London Korean Links

Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

Art for the People, Art by the People

Beccy Kennedy muses on an unnoticed exhibition at the Korean Cultural Centre:
Korean Folk Painting on White Porcelain : Kim So Sun
(30 January – 28 March 2008)

There is another exhibition on at the new Korean Cultural Centre at the moment and it doesn’t involve vociferous video installations by trans-cultural 20th century big wigs. In fact, there are several potential exhibitions contained within the same space that generates Good morning Mr Nam June Paik. The other titled exhibition to which I am actually referring resides in the basement area, above the PC library, as if a part of Jeong Hwa Choi’s eclectic interior design scheme, rather than a discernible display in itself. It is a contemporary show of what is often referred to as Minhwa – ‘People Art’ or ‘Folk Art’, by Kim So Sun.

This is the first time in Britain I have seen contemporary Korean folk painting, as opposed to older examples, often from the late Chosun Dynasty, provided in the British Museum, the V & A, the Korean Embassy or as decoration for Korean restaurants. Minhwa does not just provide a site for exploring ‘traditional’ Korean culture in the form of: Shamanistic healing rituals, the community worship of natural spirits and the multi-sacred mix of auspicious Confucian, Buddhist and Shamanist iconography, depicted in visually stunning earth found primary colours. Minhwa demonstrates the diverse and fulfilling spirit of culture in contemporary Korea. Wander round the streets by Inwangsan Mountain in central Seoul, and you can hear the drumming and chanting of shamanist gatherings interlacing with the hum-drum hum of traffic. Take a walk a little way up the mountain and in amongst the concrete areas of exercise equipment or army barracks, you may discover puzzling rock carvings and tiny towers of pebbles and flower offerings.

According to Sarfati1, Shamanism is more alive and omnipresent than publicly perceived. Folk art has a utilitarian purpose for these ceremonies, assisting the conjuring or visualisation of earth spirits and offering a vivid consecrated atmosphere. Taken out of its traditional Korea context, the art still speaks for itself, giving a vibrant voice to the natural environment: celebrating the moon which sometimes shines orange, the tiger who seems to smile, and the rocky mountains whose crannies appear blue. Forget the over-told art historical narratives of European Impressionism and Expressionism whose inspiration came from their research into ‘Oriental’ art, as they sought to manipulate what they viewed as ‘primitive’ and expressive, recoining it as ‘Modernist’. Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm can stay in it; bring on Kim So Sun’s friendly Big Tiger painting on porcelain (below).

Big Tiger: Kim So Sun, Painting on White Porcelain, 77 x 231 cm

Minhwa art and all nations’ ‘folk’ art is available to everyone, due to the inexpensive natural palette and materials, and community augmentation. In fact, in Korea, folk art was appreciated and used auspiciously by even the upper classes during the Chosun Dynasty, as well as providing an important place in the small households of the lower classes. Conversely, Modernist and Contemporary art tends to be a less wholesome affair, through its association with the academy or the market place. Its purpose is conditioned by expectation and fashion. However public centred it may claim to be, the gallery or museum always dictates. It appreciates its audience but it also crafts its audience appreciation, it captures the artists’ artistic concerns but the artists’ artistic concerns are also captured by it. Yet, resident curator at the Korean Cultural Centre, Kim Seungmin (Stephanie), is keen to show the audience the inherent value of folk art2. Kim So Sun’s paintings on porcelain are classic, charismatic examples of Minhwa subject matter. Perhaps next time, the artists will be unknown and without any prestige.

Displaying art for the people is ultimately about displaying art by the people. Lee Jiyoon’s Good Morning Mr Nam June Paik does not just provide examples from the expected renowned 20th century contemporary Korean artists, such as Paik himself, Kim Atta or Kim Jonghak, of which the audience would expect to mark the opening of a new major cultural centre. The exhibition also dares to show engaging art works by less known 21st century artists who are still studying art or have not yet had chance to exhibit widely internationally, such as Kang Seunghee, Kang Eemyun and Chun Woojung. These artists are due an exhibition in themselves. Kang Seunghee and Chun integrate aspects of popular culture into their art; Chun using textual excerpts from what appears to be romantic fiction and Kang encapsulating everyday scenes of cartoon styled people hanging about global city scapes in jeans and sports wear. This art depicts 21st century culture and these artists are aware of their place within it.

The Korean Cultural Centre is a ‘centre’ for members of the public to drop in, facilitate, engage with, and to ultimately form a part. Let us hope that the exhibiting space continues to reflect and redress the multi-layered aspects of contemporary Korean culture.

  1. Sarfati, L. (Indiana University) spoke about her research into the prevalence of folk religion (Musok) and its inauguration into contemporary media, ‘Internet As a Medium for Promoting Musok in Contemporary South Korea,’ KPSA World Congress for Korean Studies 2007: Korea in the World: Democracy, Peace, Prospoerity and Culture, 24 August 2007, BEXCO, Busan. []
  2. In conversation with Stephanie Kim at KCC, 27 February 2008. []

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