South Korean artists have forged their own style. Lizette Potgieter casts an eye over a revealing retrospective
CURATOR LIM DAE-GEUN wasn't happy with the original subtitle for the exhibition 100 Years of Korean Art (Part 2), at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul. He didn't think that 'Identity: the Unfulfilled Project' quite told the whole story.
'I changed it to 'Tradition, Human, Art, Reality' because I wanted to make viewers aware of the continuity and multiplexity of the contemporary period from the end of the Korean war to the present day,' he says.
Running until September 10, the follow-up to last year's 100 Years of Korean Art (Part 1) aims to comprehensively examine the development of contemporary South Korean art during the past five decades. Does it possess cultural remnants of Japanese colonialism that dilute the country's tradition and identity? Is it merely an imitation of western art?
The exhibition sets out to prove that South Korean modern and contemporary art is anything but dreary, having broken out of a context that had been limited to East Asia and become connected to international trends.
Since 1988, the year of the Seoul Olympics, the South Korean government has adopted more open policies and deregulated foreign travel. Kim Young-sam, who became president in 1993, further pursued this and declared an age of segyehwa, or globalisation. South Korean society started to manifest post-industrialist symptoms and became increasingly consumption-oriented.
Feminist art, video art and photography attracted great attention, while installation art became fashionable. South Korean artists were no longer suffering from a sense of inferiority from being peripheral to the international art scene.
Lim says young contemporary South Korean artists don't want to use the word 'identity' because they've heard it much too often. 'But identity is what epitomises this exhibition,' he says. 'It has been the most frequently explored idea of the contemporary Korean art scene, revealing artistic attempts that connote particularity and universality.'
In this exhibition, the concept of identity - and its changes during the past five decades - is portrayed through works that have been categorised under four periods.
By the late 1950s, a collective effort to transform the art world established by prewar artists was under way. Artists of that time took refuge in an ethos similar to Art Informel in Europe and American Abstract Expressionism, Lim says.
In the 60s and 70s, bright colours and the shapes of the eaves of traditional Korean architecture were used for geometric abstraction that espoused avant-gardism. Monochrome Art, which lasted from the late 60s through to the 80s, emerged as the dominant artistic tendency, which was guided by a pursuit of spirituality and purity.
The May 18 Gwangju Democratic Movement in 1980 provided a turning point, as the concerns of intellectuals during the 70s developed into a mass movement. Minjoong Art, also known as People's Art, was the first collectively oriented, socially critical movement in South Korean art history.
Three artists whose works are on show as part of the exhibition examined the question of identity.
'When I was an art student in the States back in 1974 I was wondering what I was supposed to work on,' says 60-year-old Han Un-sung. 'An announcement over the radio that Coca Cola was going to export to China across the bamboo curtain provided the solution. I decided to create Selfish Giant, a lithograph, which symbolised the greed of America.'
As an artist of the old generation, Han says he envies the young generation: 'They can express what they want and think of themselves as global. My generation has the weight of the past, which we must inevitably express. I wonder if the young generation has the passion we had when we were young.'
Oh Hein-kuhn has been photo-graphing groups of ajumma, or married women, since 1997. 'Korean society is still very patriarchic,' says Oh. 'The women lose their identity through marriage and I wanted to reflect their inner conflict.' Now in his 40s, Oh says he focuses on the facade of the ajumma when they pose for him. 'It brings out the frazzled emotion that they hide so well on the street.
'I've developed from a documentary photographer to a photographic artist, incorporating experience with instinct. About eight years ago, art photography wasn't seriously regarded as an art form in Korea. With my ajumma series I've been able to make social statements and strive for a genuine aesthetic.'
Lee Bul, 42, says she has a 'deep ambivalence towards the whole notion of any exhibition that revolves around the category of nation or national culture' and says she wasn't particularly keen to participate. She thinks it is the task of artists to propose alternative stories about identity and to engage with individuals in the world beyond national, ethnic and cultural boundaries.
Lee's Hydra (Monument), an inflatable photo print of herself on vinyl with attached air pumps, is almost an anti-monument through which she explores the mechanisms, collective ideas and processes between the work and her audience. She doesn't consider her art as feminist. 'If my work makes use of my experiences and perceptions of the world as a woman, it is because my gender is an inescapable part of who I am.'
For the past half century, contemporary South Korean art has undergone huge and numerous changes. Lim knows that this exhibition won't answer all the questions about identity.
'My intention was to find some starting point. Retrospective exhibitions are a trend at the moment.'