The personal, the political and the artistic

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The personal, the political and the artistic

Yun Suk-nam is interested in poetry. She describes herself as a sentimentalist, “an intellectual bourgeois” who grew up amid the luxury of art and books.
Such a description seems fitting for, say, a 16th-century portraitist. But as a sculptor whose works explore issues of gender within patriarchal culture, Ms. Yun’s professed sentimentality has often earned her the scorn of some of the more “militant” feminists from the art world.
“My artistic concern stems from the frustration I feel from not being able to clearly express what I want to say,” says Ms. Yun, whose solo exhibition “To Be Lengthened” opens today at Ilmin Museum of Art in central Seoul.
“Often, when I speak, I feel that I am murmuring in my mouth,” she says. “My message never seems to come through so lucidly when I speak.”
Ms. Yun, 64, is one of relatively few women artists in Korea to have embraced the term “feminist artist.” While other artists’ work can certainly be described as having feminist concerns, many shy away from the label, not wanting their art to be politicized.
She had her first solo exhibition at 43, after years spent raising two children. Before joining an artists’ collective called “October,” she never had formal schooling in art. She now says that her experience as a mother gave her a framework for her art ― a framework consistent with the feminist tenet that “the personal is the political.”
The feminist movement in Korea, especially within art, has always gotten a bad rap. To illustrate the point: One of the country’s first major feminist exhibitions, in 1999, was titled “Patzis on Parade,” after an evil female character from a Korean folk tale with a storyline similar to that of “Cinderella.”
In a country where the feminist movement originated within a larger democratic movement to liberate the people from the rich and powerful, discussing gender issues outside the context of class was often looked upon as a selfish effort among educated women.
And within the art world, artists dealing with feminism were looked down upon as having a “linear” view of art.
Skepticism was a common reaction to artists like Ms. Yun, whose work, despite embracing motherhood and femininity ― ideas more widely accepted than militant feminism ― was often excluded by male artists in the “people’s art” movement, who thought of it as the intellectual adornment of a middle-class woman.
Internationally, however, Ms. Yun’s work was viewed differently from that of other artists within the “feminist” category.
In Japan, her images were read in the context of the crimes against “comfort women” and Japan’s complicated guilt as a colonizer. Ahn En-young, an art historian based in Australia, writes that Ms. Yun’s work explores questions of experience, body, gender and cultural identity through culturally specific references and materials that question stereotypes of women’s social identity in Korea.
Kim Hee-ryeong, the director of Ilmin, says Ms. Yun’s work is less concerned with fulfilling a feminist mission than others perceive it to be.
“You can almost sense that it was unavoidable for Ms. Yun to speak about women’s issues in her works,” Ms. Kim says. “The presence of feminist subjects in her work is almost inevitable as the choice she had to make at the age of 43 to use art to take an aggressive stance in her life.”
In “To Be Lengthened,” her seventh solo exhibition at Ilmin, Ms. Yun continues to work with female images, which she sometimes gives titles like “Kim Hae-sun” or “Kim Young-ok” ― names of friends or inspirations ― or simply leaves as random female figures, almost as icons of the Korean woman.
Like many figurative artists, she invests meaning in the bodily gestures of each sculpted figure, which offer insights about the image’s status. In Yun’s recent images, arms in particular take certain departures from her earlier works, in which the figures’ arms were often wrapped around their chests.
In her recent series, as the exhibition’s title suggests, arms are stretched to the extreme, as if to express the artist’s desire to go beyond reality to reach the impossible.
In a piece titled “To Be Lengthened ― Hand,” we see a hanging sculpture of a woman desperately stretching her arm, trying to reach the ground. Her hand, unable to complete what her heart demands, is detached from her wrist, disconnected and laid on the floor like a piece of wood floating on water. The image, says the artist, is a metaphor for “a wish for expansion” and “a desire that has not been consented to.”
Abandonment influences both the form and the content of Ms. Yun’s works. Materials like scraps of wood, rusted oil drums and old furniture, abandoned in apartment basements and construction sites, become important sources for her sculpture, alluding to the residue of our everyday lives and the signficance of female domesticity.
Almost every one of her subjects has been abandoned by the mainstream of society in some shape or form. In “Blue Bell,” the artist juxtaposes her self-portrait with the sculpture of Lee Mae-chang, a geisha of the Joseon Dynasty who was a great poet but never achieved fame because she didn’t have an alluring presence like her royal competitors. In “Kim Hae-sun,” the artist pays homage to a modern poet who proposed the mother-daughter relationship as a basis for Korean feminism. The issue of abandonment affects women in all of Ms. Yun’s works, for the very reason that they are women.
In “Tensions, Traditions: Contemporary Art in Asia” ― a major exhibition by the Asia Society that toured North America ― the artist’s emphasis on discarded labor was even more particular, with laundry washboards and scraps of wood patched together to create life-size sculptures.
What’s intriguing about Ms. Yun’s figures ― despite the roughness of the materials and, sometimes, the work’s disturbing content ― is the fact of its beauty, which has become a forbidden term in fine art, especially in relation to women’s bodies. Nevertheless, Ms. Yun consciously uses decorative elements ― whether paint in bright colors like orange and pink, or ornaments like lotuses, bells and mother of pearl ― to illustrate the transformation of her work from abandoned objects.
Some critics even note that the very process of Ms. Yun’s work, which requires intensive labor, is an empowering act of feminism.
In a recent newspaper column, Ms. Yun says that artists are people who manage to float about 20 centimeters above the ground. Perhaps it isn’t just a coincidence that some of the artist’s later works show female figures hung from the ceiling at about the same distance from the floor she says artists should be.
Ms. Yun compares these hanging figures to the experience of “riding on a swing” ― historically, one of the rare forms of play that were available to Korean women and girls, and for Ms. Yun, “a fantasy” and a pleasant memory from her childhood. Ms. Kim, the curator at Ilmin, adds that the hanging sculptures demand and celebrate the “catharsis” of motherhood and women in history.
Perhaps the artist’s intuition isn’t too far away from feminist theory after all. In a column, Ms. Yun writes, “One can’t see close enough if she positions herself too high; but she’ll also develop narrow vision if she keeps her feet on the ground.”

by Park Soo-mee

“To Be Lengthened,” a solo exhibition of Yun Suk-nam’s work, continues at Ilmin Museum of Art through Nov. 30. For more information, call 02-2020-2055 or visit
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