'People's Art' Exhibit Recalls '80s Protests

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'People's Art' Exhibit Recalls '80s Protests

The Rowdy '80s Influenced Korean Artists to Abandon Abstractionism; A New Breed Of 'People's Artists' Both Led and Drew Inspiration From Protests Begun in Kwangju


If you use the Internet or your local library to get information on Korean politics and society in the 1980s, you will quickly note that one of the most prominent influences on the decade was the 1980 uprising in Kwangju, the southeastern city where citizens took to the streets and defied the national government.

The turbulent political climate in the 1980s influenced people at all levels of society. Student demonstrators frequently occupied the streets of Seoul, demanding the resignation of President Chun Doo Hwan, who had ordered the army to fire at civilians during the uprising. Parents sent their daughters to college dressed in mini-skirts because they feared that scruffy-looking children would be recruited by college activist movements.

There was tear gas everywhere and the textbooks were filled with horrifying images of starving North Koreans. Meanwhile, the cold war between South and North Korea (or United States and the Soviet Union) had reached its peak, and the government was organizing anti-communist essay contests for students in elementary school.

And how does art fit into all this?

The local art world, which up until the 1980s had been largely influenced by European abstractionists and the notion that art was for art's sake, suddenly changed its direction as a result of the prevalent sense of political injustice. Visual artists created posters and murals carrying anti-government messages and began communicating with the public. Dissolving the boundary between fine art and mass culture, these visuals were used at schools and factories along with songs written and composed by musicians who shared similar ideas. Centering mainly around minjung misul (people's art), a Korean art genre which started out as a progressive movement through a small artists' coalition, the 1980s art world started focusing on socio-political concerns such as left-wing nationalism and socialism. These works often featured a "hyper-realism" which focuses more on the artist's impression of the subject rather than realistic depiction of it.

An exhibition titled "The 1980's Realism and The Age," featuring works from the gallery's permanent collection, will be on display at the Ganaart Gallery (Pyeongchang-dong) starting Friday. Featuring 45 visual artists whose works range from traditional woodcut prints to street banners the show is the second in the nation about this kind of art from the 1980s to be organized on such a grand scale. The first was an exhibition which was held in the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea in 1994 titled "15 Years of Minjung Misul 1980-1994." Despite some criticism of the didactic nature of the works in the exhibition, it succeeded in creating an understanding in the public of the nature of issue-based art.

The late Oh Yun is one of the artists whose work will be shown in the exhibition. Often compared to the New York artist Keith Haring, who created drawings in public spaces concerning the AIDS epidemic, Lee created numerous posters and banners which were placed throughout the university streets and local subways. Using woodcut prints, which are one of the best mediums for fast reproduction, Lee became one of the artists best-known in the group for his active involvement in the progressive movement. His work marked a turning point in the history of minjung art. It had critical messages as well as aesthetic quality. The dark, bold outlines around Lee's figures, again similar to the drawing technique practiced by Haring, suggests an urgency which demands the audience's complete attention.

What could be the better metaphor for social order and tradition than the family dining table? The family is the microcosm of the nation with the family dinner as its most revered daily ritual. The painter Lee Jong-ku uses this idea poetically with the haunting paintings in his "Rice" series. By presenting images of dining tables with shoes on top, or depicting a room with bowls scattered around the floor, the artist critiques the perverted political situation in Korea during the 1980s.

Also presenting poignant models of 1980s realism, the three-dimensional works in the upcoming exhibition include some rare sculptural pieces by minjung artists. Depicting faces contorted with agony and fear, the sculptures by Hong Soon-mo and Shim Jung-soo speak directly about the pain prevalent in the population due to the military dictatorship in Korea and in the aftermath of the uprising. Unlike the figurative sculptures made in the Renaissance period, these works often use uniquely distorted forms, which reflect the artist's highly personal interpretation of the subject matter.

Kim Min-sung, the curator of the exhibition "The 1980s Realism and the Age," says the show was organized to invite further analysis of such works made during the 1980s. "When we talked about minjung misul up until now, it was very common to bring up the artist's public persona or the socio-political context of the work. However, we thought it was about time that we make a departure from that and focus on the works of art themselves, to look more carefully at their symbolism and the other artistic values apparent in the work," she said.

Despite the curatorial intentions, it would be difficult to escape or ignore the political implications of these artworks. And the gallery realizes this. Each work is displayed chronologically, in accordance with the historical incidents which occurred in the 1980s, and is accompanied by brief explanations from the artists. Many of these images are disturbing, and speak directly about the violence perpetrated on civilians during that period in Korean history.

For more information about the show, contact the Ganaart Gallery at 02-3217-0233. English serives are available if you book ahead.




'The Land I Have to Plow' by Kim Jung-hun.



'The Returning Road,' left, by Lim Ok-sang depicting figures who are displaced from their homes in the name of modernization. 'Morning Monsters,' right, by Lee Yun illustrating institutionalized violence in the aftermath of the Kwangju uprising.

by Park Soo-mee

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