EG 2008

Miru Kim: My underground art explorations

Filmed:

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,
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and moved to New York City in 1999 to attend college.
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I was pre-med at the time,
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and I thought I would become a surgeon
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because I was interested in anatomy
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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
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as a living organism.
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I wanted to dissect it
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and look into its unseen layers.
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And the way to it, for me,
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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
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because they dwell on the fringes of society.
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And even though they're used in labs to promote human lives,
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they're also considered pests.
01:24
I also started looking around in the city
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and trying to photograph them.
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One day, in the subway, I was snapping pictures of the tracks
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hoping to catch a rat or two,
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and a man came up to me and said,
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"You can't take photographs here.
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The MTA will confiscate your camera."
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I was quite shocked by that,
01:49
and thought to myself, "Well, OK then.
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I'll follow the rats."
01:55
Then I started going into the tunnels,
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which made me realize that there's a whole new dimension to the city
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that I never saw before and most people don't get to see.
02:04
Around the same time, I met like-minded individuals
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who call themselves urban explorers, adventurers, spelunkers,
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guerrilla historians, etc.
02:16
I was welcomed into this loose, Internet-based network
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of people who regularly explore urban ruins
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such as abandoned subway stations,
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tunnels, sewers, aqueducts,
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factories, hospitals, shipyards and so on.
02:32
When I took photographs in these locations,
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I felt there was something missing in the pictures.
02:42
Simply documenting these soon-to-be-demolished structures
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wasn't enough for me.
02:50
So I wanted to create a fictional character
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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
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because I wanted the figure to be without any cultural implications
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or time-specific elements.
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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,
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because I heard dogs barking and I thought they were guard dogs.
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But they happened to be wild dogs living there,
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and it was right by the water,
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so there were swans and ducks swimming around
03:55
and trees growing everywhere
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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
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to become a part of that nature.
04:08
When I got comfortable in the space,
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it also felt like a big playground.
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I would climb up the tanks and hop across exposed beams
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as if I went back in time and became a child again.
04:20
This was taken in the old Croton Aqueduct,
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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,
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you're directly accessing the past,
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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,
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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
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that got relocated from the tunnel in 1991
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when the tunnel reopened for trains.
05:29
Walking in this tunnel is very peaceful.
05:32
There's nobody around you,
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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,
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but I calmly explained to him that I was working on an art project
06:39
and he didn't seem to mind
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and so I went ahead and put my camera on self-timer
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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,
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and at last he found peace and quiet in that space.
07:27
The tunnel was once built for the prosperity of the city,
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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
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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,
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which was demolished in 1890
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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;
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it's located in Newark.
08:37
When I was there three years ago,
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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,
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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
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and how vulnerable people truly are.
09:18
I love to travel,
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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
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built in 1885 to house 1,100 people.
09:37
I saw the structure while I was on the train,
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and I got off at the next station and met people there
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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
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and fell in love right away.
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There are more than 185 miles of tunnels,
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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
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and by the 18th century,
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the caving-in of some of these quarries posed safety threats,
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so the government ordered reinforcing of the existing quarries
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and dug new observation tunnels
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in order to monitor and map the whole place.
10:40
As you can see, the system is very complex and vast.
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It's very dangerous to get lost in there.
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And at the same time,
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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,
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some over 1,300 years old.
11:10
This was taken under the Montparnasse Cemetery
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where most of the ossuaries are located.
11:17
There are also phone cables that were used in the '50s
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and many bunkers from the World War II era.
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This is a German bunker.
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Nearby there's a French bunker,
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and the whole tunnel system is so complex
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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,
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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,
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I never saw a single rat in any of these places,
12:30
until recently, when I was in the London sewers.
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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.
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It was performed last September one time only
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in the Atlantic Avenue tunnel in Brooklyn,
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which is considered to be the oldest underground train tunnel in the world,
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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
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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
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in order to preserve their memories in a creative way --
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before they're lost forever.
14:16
Thank you.
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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