Yeji Yu

A personal review of the exhibition “Waterscapes: The Politics of Water” by Yeji Yu, researcher-at-large for the Korean Environmental NGO
Energy & Climate Policy Institute

An unexpected art exhibition is being held now in Seoul. Called Waterscapes: The Politics of Water, it was organized to examine the increasing concern about water that is spreading globally, and in particular, to examine water as the cause of territorial and other conflicts among nations, and the privatization of water.

The works in the exhibition mostly fall into the category of media art, including video and photography, and they cover a wide range of topics, including environmental, social, and political issues.

  Jessica Plumb, still from  "Climate Change: An Intimate Portrait" , 2011

Jessica Plumb, still from "Climate Change: An Intimate Portrait", 2011

It occurred to me that a day would be too short to see all the works in detail, because they fill the entire gallery, from its basement to the third floor. It also occurred to me that an exhibition as large as this one is a testament to the diversity and complexity of water problems, as well as the difficulties of solving them.

There are some long and short documentaries that deal with a vast range of water-related issues — local, international, or global in scope. Some of the topics included are water conflict between nations, an international toxic waste company causing contamination of a local water system, water torture, water shortage as a result of climate change, the commercialization of drinking water, the Four Rivers project in Korea, and the rivers of the divided Korean peninsula.
Many of the works deal with climate change in particular “Climate Change: An Intimate Portrait” is a short documentary that presents the sounds and sights of ice melting in the Arctic. At times the ice melts like a drizzle, at other times like a torrential downpour, reminding us that climate change is real and that its impact cannot be too far from affecting our lives. 

  Jessica Plumb, installation view, Kumho Museum of Art, Seoul (2014)

Jessica Plumb, installation view, Kumho Museum of Art, Seoul (2014)

In another work, a large block of ice is placed on a busy walkway, and a time-lapse video captures its melting. What left a deep impression on me, in a shocking way, was that many people in the video did not pay any attention to the melting ice and simply passed by. I felt that the work symbolically captured our indifference to the rapidly changing climate.

As I write this article, the Lima Climate Change Conference (December 2014) — the 20th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP20) is taking place at the opposite end of the earth.

  Stefano Cagol,  "The Ice Monolith" , video stills from the performance on Riva Ca Di Dio,   at the 55th Venice Biennale,    Maldives Pavilion

Stefano Cagol, "The Ice Monolith", video stills from the performance on Riva Ca Di Dio, at the 55th Venice Biennale,
Maldives Pavilion

The UNFCCC has set an international framework to regulate the emission of greenhouse gases in order to tackle the problems of global warming. It was adopted, along with the Convention on Biological Diversity, at the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992, and it entered into force in March 1994. The Lima Conference has the important mandate to draft a new international climate regime. The key element in the new regime will be that, starting in 2020, both developed and developing nations must participate actively to reduce greenhouse gases.

However, if we examine the results of UNFCCC so far, many of the countries that are parties to it have acted more like the people passing by the melting ice in the video. They have either neglected to take the problem seriously or have refused to take action even as they recognize its dangers; as a result, the impact of UNFCCC has been limited.

The first commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, an extension of the UNFCCC, began in 2008. Its aim was to reduce, by 2012, the concentration level of greenhouse gases by 5.2% from the level of the 1990s, and to put more obligations on developed countries, which are historically more responsible for the current levels of greenhouse gas concentrations. 

However, the U.S. and China, two countries who are responsible for half of the total greenhouse gases emitted worldwide, are not parties to the Kyoto Protocol, and Canada withdrew from the treaty. These factors have contributed to making the treaty quite toothless. At the time of the Kyoto Protocol, South Korea was recognized as a “developing” country and was not obliged to have a binding target for reducing its emission levels.

A new climate regime to replace the Kyoto Protocol is urgently needed, and that is why the Lima conference is so important. It is where the discussion on a new climate regime will begin. 

  Hanna Ljungh, still from  "How To Civilize A Waterfall" , 2011

Hanna Ljungh, still from "How To Civilize A Waterfall", 2011

Coming back to the exhibition, there is a short video entitled “How to Civilize a Waterfall,” in which a woman wearing a business suit appears in front of a waterfall. She chastises the cascading water for being selfish, and exhorts it to become a hydroelectric power plant. She lectures the falling water on how important energy is, and how many gigawatts of electric power can be made if a dam were built here; she shouts at the top of her voice that electric power is the foundation of our society.
But the water is silent, except for the powerful speed with which it falls, so powerful, in fact, that it seems that it can swallow up the woman at any time.

Two thoughts came to mind here. The first was human arrogance. More specifically, I saw the arrogance of those who are on the “growth” mission, developers and capitalists. They demand that a river become a dam for the sake of humanity. They try to rule nature, reign over both natural resources and people with no power. The consequence of such behavior is what we know as climate change.

  Hanna Ljungh, installation view 'Outflow' presentation, Kumho Museum Of Art, Seoul (2014)

Hanna Ljungh, installation view 'Outflow' presentation, Kumho Museum Of Art, Seoul (2014)

The second was communication. The woman in the video does not have a conversation. It is as if she is talking to a wall, it is a one-sided communication. A conversation between a human and nature seems impossible here, and I wondered if it is not equally impossible between developed and developing countries, between political conservatives and liberals, and between developers and environmentalists.

At the Lima conference, discussions will not be easy, as there are huge differences in positions among the nations represented at the meeting. However, even though we as citizens are not present at the conference meetings, we must take an interest and know the different positions of various nations, who says what, and what the agendas are. It is our responsibility in particular to demand that Korea take a responsible position in reducing greenhouse gases.

Lastly, I hope that the Lima conference will serve as an opportunity to remind people that climate change is not something that happens far away in another world. 

This lesson is well presented by the artists participating in Waterscapes: The Politics of Water. 

 Energy & Climate Policy Institute Korea, December 2014


This article was first published in Redian (December 10, 2014), an on-line newspaper based in South Korea. Founded in 2006, Redian’s readership is regarded as a platform for liberal and left-wing opinions in Korean society. It was translated for ACTIVATE by Kyung-hee Lee. It was also published in the Pohang City Museum of Art ‘Waterscapes: The Politics of Water’ Catalogue (September 2015).

YEJI YU works as a researcher at the Energy & Climate Policy Institute. She did her BA in political science at Korea University and MA in International Development at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand. Her area of interest includes environmental politics, environment justice and civil life in South-East Asia.

The Energy and Climate Policy Institute for Just Transition (ECPI) is a NGO research institute aiming to transform the current energy politics dominated by the cartel of capital and the powerful into a more democratic one based on social justice. The ECPI works through its research activities, to contribute to stimulating and deepening social debates and deliberations on the political and social implications of climate change and the energy crisis, and to research and develop, from the perspective of social justice, progressive alternatives to meet these challenges.