In the six decades since the Korean War, the endangered red-crowned crane — a cultural symbol revered throughout East Asia — has found sanctuary in an unexpectedly divisive place: the Korean Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. The buffer between North and South Korea is a regular stop on the flocks’ migration routes every year.
“I’ve been looking at the DMZ in terms of space since the early ’90s,” says Korean-American artist Michael Joo. “The DMZ is an unintended nature preserve, the most science-fiction natural preserve in the world.”
The artist has been fascinated with the cranes of the DMZ since his childhood, in the 1970s. This year, he created a pair of site-specific artworks — “Collective” and “Migrated” — inspired by the birds for the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
“The red-crowned crane is a long-running icon of longevity and a national animal in Korea,” Joo says. “I thought of it as an avatar, like a way to see nature as a mirror of now and then.”
Back in 2012, as part of a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, Joo was digging through the National Museum of Natural History’s archives when he came across some taxidermy cranes in storage containers. Dating from the 1880s, the cranes were “like a kind of time capsule,” Joo says. He was particularly taken with a crane that had awkwardly twisted into the shape of its container.
Joo used 3-D scans of the crane to create “Collective,” a 13-by-10-foot canvas with mirror images of the crane silk-screened on it. He then treated the canvas using a silver nitrate process derived from early photographic techniques. The silvering created layers of silver ink and chemicals that look almost 3-D and reflect the light coming in through the nearby windows.
Hanging from the ceiling near “Collective,” “Migrated” is a mobile made from brass rods with volcanic rocks hanging from the ends. As air currents gently move the mobile, a rock will occasionally hit a rod, making a sound like a muffled bell. The lengths of the rods represent the various migration patterns the cranes take through the DMZ; the rocks were collected by Joo from just outside the DMZ, in South Korea.
“In my mind, the rocks still hark back to volcanic activity. It’s a very strange way of looking at time,” Joo says, referring to how humans rarely think of time in geological terms.
“We think of the DMZ as a space without identity, without depth,” he says. “But it’s not just about us.”
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW; through July 9, 2017, free.
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