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Exhibition looks at overarching presence of virtual reality

In a video introducing Niantic’s mobile game Pokemon Go, which uses augmented reality, Pikachu is running around in an open-air cafe, past real people. The uplifting yellow creature even plays hide-and-seek using real-world objects like flower pots.

“Watching the video, I thought this real world has become an image -- in an allegorical sense. It was somewhat scary too when I thought about how the real world and virtual reality overlap with one another, the one with Pikachu and the other without it,” Kim Hee-cheon said during an interview with The Korea Herald at Art Sonje Center in the Samcheong-dong area of Seoul.

Art Sonje Center is holding a solo exhibition dedicated to Kim, titled “Deep in the Forking Tanks,” which explores the fast-growing presence of virtual reality in our world through what some may view as a cryptic video of the same name. Kim has transformed the whole gallery space on the third floor into a dark space where he introduces his large screen. 


A scene from Kim Hee-cheon’s “Deep in the Forking Tanks,” now at Art Sonje Center in Samcheong-dong, Seoul (Art Sonje Center)
A scene from Kim Hee-cheon’s “Deep in the Forking Tanks,” now at Art Sonje Center in Samcheong-dong, Seoul (Art Sonje Center)

The dark room represents a “sensory deprivation tank,” an important concept in the artist’s work.

A soundproof tank filled with mineral-rich water, the sensory deprivation tank was invented in 1954 by US physician and neuroscientist John C. Lilly to enhance the cognitive functions of the person inside it by cutting off sensory stimulation.

This decades-old tank is still often used for therapeutic reasons, as well as for meditation. NBA player Stephen Curry is among the well-known figures who float in the tank on a regular basis, Kim said.

The machine is repeatedly introduced in Kim’s video, as the narrator of “Deep in the Forking Tanks” gives instructions on using the isolation tank.

However, not many things are elucidated. His work has no concrete narrative or characters. This almost narrative-less video has no beginning or end but just goes on. Kim uses various digital applications, which confuses the boundary between what is real and what is not. The images flash back and forth, often with glamorous sounds.


Visitors watch Kim Hee-cheon’s “Deep in the Forking Tanks” in a dark room at Art Sonje Center in Samcheong-dong, Seoul. (Art Sonje Center)
Visitors watch Kim Hee-cheon’s “Deep in the Forking Tanks” in a dark room at Art Sonje Center in Samcheong-dong, Seoul. (Art Sonje Center)

The images are not in high-definition either. “I know the images are neither crystal clear nor neatly organized, like those in Hollywood films. But I decided not to use high-definition images because they’re not ones that I can relate to,” Kim said.

“The modes in which technology develops and functions are often away from our sights, and it seemed quite uncanny if you think about the changes it brings to us,” Kim said.

When asked if viewers might find his video difficult to understand, Kim said, “I think it would be arrogant of me if I decided how far an audience could understand. Works tend to become dull, if I intentionally try to set a certain limit to make the work easier,” Kim said. “The best I can do is create an environment where the audience can watch the whole video.”

Kim is a local media artist who gained a reputation through his “Lifting Barbell” (2015), an art project he and a fellow artist devised upon graduating college. Kim studied architecture at Korea National University of Arts.

Kim’s film will run through Jan. 19 at Art Sonje Center.

By Shim Woo-hyun (ws@heraldcorp.com)
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