Images of Dissent Transformations in Korean Minjung art
HARVARD ASIA PACIFIC REVIEW, vol. 1, no. 2 (Summer 1997): 44-49
Images of Dissent
Transformations in Korean Minjung art
BY FRANK HOFFMANN
Otto Dix, the great interwar political painter, did not die in 1933, in 1939, or in 1945, but in 1969. However, his pre-1945 work almost completely eclipsed his very sizable later œuvre . Similarly, leading Korean Minjung artists, probably the most radical critics of Korean politics and society during the 1980s, share a similar plight. Kim Pong-jun, formerly one of the regime’s most feared critics, who depicted the alienation of farmers in most of his paintings, now paints benign images of peasant families dancing happily under a clear blue Korean autumn sky; not the grotesque, not political parodies, not even hidden ironies, but a nativist vision of Utopia which, without a visual contextualization in the painting itself, can hardly be seen as political or social criticism. How will he be remembered? And does this mark the end of the Minjung Cultural Movement?
Anyone visiting South Korea during the 1980s could see the pervasiveness of the images of Minjung art—as cover illustrations, student banners and murals, or strike placards. Minjung art first appeared in 1980, just after the Kwangju Massacre. Never before in the Peninsula’s history, or perhaps anywhere else for that matter has art played such a prominent role in a nation’s drive to democratization. This was precisely why the intellectual establishment attempted to counter its influence by declaring Minjung art a non-art—subliminal propaganda devoid of aesthetic quality. Castigated by mainstream scholarship and media (state endorsed or controlled) and ignored by associated art journals and galleries until the democratic countdown began in 1987, Minjung art nonetheless developed into a highly influential and evocative force.
”General Green Pea”
In this 1985 colored woodcut (35 x 26 cm) by O Yun (1946-1986), Chon Pong-jun, nicknamed “General Green Pea” because of his small stature, is portrayed as a dancing beanstalk. Chon was the leader of the Tonghak peasant forces, which according to leftist-nationalist interpretations, in 1894 sought to eradicate the hierarchical Confucian system in favor of a Utopian vision of freedom and equality. The use of the green pea as an icon for minjung protest serves as a fine example of the invention of tradition (in Eric Hobsbawm’s understanding): Sin Tong-yop was probably the first to use this term in his epic poem The Kum River (1967), which depicts the Tonghak Uprising not merely as a peasant uprising, but as an anti-imperialist revolutionary battle, the direct historical antecedent of the April Revolution of 1960 that led to Syngman Rhee’s resignation and the country’s short-lived democratic Chang Myon government. Later Kim Chi-ha published a poem entitled “Green Pea Blossom” in an allusion to Chon Pong-jun in his famous Yellow Earth volume. O Yun was strongly influenced by Kim’s work and adopted his motif in several woodcuts depicting the blooming green pea. Today, as Sin, Kim, and O have themselves become somewhat legendary, the green pea has also become an obligatory pattern in leftist literature and in Minjung art. Suddenly we have a tradition of minjung protest, with visual icons that seem to hark back to the late 19th century, even though they were only invented less than two decades ago.
Our People’s Art Institute
”The Kabo Peasants’ War”
As this huge (260 x 700 cm) pictorial banner depicting the Kabo Peasants’ War, a 1989 group work by Our People’s Art Institute (Kyore Misul Yon’guso), demonstrates, the works of the second-generation Minjung artists are more distinct and more radical in their political message. Works like this pictorial banner from Chonju, which is one piece of a series of thirty banners on the “National Liberation Movement,” have adopted many stylistic devices of Socialist Realism. The commemoration of pre-modern and contemporary revolutionary events in a monumental style of painting, combining heroic grandeur of design with costume and portraiture historical accuracy, that is, history painting, became the favorite genre among the second-generation Minjung artists. While some of these monumental works depict only one historical event at a time, such as one battle, others play with collage effects by patching together several incidents in modern Korean history and combining them under a certain theme or catch-phrase, like “Drive out Westerners, drive out Barbarians!” (with Chon Pong-jun here serving as a historical tree of resistance). The targets in these paintings are usually as explicit as the actions, which are being depicted. Typical of this genre, and not different from its conservative model, minjung history is represented here in an idealized, heroized form.
”New Colonies and Monopoly Capitalism”
The 1990s have been a decade of mixed messages, diverse in techniques, styles, media, and subject matter. Even a born internationalist like Nam June Paik, the father of video art, seems to have rediscovered his Korean roots (as he donned the garb of a Korean shaman in July 1990 in his first ever performance on Korean soil). Some of the basic features of Minjung Art have also changed. Paik’s performance seems as discordant with his life work as his video sculptures are with Minjung Art. Nevertheless, this is the reality today. For example, Chon Mi-yong’s (b. 1968) installation of fluorescent light bulbs of 1991, included in the 1994 Minjung art exhibit in the Korean National Museum of Contemporary Art recalls Jasper Johns’s Stars and Stripes series and subsequent paintings and Pop Art installations by Donald Lipski and others. In contrast to Jasper Johns’s works, whose revolutionary invention was formal—integrating figurative subject matter with abstract handling of paint—Chon’s work is decidedly political. While Johns and Lipski adopted the flag as an object for its strong metaphoric value and then set its pure visual qualities against it to see what could be evoked, Chon relies on the flag’s conventional symbolic value. The title of her work is as obvious as the homogeneity of its icons: miniature flags of Latin American and Asian nations, including South Korea’s, are attached to each of Chon’s “stars.” The artist’s political message is loud and clear, but without any use of nativist icons or rhetoric. The work is so far removed from the Minjung art of the 1980s, so bound to the sign language of North American postwar modernism, one wonders what the curators of the 1994 exhibit had in mind when they included it.
Is the Minjung Movement really over then? The aforementioned 1994 exhibition suggests that it is. The year 1990 marks the beginning of a new age in Korean art. At first glance, this may seem to be the age of post-modernist art. Just as Minjung ideology was first introduced in theology and literature, post-modernism was first introduced in literature and literary criticism in the mid-1980s and only later in painting and the other visual arts. Post-modernism in Korea is widely seen not only as a reaction to the authoritarianism and elitism of the modernist movement but also as a response to Minjung art with its narrowly anti-pluralist, anti-foreign, idealized idea of “Koreanness” and its simplified dichotomies: Korean vs. foreign, substance vs. aesthetic, minjung vs. elite. While populist simplifications may be inevitable in political art, they are naturally more appealing in a climate of severe political or sociopolitical repression than in a pluralist society with far fewer direct forms of repression, a more complex power structure, and increasingly less obvious solutions to sociopolitical problems. Recent trends in art and music suggest that Koreans have finally begun to revise their sense of Korea’s geopolitical situation and of the relationship between the countryside and the capital. What had formerly been experienced only in terms of “suffering” and han now seems to offer Korean artists a chance to express their identity in something other than nationalist idioms and categories.
Today the anti-avant-garde Minjung artists have undoubtedly been outshone by a new generation of avant-garde artists, well represented by Yi Pul (Bul Lee), who did a show at New York’s MOMA earlier this year. Herself the daughter of longtime political dissidents, the young artist’s work avoids pedantries. Instead, she relentlessly deflowers the icons of traditional Korean culture and history just recently enshrined by the Minjung generation. She first shocked Korean audiences with her giant sculptures of buttocks, breasts, and vaginas. In her performances and installations, Yi typically exposes her body and, occasionally, presents herself as a medieval Western prisoner in chains—a risky allusion to the role of women in a society dedicated to traditional Confucian values but outwardly modern and democratic. All her work is playful—often sarcastic, but playfully sarcastic. It’s the late 1990s, the Minjung is surfing the Net, and Yi knows it.
Frank Hoffmann is a Koreanist and art historian currently engaged in dissertation research on colonial Korean painting.