Contemporary art Fairs Books Korea

Korea, now and then

How Korean artists developed their own versions of Modernism

Michael Joo's Doppelganger (Pink Rocinante), 2009. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Blain|Southern Gallery, London

Joan Kee’s Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method is an in-depth discussion of a specific art movement developed during the post-colonial period, which reached its pinnacle during the 1970s. The clever narrative structure of the book enables the reader to approach this movement from various angles, looking at different contextual rather than chronological works of art. By contrast, Korean Art: the Power of Now is a visual encyclopaedia of 120 Korean contemporary artists and art personalities. Extensively illustrated, this handsome book is accompanied by three essays introducing the reader to the history of Korean Modern art, the development of Korean contemporary art and the effervescent Korean contemporary art scene today.

Both books remind the reader of the importance of the context in which Korean contemporary art evolved. Burgeoning Korean Modern and contemporary art is inseparable from Korea’s socio-political and economic development of the late 19th and 20th centuries. From the Choson dynasty’s (1392-1910) seclusion policy forbidding access to Westerners, the forceful annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910, up to the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-53) and the country’s subsequent division, the production and perception of art in Korea underwent a rapid change under the influence of Western art, constantly wavering between tradition and modernisation.

During the military regime of President Park Chung-hee and the introduction of marshal law in 1972, Western Abstract Expressionist and Art Informel movements born in the aftermath of the Second World War offered young Korean artists a refreshing, spontaneous mode of expression while providing a sharp criticism to the realistic, figurative paintings favoured in the conservative post-colonial academic institutions. However, as explained in both books, this exposure to foreign influence inevitably brings forth the question of Koreanness in the face of an overwhelming hegemony of Western art. The dichotomy of Eastern and Western art, past and future creates a paradox for Korean artists.

Two artistic movements subsequently stem from tradition and nationalism but with opposite outcomes. The Monochromatic Art—or Tansaekhwa—adopts a subdued, single-colour palette that reflects the earthy tones of Korean pottery or white Choson porcelain. As elaborated by Kee, Tansaekhwa advocates a pure art, unstained by political discourse, with an emphasis put on the medium and the process of making art. The repetitive gestures and the raw nature of the materials involved sustain a form of meditation that frees one’s mind from the surrounding turmoil of contemporaneous life. This Eastern form of spirituality combined with the Western artistic technique transcends the earlier paradox.

The contrary movement to Tansaekhwa is the Minjung Art, which developed in reaction to the Kwangju massacre of May 1980, when students’ rallies and protests in the city of Kwangju were violently repressed by the military regime of President Chun Doo-hwan. It is invested with a socio-political mission aimed at replacing the censored press by denouncing the political corruption, awakening the crowd from blind consumerism and Western influence, and campaigning for the reunification of Korea. This art is related to the traditional folk art that commented on Choson society. It takes the form of posters, banners and woodblock prints that were widely distributed. The chapter on Minjung Art as a collective art of resistance was brought to an end in 1992 with the first democratically elected civilian government and the subsequent restoration of freedom of the press.

The Power of Now branches from those antagonistic art movements to give us a panoramic view of the contemporary art scene in Korea. From the 1990s onwards, rapid economic growth, unrestricted overseas travel and the proliferation of international and national fairs gave birth to an unprecedented artistic situation where Korean artists hitherto engaged in a social debate, positioned against the oppressive authority, had to find a new source of inspiration and means of expression in a fast-paced, globalised context.

Following the footsteps of Nam June Paik, the father of video art, young artists experimented with the technological advancement of Korea in the form of digital art along with its virtual world, cultural and environmental implications. Another creative inspiration resides in the biographical background of the artists themselves. Personal concerns take centre-stage with issues dealing with territorial dislocation, gender and sexuality in a patriarchal society and the blitz and kitsch of pop culture. This explosion of narratives and idiosyncratic styles in a globalised context is difficult to grasp as a whole. But as explained by Nikki Lee and John Rajchman in the Thames & Hudson volume, Korean contemporary art is not about the sterile hegemony or homogenisation of ideas but about the divergence and cross-pollination of ideas prompting new, unexpected artistic premises. The Power of Now offers a fascinating view of this Korean contemporary art in the making.

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