South Korean contemporary artists Yoon Jeong-mee and Woo Chong-il have more in common than their nationality. The winners of the 2011 Sovereign Asian Art Prize (including its publicly voted Schoeni Prize), announced last month, also share a concern about the influences of social conformity and globalisation on their culture.
Photographer Yoon scooped the top award with The Pink Project II - Lauren & Carolyn and Their Pink & Purple Things, while Woo's Women of the Joseon Dynasty received the most public votes when the works of the 30 finalists went on view online, and in two exhibitions in Hong Kong and Singapore earlier this year.
All 30 entries - together with the two winning works from Sovereign Art Prize in Africa and Europe - will go on show for 10 days at Pearl Lam Fine Art in Shanghai starting this Thursday.
Both Yoon's ongoing Pink & Blue Project, which is colourful and has a whiff of candy-floss sweetness, and Woo's elaborately composed images are visually arresting. But like any good art, there is more than what first meets the eye. Yoon says her Pink & Blue Project, which began in 2005, is her attempt to explore the idea of social conditioning. It was inspired by her five-year-old daughter's obsession with all things pink. 'She wouldn't wear anything, or play with any toys, that weren't in that colour,' the 43-year-old recalls.
'At the same time, I found that many other girls had similar taste.'
The artist was in New York studying for her master's degree in photography, video and related media at the time, and was intrigued by this shared obsession among girls of different ethnicities.
'They all love pink, so I wondered if that was instinct or the result of commercial advertisement or cultural custom,' she says.
Yoon found part of her answer in a 1914 American newspaper article that, surprisingly, says pink was once a colour associated with masculinity. It advised mothers to 'use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention'. The change to pink for girls and blue for boys happened in America and elsewhere only after the second world war, Yoon says.
'Today, with the effects of advertising on consumer preferences, these colour customs are a worldwide standard. The saccharine, confectionery-pink objects that fill my images of little girls and their accessories reveal a pervasive and culturally manipulated expression of femininity and a desire to be seen.'
Pink is also associated more with housework items while blue goes with objects of violence such as guns and weapons, she adds. Through her work, the artist wants to question and criticise this kind of social conditioning. 'Fortunately, children's tastes keep changing. By third or fourth grade, they begin to like other colours and become more individualistic,' Yoon says.
While the universality of colour coding is the main theme running through Yoon's Pink & Blue Project, Woo's portraits of women in traditional costume in Women of the Joseon Dynasty, which are made up of hundreds of small photographs of gemstones, are his critique of globalisation and its effects on Korean culture.
'I do respect European or American culture,' says the 54-year-old artist who spent the 1980s studying fine arts and photography in the US, 'but you don't have to try to be all. Then there would be no fun. That's what I try to show in my work, to bring out [the message that] we are losing our own culture, the Asian culture.'
Woo says young Koreans are 'losing their manners, sense of history and cultural identity' and hopes his traditional portraits will remind them of the uniqueness and importance of his country's culture and history. His works are made up of photographs of gemstones because, like Korea, these rocks have been around for centuries, he says.
Woo also points out the main focus of his portraits is the eyes. 'Only Asians have slitty eyes and I think that is wonderful. But, especially in Korea, they have surgery so I want to show that traditions are the best,' he says.
He chooses his models carefully: 'I don't use anyone who had plastic surgery. That is my style, trying to show natural Asian beauty.'