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What Do Petroleum, a Paris Opera House, and Noah’s Ark Have in Common?

Tracing the history of a single material, artist Ayoung Kim takes us on a journey connecting localities while disrupting reality.
Ayoung Kim (Music Composition: Heera Kim), Zepheth, Whale Oil from the Hanging Gardens to You, Shell 2, 2015, Music Theater, 50min

In the center of Paris sits an underground pool, an artificial reservoir, from a mythical flood. Inside the pool exists an edifice, the Palais Garnier, home to an ephemeral microcosm of reality. Somewhere between myth and actuality, history and future, Palais de Tokyo presents In This Vessel We Shall Be Kept, the solo show of Seoul based artist Ayoung Kim. Following the artist’s eight-month investigation at the Pavillon Neuflize OBC (Palais de Tokyo’s artist residency and creative laboratory), the exhibition traces the influence of crude oil on modernity and globalization. Curated by Chloé Fricout, the ambitious project presents an immersive sound system, placing the audience in the epicenter of Kim’s narrative structures.


Departing from the traditional whitewashed museum walls, the visitor enters a dark, bunker-like, dystopian chamber, sprawling and derelict. Placed in the center of a choral arrangement, voices emit from freestanding speakers, singing, speaking, whispering; interrupting each other- until they fall silent. Anchored by the Opera Garnier as a monument of locality, Kim transposes the physical history of the Opera into the exhibition itself.

Ayoung Kim, The Railway Traveler’s Handbook, 2013, Six-Channel Sound Drama, 28min.

While the Palais Garnier maintains its status as a legendary institution, its subterranean reservoir has been a source of mystery and speculation since the construction of the opera house itself. To maintain it’s structure and proximity to the basin, the building was coated with the petroleum derivative pitch, known for its waterproofing properties. While petro and oil maintain their material and functional relevance today, pitch was recorded as the material used by Noah to seal off the hull of his ark during the ancient flood.

Presenting Kim’s research, the exhibition reflects on the artist’s extensive investigation, beginning with the development of the Middle East’s oil industry, represented in the work, Zepheth, Whale Oil From the Hanging Gardens to You, Shell 3, which made its debut last year at the 56th Venice Biennale. Organized by material element, the piece confronts the audience with a historical timeline, offering Kim’s personal interpretations interspersed with collective understanding and scientific knowledge.


An initiative of the Palais de Tokyo, an ephemeral event was established with the help of the Pavillon Neuflize, the Opéra national de Paris, and the Institut National de l’audiovisuel France, culminating in La Rumeur des Naufrages (Rumor of the Shipwrecks). Presenting the work of the Neuflize’s six residents, the event set out to create an immersive experience within the depths of the Opera. Through the exchange of visual artists, dancers, and choreographers from the three institutions, Kim’s piece realizes an imagined history, tying the Opera’s underground lake to the imagined history of a Biblical flood. Working across mediums such as video, sound, and body movement, Kim’s performance piece, In This Vessel We Shall Be Kept, pays tribute to the power of historical revision on collective memory.

Ayoung Kim (Music Composition: Heera Kim), Zepheth, Whale Oil from the Hanging Gardens to You, Shell 1, 2014.

Following eight months of research, Kim’s investigation connects the events of ancient times to the reality unfolding today. Touching off in the heart of Paris, Kim traces the history of a single material, connecting locales such as the Middle East with that of her native South Korea. Addressing her most controversial material to date, In This Vessel provides an alternative interpretation of human history, geography, and culture, and most importantly—affirming art’s role in understanding our world today.

In This Vessel We Shall Be Kept ran through August 29, 2016 at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France.


Be sure to visit Kim on her website.


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