Trace – Art and Birding Along the DMZ

Adrian Göllner

Artist Adrian Göllner and his son Grey, in the CCZ, Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere Reserve . Photo: Nial Moores

My name is Adrian Göllner, an artist and birder from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. This September I travelled to South Korea for three weeks to take part in an arts residency in Yangji-ri, Cheorwon County. When there, I was a guest of Birds Korea Yeoncheon at the Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere for two days. Right from the outset, let me state my gratitude to Yeoncheon County and the Biosphere Reserve for their help in getting permission to access the CCZ and for the expert guidance I received from Dr Moores and Mr Baek Seung Kwang.

The artworks created through the Yangji-ri Residency become part of a travelling exhibition sponsored jointly by the REAL DMZ PROJECT of Seoul and the Korean Cultural Centres in different countries. The intention is to investigate the current meaning and status of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Last fall I learned that one of the incarnations of the exhibition was to be mounted in my hometown of Ottawa. As I birder I knew that the DMZ is one of the rare places on Earth in which humans have been extricated and nature has reasserted itself. I contacted the organizers and proposed to travel to Korea, bear witness to the birds of the DMZ, and create an artwork that speaks to dual occurrence of natural beauty and threat. The proposal was accepted, and my son Grey and I travelled to Korea at the end of August to begin probing the southern perimeter of the DMZ and Civilian Controlled Zone (CCZ) for birds.

In my mind the DMZ was a very strictly defined 4x248km strip that constituted a nature reserve of unprecedented purity and consistency. I also knew the mostly agrarian CCZ supported the avian population of the DMZ. To my surprise and slight disappointment, the DMZ was not as pristine as I had imagined. I had thought that a single footstep into the DMZ would breach the 1953 Armistice between the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and the shooting war would resume. However, the width of the DMZ now varies greatly along its length and the DPRK has been shaving off portions on their side for farming. Further, both sides have been positioning military observation posts well within the DMZ, some opposing towers now being only 300m apart. Still, the DMZ and CCZ do indeed combine to support an impressive avian population and efforts are afoot, including through Birds Korea, to protect what remains. (I am not telling regular readers of this blog anything they don’t already know, but it is all a revelation to me, and I am still processing the significance and potential of this area.) It is my hope that I my art might bring some attention to the DMZ as an unintended but vital nature reserve.

In 2017 I began a project entitled “All the Birds I Saw Last Year”. I thought that if I documented every single bird I saw over an extended period, I might be able to gauge the environmental health of our downtown neighbourhood in Ottawa. Three years hence I had a highly idiosyncratic set of bird data with which to create art. While I knew nothing conclusive could be drawn from my data, my hyper-attunement to my surroundings was demonstrative. To see one person’s entire year of avian encounters displayed as one large cascade of birds was not only pleasantly overwhelming, but it also suggested that others might pay better attention to their respective environments. I thought I might bring a similar methodology to an artwork about the birds of the DMZ, but this required knowledge of its birds and terrain, of which I had neither, so I reached out to Birds Korea. Dr. Moores responded and suggested we visit the Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere.

On September 8th our troop of 4 surrendered our passports to the CCZ checkpoint and drove into the mist. The morning sun quickly burned off the fog to reveal the productive combination of rice fields, treed hills, meandering rivers, concrete canals, and grassed meadows. Waterbirds plumbed the harvested fields while passerines flew above, and water deer grunted at us from the marsh. That morning we counted 56 bird species, including the surprise sighting of an Asian House Martin at the Typhoon Observatory. This one day far exceeded any expectation I had for birdwatching in Korea, but the next day we went south of Seoul to the Hwaseong Wetlands where we observed 70 species, including Black-faced Spoonbills and the globally endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank. The Hwaseong Wetlands are not within the CCZ or DMZ, but as Dr Moores explained, the shore birds and sea birds on the tidal plains are also found in the disputed Han River Estuary and marine areas of the Korean inner border, so could reasonably be included in my list of birds. With the assistance of Dr Moores and Mr Baek Seung Kwang, I witnessed a total of 115 bird species in Korea.

Eastern Spot-billed Duck in the Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere. Photo: Grey Göllner
Eurasian Spoonbill with Black-faced Spoonbills at the Hwaseong Wetlands. Photo: Grey Göllner

My task upon returning to Canada on September 19th was to quickly create an artwork for the exhibition “Negotiating Borders” that opened in only 3 weeks time. After a few false starts I settled on the idea of presenting an alternate mapping of the DMZ, one based on my birdwatching along the border area. Towards this I stitched all my eBird paths into a one long, wiggly, blue line to be affixed to the gallery wall. Surrounding it would be paintings of the 115 birds. One of my considerations was what style and medium should be used to render the birds. If gallery-goers were to appreciate the beauty of the birds and how each is perfectly evolved to its niche in nature, then my painting style would need to be fairly realistic, even illustrative. The medium of watercolour suggested itself as it is quick and the inherent vagaries of the medium lends itself to the perceptual challenges of birdwatching. With those questions answered, I painted the birds and prepared the other elements for the installation. The artwork was successfully completed a few hours before the opening with the assistance of Grey.

Trace installation as part of the Negotiating Borders exhibition at SAW Centre, Ottawa. Photo: Adrian Göllner

Arctic Warbler and Gray-headed Woodpecker. Adrian Göllner, 2023

Far Eastern Curlew and Great-crested Grebe. Adrian Göllner, 2023

Asian House Martin and Carrion Crow. Adrian Göllner 2023

I still need time to fully consider the installation and the techniques chosen, but the response has been overwhelmingly positive, especially from the general public for whom it has been a long time since they saw watercolour painting in a contemporary gallery.

At a panel discussion about the exhibition the following day, a former Canadian diplomat said he had read about efforts to designate the DMZ as a nature reserve should the ROK and DPRK ever unify. This allowed me to speak – to the extent that I could – about the CCZ in the Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere and how it stood as the exemplar of how the DMZ and CCZ can, if sustainable farming techniques are employed and development kept away, work in tandem to support rich biodiversity.

I feel privileged to have been invited into the CCZ within the Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere and to see for myself the dynamic that exists amongst nature, farming, and the military. I have been regaling my Ottawa birder friends with stories of my experience, and in doing so I am aware how lucky we are in Canada not to have an ever-present threat on our borders. I am now looking forward to returning to Korea in December to see the winter migrants, continue the project, and to reconnect with my new friends.

I have many people and institutions to thank: Yeoncheon County and the Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere management team, Birds Korea, Birds Korea Yeoncheon, SAW Centre, the REAL DMZ PROJECT, the Korean Cultural Centre Ottawa, our Cheorwon guide Chumnee Lee, the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and my family. 

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