Ideas

Off the Shelf | The Reality of Utterance in Korean Contemporary Art

Recently, I researched the exhibition catalogues of crucial Korean art centers that were not a part of AAA’s collection prior to my joining AAA. During this process, I was able to trace the trajectory of Korean contemporary art in the 1980s-1990s. 


It was a great pleasure for me to encounter rare publications and materials that I had never encountered before. I became particularly interested in one recurring topic: the Minjung art movement — the political artistic movement for democracy — in the 1980s. Minjung art sought to observe and criticise the subordinate capitalist development of Korean society and examine its relationship with visual culture. As the 1990s saw the arrival of a new democracy, the political movement became more recognised in the civil sector. With the institutionalisation of Minjung art, the relationship between art and politics weakened. Nevertheless, in the 1990s, visual art in Korea was under the ongoing influence of Minjung art. Indeed, I think the movement still influences thoughts on the art process in Korea today. Here I introduce some catalogues and reference books related to this fascinating movement’s influence. 

*The term 'reality of utterance' was presented in an essay entitled 'The Monopoly of Utterance and the Fall of Idiom', written by art critic Wankyung Sung, one of the founding members of the Minjung art group 'Reality and Utterance (Hyeonsil gwa Bareon)', active from 1979 through 1989.

You Are My Sunshine: Reflective Notes for Contemporary Korean Art

You Are My Sunshine: Reflective Notes for Contemporary Korean Art
You Are My Sunshine: Reflective Notes for Contemporary Korean Art

You Are My Sunshine: Korean Contemporary Art 1960-2004, is one of the most significant exhibition catalogues in the history of Korean contemporary art. As the title implies, this exhibition and book aimed to shed new light on avant-garde artists from the 1960s-1970s who were active but had not received adequate assessment; Minjung artist from the 1980s who were captive in a dark period in Korean history; and lastly, artists from the 1990s who were focused on the question of their existence as artists deviating from the universal awareness of art.

That, said the most important aspect of this catalogue is that it contains transcripts of talks between the director Yongchul Lee and 16 Korean art critics, curators, and artists. Among them, the interview with Sungdam Hong, who was wrongly accused and served several years in prison during the pro-democratic resistance movement in Gwangju, makes me think of the role of the arts in the society. The interview describes the situation at the tumultuous period, and Sungdam Hong’s social activities, such as participating in performances, making posters, and producing writing. Unfortunately, most of the writing in the catalogue is in Korean and set in a condensed format, making it somewhat difficult to read.

Activating Korea: Tides of Collective Action

Activating Korea: Tides of Collective Action
Activating Korea: Tides of Collective Action

'Activating Korea: Tides of Collective Action' is an exhibition that was held in 2007 by Govett-Brewster Gallery in New Zealand in conjunction with Insa Art Center. This exhibition is a good example of how Minjung art has influenced the next generation. Activating Korea sought to convey the state of flux that characterises South Korea today and the active role played by, and the aspirations of, contemporary artists in effecting social change. In her catalogue essay, co-Director Jeesook Beck explained that recent rallies led many Koreans to have flashbacks to the protests of the 1980s. The candlelight rallies against re-allowing US beef evoked another sense of déjà vu: the street rallies in support of the Korean national soccer team during the 2002 World Cup games when fans donned T-shirts in the team’s official color of red, signifying, for some, a symbolic end to the nation’s anti-communist 'red complex.'

'It is somewhat ironic that the 1980 Inaugural Exhibition of the Minjung art group called "Reality and Utterance" – a group with a central position in Activating Korea's historical genealogy – also took place under candlelight. Alarmed by the contents of this disquieting exhibition full of 'red' paintings, the Korean Culture and Arts Foundation belatedly attempted to cancel the exhibition and finally ended up cutting off the power in the gallery immediately before the opening ceremony. Hustled out of the gallery, Minjung art began thriving at the site of street demonstrations throughout the 1980s. However, now that the candles have come out of the galleries to cover the streets, works of Minjung art conversely have stepped into art museums, becoming an integral part of their collections.' (p.53)

The exhibition and essays show that amid the historical institutionalisation of Minjung art and internationalisation of Post-Minjung art, the awareness of Minjung art has been passed on to the next group of artists, including Chankyong Park, Heinkuhn Oh, Youngwhan Bae, flyingCity, Minouk Lim, Sangdon Kim, Mixrice, and so on. According to Beck ‘[a]lthough the participating artist[s] in AK may have different views on the genealogy of Minjung art, they share its globalised legacy. They are mostly unsympathetic towards the authority of the dominant social system and art institutions and have the will to publicly contradict in the system or institutions.' (p.55)

Journal BOL (All holdings in AAA)

Journal BOL (All holdings in AAA)
Journal BOL (All holdings in AAA)

In the winter of 2005, Insa Art Space (IAS), the contemporary visual arts wing of the Arts Council Korea (ARKO), launched BOL, a new visual arts quarterly journal published in Korean and English. BOL was founded to reject art journalism in Korea that sees art as the citation or listing of events taking place in the art world, and that treats art as completely impartial and disinterested information. BOL tried to create an active venue for inchoate developments in Korea such as interdisciplinary exchanges between the fields of art and visual culture, and attempts to promote a new breed of thought processes. The journal dealt with a main theme in each issue, and the theme was then divided into several sub-themes or topics. It was also almost the first attempt to introduce the contemporary culture of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, South America, Africa, West Asia, and South Asia in Korea.

As stated in the inaugural issue, the Korean syllable 'bol,' from which the title BOL came, was not intended to be a contradiction of 'bol ggeot,' or 'something to see,' but rather of the 'bol ggeot,' or 'must see,' or 'want to see.' Although BOL ceased its publication after the tenth issue in 2008, it definitely helped mitigate the absence of critical language in the Korean art world.

In his essay titled 'Criticality' of Korean art and the "Interests" of Artists: Minjung Art and the Present,' which was published in the tenth issue of BOL: 8008, Chankyong Park insisted that the new experimental cultural actions and art require a new mode that can reconnect Minjung art with the present. According to Park, 'Through the artists in 1990s, Minjung art is reappearing rather than being forgotten. To impose a more assertive definition, by reviving the past, the present proposes new standards of evaluation. This is not a simple continuity based on legends or genetics, but rather an atavistic one like the restoration of a monarchy.' (p.44)

Continuity and Intensity: 2008-2010, 58 Participants and Contemporary Art in Korea

Continuity and Intensity: 2008-2010, 58 Participants and Contemporary Art in Korea
Continuity and Intensity: 2008-2010, 58 Participants and Contemporary Art in Korea

I would consider this publication to be the eleventh issue of BOL. Continuity and Intensity: 2008-2010, was conceived to archive two events: the project '8008' and the exhibition 'Unconquered'. In 2008, the organisers of the 7th Gwangju Biennale 'Annual Report: A Year in Exhibition' suggested linking between BOL and the international symposium. The BOL editorial board and Sohyun Park then organised '8008: The Reality and Utterance of Contemporary Korean Art'. '8008' was comprised of two parts: Guerrilla Salons and an open symposium. For the Guerrilla Salons, five hosts, each with his own theme, invited artists, curators, critics, and a variety of others and took turns organising sixteen small discussion workshops over a two-month period. An open symposium was then held for two days. A complete version of the symposium contents was subsequently published as the tenth issue of BOL: 8008 (2008). However, the transcript of the sixteen salon sessions – which was supposed to be published either as a supplement to BOL #10, or as a separate issue – never appeared due to a management change at IAS and the new management’s decision to stop publishing BOL.

Continuity and Intensity included the 336-page transcript of Guerrilla Salons. In the publication's introducton, co-chief editor Yumi Kang said, 'it is intended to be more than a combination of the project transcription and exhibition documents. The '8008' project, the 'Unconquered' exhibition, and now this publication have each taken place a year apart, over a total of three years. This publication is significant in that it represents a broadening of the horizon of the polyphonous language of art criticism. These voices have not disappeared despite the passing years and their echo is still pertinent at this very juncture in our time.'

Regarding this publication, I was intrigued by the sharp conflict of the participants’ opinions in the Guerrilla Salons. Participants from diverse art fields discussed their own ideas and concepts, and these stories are combined to paint an intricate picture of Korean art at that time.

Badly Flattened Land

Badly Flattened Land
Badly Flattened Land

I saw a show by mixrice (Jieun Cho and Chulmo Yang) at Art Space Pool in 2010. Later, I came across this book, and felt that the book looked just as the exhibition did. It is more than an exhibition catalogue or a monograph. As mixrice has a good command of personal archiving, dialogue, workshops, photography, video, graphic design, murals, comics, performances, writing, and so on, this book must be considered a part of mixrice’s practice. I like the book’s design in that it shows the artworks themselves rather than just printing a plate and an arrangement of texts.

mixrice introduces Badly Flattened Land as a book about a methodology of imagining the process of going through the forest of your memory that exists deep under the ground that we live on. In their previous Maseok project in Korea, they pointed out the sight and phraseology that immigrants experience in the relationship between themselves and those who see them as ‘the other.’ However, in their recent Cairo project, mixrice focuses on the internal connection among individuals in a setting where there are already many immigrants, and they themselves are considered 'the other.'

Imprint

Author

Sunghee LEE

Topic
Collection Spotlight
Date
Sat, 1 Oct 2011

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