Cross-cultural Seoul searching to find a place to call home

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 January, 2005, 12:00am

'Korea is known as the hermit kingdom,' says Mihee-Nathalie Lemoine. 'Koreans are very nationalistic. If you don't fit in with what they have in mind of being Korean, they often treat you even worse than a foreigner.'

For some people, such words probably amount to Orientalist bigotry. But Lemoine is no cheerleader for small-minded right-wingers. Born Cho Mi-hee, she is a Korean-born, Belgium-bred and now Seoul-based multimedia artist and activist for the rights of her fellow Overseas Adopted Koreans. These 'Oaks', as they call themselves, were sent to foster parents in Europe and the US in the 1960s and 70s, and are now back in Korea looking for their biological relations.

What fuels Lemoine's ire was the ill-treatment she endured on her return to her birthplace - something she never experienced in Belgium. 'There was no support to help adult adoptees to search [for their biological parents],' she says. 'The attitudes of adoption agencies and social workers were and are very rude, discouraging and disrespecting. It's emotional abuse. And it's the reason she established an adoptees' rights group in Korea. 'It was for a year,' she says. 'And I'm still here. Adoptees are immigrants without roots and connection.

'Over the past decade I spent in Korea, I can see that, after the International Monetary Fund crisis, Korea welcomed adoptees more than before - hoping somehow [we could use] our western knowledge to over- come the country's economic [problems]. But it's for immigrant children who could speak Korean and English and have a sense of Korean etiquettes - and not adoptees who are useless foreigners with Asian faces.'

Lemoine's art challenges perceptions of national identity, too. Defined by a Korean heritage and a Belgian upbringing, she confronts fantasies about Asians in the west and also Korean constraints - the 'oriental' and the nationalist idea of 'identity'. Combining the two terms, Lemoine came up with the term Orientity - the name for a group exhibition at the Hong Kong Fringe Club that aims to subvert the meaning of 'Korean-ness' through the work of seven European, American and Japanese artists with Korean ancestry.

Ethnic roots are the only tie unifying this disparate group of installation artists, fabric designers, photographers and filmmakers. Among them are emigres, adoptees and second-generation Korean-Americans. Diverse cultural influences define their works, but there's none of the cliched, kitschy mix of western aesthetics and eastern spirituality that many still expect of mixed cultural artists. Instead, their work questions the notion of identity - and whether certain characteristics are biological.

The most vociferous of the artists involved, Lemoine - who initiated the first run of Orientity in Kyoto in September with Korean-Japanese fabric designer Oh Haji - also presents the most provocative work in the exhibition. Today I Feel is an installation of 30 wall posters, each containing a square of reflective material pasted in the middle, with the words 'Today I Feel' on top and an emotion or a social identity at the bottom.

Walking through the mirror-like array, viewers will see their reflections framed by proclamations about feeling 'creative', 'Asian-American' or 'straight'. The humorous suggestion that you can position yourself as something different every day - whether it's in sentiment, race or sexuality - is a statement about the volatility of one's being.

'It's fluid and multiple,' says Lemoine. 'People tend to reduce and accept just what they want to see in a situation. It will be interesting to see the reaction of the visitors.'

If confrontation marks Lemoine's work, then subtle reflection predominates that of others. Oh's fabric-based work transforms the traditional Korean dress, the hanbok, into a statement about the Korean diaspora in Japan. 'For Korean-Japanese, the purpose of wearing folk costumes in Japan isn't only to emphasise their racial consciousness - it shows 'I am a minority in Japan',' says Oh.

Unlike Lemoine, she says she believes in the existence of a Korean identity, which 'I'm consciously presenting in my work'.

Rediscovery of heritage shaped the work of Naomi Long, who emigrated to Hawaii when she was four, and provides a literary interpretation of the emotions that might lie within family photographs, in Sisters 1951 and Family Portrait 1965. 'My mother had told me stories about my grandmother and her difficult life in Korea, and so I wrote the texts with them in mind,' says the photographer and writer. 'Through photographs, we maintain a connection to a place, a time, a relationship. In these works, I wanted to reveal the invisible ties of blood and spirit that exist between mother and child, brothers and sisters, self and world - ties that bind regardless of geography and the passage of time.'

Her melancholic take on identity belies the torment she felt when she left the comparatively multicultural Hawaii for life elsewhere in the US. '[In Hawaii] I was never self-conscious about my ethnic identity,' says Long. 'It was an accepted part of my being and not something I had to hide or defend. It was only when I left Hawaii that I became more consciously aware of my Korean heritage. There were gaps in my knowledge, so I read books about Korea, dug up old family albums and interviewed members of my family, asking them what they remembered.'

Long's pursuit of her roots is far from a patriotic endeavour. It was instead a way to 'fill the gaps' of her personal history. 'All of us are wanderers between somewhere and nowhere. In this in-between place, the challenge is to acknowledge and embrace interconnectivity and change because it's a mistake to perceive any particular culture as 'pure'.'

Hong Kong seems obsessed with superficial facets of Korean culture, which accounts for yesterday's two seminars about the allure of Korean soap operas and film stars at the City Fringe Festival. Orientity, also part of the festival, offers a more thoughtful take on the country. 'The artist draws from his or her entire life experience,' says Long. 'And that includes being Korean, being overseas and wondering who we really are.'

Orientity, Mon-Sat, noon-10pm, the Economist and Fringe Gallery, Fringe Club, 2 Lower Albert Rd, Central. Inquiries: 2521 7251.

Ends Sat