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Exploring a changing Korean society through art

A series of headless statues of buddhists sitting in meditation.  Where there heads should be are instead small heads from contemporary pop culture dolls.
"Headless" by Michael JOO (Photo courtesy of Mia)

A new exhibition explores modern Korean art in the wake of South Korea’s transition from authoritarian control to a more democratic nation. After its recent run at the Philadelphia Art Museum, “The Shape of Time: Korean Art after 1989” is now up at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) and runs through June 23, 2024. 

Philadelphia Art Museum Co-Curator Hyunsoo Woo says the exhibition, which features the work of 25 Korean artists, is a labor of love. Born between 1960 and 1986, the artists bring to life their direct experiences within this significant era, as the last generational witnesses.  

“As a major exhibition, the first on this subject matter in nearly 15 years in the United States in North America–and only the second in the entire exhibition history in American museums… this exhibition offers [an] extremely rare opportunity to explore the vibrant contemporary art scene,” said Woo. “And you really don't have to know a lot about Korea because they're all talking about universal concerns.”

The exhibition is broken down into five sections, each with its own theme. 

The first section’s theme is Dissonance, focusing on Korea before, during, and after the Korean war. 

In the early 1970s, there was a lot of governmental pressure to tighten up on state control. After the assassination of Korea’s third president, Park Chung Hee in 1979, mass protests unfolded throughout the 80s. This inspired the visual themes in this section of, for example, living amongst demolition and disorder. But also the complexities of living so close to one another amidst the aftermath of unsettled circumstances. 

A woman dressed in red and black stands in front of two photographs depicting the same town. The town is illuminated by many bright lights and buildings are packed together.
Mia Associate Curator of Global Contemporary Art Leslie Ureña discusses AHN Sekwon’s photographs on a recent tour. (CBJ Photo by Jasmine McBride)

For example, AHN Sekwon’s photographs “Lights of Wolgok-dong I,” “Disappearing Lights of Wolgok-dong I” and “Disappearing Lights of Wolgok-dong II” capture the density of an overpopulated neighborhood. Wolgok-dong became a symbol of the government’s controversial New Town Project, intended to relieve crowded conditions through new development.

My favorite part of the Dissonance section is the vibrant display “Eulji Theater” by Yeondoo JUNG. The piece showcases Korea’s post-war transition to an industrialized society. Elements like women’s bathing suits and military uniforms hanging on a clothesline are incorporated to acknowledge how manufacturing and production became a priority in the society, opening up roles that were not formerly permissible for women. The piece also incorporates visual elements like civilians watching a paid actor, tourism, and other details indicating the growing value of entertainment at the time. 

The next section - Reinvention - deals with Korea’s re-engagement with traditional arts and culture. Such practices were disrupted in the 60s due to foreign occupation, division, and war. 

I was particularly struck by the work of Yeesookyung. Her four sculptures invite you into centuries-old traditional hand-made processes and materials, which many creatives began to explore again in the 90s. For example, the stunning “Lion Totem”, is made of steel, brass, glass, epoxy, wood, feathers, mirror, pearl, 24K gold leaf, and mother-of-pearl.

JU Se-kyun showcases a beautiful use of traditional materials, too. His video “Dinner” centers around the relationship of food and its display, using ceramics and traditional glassware. 

The Coexistence section follows with a focus on globalization with the aid of the internet. Here, Michael JOO’s piece “Headless” features the body of seated Buddhists with American toy heads to convey Korea’s attempt to balance its identity and philosophies in relation to the world. It was pretty cool to see the Sesame Street character Bert in meditation.

Three females - a girl, a young woman and an older woman - lie on the floor dressed in white. They are joined by a mass of black hair that has been braided together.
A piece from Yuni Kim LANG's series "Comfort Hair." (CBJ Photo by Jasmine McBride)

Being Seen is the next section, and it places the expression of individuality up against accepted norms. Here, Yuni Kim LANG incorporates a large wig, but not as a symbol of beauty. Inspired by Korean women during the Joseon dynasty, LANG sees large wigs as a symbol of burden. LANG’s series, “Comfort Hair,” incorporates fiber and portraiture to acknowledge the long history of oppression faced by Korean women. 

The final section – Portraying Anxiety – features portraits from Heinkuhn OH’s series “Left Face,” which explores the act of looking. This section simply asks you to interpret what it is you feel by looking at these images, which I personally enjoyed.

Overall, not only did I learn about Korea, but how Korean stories connect to universal themes. MIA Associate Curator of Global Contemporary Art Leslie Ureña says these are stories that many of us might share. 

“We may not be South Korean, but we could share something about living in a place that has had repression… living in a place where gender dynamics are not what we may want to encounter,” said Ureña. “And so for a person who is not really familiar with Korean culture in general, I think that becoming familiar with the history of Korea is something that really comes through in the artworks here.” 

Agro says this exhibit takes you on a compelling journey. 

“The artists bend place and time – addressing the past, present and future, sometimes all in the same work – to make sense of their complex cultural experiences coexisting in a loop of either tension, suspension, or amnesia. That subjects of memory, remembering or forgetting, radiate from many of the objects on view, and demonstrate a distinct feeling of temporal dissonance. The main thesis for our exhibition is where time moves nonlinearly between past, present and future.”

“The Shape of Time: Korean Art after 1989” is located in the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Target Gallery. General admission is $20 per person.

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