apexart :: Conference Program :: Young Chul Lee


Conference 1, Wroclaw, Poland (June 1999)

Contemporary Korean Art in 1990s
by Young Chul Lee

Soo Kyung Lee Painting for 'Out of Body Travel', 1999 size variable Painting, wooden box, helmet, elbow protector, life jacket, scale
Boem Kim Give and Take, 1993 26 x 38 inches Mixed media (pencil, paper, Tylenol on canvas)
Sora Kim Homer: our new project, 1998 detail of "Very Up & Very Down"
Yi-So Bahc Pukdupalsung (Eight Stars), 1997 210 x 120 x 40 cm Mixed media (Sponge, sticker, brick, acupuncture needle)

Whether it is in a formal or an informal setting, it is always difficult for me to resume the state of Korean contemporary art to those who are in the international art world. This is because since the period of the Japanese occupation, the post-occupation, the era during the 1960s when internationalism was in fashion, the resistance years of the 1980s, and the return at the same time to internationalism in its globalized version of the 1990s and to a new-found regionalism, throughout all these periods, tradition and cultural transformation have been essentially intertwined. And it is difficult to intentionally invent without stuttering new terms in Korean for this entwinement, not only in an international forum but also in a Korean forum. It is the Marxist and postmodernist Fredric Jameson who, in 1990, according to Korean leftist groups, was the first to analyze the entwinement of the three worlds that manifest themselves in Korean culture, and this before European deconstructionists took a similar point of view when analyzing culture. During a visit to Korea in 1991, Jameson described Korea as a country in which the first, second and third worlds coexist and collide with one another, and bestowed upon it the title of the most contradictory city in history.

To look at the cityscape of Seoul is to sense the power of its rebirth from a once war-ravaged city. A third-world city with tremendous urban problems just two or three decades ago, Seoul today is a city of trendy, glitzy and consumption-oriented quarters where young and fashionable cultural tribes hang out, a gigantic urban monster that resembles the morphology of Tokyo and Hong Kong. To look at the Seoul cityscape is also to witness clashing architectural whimsy: high modernism, matchbox-type international style, pseudo-postmodernism, deconstructionism, etc., all of which are juxtaposed on the same block if not in the same building. Seoul architecture is one huge potpourri of hybrid urban signs, cultural cross-breeding, historical palimpsests and, above all, kitsch.

Since the end of the military regime in 1993, the energy of Korean society has become concentrated into economic and cultural consumption. The 1980s were a decade of political struggle. The 1990s have been a decade of mass culture, instant gratification, body politics, youth and sexuality. The material rigidity of the 1980s gave way to the molecular flexibility of the 1990s.

Every decade since the end of the Korean war has brought with it dramatic contradictions in the Korean cultural and political landscape. The 1990s is no exception. On the one hand, the desire to progress is a necessary dynamic in society. On the other hand, many societal anachronisms conflict with this desire. A good example is a recent self-promotional ad campaign by a leading Korean newspaper, which featured on a big video billboard in downtown Seoul the slogan Lets step forward with the information society, though we have stepped back in industrialization. As this absurd statement demonstrates, the very reason for contradiction is the desire itself to meet change and make a profit from it rather than to solve real problems that wont go away. Today, Koreans agree that the alliance among the government, the press, big business and education, is effective in achieving their goals. Contradiction, rashness and an irrational yet modern dynamism are, strange as it may seem, the essential elements of Koreas cultural specificity, a specificity born of the particular circumstances surrounding the modernization of the country: the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, the division of the country, dictatorship, a glorified military culture, and even the close ties between the government and big business necessary to promote a simple and abrupt globalization.

Koreas intense competitive drive, which has been accelerating over the decades, creates a dynamic society, but also a slower one, because it creates new contradictions that accumulate and remain unresolved. The collapse of a bridge that spanned the Han River and of a large department store in Seoul are the disquieting symbols of these contradictions. Toward the end of 1997, the economic crisis that struck many Asian countries was a direct threat to Korean society and underlined the urgency of overhauling Koreas economic structures. Many small and medium sized companies closed their doors, and insolvent banks and companies were sold to foreign groups. The collapse of the Daewoo Group, which was one of Koreas major symbols of its model for economic success, was a great shock for the entire country, and a lesson, that this pioneer in creating markets throughout Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, especially Poland, and in leading Korean industry for the last 35 years, had now become but a myth, as fragile as a bubble. Nervous awareness of this danger has spread across Korean society and made the people doubt and blame itself, and wonder about its survival on the eve of a globalized 21st century. A similar awareness dawned on Korean society at the end of the 60s, when students and intellectuals held massive demonstrations modeled on those of their Western counterparts. But now, at the end of the 90s, our newly discovered individualism finds its highest expression not in radical demonstrations but in conspicuous consumption.

It is in this fin-de-siecle atmosphere that Korean contemporary art also finds its highest expression, in a superficially international avant-gardism. For the last ten years or so Korea has been host to some very big and very expensive art events, including the Olympic Sculpture Garden in 1988, the Contemporary Art Festival at the Taejon Expo in 1991, the transposition of the 1993 edition of the Whitney Biennial to Seoul, the creation of the Kwangju Biennale and the Korean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, both in 1995, and the aborted construction of Frank Gehrys Samsung Museum because of the Korean economic crisis of 1997; not to mention the construction of other museums by conglomerates, the boom of collecting expensive international art and of Koreans going abroad to discover international art, the skyrocketing of gallery sales and profits, the arrival of the two great international auction houses, Christies and Sothebys, and the forest of public and private sculptures commissioned for building fronts resulting from a new law that required that 1% of a new buildings cost be allocated to art work. The most amazing aspect of the first two Kwangju Biennales is not that they made over 20 million dollars in entry fees for 1.7 million and .9 million visitors in 1995 and 1997, but that a Korean regional bureaucracy with little or no experience in matters of art created each successful biennial in less than a year. However, none of these examples of the tremendous explosion of the Korean art world is a reliable indicator of quality. On the contrary, it is remarkable that the sheer quantity of big art events tends to render them empty of all art. The energy of Korean contemporary art emanates from a deep desire to be merely demonstrative, an energy that is not truly artistic but governmental, both on a national and a regional level, and commercial, whether it be in the hands of the conglomerates, the galleries, the dealers or the art associations. And whether the art event is big or small, the distance between artistic depth and the events true superficiality is great, a superficiality that is profoundly anchored in Korean society and daily life, or rather, culture. The paradox of what the world sees as Koreas modernization and energy is that they cannot be separated from their implicit contradictions, contradictions that are indeed the source of their modernity and energy. Since 1960, Korean art has been evolving in a whirlwind of paradox, contradiction and dynamism. Thirty years of dictatorship catalyzed three common directions: economic progress, globalization and national and regional identity. The rapidness and excessiveness of economic progress also propelled its crash, and blind internationalism produced an abundance of pale Western art imitations.

It is paradoxical that the contradictions of modern Korean society are also at the source of its energy. In Korea, contradiction equals dynamism, and opportunities arise from instability, irrationality and tradition. And although this paradox might also hide a disadvantageous and difficult reality, it is nevertheless mysterious that it fosters vital social change that I would say is remarkably more vigorous than in other industrial countries. The paradox then is a reality, one where dynamism functions as myth, a myth that becomes the foundation of a giant collective hope and goal.

The military regime had inordinately emphasized on the economical efficiency in order to get into the line of international order, while immolating true justice on the other hand. And in that course, the history of Korean art ended up disclosing itself as a mimicry of Western art. On this account, Korean writers often depict Korean art as an eye without the pupil or being under self-colonization. When Korean artists adopted the western model, the result was a reiteration of the Western identity, or rather the identity of the simulated West. Those artists had actually intended on representing their own identity, but in reality, they had produced nothing but a series of imported masks. This inevitably became a rhetoric, in which only the gestures were revived without any consideration of the context. Economic imperialism, consisting of the export of advanced technology and multinational capital from the West, meant not only physical domination in the form of military and political intervention, but also the export of imaginative meanings from the West. Therefore, transplanting the western system onto Korean soil in unmodified form - in the guise of advancement - meant nothing more than self-colonization by foreign social and cultural imaginations.

The term cultural identity is yet hard to figure out with its endless changes and developments and could be misinterpreted as something still and frozen in time, that is, as either Korean or English or French. Now this is what most curators and art critics who visit Korea in search of artists whose works are somewhat rather Korean, but in truth, such could only be found in the cultural treasures in the museums. Whether in Seoul or in any other city in Korea, the whole country seems to be going under a huge dynamism of destruction and reconstruction of tall apartments and road works. Each city is a collage made up of bits of eclecticism. What could be called Korean is found only in the jumbles of pre-modern, modern, and postmodern aspects of the moment here now. Therefore searching for the ethnic identity is no more than an obsolete idea of Orientalism or a so-called sightseeing hobby.

The 1980s were a time when cultural domination of the West was extensively perceived throughout Korea and became the biggest issue. At this period, the two issues of military dictatorship and war-torn reality were brought up, and students, elites and civilians all got together and intensively demonstrated for radical social changes. In Kwangju, hundreds were killed by the military regime. In art, an anti-Occidentalist and anti-Capitalist political avant-garde movement called Min Joong Art (Peoples Art) was founded by a group of artists. These Min Joong artists and art critics related art directly to the streams of culture-politics. The fact that they discussed the social existence, reality perception and alternative qualities of an artist, the coexistence of traditional formalities with advanced matters, and ways of communication were of much significance in terms that they had brought up serious questions in the art of Korea for the first time. But in terms of distribution and diverse art expressions, their extreme critical standpoint ended up restricting most of their artistic activities.

Unlike military or economical aspects, it is quite difficult to grasp the relation between domination and subordination in cultural aspects. For most cases, the objection and perception against cultural attack are restricted to a small number of elites and politicians. Though they are not imitators of the ideological messages and values of imperialism, a large number of Koreans are in fact enthusiastic about the cultural products of the West. Domination exists where it is perceived. The elites who regard cultural imperialism as a threat, have a longing to become cultural representatives by making the public believe that they have the misconception of everything. Oftentimes it is said that in the case of a country that has been invaded, it is rather hard to regulate a united, ethnic cultural-identity.

The political view and discourse of ethnic culture and identity allow us to imagine this process to be a terminated one, and that imagination is achieved through the concepts of our ethnical properties or cultural traditions. Any period that we regard as our culture is a synthesization of cultural memories up to that very moment. Moreover, this synthesization has a quality of selecting specific ones, and among them are political, cultural systems such as the government or the media, which carry out privileged roles. As a result, today our culture is not a pure local product, but always keeps traces of previous cultural appropriations or influences.

While in the midst of modernization, there are many cases in which tradition is fabricated by the system of an ethnic country. False traditions have the capacity to offer the significance of invariability like all other traditions. The cultural fantasy that insists that the customs that represent us today are the embodiments of the immutable past which have been inherited from prehistoric days is one conduced in relation to ethnic identity. Dreaming of a stabilized past results in hiding away the essence of the dynamic and occasionally mingling culture. The sacred quality or tradition of culture is what weve learned since our early childhood days, but most of the factors were imported from abroad while being confronted with resistance a couple of generations ago. Struggling against cultural imports is the struggle against the changes experienced in ones life, which is, no more than a natural human impulse to treasure the changes in ones childhood.

The word indigenous has undoubtedly been adopted as an synonym of the word native- meaning, belonging to a geographically specified place. But how could a culture belong to one region? The subsidiary meaning of the word indigenous is belonging naturally to a place. Though this may provide an answer to how a can culture be reverted, it still involves many problems. Culture is a work done entirely and decisively by man. Therefore the thought that culture reverts to a certain region should not be simply apprehended. When indigenous culture is substituted to local culture, it substitutes the problem of reversion. Still it itself has many difficult problems to solve. Which region does a region belong to? What kinds of cultures do the regions of a village, a locality, a nation, and a superstate (for instance, Asian or South American) represent?

The art market in Korea expanded on the basis of bubble economy of the 1990s and young artists began to be introduced in the international art scene. Kim Soo-ja, Lee Buhl, Choi Jung-wha, Yook Geun-byung, Kim Young-jin and Cho Duk-hyun became known to the international audience but the younger generation of artists has become much richer than ten years ago. As Korean art circles have a very weak and inadequate system to introduce Korean artists abroad, there have been very few incidents in which their works were shown in the Western Circles. Park Iso, Kim Buhm, Lee Soo-kyung and Kim Sora emerged as leaders of younger generation in the domestic art circle, but were never introduced outside Asia. Among the more established artists, Lim Chung-seop residing in New York, Kim Soon-ki working in Paris are outstanding and Ju Jae-whan and Park Young-gook are drawing attention for their new experimental works.

As alternative artistic spaces are rare in Korea, private museums and galleries are exerting strong influence on artists. But when even these institutions plunged into a slump, established artists lost their opportunities for exhibition. Rather, younger artists are more active and at a great moment of periodical and cultural transformation at the turn of a century, they are working to reveal their individual characters while avoiding nationalist, localist thinking that has oppressed the cultural situation of Korea for so long time. Although they are commonly against the claims for national, cultural identity, they are not naively drawn to the international style of western modernism either. With the introduction of the 1993 Whitney Biennial show in Korea the cultural, political issues of multiculturalism was in fashion for a short period in Korea, but these artists were very antipathetic to it. Though they are keeping a certain distance to the issues of the Peoples Art movement of the 1980s that interpreted the logic of the other in a political way and the multiculturalism of America, they are quite confident about the fact that art should have a concrete function with a more comprehensive perspective in a society. It looks to be an earnest search for the possibility that art could gain a new critical power through a microscopic approach to the network of global capitalism and highly technological bureaucratic society entering into an increasingly controlled state.

©1999 Young Chul Lee