Memory of Time – HeeWon Lee (Rennes, 2019)

It is possibly the first time that I’m writing about a specific video installation here on this blog. I have read quite a bit during my PhD research in order to understand the uses of cinematic slowness in video, but I hadn’t come across an installation which combined not only everything that I had learned, but, most importantly, also what I had come to feel whenever I saw a slow film. Les Champs Libres in Rennes currently host an installation by South Korean artist HeeWon Lee, called Memory of Time and it is a truly intriguing example of the combination of cinematic slowness and aspects of memory.

The two main elements of HeeWon Lee’s work are contemplation and immersion. Both are achieved by the use of slow-motion, which is usually not an important factor in Slow Cinema. Slow films achieve their cinematic slowness by minimising movement, dialogue, music, the number of characters, etc The Korean artist uses slow-motion, which, combined with the darkness of the gallery space and the size of the screens, hypnotises the viewer, surrounds him/her but also has a disorienting nature to it. Infinity II is a vertical slo-mo piece. It shows a waterfall, I believed, and it was confirmed by the young woman outside the gallery who gave us a bit of extra information about what we had seen. Before I got to know that the waterfall was, in fact, Icelandic and keeps a painful secret, I was not even sure I was seeing a waterfall. The slowness as well as the fact that the video runs backwards creates for a fascinating experience, which allows your thoughts to flow freely.

Just recently, I published an article in which I tried to answer the question as to whether it was possible to escape time. I came to the conclusion that it was possible, depending on how you looked at it. Film and photography make it possible to alter time, and this is what HeeWon Lee does here. I briefly mentioned the secret the waterfall was hiding: it is the very waterfall, where the Icelandic population, forced by the Catholic Church, had to separate themselves from their icons. What the artist does here, is inverting the flow of time. She not only slows time down, but inverts it, allowing for a passage into the past. She turns back time and invites us to step into history.

There is something else going on in her two other pieces Infinity IV and Infinity V. One shows the full breadth of a waterfall, the other is a view from a cliffside, with a wave breaking at rocks slightly to our side. There is a beauty in there, which cannot be put into words. Again, it is immersive and despite the accompanying sound track (drone music?), there is a deafening silence somehow. Even though I was with people, I felt alone, in my own world, in my own thoughts and also, of course, alone with my imagination. I don’t know about the history behind this specific waterfall, but the beauty of Lee’s work is that it can also be considered universal. I couldn’t help think of the beauty of the very nature which we are destroying. I couldn’t help think of the loss we are encountering as a permanent, continuous condition in the here and now.

Lee’s work is not only about slow-motion as such, however, and it is this, which struck me most. I actually had my first VR experience thanks to her short film The Rain. It gave me a lot of food for thought in regards to the experience of history. Slow Cinema has, in many cases, often been about the immersion in a different culture, in a different time. In short, it is about the immersion in a different world. The lengthy works by Wang Bing, for example, are important to mention here. Of course, the immersion we get from one of Wang Bing’s films differs from that we get from a gallery piece and yet, both HeeWon Lee and Wang Bing channel (and limit) our attention in such a way that we become truly enveloped by the stories they tell.

The Rain is a short film about a painful and still unacknowledged part of South Korea. When Japan occupied the country during the Second World War, they turned many women into sex slaves. In The Rain, we hover over a river, slowly but steadily. This is the first point to notice about VR: you’re imprisoned in this world the director wants you to see. One is trapped in a world that isn’t one’s own, which already makes one become highly attentive and alert. While Lee takes us slowly around the peaceful landscape which retains its scars from the war, invisible and unknown to us in the present, we hear testimonies of those women who had been sex slaves to the Japanese. They’re powerful statements, brutal, gut-wrenching and stand in contrast to the peaceful landscape we traverse. The combination of contemplating a peaceful landscape, in which we’re fully immersed, and the testimonies of atrocities committed is particularly painful and difficult to handle. It reminded me of the early films of Lav Diaz in which you don’t see atrocities, but which are so hard-hitting, precisely because you don’t see violence and only hear about it. Lee walks a similar line here, but the use of VR creates a special experience that transmits history in a different and much more palpable way.

I have written a lot about the combination of slowness and testimony/a re-staging of history and the ways in which it can be effective in transmitting the nature of trauma to an audience. Because of the immersion it offers, Virtual Reality creates new possibilities for the exploration of painful histories, of silenced storied and brutal atrocities. Several slow-film directors make films in order to keep history alive. VR is, perhaps, an even better way forward. I have always wondered whether VR and slowness could work. But HeeWon Lee’s The Rain showed me that it is, in fact, a truly haunting combination.