South Korean Artists’ Response to the Issue of Divided Korea
Lecture by Jim Hoare and Jiyoon Lee
Monday 11 December at Asia House 6.45-7.45pm
The current exhibition at Asia House is producing much food for thought. This is now the third post devoted to the exhibition and is unlikely to be the last. In an evening of two halves on Monday night, Jim Hoare, BAKS president and the UK’s first chargé d’affaires in Pyongyang, gave a lucid overview of the history of the DPRK and engagement with the South; while Jiyoon Lee, curator of the exhibition, followed with a discussion of post-division South Korean art.
Hoare’s presentation was compelling, and he held the audience’s attention absolutely. He finished his talk with some photos from his personal collection: of Pyongyang buildings which were anything but concrete brutalist; of north Korean domestic art – pictures on greetings cards for example; and of less propagandist public art – for example images on a hospital wall showing how to apply a splint to a broken arm (suggesting a shortage of text books?). In fact Hoare’s material was almost too compelling. In questions at the end of the evening people were almost more interested in Hoare’s views on the merits and demerits of Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy than in the headlined theme of the evening, which was South Korean artists’ response to Korea’s division.
The strength of Lee’s presentation, short as it was, was in linking the developments in post-war South Korean art to conditions in society and politics at the time.
The key conclusion of Lee was that it was not until the 1980s – with the art of the dissident minjung movement – that South Korean artists began to address the important issues of national division. Prior to that time a situation of direct and indirect censorship had meant that the subject was taboo – along with anything else that could be construed as sympathetic to communism.
In the immediate post-liberation years, the polarisation of the country under the Soviet and US trusteeships of course led to more permanent division; and in the late 40s many of the South’s more talented artists went to the North, where their politics was more in tune with the leadership. In the 50s post-war period, the efforts of artists in both North and South seemed geared towards restoring the identity (and reinforcing the primacy) of each half. In the South, politically oriented work was banned, and artists focused on folk art, landscapes, and images portraying family values. There was no reference to a divided Korea
The development of the South’s Informel movement in the 50s – while reflecting the South’s desire to “catch up” with what had been going on in the Western art world, was also in part politically-led, inasmuch as it was the Informel works which won the approval of the judges in the national art competitions.
At this point Lee reminisced about her own childhood in the early 70s, when under Park Chung-hee schoolchildren were drilled in painting anti-communist posters. A reaction against this was felt in the art world, with the birth of more experimental art groups, exploring and updating traditional art forms – one of the outcomes of which was Monochrome Art and a desire for “art for art’s sake”.
The reaction against this movement came in the very late 70s and into the 80s. For the first time the minjung movement came to deal with the issue of national division. The views of Yanagi Soetsu on Korean aesthetics – that the beauty of Korean art and craft is to be found in sorrow and simplicity of line – came to be challenged by the intellectual Kim Chi-ha, who claimed that the distinguishing feature of Korean art lay in its masculine strength, its dynamism of resistance and recovery. The minjung movement began to express a nationalism, an independence from Japanese and Western influences, which resulted in a more realist aesthetic. The works give expression to han, to a desire for reunification, and to a resistance to the aggressively developmentalist objectives of the dictatorship.
Since the end of the minjung movement (with the first civilian president in the early 90s a line was drawn under the movement with a retrospective exhibition in 1994) the South Korean art world moved in many different directions. But still the division remains an issue. For those born in the 60s who have never experienced the war the approach is of necessity different from the pre-war generation. Representative works are Lee Yong Baek’s Angel Soldier (below), the video work on display at Cell during October – where in a seemingly sunny, springlike vista a camouflaged soldier is lurking; and KimJi-won’s oil (right) which welcomes you to Asia House in the current exhibition: the Medrami flower, which grows particularly well in the DMZ.
If Lee’s course of lectures at Asia House next year expands on some of these themes, they will be well worth attending.
(Above: still from Angel Soldier by Lee Yong Baek, from the Cell’s Gallery’s blog)