Solidarity in Contemporary Korean Art
Triggered by the political suppression of President Chun Doo-hwan’s military dictatorship, the Gwangju Uprising, also known as the May 18 Democratisation Movement, started on the eponymous date in 1980. Despite the cold-blooded beatings and shootings of the military force, citizens at the risk of death organised themselves using solidarity as a foothold. As a catalyst favouring democracy, this historical event fortified the foundation of Minjung Art, a confrontational socio-critical art movement from the Republic of Korea in the 1980s that remains relevant in Korean society today. The Gwangju citizens bleeding and shouting, "우리를 잊지 마세요 (Don't forget us)" were visualised in earnest and expanded beyond the canvas into illustrations of multiple independent publications or hanging pictures.
Since then, more than forty years have passed. The lamentation is imprinted in both modern Korean society and reflected in the visual art scene as a recurring theme. However, contemporary Korean artists no longer settle themselves in grief, mourning, and resentment, nor suggest grandiloquent solutions to heal the bereaved. Instead, they seek purely to remember and record in different ways. It is noteworthy that their ways to cherish poignant history are now traversing borders and even continents from Asia to America. That is, by situating this region-specific situation in a global context, the generation after the one that experienced the May 18 Democratisation Movement produces an unprecedented geography of trauma. To navigate this new world of commemoration, I will juxtapose three recent artworks that were exhibited or released in 2021, among others.
Sung Hwan Kim’s ‘Hair Is a Piece of Head’ (2021), commissioned by this year’s edition of Gwangju Biennale (1 April to May 9 2021), begins with the connection between Gwangju in the 1980s and Hawaii in the early 20th century. For decades, the Hawaiian Islands had been the first gateway to pass through for numerous immigrants heading to the United States. This geographical inevitability illustrates why Korean brides arrived in Hawaii for the purpose of matchmaking; Kim points out that when marginalised people migrate, their stories also experience a similar marginalisation. In terms of methodology, this single-channel video uniquely adopted iPhone’s Live Photos function to film and bring together the scene. Given its technological characteristics, it was the act of stitching up the emotional and psychological reaction of each one-second moment that enabled the artist to emphasise the marginalisation but simultaneous commonality. Highlighting the different but collective trauma in the space, the multiple languages used in this video – English, Korean, and Hawaiian – engaged each speaker, rather than existing as a mere compilation of information.
Another piece exhibited as a part of the biennale, ‘Noise Quartet’ (2019) by Jung Yeondoo reflects similar connections across time and space, but this time, in the context revolving around Asian countries. As the curator Wu Dar-Kuen clarified in the introduction text, the artist reinterprets “echoes or mirror images” of Kaohsiung, Ginowan, Gwangju, and Hong Kong into four channels. Revisiting unwritten history through each participant’s testimony, Jung assembles the moments that people were pressured to be silent in the face of their governments’ oppression, committed in the name of control and maintenance. The artist visited each city with the protagonists and collected diverse noises, which were projected onto each channel and eventually formed a harmonious quartet sound as the title indicates. Instead of reprimanding nefarious activities perpetrated by political power, he situated the white noise of the urban atmosphere in line with the unheard voice of people. Here, as seen in the subtitle that reads “You, me, you and me,” the underlying principle is that the different repressed periods in distant Asian countries harmonise in one space, banded together.
Meanwhile, ‘Good Light, Good Air’ (2020) by Im Heung-soon, an artist and director, was released at the end of April 2021 in Korea, bridging what has traditionally been a separation in art between Korea and Argentina. Beginning with the literal meanings of each city - the village of light (Gwangju) and the good air (Buenos Aires) -, he draws similarities between Korea in 1980 and antipodal Argentina in 1976. The artist brings out deeply buried memories and connects the scenery of Gwangju Hospital to a corridor of the Argentine concentration camp. When it comes to the editing process, the family of the Argentine victims takes over the aural narrative after the visual narrative shows the bereaved family of the Gwangju protesters choked with tears and unable to speak. Woven into a single film, the common testimonies give impetus to remember and historicise each tragedy.
These historical traumas are no doubt particularities of specific countries, yet they now become spiritual indicators to illuminate collective memory all over the world. Hence, with each artist’s bird’s eye view, these art practices function as a tribute to the globe. Beyond mourning and lingering in the past, they discuss the possibility of integrated recovery by visualising communities where their stories can resonate. After all, in their practices, these three contemporary artists embrace both those who have not completely departed this life and those who have not forgotten the sorrow, regardless of borders.
Minji Chun is an art critic and a curator based in Seoul, Korea and Oxford, UK. Interested in the ways of interpreting narratives of unmentioned histories and spaces, she conducts research, writes, and translates texts on contemporary art. Her works can be viewed at www.minjiswriting.xyz.