A 'Cultural Activist' With Relics

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A 'Cultural Activist' With Relics

People in the publishing industry say that when a book sells more than a million copies, its subject becomes an immediate part of the social discourse. In that sense, books like "The Story of My Visit to Cultural Relics" written by Yu Hong-june, a veteran art historian, is to an extent, an act of cultural activism. Especially in Korea, where the notion of tradition is aggresively being replaced by Western influence, talking to someone who knows what he is saying when he uses the phrase "cultural identity," is quite a thrilling experience.

Mr. Yu is known for writing books about Korea's historic relics and regional culture in a travelogue style. He has worked as an active art critic involved in the People's Art movement in the 1980s and as a commissioner of the Kwangju Biennale in 1994. But this is merely his public profile. He has a lot more to say and more to identify himself with; he recently published biographical essays on eight masters of Korean painting.

The book, titled "Lives of the Most Eminent Painters," was the first of its kind in Korea. JoongAng Ilbo English Edition met with Yu Hong-june to talk about cultural relics in Korea and about his publications.

IHT-JAI: Could you speak briefly about your relationship to the Korean art world?

Yu: I worked as a staff writer on the monthly art magazine Kaegan Misul, now Wolgan Misul, and got involved in the People's Art movement. After serving a short sentence in the early 1980s, I began my career as a freelance writer, publishing my first book "The Writers and Scenes of '80s Art." In 1994, I got appointed as a commissioner for the 1st Kwangju Biennale and have been working as an art historian ever since.

IHT-JAI: How did your book "The Story of My Visit to Cultural Relics" came about?

Yu: As an art critic and a conscientious intellectual living through the political turbulence in Korea, I wanted to contribute my part to the social reform. I was also looking for ways to continue my practice of cultural activism and extend my studies on cultural identity. It was meant to prove that the people's Art Movement was not simply a momentary phenomenon. I started visiting cultural relics located throughout the country and wrote about them. At first, the publisher said the book was not going to sell more than 50,000 copies. It ended up selling 22 million. I guess people were waiting for such books to be published.

IHT-JAI: And your latest book, "Lives of the Most Eminent Painters"?

Yu: This is a collection of writing I did for the monthly Yeoksawa-bipyeong, History and Criticism, over the last 10 years since 1990. It was to draw an anthropological connection between the lives of the eight masters of Korean painting, who really haven't been fairly treated in the history of art.

IHT-JAI: You said earlier that people were questioning your identity as a professional critic, because you write for the public as opposed to academia?

Yu: This has been a serious issue in Korea. People in the art industry always ask whether it is a text for the professionals or for the general public when a book is released. If it is for the professionals, they treat as you as a scholar. If you say it's written for the public, they categorize you as some socialite trying to make money or cheaply gain public attention. I always ask back when they ask me such questions whether James Cahill's publications about Chinese art are for the public or for professionals.

IHT-JAI: Whom are you referring to when you use the word "public"?

Yu: When I was writing my book, for example, my friends who aren't in the industry often became the good standards of the public. When I say public, I am referring to people who do not have historical or sociological understanding about art. The students I teach at university also give me a good sense of the public.

IHT-JAI: There seems to be smaller gap between the critics and the public in the film industry for example than the one in the art industry. Why do you think there is this tension in the visual arts?

Yu: It's actually worse in the classical music industry. And I think this is one of the main reasons why liberal arts in Korea failed to develop further. The scholars just didn't bother writing for the public. They thought that was the scholar's way.

IHT-JAI: How do you feel about foreign possession of collections of Korean art?

Yu: I am one of the few people who are encouraging it. Many Koreans seem to be quite reluctant about it because they have this distorted preconception about foreign possessions of Korean art. They seem to think that we need to take back what has been unfairly taken away from us. But this is really not true. First of all, these collections have been purchased through legal procedures. Secondly, Korean art works throughout the country are already fulfilling their duty well in terms of giving us national prestige. Just because we are selling certain works of art, does not mean that we are selling the Korean spirit with them.

IHT-JAI: With regars to your book "The Story of My Visit to North Korean Relics," I am assuming that there was a great deal of self-censorship when you were writing it. You noted in the book that people were criticizing you for not having given a fair critique when discussing North Korean relics as you did with South Korean ones.

Yu: Indeed. And I must tell you that the contexts of the trips were completely different. I wasn't in a position to criticize the cultural heritage provided by the North Koreans. I only visited the country for few days and knew only so much about it to discuss North Korean culture from a critical point of view.

(Mr. Yu noted in the book's epilogue that in order to allow himself a sense of objectivity, he purposely chose to not write about places which the North Korean government introduced to him as a recognized historic sites.)

IHT-JAI: What is your next plan?

Yu: I am hoping to put together an English publication on the history of Korean art before the start of the World Cup 2000. I think it is ridiculous that Korea does not have one book made for foreigners with comprehensive insight into the history of our art. The government didn't bother doing it and nor did the museums, Unesco, or any of the scholars. I think this seriously affects Korea's national image.

IHT-JAI: Is national identity one of your concerns?

Yu: It is a complicated subject. I find it very difficult to come to a theoretical understanding of it, especially when it comes to places like United States. One thing for sure is that there seems to be a formula that exists everywhere. ... It's odd, because at least we [Koreans] demand the need for nationalism up front. Whereas they [Americans] point fingers at us [for being chauvinistic], but they do the same thing in a discreet way. I am keeping an eye on how they do it.

IHT-JAI: You seem to be frowning in every one of your picture. Do you not like being photographed?

Yu: (laughs) That's my way of smiling, but people always read it as frowning.

Mr. Yu's book, "The Story of My Visit to Cultural Relics," has been partly translated into English by Charles Mueller. The book is titled "The Smile of the Little Buddha."

by Park Soo-mee

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