum.
At the start of the exhibition is Sohee Cho’s close-up photographs of the praying hands of 304 people, their middle fingers stained orange by bongsunhwa (garden balsam), the flower whose extract is traditionally used to colour nails, sometimes to ward off evil.
Yongju Kwon designed the exhibition space and an archive room for additional artworks, flyers and books. “It [the archive] is kind of a first step to be a kind of meta-archive for the Sewol ferry tragedy,” Lee says.
Kwon evokes the disaster through the use of space: a large, freestanding wall in the main hall resembles a rusted ferry and in the archive room, lights are assembled to recall search and rescue operations.
Sindae Kang built an algorithm based on keywords related to the ferry disaster for his “0416 Real-time” . The work generates and displays Internet images to illustrate that Sewol is an ongoing issue and to show how it is discussed on Korean social media. Kang also included keywords based on social and historical issues, that, he says, “we should discuss along with the Sewol ferry tragedy” .
South Korean artist Ahn Kyuchul often employs typography, text and audience participation in his work. His “Reading For Our Children” is a two-room installation and the final artwork in the exhibition, and imagines what literature the young adults might have discovered had they lived.
Visitors can book a 20-minute slot online to read out loud from seven books of poetry. It’s solitary reading done at a lit desk in an otherwise dark room. The readings are recorded and played over speakers in an adjoining room.
Ahn says he thought of how, just as children are read bedtime stories, “It would be good to read to the teenage victims who can read no more.”
He adds that reading out loud triggers memories of school and “could be one of the ways to naturally connect visitors and the student victims”.
As many of the victims would have started university this year, Ahn chose works by Korean poets such as Bo-Seon Shim who are often read by young students. He also included work by Polish poets Adam Zagajewski and the Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska whose poems have “dealt with the confusions and misfortunes of the world”.
“Korean high school students are tormented by brutal college entrance competition,” he says. “It is only after they become a college student that they have time to read poems and novels … it seemed it would be the most beautiful thing we could do for them if we read Korean poems about life and love that they might want to read by now.”
Lee says they’ve thought about donating the book recordings to the blind, but when they listen to them they find that many people cry.
For Ahn , the tragedy exposed the contradictions within Korean society .
“The Sewol disaster is a historical event in that it instantly revealed the dark shadow of the Korean society which is hidden behind the heavy make-up of economic growth,” Ahn says. “I think it is a significant turning point because it required us to fundamentally revisit in which aspect the entire society, suffering undue euphoria, has failed in.”
Pushing for answers is crucial, Hong believes.
“It is only after the truth is discovered when it will be possible for us to offer true condolences to the dead.”
Follow Annette Ekin on Twitter: @evakillen