Resilience and imagination: Women and art in Korea today

Chang Jia, Standing Up Peeing, 2006, photograph. Courtesy and © the artist

The feminist movement in Korean art began in the mid-1980s. The well-known Chon Kyung Ja was active in the 1960s exploring her female identity, and in the 1970s the group Expression was formed; during these years, the artists involved, who are now considered female artists rather than feminists, were mostly interested in expressing the lives and inner worlds of women using figurative images. By the 1980s, female artists affiliated with the Minjung or People’s Art movement were working to actively improve the status and human rights of lower class women and, in this sense, we consider them as the beginning of Korean feminist art.  Around the same time, a group of middle class women including Yun Suk Nam, while criticising palo-centralism and sexual discrimination against women, continued to employ the stereotypical female imagery of mother and wife formed by the long-standing Confucian society. Both feminist tendencies of the 1980s chose figuration as their main method of expression.

Along with the inflow of postmodernism and post-structuralism in the early 1990s, there emerged women artists who attempted to deconstruct the gender role and identity given to women as well as the stereotypical female imagery produced by the Korean mass media. In this way, Korean feminist art shared theoretical and formal aspects of western feminist art movements. Representation of the female body that challenged established stereotypes was prominent during this time. Korea had a relatively short time to build the foundation of feminism in theory and practice, and the People’s Art feminist movement, the problematisation of gender discrimination in the patriarchy, criticism of the representation of gender roles, and experimentation with images of the female body, all occurred during a short 30-year-time span. Concurrently, diaspora artists worked against colonialism and cultural imperialism. How did Korean feminist art arrive at where it is now?

Geumhyung Jeong, Jeong Fitness Guide, 2011 performance, installation, exercise equipment, yoga mat, poster. Courtesy and @ PACT Zollverein, Art Council Korea, SeMA, Asia Culture Centre
Geumhyung Jeong, Jeong Fitness Guide, 2011 performance, installation, exercise equipment, yoga mat, poster. Courtesy and @ PACT Zollverein, Art Council Korea, SeMA, Asia Culture Centre

The first annual group exhibition of Women and Reality in 1987, which lasted until 1994, is generally considered the start of the movement, criticising phallocentricism and class discrimination. Yun Suk Nam, Kim Jong Rae and Han Eh Gyu problematised female gender roles given by men and addressed the five-hundred-year-old Confucian stereotypes of the devoted mother and obedient wife, challenging women’s double burden of household labour and raising children. These artists expanded feminists’ concerns to the problems of middle/upper class women.

In the 1990s, the so-called 386 Generation women in their thirties who had enjoyed equal educational and career opportunities led the feminist art movement. They took an oppositional stance to mass-media images of women, rediscovered female craftsmanship, and re-interpreted the female body. Armed with postmodern theories and post-structuralist thoughts, they saw female gender as socially and culturally constructed by the desire of men. They de-constructed the female gender and claimed that female identity is neither fixed nor representable.

Besides her audacious performances, Lee Bul raised issues of “art vs craft” and of the labouring class through her embroidery works with sequins and beads. Lee Soo Kyung’s 1997 exhibition Household Boutique showed clothes and accessories she made at home. She applied the metaphor of T. Peterson and P. Mathews that we need to tailor a new gown to write a new art history that includes women artists. Both artists sublimated female crafts as art. Such crafts were an unrecognised means of livelihood for restless working-class women with children and housework to attend to.

Representing the female body as breaking fixed boundaries was a major theme for Korean feminists in the 1990s, with Lee Bul showing some extremely radical and experimental works. After her abortion performance in the late 1980s, she created hybrid bodies, such as monsters and cyborgs. Her work achieved historical acclaim at the 2014 Gwangju Biennale, winning the Noon Award. In her performance, Sorry for Suffering – You Think I’m a Puppy on a Picnic? (1990), Lee walked around Kimpo Airport, Narita Airport, downtown Tokyo, and Dokiwaza Theatre in Tokyo for 12 days in a monster-looking soft sculpture, fundamentally resisting gender distinction by blurring the boundary between the monster and human and playing with Julia Kristeva’s concept of the “abject”.

Lee Bul, Sorry For Suffering ...
Lee Bul, Sorry For Suffering – You Think I'm A puppy On A Picnic, 1990, 12-day performance, Kimpo Airport, Narita Airport, downtown Tokyo, Dokiwaza Theatre. Courtesy Studio Lee Bul

If women artists raised and educated in Korea challenged the gender inequality of Confucian society, diasporic artists confronted layers of problems related to cultural, gender, and racial differences, a post-colonialist feminism speaking for their multiple otherness: Western culture/Eastern culture, Asian man/Asian woman, white women/Asian women. The 1980s diaspora artist Min Young Soon deconstructed the stereotypical images of Asian women as passive and erotic objects. Doubly alienated, diasporic women artists reconsidered their own cultural and national identities and the use of Korean materials and images drew attention to their works. Kim Sooja used Korean blankets and packing fabric called bottari to represent Korean women’s suppressed lives. Nikki Lee, who went to the United States in the 1990s, dressed up to take on roles of women from many different classes, ages and races. She became an Asian lesbian, black hippy girl, exotic dancer, skate-boarder, etc. Though she did not necessarily use Korean traditions, she quickly attracted the attention of the American art world and academia. One cannot deny that Western eyes may have been impressed by how a “passive and silent” Korean woman was audacious enough to reveal the essence of multicultural America.

Women artists who grew up under Korea’s democratisation and economic growth in the 1990s are active around the world. They seem to be free of the grip of Confucian oppression and issues of the rights of women in underprivileged groups and colonialism are not as prominent as previously. Jang Ji Ah recently opened solo exhibitions in both Chicago and Seoul in which her representation of women’s bodies was less fierce than that of Lee Bul’s in the 1990s when she walked around the streets dressed as a monster or used an axe to break chains which tied her naked body to a bed. Jang Ji Ah shows a series of pictures capturing women urinating while standing up like men, dating back to her childhood curiosity as to why women do not urinate standing up. These erotic photos simply suggest that while women are able to do so, they don’t because their thighs will get wet.

Photographer Nanda debuted with her series Modern Girl that showcased a fictional modern girl who represents the contemporary new woman. Although we can view her work as a feminist and contemporary reinterpretation of the modern girl, Nanda’s work is not a homage to Na Hye Suk, an early feminist who died while advocating for the modern girl. She intentionally shows a light and playful modern girl, who walks around in childish clothing. The Korean Mother, who sacrifices everything for her family and children’s future, is comically represented as kitsch in Nanda’s Mom’s Altar. She has decorated her room with a figure of Jesus and the cross to represent Western religion, while the walls are plastered with charms representing Korean paganism and is captured in a sexy yet childish pose on a Western style bed, surrounded by floral decorations and a Korean traditional vanity. Everything is paradoxical.

Nanda, Mom's Altar, 2012, inkjet print. Courtesy and © the artist
Nanda, Mom's Altar, 2012, inkjet print. Courtesy and © the artist

Currently, women’s art which no longer needs to discuss the “other”, is actively leading the Korean art world. The rapid changes to the status of Korean women over the past 30 years means that women artists now avoid using the term “feminist art”. Unlike the 386 women, the new generation regard marriage and reproduction, housework and raising children as life choices. The generation of Kim Sooja, Lee Bul, and Lee Soo Kyung are working worldwide. They deal with various themes, materials, and styles freed from the frame of feminism. Kim Sooja’s Needle Woman raises issues of anonymity and communication in the world of urbanization and immigration from the perspective of globalism. Lee Soo Kyung has become a leading Korean artist who combines Korean traditions and contemporary art with her Translated Vases. In her recent show at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, Lee Bul has showed huge installation works based on Western literature and narratives.

New generation artists such as Jang Ji Ah and Nanda also represent the female body, but the woman as the other is no longer their concern. They express their thoughts, experience, and unique senses in light and playful ways. While Korean women in general may not yet have achieved gender equality, it is clear that feminist art that challenged this has lost its urgency.

Recently the 76-year-old Yun Suk Nam expanded issues of women’s freedom and equality to humanism in broader sense. Her work, 1025: People without People tells an old woman’s universal love for 1025 stray dogs. Yun’s wooden sculptures of 1025 abandoned dogs can be portraits of powerless minority.

Korea is now acknowledged as a leader in feminist art in Asia. In September 2015 the groundbreaking East Asia Feminism: FANTasia exhibition is being held at the Seoul Museum of Art with fourteen artists from various countries using different media showing plural feminisms across a number of Asian countries.  SeMA Director Kim Hong Hee, the renowned pioneer advocate for women artists, regards Asia and Women as invisible others; fantasy becomes the major agent in the process of both “Asia” and “women”, coded as duality and ambivalence. It follows that Asia, women, and fantasy share identity conceptually and metaphorically. The boundary between the real and surreal becomes ambiguous making it more alluring and threatening. It means that Asian women are not simply fantasy as the “other”. They can be a subversive fantasy.

Siren Eun Young, Eight Views of Xiaxiang, 8-channel video installation. Courtesy and © the artist
Siren Eun Young, Eight Views of Xiaxiang, 8-channel video installation. Courtesy and © the artist


East Asia Feminism: FANTasia was on exhibition at the Seoul Museum of Art, 15 September – 8 November 2015. It included fourteen artists from seven countries: Airan Kang, Jinju Lee, Jang Pa, Geum Hyung Jeong, Siren Eunyoung Jung, Kyungah Ham (Korea), Lin Tianmiao, Yin Xiuzhen (China), Chiharu Shiota, Yamashiro Chikako (Japan), Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook (Thailand), Ming Wong (Singapore), Melati Suryodarmo (Indonesia), and Sheela Gowda (India). Curator Kim Hong Hee will include seven artists from FANTasia in the exhibition Asia Time, the 1st Asia Biennial/5th Guangzhou Triennial, at the Guangdong Museum of Art from 11 December 2015 – 10 April 2016.

Phil Lee is an assistant professor at the graduate school of arts at Hongik University. She holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Chicago.