With a heart that sings the stars, I will love all things dying: Woojae Kim at dreams comma delta

23 July 2023

By Yasmine Whaley-Kalaora

I knew this exhibition was about worms. I went to look at them when I walked in, my sock feet brushing the seafoam carpet of dreams comma delta as I made my way to the corner. Christian, one of the curators and a resident of the home where the gallery resided, opened the lid and moved their hands in the soil, uncovering the beets they had fed the worms that day. I felt shy of my foreign hands disturbing their ecosystem, but I put my fingers in anyways, lightly turning the soil until the worms and I touched and both recoiled.

In his exhibition, With a heart that sings the stars, I will love all things dying, artist Woojae Kim brought together artworks, text, and objects pertaining to his time cohabiting and caring for earthworms and mugwort plants in the months leading up to the installation. This collection of works came from Kim’s process of attuning to the worms’ rhythms to support their production of compost which he utilized to grow mugwort, a plant he grew up around in Korea that is used for multiple purposes, from medicine to food, in Korean culture. 

Image: Installation view of Ledge. Unfired clay, mugwort incense, dried mugwort, decomposed plant matter, eggshells, 2023. Photo by Woojae Kim courtesy of dreams comma delta.

Each element of the show inhabited dreams comma delta with the tenderness of a guest in a home, temporarily resting in a moment of gathering. From the paper pulp, coconut coir, and rope worm bin, a clockwise spiraling guided me towards the rest of the works. The lower lip of the walls were sparsely lined with dead leaves, unfired clay shapes, bundles of drying mugwort, eggshells, and ground cherry skeletons. In the window, a curtain of clay worm-shaped beads dangled around a small planter. The bright green leaves of the young mugwort growing inside starkly contrasted those in the dried bundles which had taken on the deep shade of Balsam fir needles, complete with silver undertones. Just outside the window, a basin dutifully collected rainwater for the plants, while inside, two cob brick speakers covered in white paper played a field recording of cricket’s chirping. A spiraling extension cord looped my gaze toward the centre of the room where a low table, made with the same materials as the worm bin, rested with various items carefully placed on top.

Image: Installation view of Rain collector, 2023. Cob bricks, dishware, plant pot, decomposed plant matter, stainless steel bowl, rock. Photo by Woojae Kim courtesy of dreams comma delta.

The works in the exhibition all came out of many months of careful tending and labour. Kim learned to care for the worms so they could make compost to nurture the mugwort, which he then used to care for himself and his loved ones. There is an overall fragility to these works, presented in varying states of growth and decay, that requires tenderness from their caregiver—a role which passed from artist to curator after the exhibition was installed. Crouching beside the table, next to bundles of mugwort wrapped in clay worms which were cracking and crumbling in their unfired state, I read Kim’s text. This delicately woven piece of prose acted as connective tissue between Kim’s praxis of worm-care, adjacent daily rhythms, and the final culmination of the exhibition. 

While mugwort incense burned, emanating a gentle camphoric and bitter smell, I was swept up in the intermingling cycles of digestion, nurturing, and grief. I knew the show was about worms, but I didn’t know this show was also about mothers, and specifically mothers who’d had brain aneurysms. My own mother had an aneurysm just over a year ago. She survived and is recovering. However, I had yet to come across any work which so acutely addressed the layers of emotional complexity which afflict those who are pulled into the sphere of this specific medical crisis. Without glossing over the reality of eventual death, Kim’s work muddled around this complexity, and highlighted aspects like the very human—yet seemingly selfish—desire for our loved ones to always be thriving. 

Image: Installation view of Worm bin, 2023. Paper pulp, coconut coir, earthworms, rope, rock. Photo by Woojae Kim courtesy of dreams comma delta.

A few weeks later Kim and I chatted on the phone, our mothers acting as an entry point to address the many overlapping themes amidst two consuming cycles in life: digestion and grief. Kim talked about the way caring for the worms, feeding them the scraps of whatever he ate that week, began to bind them together. His and the worms’ bodies were being filled up by the same things in the way the bodies of a family sharing a meal would be. In Kim’s text, he used the intimacy of sharing food with loved ones as a bridge between caring for worms and caring for family. The space of intimacy created by adjacent cycles of digestion, as mundane as they might become, is one of the first things we miss when crisis disrupts our daily rhythms. Kim explained that this body of work, which grew out of a series of daily routines, centred circular, reciprocal relationships in a society hyper-focused on linearity. 

Towards the end of our conversation, Kim expressed that he still doesn’t fully know how to talk about this body of work. While some of the physical elements which came together for the exhibition were dispersed afterwards—the clay continued to crumble and make its way back to the earth; the mugwort was used up; and the worms were released—other less tangible elements continued to linger. Grief, an emotion often mentioned in seven linear stages, is never that clean. For many people it comes and goes between periods of dissociation, extreme pragmatism, and (for those experiencing ongoing crises) an anticipation for the other shoe to drop. 

The title of the exhibition is taken from a line in the 1941 poem 서시 (“Prelude”) by 윤동주 (Dong-joo Yoon), which Kim spent a lot of time with while this work was forming. In his text, Kim asks why Yoon specifies loving that which is dying rather than that which is living. After spending time with this question, Kim speaks to this moment of rupture that often accompanies the penetration of death into the familial sphere: 

“Thinking about this question has helped me to find a bit of comfort while being squeezed between ‘how things should be’ and ‘how things are.’ I wanted to look at everyone and everything I love as living. And it helped me to convince myself that we will always be thriving. Now I look at everything as dying. This shift has helped me accept the things I already had no choice but to accept. But this way, I can at least do it more willingly.”

Image: Installation view of Ledge, 2023. Photo by Woojae Kim courtesy of dreams comma delta.

As this body of work was forming, the worms were continuously physically processing what they were given, while Kim was emotionally processing alongside them; each respective cycle requiring both time and patience in order to incorporate the unfamiliar.

The material fragility of the works in the room was reflected by the emotional fragility which adjoins crisis. The cyclical rhythm of the earthworms reminds us that everything is in its own state of decay and that death has the potential to become fuel for life. Death and dying become palatable, even inspirational, when worms are mediators. Their little moist bodies have an unparalleled ability to swallow “how things are” and create the foundations for “how things should be”—how we are used to them being. Some foods may take longer to consume, but with their readiness to accept and digest what comes to them, worms produce the nutrients needed for life. In this context, death and dying are taken as they are and turned into something new. In this space, the easy and the hard to swallow come together temporarily to construct a new “how it will be.” 

Image: Installation view of Window sill, 2023. Mugwort plants fertilized with worm casting, paper pulp, coconut coir. Photo by Woojae Kim courtesy of dreams comma delta.
  1. Woojae Kim, With a heart that sings the stars, I will love all things dying, dreams comma delta, April 2, 2023 – May 14, 2023, https://files.cargocollective.com/c938494/With-a-heart-that-sings-the-stars-I-will-love-all-things-dying.pdf.

With a heart that sings the stars, I will love all things dying by Woojae Kim ran from April 2, 2023 – May 21, 2023 at dreams comma delta in Delta, BC. 

Feature Image: Installation view of Worm bin. Paper pulp, coconut coir, earthworms, rope, rock, 2023. Photo by Woojae Kim courtesy of dreams comma delta.