by Cristiana Baik; photographs by Crystal Baik
Space has temporal meaning in the reflections of a poet, in the drama of migration.
It’s dusk, a surprisingly dry summer night in Pyongyang.
I’m standing on a paved road that quietly unfurls for 110 miles. The horizon’s salmon glow is quickly darkening into blue and a pace of shadows — quick movements, whispers and echoes. The “Arch of Reunification” — a statue of two women who together raise a sphere with a map of a reunified Korea — towers over me. I ask one of my peers from the NY-based delegation how far the capital is from Seoul. She says softly, as if not wanting to disturb this last glow of summer day: Only two hours. 120 miles.
The feel of a place is registered in one’s muscles and bones.
"Parsing the archive means listening for images and sounds in the eye of memory. It calls for hearing a nonspectral acoustic register, the sounds of people scattering in flight, speaking in hushed voices, testifying bravely, remembering through stories marked by song, nicknames, poisoned images, and weeping."
A friend recently shared her latest film project, entitled Reiterations of Dissent.In the first portion of the film, which explores the perceptible traces of the “4.3” incident — a 1948, U.S.-sanctioned massacre that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 30,000 Jeju residents — a succession of landscape images of Jeju-do, an island known for its verdant and lush foliage, fills the computer screen. A wild flock of crows descend and gather about the floor of a forest, a haunted place where residents were shot and murdered.
The narrator says he barely remembers the incident (he was only seven when the island exploded in violence). “4.3 has remained only a whispering sound,” he says.
What does a constant cry of crows circling a sky, frenzied to search for what cannot be discovered, tell us? Are horrible and unspeakable events passed on, generation to generation, always in whispers, never in screams?
I take the ferry to Alcatraz Island with my sister, who is visiting from Los Angeles, to walk through the new Ai Weiwei exhibit. During the ride, a short 10-minute video promotes the island’s history. The ferry is packed with German and French tourists. The couple sitting next to us is from Florida. Their talk is light and jaunty. He holds a fancy DSLR camera.
We single-file to get out of the ferry once it docks. Once off, visitors are asked to listen to a mandatory 10-minute spiel about the island. When the park ranger asks who in the ferry is here to see the Ai Weiwei exhibit, surprisingly, only a few of us raise our hands, while the rest (about 100) are here to visit the former penitentiary that has now been renovated to a museum, a designated “national recreation area” and a “National Historic Landmark.”
The exhibit itself is spectacular — full of color, hope, and also haunting songs and stories — but admittedly, it feels strange roaming through the former prison cells, its hospital, and dining room. The starkness feels weighted. The buildings have been purposely kept in disrepair (peeling paint, broken windows, burnt-out structures). It’s a place of sadness and violence, but now people pay money to ride the ferry, to take photographs of its haunting hallways.
The museum shop sells coffee cups with photographs of prisoners. Their gaze — forlorn, unhappy, sometimes angry — has forever been made static. Underneath every reproduction, it says, “It’s not criminal to be here! Welcome to Alcatraz!”