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Review: At the Korean DMZ, reunification through one artist's strange lens

Review: At the Korean DMZ, reunification through one artist's strange lens
Installation of “Paradise Limited” by Young Joo Lee, 2017. (Young Joo Lee and Ochi Projects)

In “Paradise Limited,” Young Joo Lee offers an unusual vision of the DMZ. The room-spanning, three-channel video projection at Ochi Projects highlights how the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea has become an inadvertent nature preserve, a human-free harbor for rare wildlife species.

Rendered in stylized, dream-like animation, the work recasts the zone as a site of reunification rather than division.

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The layout of the piece itself mimics the tripartite nature of the DMZ. On the left we follow the routines of soldiers in white uniforms; on the right, their counterparts wearing black enact the same rituals. The figures’ bodies are hand-drawn, but their heads are all photographic images of Lee’s face. They are different and yet the same.

Young Joo Lee's “Paradise Limited,” 2017, at Ochi Projects.
Young Joo Lee's “Paradise Limited,” 2017, at Ochi Projects. (Young Joo Lee and Ochi Projects)
Another still from Young Joo Lee's “Paradise Limited.”
Another still from Young Joo Lee's “Paradise Limited.” (Young Joo Lee and Ochi Projects)

The center panel features a swirling miasma that looks like a dust storm. It represents the literal no-man’s land between the two nations, but it also suggests an unexplored ideological territory.

The opposite sides proceed in lockstep until nature intervenes: A tiger from the DMZ (accompanied by some mystical humanoid figures and an ominous mist) maims a solider on either side. Seeking the perpetrator, armed teams venture into the wild.

Here the piece shifts; the soldiers become lost in the mist and find themselves naked in the center panel. Mist and vegetation give way to a forest of bare, lumpy trees that suggest the curves of female bodies. The style of the animation also shifts, from flat, hand-drawn elements in a palette of black and gray, to dimensional digital images in soft peach and beige.

Upon encountering one another, the soldiers drop their weapons and submerge themselves in a body of water. When they emerge, they all look the same, like pale gray, female mannequins. Two of the figures embrace, and their bodies interpenetrate to form a new anthropomorphic — no, feminamorphic — tree.

"Trees in Paradise" by Young Joo Lee.
"Trees in Paradise" by Young Joo Lee. (Young Joo Lee and Ochi Projects)

The exhibition also includes figurative watercolor drawings inspired by Lee’s dreams, feminamorphic tree sculptures in clay, a rifle made of chocolate and an 82-foot long horizontal drawing documenting Lee’s walk along the DMZ. This last is displayed in a custom-built table where viewers turn handles to scroll either “East” or “West.” The ink drawings are lovely, reminiscent of traditional Korean landscape paintings. The effect is like a mini-movie.

Then there is the video, “Song From Sushi,” in which Lee, wearing a skin-colored body suit, dances atop sushi plates on a conveyor-belt table. It’s accompanied by a catchy tune poking fun at how Western culture “consumes” Asian women’s bodies, likening them to exotic dishes.

The second half of the video takes an even stranger turn. Lee dances amid underwater ocean footage while a male voice asserts that we are all “fish in the ocean.” Like divided Korea, racial stereotypes are just another refusal to recognize our wild interconnectedness.

Ochi Projects, 3301 W. Washington Blvd., L.A. Through July 21; closed Sundays-Tuesdays. www.ochiprojects.com

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