Jung Hyun on three Korean artists who deal with history in strikingly different ways
Every history is a documentation of the rise and fall of humans. There is no history without loss and sadness, or without people's sublime efforts to overcome their limits. The lessons taught by history are about the process of moving forward towards individual liberation, social equality and democracy, in spite of many sufferings. But history, despite being a pathway to the realisation of a democratic state, cannot represent real life.
Korean history has followed a similar path to the histories of other nations. Positioned at the east end of Asia, the peninsular nation has made constant efforts to survive under frequent foreign invasions and the influence of world powers. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Korea fell to colonisation. During the first half of the century, the country was ravaged by colonial rule and war. Korea remains the only divided nation in the world, as a result of the twists and turns in its modern history. After the ceasefire was signed through foreign intervention, Korea established a democratic state structure; but it was in no situation to practise democracy in the true sense. Meanwhile, modernisation and urbanisation brought in by imperial Japan and the US military replaced Korean traditions and customs with rational and advanced Western civilisation. In addition to the trauma caused by the physical and mental damage of the recent past, little effort was made after the war to clarify the events of that past. The memories and past events of the first half of the twentieth century were classified as history and mounted in museums, tombs and textbooks, without a chance to be properly studied.
Traditions damaged by colonial domination, modernisation through foreign pressure, the proxy Korean War triggered by confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union and the dictatorships that controlled politics from the time of liberation until the 1990s, left Korea’s twentieth century history in a severed, broken state. Only in the 2000s was it possible for Korea to look back on its past, which had been discarded even before it was formed. The scope of this past of self-reflection for contemporary Koreans is vast and diverse: from the history distorted by the colonialists, and the remnants of Japanese in the language people speak daily, to the exchanges between North and South Korea, and the Gwangju Uprising in 1980. Since 2000, people have started to recognise the discontinuity between past and present and the gaps between history and reality. Artists have begun to overcome the conventional representation of tradition and history, to observe the evolving relationship between the past and the present from a humanistic perspective.
Each of the artists to be introduced here - Cho Duck Hyun, Noh Suntag, and Jo Haejun – deals with history in a distinctly different way. Cho Duck Hyun re-presents traces of the past, such as photographs, images and relics, instead of history as documentation; Noh Suntag criticises the politics of oblivion, the attempt to erase memories through monuments; and Jo Haejun questions the relations between the individual and history through an allegorical method.
History as methodology
Cho Duck Hyun’s work traverses the past and present of Korean history. From photographs documenting the lives of individuals to virtual archaeological excavation projects, the artist touches upon the relations between history and daily life, the state and the individual, through two narratives: the life of an individual and the footsteps of the Korean people as a nation. While his works representing photographs of anonymous people through drawing are images that commemorate memories of the personal dimension, his excavation projects recover relations between history outside of memory and the present, by summoning up contemporary reflection on historical incidents.
Re-collection (Kukje Gallery, 2012) was an exhibition that re-composed the turbulent lives of two Korean women. One was Nora Noh, the first woman fashion designer in Korea, who refused to follow the traditional lifestyle of a woman, and the other was a Korean born in Japan who lived as the mistress of an English viscount she met in the United States, who became viscountess upon the death of the nobleman’s wife. Cho recomposes the memories of individuals to present the possibilities of salvation hidden within historical documents. The collected memories are not means of recollection, but rather indicate the recovery of faith, thereby overcoming the limits of the present. The archaeological excavation projects also remind us that the past is not reducible to memories buried in the ground, and that the present exists in a historical continuum. Dog of Ashkelon (2000), which took place in the outdoor garden of the Jeu de Paume in Paris, was an attempt to connect the severed history of the past with the present, by representing the virtual scene of excavating relics of the past in a suspended state of mythological time 3. The work presents "history as methodology", questioning the value of a history that has been alienated from the reality of contemporary Korea, which only pursues advancement through economic development.
The struggle of memory
Documentary photographer Noh Suntag captures cross-sections of the history of violence lying dormant within Korean contemporary society as the country remains divided into North and South, and of Korean contemporary history, scorched by ideological confrontation. His eyes tenaciously scrutinise Korean society. Among the numerous painful events of modern history, the scene the artist faces is the Gwangju Uprising in May 1980. The military dictatorship of the time ruthlessly massacred citizens who had come out on to the streets calling for freedom. Before the truth could be properly investigated, a special law was passed in 1995 to compensate the victims and create a memorial cemetery. In 2011, the archives of the Gwangju Uprising were registered as a UNESCO World Heritage. This series of events is a short history of how the Gwangju Uprising became a monument. In 2006–12 Noh Suntag re-captured the portraits of victims buried in the Gwangju memorial cemetery, based on a concept called Forgetting Machine. The tarnished, faded faces of the deceased seem to radiate the intensity of the situation at the time. The faces in the photographs, damaged and faded by time, appear utterly miserable compared to the grandeur suggested by the historical project to create the sacred memorial. The artist does not wrap his photographs in the sublime idea of sacrifice. He just coolly documents the faces of the victims, which have been erased again under the symbol of sublimity. The bizarre, twisted reality of the photographs suggests the history and values actually desired by the modern state. Between the symbolic representation called history and the historical site alienated from reality, the works ask what the artist should document and how it should be remembered.
Connecting memory and history
The modern history of Korea, tarnished by colonisation and war, was an untouchable wound. The older generations, having experienced the pain, were particularly reluctant to remember this past, and instead focused all their efforts on the future of their country. Jo Haejun heard stories about those times from his father. At the beginning, this was an attempt to heal their somewhat distant father–son relationship. Jo suggested that his father, formerly an art teacher, make his story into a picture diary; and the process went beyond mere restoration of father–son ties to the opportunity to discover how his father’s personal history encountered the history of the cold war. Jo’s father’s memory, represented as drawings in the form of a picture diary, contains the atrocities that took place during the Korean War, and the efforts of an ordinary individual trying to live on amidst the contradictions of idealism vs reality. This joint project by Jo Haejun and his father Jo Dong-hwan has often been presented with an installation of the drawings, together with art works made by his father during his youth. The fact that the works left unrecognised by the previous art scene have been exhibited more than 50 years later, at a mainstream art museum, tells us that the former “great man-centred” history has moved towards an era of individualism today. The drawing installation itself seems like an analogy of how a person’s life, hidden in the shadows of world events, is folded or unfolded. History is not something that is ever completely realised, other than through the living, breathing memories of individuals.
It is 50 years now since Korea and Japan established diplomatic relations. Korea continues to demand Japan’s apology for past events. Memory transcends history. No matter how elaborate and righteous the historical documentation may be, memory cannot be replaced by documentation. Nor is Korean contemporary art free from the restraints of history. Only now are we beginning to come face-to-face with the ruins of our history, the reality through which we must erase our pains of the past. This does not mean that the loss can be healed. But at least our awareness of what we have lost will lead to new possibilities for Korean art.
Jung Hyun is an art critic, independent curator and lecturer in visual art practice and theory at INHA University, Seoul. His publications include ‘Art and urban culture in Seoul’ in Art Cities of the Future: 21st century Avant-Gardes (2013), ‘Intimately Correct’ in Curatorial, Discourse, Practice, Hyunsuilmunhwa (2014). His curatorial work includes YisangDuchamp (2013), Bonjour, M. Courbet (2010), Public Art Project E+Motion (2009), Rogue: Image of the Others (2008). His Ph.D is from the Panthéon-Sorbonne, Paris.