The Secret Lives of Secret Places
What NYC rats have to do with Les Miserables, med school dropouts and photographic genius.
By Maria Popova
When Seoul-born artist Miru Kim moved to New York to attend college in 1999, she wasn’t officially an “artist” — she was a pre-med student interested in anatomy. But she grew increasingly fascinated by the city itself and began to look at it is a living organism, itching to dissect it and reveal its hidden layers. So she scrapped med school and decided to get an MFA instead.
In grad school, Kim became interested in the creatures that dwell on the fringes of society, in the hidden parts of the city. So she began photographing New York City rats. Eventually, she started going into the tunnels, discovering a whole new dimension to the city that most people don’t get to see. She connected with a subculture of like-minded urban explorers, adventurers and guerrilla historians, but somehow felt there was something missing from her photographs of these demolished underground spaces.
So she decided to create a fictional character that dwells in these places — the easiest way to do it was to model herself.
I decided against any clothing because I wanted the figure to be without any cultural implications or time-specific elements. I wanted a simple way to represent a living body inhabiting these decaying, derelict spaces.
This gave birth to a series titled Naked City Spleen, an allusion to Charles Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen — Naked City is the nickname for New York, and spleen captures “the melancholy inertia that comes from being alienated in an urban environment.”
The project took Kim around the world in search of hidden places — from the catacombs of Paris to London’s River Tyburn to the 19th century homeless asylums of Berlin. Her work, however, is about more than just the mere documentation of decay.
I like doing more than just exploring these spaces and feel an obligation to animate and humanize [them] continually in order to preserve their memories in a creative way before they’re lost forever.
Kim eventually went on to shoot two films on 60mm black-and-white film — Blind Door and Blind Window — as she became more interested in capturing movement and texture.
Watch her inspired TED talk, for a deeper look at the artist’s process, her unique brand of inspiration, and the cultural resonance of her work.
Published March 4, 2009