Visual Artists Scan Their War

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Visual Artists Scan Their War

Gathering Images From North and South, They Examine Division

South Koreans have finally started talking about their experiences in the war that severed their nation. Their intentions may vary, but people are now in the mode of reflection, and the country is beginning to publicly admit its historical mistakes. This is welcome news for Korean artists and writers who have fought against political censorship for decades as it allows them to voice their views at the Gwanghwamun subway station gallery without getting arrested.

Under the title "The Subject of Seoul is Pyongyang," 44 visual artists, using a range of mediums from traditional paintings to documentary filmmaking, present their thoughts about ethnic division and the other side of the war.

The exhibition is moving because the works on display are often autobiographical and confessional, convincing because the ideas of war depicted in the art are often based on stories told by the artists' families.

Consisting largely of works by young and emerging artists, this show manages to be vibrant and somewhat vulnerable at the same time. Hwang Se-jun, whose writing "Fragments of Thoughts," an anecdotal work about the loss of cultural identity felt by the artist in cosmopolitan Seoul, is a coordinator of the alternative gallery Loop in Hongdae. On an A4-sized-paper, Mr. Hwang writes that Seoul always seems "foreign" to him, even though it is the city of his birth and he has lived here for 38 years.

The artist's statement perhaps best describes the general confusion Koreans feel about their national identity, which has fragmented as a result of modernization. Mr. Hwang also describes North Korea as "a land of the other" and confesses that talking about North Korea is like "ruminating his interior history."

Children are the main subjects in Im Jong-jin's photographic works. Mr. Im, a photojournalist, captures images of North Korean children and high school students playing, with photos and video documentation. Resulting from the artist's 1998 visit to North Korean schools, the work encourages the viewer to consider the issue of North-South politics from a humanist rather than ideological viewpoint. Although the children's activities sometimes seem a bit staged, the stills are very real and Im's 6 mm digital camera is not intrusive in an anonymous crowd.

Two Korean-American artists, Christine Choy and Raymond Hahn, examine the subject of Korea's reunification from a perspective providing a meaningful departure from the nationalist perception.

A feminist activist and filmmaker best known for her work "Who Killed Vincent Chin?" the provocative film dealing with the racially motivated murder of a 27-year-old Chinese-American, Miss Choy contributes a video transfer of the 16mm documentary film to the show. Titled "Two Koreas," the film includes footage of the Korean War juxtaposed with Miss Choy's autobiographical narrations about her relationship with Korea and America. Featuring interviews with war survivors from both North and South Korea, this film, unlike other propagandistic documentaries about the Korean War that glorify the American role, presents a raw view of Korea before modernization. Miss Choy's history as a member of the Korean diasopra in America is elaborately juxtaposed with the dislocation and longing of the displaced Koreans - feelings about their severed homeland and separated families. Tracing a disturbing, yet inspiring, journey through Korean history, the film was broadcast nationwide in the United States on PBS a few years ago.

"Mt. Baekdu Plan 2015" by Mr. Hahn also urges the audience to view reunification from a humanitarian perspective. Providing an imaginative digital plan of the deluxe complex to be built on Mount Baekdu, the artist critiques South Koreans who tend to look at reunification as a matter of financial "investment" rather than a mutual cultural exchange.

The works of Park Chan-gyoung titled "Virtual Rifle Range" poignantly depict the complex reality of the two Koreas. Using this surreal virtual space as a metaphor for absence of time between history and the present, the work touches on how Koreans re-experience daily a war that took place 50 years ago.

Perhaps the scene depicted in the 120 X 180cm Cibachrome light box speaks for itself. The commercial signboards and other imitations of Seoul streets built specifically for military purposes present a haunting message about war, and the tank sitting amid the modern buildings sets up a fine boundary between reality and simulated reality. You may have to stare at the image for more than a minute to discover the soldiers engaged in target practice from the tops of buildings.

Kim Nyung-man's photographs center on the Korean demilitarized zone. Using it as a metaphorical space for both "despair and hope," Mr. Kim takes detailed shots of the DMZ, such as spider webs spread throughout the wire entanglements near the 38th parallel, suggesting 50 years of indifference about the North-South division.

Hun Eun's "The Children During the Unification Period" presents on-street interviews of college students and their thoughts about reunification. Held in Daehak-ro and Kangnam Subway Station, the video documentation of this random survey shows that the majority of South Korean students are largely uninterested in the subject, raising strong suspicions about fund-raising events throughout Seoul for starving North Koreans. About 70 percent of the students in the video preferred gradual reunification over absorption.

The more playful collaborative work done by the students of Seoul Women's University displays Polaroids of initial facial responses to their questions about reunification.

Meanwhile, Oh Yun, an artist who was involved in the minjung yesul movement of the 1980s, which promoted nationalism, presents a color print of his famous "An Earnest Painting for Unification." The painting depicts the classic form of Korea's reunification based on a common ethnicity.

Unfortunately, the exhibition doesn't provide English translations, with the exception of the works by Mr. Hahn and Miss Choy. But most of the pieces are self-explanatory and the rare video documentation of North Korean schools is fascinating to watch.

"The Subject of Seoul is Pyongyang" runs through Jan. 29. If you are taking the subway, get off at Gwanghwamun Station and exit at number 8 toward the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts. For more information, call 02-736-2026.

by Park Soo-mee

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