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  • Rainey Knudson

Kim Beom's Animate Inanimate Objects (590 words)

My grandmother used to talk to her car, a 1991 gray Buick LeSabre that she called Baby. She would pat the dashboard soothingly after lighting up a Capri, praising the car every time it rumbled to life.

Is it crazy to believe that everything is alive? Not just animals and plants and amoebas, but every thing? Cars, artworks, tools, even rocks? Everything is made up of atoms — so, is some sort of sentience an essential condition of those atoms? In the midst of those atoms' protons, their mysterious electron clouds, and the undetectable-but-we-know-it's-there dark matter that it all swims in, where does "aliveness" begin?

The idea that everything is alive is called animism, and it's as old as our species itself. It was the underpinning for most people's understanding of the world before the development of what we would call "organized" religion.

The South Korean artist Kim Beom, whose survey exhibition How to become a rock is on view at the Leeum Museum of Art in Seoul, has made humorous artwork for several decades that treats seemingly inanimate objects in very animate ways.

Kim is perhaps best well-known for Yellow Scream, a 2012 video in which an actor produces an abstract yellow painting while screaming as the paint is applied. The video is closely modeled on the late Bob Ross's beloved instructional painting shows, and, as Andrew Russeth comments in his recent review of Kim's survey, it's an amusing send-up of "the art enterprise" and specifically of abstract painting. (The crappy yellow painting that is produced in the video is something you'd see in a dusty thrift store or the garage sale of a Sunday painter.)

The actor in Yellow Scream punctuates his deadpan, mundane instructions with screams of different pitches and intensity as he applies the paint to the canvas. He ascribes different emotions to the shades of yellow he mixes, making comments like, "A brown tone filled with regret, isn't it great?" and "Paintings need happiness too."

As Russeth comments, Yellow Scream is making fun of abstract painting and "the outrageous claims that are made about its ability to transmit emotions, narratives and ideas." But I argue that, as with all good comedy, Kim is up to something more than just lampooning an obvious target.

Russeth mentions other works of Kim's that explicitly attribute sentience to inanimate objects:

"In 1994 Kim used a pencil to draw a small circle on a piece of paper and wrote, ‘believe this circle is alive’, ‘believe this circle can think’ and a couple other bold imperatives." ...
A 2010 installation, Objects Being Taught They Are Nothing But Tools, enacts an indoctrination session. It places cheap household products – a table fan, a kettle, a nightlight – in tiny chairs in front of a chalkboard and a television, on which a man delivers a tedious lecture. “Some of you use electricity,” he says. “Others use batteries.”

Objects Being Taught They Are Nothing But Tools, 2010, mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo: Lee Euirock and Choi. Courtesy the artist and Leeum Museum, Seoul (via

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston owns a 2010 video by Kim titled A Rock That Learned the Poetry of Jung Jiyong, in which a man reads poetry by the legendary 20th-century Korean poet to a large rock sitting on a table before him. (The video is not currently on view in the Korean gallery, and is not listed in the MFAH's collection online, but I have confirmed that they own it).

As with the rest of Kim's works, it's funny and absurd, tinged with futility and even pathos. And it also assumes, with complete conviction, that the rock is sentient, capable of listening to and learning about poetry.

Kim Beom: How to become a rock is on view at the Leeum Museum of Art in Seoul through December 3, 2023.


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