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EG 2008

Miru Kim: My underground art explorations

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Views 584,558

At the 2008 EG Conference, artist Miru Kim talks about her work. Kim explores industrial ruins underneath New York and then photographs herself in them, nude -- to bring these massive, dangerous, hidden spaces into sharp focus.

- Photographer and explorer
Miru Kim is a fearless explorer of abandoned and underground places. Her photography underscores the vulnerable nature of the human explorer in these no-woman's-lands. Full bio

I was raised in Seoul, Korea,
00:16
and moved to New York City in 1999 to attend college.
00:18
I was pre-med at the time,
00:22
and I thought I would become a surgeon
00:25
because I was interested in anatomy
00:28
and dissecting animals really piqued my curiosity.
00:31
At the same time, I fell in love with New York City.
00:35
I started to realize that I could look at the whole city
00:40
as a living organism.
00:44
I wanted to dissect it
00:46
and look into its unseen layers.
00:48
And the way to it, for me,
00:50
was through artistic means.
00:52
So, eventually I decided to pursue an MFA instead of an M.D.
00:56
and in grad school I became interested
01:00
in creatures that dwell in the hidden corners of the city.
01:03
In New York City, rats are part of commuters' daily lives.
01:10
Most people ignore them or are frightened of them.
01:13
But I took a liking to them
01:17
because they dwell on the fringes of society.
01:19
And even though they're used in labs to promote human lives,
01:21
they're also considered pests.
01:24
I also started looking around in the city
01:27
and trying to photograph them.
01:31
One day, in the subway, I was snapping pictures of the tracks
01:34
hoping to catch a rat or two,
01:37
and a man came up to me and said,
01:40
"You can't take photographs here.
01:43
The MTA will confiscate your camera."
01:46
I was quite shocked by that,
01:49
and thought to myself, "Well, OK then.
01:52
I'll follow the rats."
01:55
Then I started going into the tunnels,
01:58
which made me realize that there's a whole new dimension to the city
02:01
that I never saw before and most people don't get to see.
02:04
Around the same time, I met like-minded individuals
02:09
who call themselves urban explorers, adventurers, spelunkers,
02:12
guerrilla historians, etc.
02:16
I was welcomed into this loose, Internet-based network
02:18
of people who regularly explore urban ruins
02:22
such as abandoned subway stations,
02:26
tunnels, sewers, aqueducts,
02:29
factories, hospitals, shipyards and so on.
02:32
When I took photographs in these locations,
02:39
I felt there was something missing in the pictures.
02:42
Simply documenting these soon-to-be-demolished structures
02:45
wasn't enough for me.
02:50
So I wanted to create a fictional character
02:53
or an animal that dwells in these underground spaces,
02:57
and the simplest way to do it, at the time,
03:00
was to model myself.
03:03
I decided against clothing
03:06
because I wanted the figure to be without any cultural implications
03:09
or time-specific elements.
03:12
I wanted a simple way to represent a living body
03:14
inhabiting these decaying, derelict spaces.
03:18
This was taken in the Riviera Sugar Factory in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
03:25
It's now an empty, six-acre lot
03:29
waiting for a shopping mall right across from the new Ikea.
03:32
I was very fond of this space
03:35
because it's the first massive industrial complex I found on my own
03:38
that is abandoned.
03:42
When I first went in, I was scared,
03:44
because I heard dogs barking and I thought they were guard dogs.
03:47
But they happened to be wild dogs living there,
03:50
and it was right by the water,
03:53
so there were swans and ducks swimming around
03:55
and trees growing everywhere
03:58
and bees nesting in the sugar barrels.
04:00
The nature had really reclaimed the whole complex.
04:02
And, in a way, I wanted the human figure in the picture
04:05
to become a part of that nature.
04:08
When I got comfortable in the space,
04:13
it also felt like a big playground.
04:15
I would climb up the tanks and hop across exposed beams
04:17
as if I went back in time and became a child again.
04:20
This was taken in the old Croton Aqueduct,
04:25
which supplied fresh water to New York City for the first time.
04:29
The construction began in 1837.
04:33
It lasted about five years.
04:36
It got abandoned when the new Croton Aqueducts opened in 1890.
04:38
When you go into spaces like this,
04:44
you're directly accessing the past,
04:46
because they sit untouched for decades.
04:49
I love feeling the aura of a space that has so much history.
04:52
Instead of looking at reproductions of it at home,
04:57
you're actually feeling the hand-laid bricks
05:00
and shimmying up and down narrow cracks
05:03
and getting wet and muddy
05:06
and walking in a dark tunnel with a flashlight.
05:09
This is a tunnel underneath Riverside Park.
05:13
It was built in the 1930s by Robert Moses.
05:17
The murals were done by a graffiti artist
05:20
to commemorate the hundreds of homeless people
05:23
that got relocated from the tunnel in 1991
05:26
when the tunnel reopened for trains.
05:29
Walking in this tunnel is very peaceful.
05:32
There's nobody around you,
05:34
and you hear the kids playing in the park above you,
05:37
completely unaware of what's underneath.
05:40
When I was going out a lot to these places,
05:43
I was feeling a lot of anxiety and isolation
05:46
because I was in a solitary phase in my life,
05:49
and I decided to title my series "Naked City Spleen,"
05:52
which references Charles Baudelaire.
05:57
"Naked City" is a nickname for New York,
06:00
and "Spleen" embodies the melancholia and inertia
06:03
that come from feeling alienated in an urban environment.
06:06
This is the same tunnel.
06:12
You see the sunbeams coming from the ventilation ducts
06:15
and the train approaching.
06:18
This is a tunnel that's abandoned in Hell's Kitchen.
06:23
I was there alone, setting up,
06:27
and a homeless man approached.
06:30
I was basically intruding in his living space.
06:33
I was really frightened at first,
06:36
but I calmly explained to him that I was working on an art project
06:39
and he didn't seem to mind
06:42
and so I went ahead and put my camera on self-timer
06:44
and ran back and forth.
06:47
And when I was done, he actually offered me his shirt
06:49
to wipe off my feet
06:52
and kindly walked me out.
06:54
It must have been a very unusual day for him.
06:56
(Laughter)
06:59
One thing that struck me, after this incident,
07:05
was that a space like that holds so many deleted memories of the city.
07:08
That homeless man, to me, really represented
07:13
an element of the unconscious of the city.
07:16
He told me that he was abused above ground
07:21
and was once in Riker's Island,
07:24
and at last he found peace and quiet in that space.
07:27
The tunnel was once built for the prosperity of the city,
07:31
but is now a sanctuary for outcasts,
07:36
who are completely forgotten in the average urban dweller's everyday life.
07:40
This is underneath my alma mater, Columbia University.
07:49
The tunnels are famous for having been used
07:52
during the development of the Manhattan Project.
07:55
This particular tunnel is interesting
08:01
because it shows the original foundations of Bloomingdale Insane Asylum,
08:03
which was demolished in 1890
08:07
when Columbia moved in.
08:09
This is the New York City Farm Colony,
08:14
which was a poorhouse in Staten Island
08:17
from the 1890s to the 1930s.
08:20
Most of my photos are set in places
08:26
that have been abandoned for decades,
08:29
but this is an exception.
08:31
This children's hospital was closed in 1997;
08:34
it's located in Newark.
08:37
When I was there three years ago,
08:40
the windows were broken and the walls were peeling,
08:43
but everything was left there as it was.
08:45
You see the autopsy table, morgue trays, x-ray machines
08:47
and even used utensils,
08:50
which you see on the autopsy table.
08:52
After exploring recently-abandoned buildings,
08:56
I felt that everything could fall into ruins very fast:
09:00
your home, your office, a shopping mall, a church --
09:03
any man-made structures around you.
09:07
I was reminded of how fragile our sense of security is
09:11
and how vulnerable people truly are.
09:18
I love to travel,
09:21
and Berlin has become one of my favorite cities.
09:24
It's full of history,
09:27
and also full of underground bunkers
09:29
and ruins from the war.
09:32
This was taken under a homeless asylum
09:34
built in 1885 to house 1,100 people.
09:37
I saw the structure while I was on the train,
09:41
and I got off at the next station and met people there
09:44
that gave me access to their catacomb-like basement,
09:47
which was used for ammunition storage during the war
09:50
and also, at some point, to hide groups of Jewish refugees.
09:54
This is the actual catacombs in Paris.
09:59
I explored there extensively
10:02
in the off-limits areas
10:06
and fell in love right away.
10:08
There are more than 185 miles of tunnels,
10:10
and only about a mile is open to the public as a museum.
10:13
The first tunnels date back to 60 B.C.
10:19
They were consistently dug as limestone quarries
10:22
and by the 18th century,
10:26
the caving-in of some of these quarries posed safety threats,
10:29
so the government ordered reinforcing of the existing quarries
10:32
and dug new observation tunnels
10:37
in order to monitor and map the whole place.
10:40
As you can see, the system is very complex and vast.
10:43
It's very dangerous to get lost in there.
10:46
And at the same time,
10:50
there was a problem in the city with overflowing cemeteries.
10:52
So the bones were moved from the cemeteries into the quarries,
10:56
making them into the catacombs.
11:01
The remains of over six million people are housed in there,
11:06
some over 1,300 years old.
11:10
This was taken under the Montparnasse Cemetery
11:13
where most of the ossuaries are located.
11:17
There are also phone cables that were used in the '50s
11:21
and many bunkers from the World War II era.
11:26
This is a German bunker.
11:29
Nearby there's a French bunker,
11:32
and the whole tunnel system is so complex
11:35
that the two parties never met.
11:38
The tunnels are famous for having been used by the Resistance,
11:41
which Victor Hugo wrote about in "Les Miserables."
11:44
And I saw a lot of graffiti from the 1800s, like this one.
11:47
After exploring the underground of Paris,
11:56
I decided to climb up,
11:59
and I climbed a Gothic monument
12:02
that's right in the middle of Paris.
12:05
This is the Tower of Saint Jacques.
12:11
It was built in the early 1500s.
12:15
I don't recommend sitting on a gargoyle in the middle of January, naked.
12:20
It was not very comfortable. (Laughter)
12:24
And all this time,
12:28
I never saw a single rat in any of these places,
12:30
until recently, when I was in the London sewers.
12:33
This was probably the toughest place to explore.
12:37
I had to wear a gas mask because of the toxic fumes --
12:40
I guess, except for in this picture.
12:43
And when the tides of waste matter come in
12:46
it sounds as if a whole storm is approaching you.
12:49
This is a still from a film I worked on recently, called "Blind Door."
12:55
I've become more interested in capturing movement and texture.
12:59
And the 16mm black-and-white film gave a different feel to it.
13:05
And this is the first theater project I worked on.
13:15
I adapted and produced "A Dream Play" by August Strindberg.
13:19
It was performed last September one time only
13:24
in the Atlantic Avenue tunnel in Brooklyn,
13:27
which is considered to be the oldest underground train tunnel in the world,
13:30
built in 1844.
13:35
I've been leaning towards more collaborative projects like these, lately.
13:38
But whenever I get a chance I still work on my series.
13:44
The last place I visited
13:48
was the Mayan ruins of Copan, Honduras.
13:51
This was taken inside an archaeological tunnel in the main temple.
13:54
I like doing more than just exploring these spaces.
13:59
I feel an obligation to animate and humanize these spaces continually
14:05
in order to preserve their memories in a creative way --
14:11
before they're lost forever.
14:16
Thank you.
14:19

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About the speaker:

Miru Kim - Photographer and explorer
Miru Kim is a fearless explorer of abandoned and underground places. Her photography underscores the vulnerable nature of the human explorer in these no-woman's-lands.

Why you should listen

Miru Kim is a photographer and filmmaker with a love of the new and unknown. In her best-known body of work, she investigates left-behind industrial spaces, infiltrates them with her camera, and then photographs herself in the space, nude. Like Wallace Stevens' jar upon a hill, the presence of her small body brings these massive, damp and dirty, unknown spaces into a new focus.

Extending her aesthetic, she has made a film of Strindberg's A Dream Play set in an abandoned tunnel underneath New York City.

Kim also runs a nonprofit called Naked City Arts to promote young local artists in Manhattan.  

More profile about the speaker
Miru Kim | Speaker | TED.com