[VIEWPOINT]Korean art world lacks self-respect

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[VIEWPOINT]Korean art world lacks self-respect

In 2000, I was invited several times to perform for the Seoul Subway Theater program, an annual event that strives to bring art to the people in a public arena. On the opening day, I arrived at Euljiro station well ahead of time to prepare for my performance. Some important speakers had not yet arrived, so my starting time was delayed about an hour and a half. Several friends I had invited were irritated by the unpunctuality, and some left without watching the piece.

A few days later I went to perform my second piece at Hapjeong station. Again I experienced this thing called "Korean time." As I was in a taxi on my way to the station, one of the organizers called to tell me he would be late with the props I would need for the performance. At the station it turned out that nothing had been prepared and none of the organizing team had showed up. There was no stage, no posters, no chairs, nothing to indicate where I was supposed to show my piece. More than 10 people I had invited came while I waited, as well as a few strangers from whom I learned that many of the other subway performances had been either late or no-shows.

Finally, after an hour and a half, one of the organizers arrived. I was furious, and when I refused to perform, then or at my other scheduled times, the organizers became angry, complaining that I had made a promise. What about the promise they had made about my scheduled time? When the organizers asked me to perform again last year, I declined.

This is a sadly typical experience with artistic events in Seoul. Too many times I have found myself ashamed and appalled at the management of these affairs, and at the obvious disrespect that people have for one another. How can Korea succeed internationally when we refuse to conduct ourselves professionally? I am ashamed to say that I am getting accustomed to being disappointed with my country.

A similar incident happened in 1999, when I was refused consideration to show my work in the KOREAMERICAKOREA exhibition at ArtSonje Center. If my work was not good enough, or did not thematically fit in with the other artists, I could have respectfully accepted it. But the chief curator, SunJung Kim, explained that the show focused only on the Korean-American immigrant experience, and that as a Korean adoptee, I was not a "real immigrant." Never mind that in America I was considered an immigrant, and that many of the artists who participated in the show were born in the United States, and so are not immigrants.

I later heard that ArtSonje actually had little power in the selection of the artists, who were pretty much hand-picked in America. This exhibition was the idea of Christine Bosworth, the wife of the U.S. ambassador to Korea at the time. It seems that ArtSonje was used for toasting the U.S.-Korea relationship, not for analyzing views and perspectives of identity within Korean-American culture.

If in the beginning, ArtSonje had been truthful about the reasons I could not be included in the show, how much easier and more professional it would have been. Why is it thought necessary to make empty promises rather than to deal with a conflict directly, saving pain and problems later? But ArtSonje did not learn that lesson. Instead, to console me, curators told me that they would organize a show just for Korean adoptee artists. I'm still waiting. It appears that, once again, ArtSonje was only fobbing me off with an empty promise.

The latest incident has made me decide to leave Korea in search of the respect, opportunities and professionalism that do not exist in the art world here.

The Gwangju Biennial is an international art exhibition that our country is foolishly proud of. We regard it as the peer of the Venice, Sydney and Whitney Biennials; then we embarrass ourselves by failing to conduct it with the professionalism seen in those events. I was to perform on May 25 and 26 for the Predica-ment of Place Symposium. Less than a week beforehand, the symposium was canceled for lack of funds. No thought was given to the artists, curators, critics and others involved. That was my problem, but not the only problem at the Gwangju Biennial. Opening day found much of the preparation incomplete, such as wall text for the artwork. The event is touted as an international exhibition drawing tourists to Gwangju, but there was little material in English for foreigners.

Why is no one fixing these problems? Perhaps because nobody complains. Well, I complained, writing letters and articles, voicing my opinion, making art actions. Fellow artists admonished that by challenging authority, I risked losing opportunities to exhibit, to get reviews, and in the end my livelihood as an artist. It seems success in the Korean art world depends on not rocking the boat. Thanks, but no thanks.


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The writer is a professional artist and former Fulbright scholar, currently living in Seoul on a Blakemore Foundation scholarship.

by Kate Hers

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