Pin It
Sahel, Mali, SaharaPhotography by Miru Kim

Miru Kim's wanderlust

A Korean art photographer taking nude camel selfies speaks from her solar-powered cave

The daughter of one of Korea’s most famous contemporary philosophers, Miru Kim was once slated to become a doctor. Instead she set out for the unknown, trespassing into abandoned urban spaces and photographing herself in the nude for her project Naked City Spleen. Later she lived in a glass-enclosed room for 4 days with a pair of pigs for a performance at Art Basel. I recently received an email from Miru that started out, “I am traveling today from Tanzania to Jordan. I have been living in Jordan now because of my new project and in general my love for camels and the desert...” For the time being, she is stationed in the middle of the desert near the border of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and when I caught up with her she seemed to fully embrace the solace provided by the world’s most desolate atmosphere.

Dazed Digital: Can you start by telling me a little about your early life?

Miru Kim: I was born in America but grew up from age zero to thirteen in Korea. I came back to Massachusetts for high school at Andover, which was really difficult for me and gave me some typical teenage issues. I fantasized about living in a cosmopolitan city at the time, so I went to college in New York City and later got an MFA for painting in Brooklyn. My decision to move at a young age, to get out of Korea and live in the US says something about my character and how my life was shaped. I still have a constant itch to assimilate myself into different cultures and situations.

DD: Your father Do-ol is one of the leading contemporary philosophers in Korea. Has he shaped your outlook on life?

He always taught us kids about Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, and sometimes we would go to temples and learn about meditation. We were also made very aware of environmentalism. I didn’t always listen to his lectures, but somehow what he taught me as a kid is ingrained in me. Although I sometimes rebelled against my parents, they have always been amazingly supportive, and I feel very lucky to have such awesome parents.  

DD: What do you enjoy about desolate places?

Miru Kim: When you experience total solitude, freedom from surveillance, and city noises in general, it’s a kind of catharsis that lets you go back to your daily city life again feeling refreshed and recharged. For Naked City Spleen I was going to abandoned urban spaces a lot when I felt depressed from feelings of anxiety and alienation living in New York. I choose to name the series after Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen. Naked City is one of the nicknames for New York too, in case you didn’t know. 

DD: Did you have to sneak illegally into those places?

Miru Kim: Sometimes I had permission to enter, although the person who gave me access risked losing their job. 

DD: In The Pig That Therefore I Am, you were photographed naked, surrounded by hogs in a pig pen. What was that process like?

Miru Kim: It was close to impossible to get access to these factory farms. After many months of trying I finally got permission and when I flew to Iowa to shoot, I snuck into some other large-scale corporate farms. That was probably the scariest thing I have ever done in my life...somehow even scarier than going into a desert alone with Tuareg tribesmen in Mali, where some terrorists might have been operating.   

An average person cannot imagine the noise level, the smell, and everything about these hog farms not conveyed by mere visuals. It took a lot to get the smell out. Imagine crawling naked in pretty much toxic concentrations of fecal waste... I tried vinegar, toothpaste, hydrogen peroxide and scrubbed my feet red. It took two or three days to completely get rid of the smell on my feet and it took about three months until I could no longer smell the hogs on my camera. Pigs do not smell like that in nature. I ultimately wanted to connect with them on a more equal level, to feel their lives created and exploited by humans, at least momentarily, by mingling with them without physical barriers.   

DD: What are you doing in the Middle East right now?

Miru Kim: I came to various deserts in the region--Jordan and Egypt mostly, and fell in love with the desert and the life here, so I decided to pack my things and move to Amman, Jordan for a while and also learn Arabic. I am actually writing this right now from my hiding place on a desert rock mountain, in the south of Jordan near Saudi Arabia. This is a place I can really contemplate and focus on writing! I have set up my own little studio here consisting of a desk and a chair and portable solar energy for my laptop. It’s a whole project on its own, but I’m not ready to share with the public yet. 

DD: Why did you choose to be photographed with camels? 

Miru Kim: Camels are the only large mammals that can survive like they do in the desert. When I heard that the reason camels evolved as desert animals was because of their lack of defense against predators I was very impressed. Camels became a symbol for peace in my mind. They simply traveled away to deserted lands and adapted themselves, instead of fighting back or constantly fleeing in fear.

DD: Have you encountered any strange reactions from people when you disrobe in public? I imagine it can be quite thrilling.

Miru Kim: I don’t see it as thrilling. I used to get nervous if anyone was present, but after some repetition it became pretty ordinary. When I’m shooting I have a friend or someone to help with the camera shutter--it’s a professional atmosphere, and I rarely get strange reactions. The strangest things came from French men–twice that they disrobed and took pictures of themselves on the same spot after I was finished with my shoot.   

Follow Marie on Twitter @marzietae @artseoulmag