Behind the Work in association withThe Immortal Awards

Your Shot: How Cheil’s Barbed Wire Piano Is Reimagining Korean Unification

London, UK
Project marks 70th anniversary of Korean’s liberation from Japanese occupation

To mark the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese occupation, Cheil Worldwide teamed up with the Korean Ministry of Unification to unveil ‘Piano of Unification’. What’s special about the instrument is that its strings are made from the barbed wire from the demilitarised zone (DMZ) which tops the border wall that splits South Korea from its communist, northern neighbours. Its aim is to encourage Koreans to think about the possibility of national reunification and peace. The piano will be debuted at a special concert on August 15th. LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with Cheil Worldwide’s Songha Lee to find out how the project came to fruition.

LBB> What kind of brief did The Korean Ministry of Unification initially present to you?

‘Piano of Unification’ was unlike other projects from the beginning. Idea development came first, and then we searched for the best client to realize the idea. Cheil Worldwide thought that the Korean Ministry of Unification matched with our idea, so we proposed the project to them and they said yes.

LBB> It’s a hugely important project to be involved in. How did you feel when creating the idea?

We felt a sense of responsibility. In the beginning, there were many concerns around the idea’s feasibility. Is it possible to create a musical instrument from barbed-wire? Will it make a sound? What can we do to get the piano noticed? However, despite the sense of responsibility, we gradually gained confidence as the people we were working with had the drive to make it happen.

LBB> What was your starting point? When did it occur to you to physically utilize the barbed wire? And what inspired the idea to transform it into an instrument?

When the Pope visited Korea last year, he was presented with a crown of thorns, reminiscent of Christ’s, which was made out of the Korean border fence wire. I came to realize that barbed-wire, which is usually a symbol of war and division, can represent peace on the other hand. In addition to that, I always had this idea that every object has its own voice. These two notions became the background idea of this project - moving people’s emotions by adding musical aspects to barbed-wire.

LBB> Is there any significance to your choosing to build a piano instead of other string-based instruments?

We decided to make a piano because of its accessibility. The piano is an instrument that Koreans are most familiar with. Many Koreans have experience of learning piano when they were young. Moreover, it is easy to play since all you have to do is to strike the keys. A piano is also easy to notice because of its size.

LBB> Who did you work with on the production of the instrument?

The creation of the piano was undertaken by the world music group ‘Gong Myung’. They are famous for designing and rendering creative instruments. Gong Myung musicians brought hundreds of meters of barbed-wire from a frontline military camp and devoted three months of refining and fastening of the wires to fully transform them into a piano. 

LBB> How does the sound of the piano differ from a normal one?

The sound is definitely different from that of a normal piano. Rusty and rugged wires used instead of clean-cut steel strings give out a sound more close to percussion rather than a keyboard instrument. Although its sound is rough and dull compared to that of a general piano, its deep rumbling is able to touch people’s hearts.

LBB> Now that it’s built, what’s the plan for the piano? Where will it be exhibited and played?

The Piano of Unification will be showcased at Seoul Museum of Art for two months as part of its ‘North Korea Project’. Music performed with the piano and video footage of creating it will be exhibited alongside it. In addition to that, the piano will be on stage on August 15, Liberation Day, at the ‘70th Anniversary of Liberation Chorus Festival’ which is held by the National Chorus of Korea at Seoul Arts Center.

LBB> What do you hope people take away from the experience?

Many people think that ‘national reunification’ is a serious and heavy topic. I thought, ‘What if barbed-wire - which has been a symbol of division - can play a tune of unification? Wouldn’t people think about unification differently and be more comfortable with it?’ I hope that people are inspired and feel moved by the rough sound of the piano.

LBB> How did working on this project affect you personally? I hope you don’t mind me asking, but are you Korean yourself?

I worked on this project because it was fun. It was nothing like some kind of big sense of duty. In my opinion, unification is something that has to happen – a fate. Shouldn’t Koreans be prepared for the unification? And I am more than grateful to be a part of doing it.

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