Society’s ambivalence about nudity emerges in reactions to artThe price for nudity was more severe than anyone had expected. Late last month, the Supreme Court ruled that Kim Un-gyu, an artist and middle-school art instructor who posted a nude photo of himself and his pregnant wife on his Web site, violated the country’s anti-pornography laws. A few days later, two punk rock musicians from The Couch who exposed themselves during a live television broadcast were arrested for violating public performance laws.
While the two incidents stirred media outrage for challenging social norms over public nudity, many in the cultural sphere argued that the cases should have been handled differently, taking into account the artists’ intentions in using nudity and their way of displaying it.
“The bottom line is whether the audience wanted it or not,” says Jeong Dae-gyeong, a director of the Korea Theater Association who runs the Samilo Theater in Myeongdong, central Seoul. “If people visit an artist’s Web site or a theater to see uncensored images of naked bodies, that’s fine. But for people who have no intention of seeing it, a live television show was a nasty choice for the group to flaunt its 10 seconds of fame. It’s clearly an exercise of violence to force images on people who don’t want to see them.”
Yet, the culture of nudity is far from being subtle in most parts of Korea.
On the streets are women in miniskirts who are hired to dance in a sexually explicit way to promote new mobile phones, while books displaying photos of nude celebrities sell like hotcakes. On music videos, female entertainers clad in strikingly provocative outfits perform songs that openly make sexual references.
“Generally, I think people are more receptive to images of nudity because of fashion advertising now,” says Kim Yu-mi, a chief editor of the fashion magazine Marie Claire Korea. “But in our editorial meetings, we still fuss over the model’s hipline. You have to control things very carefully. There still seems to be a great gap between what we understand as our readers’ accepted standards of nudity and the actual reality.”
In the case of Mr. Kim, Lee Gwan-hun, the curator of Sarubia Gallery, thinks the court’s decision was nonsense, noting that guidelines for nudity still lack precision.
“There are women artists now showing up in bikinis to pole dance at gallery openings, calling their work ‘a performance,’ whereas others just happen to use nude images in their work to actually make a meaningful statement about our society,” Mr. Lee says. “I don’t know what you would call vulgar in such cases.”
Although in Mr. Kim’s case the court said the artist’s intentions aren’t as important in making legal judgments as the reactions of those who see the material, the police report on the rock band whose members exposed themselves revealed that the penalty would be more severe for planning the event in advance to provoke the crowd.
Police also said the two men did similar things last year while performing at clubs in the Hongik University area, known for its edgy, avant garde spirit, and pledged to investigate such activities in clubs.
“You have to juggle fairly well within the accepted realms of the cultural framework in situations involving nudity in Korea,” says Shim Chul-jong, a performance artist. “It could still be quite delicate.”
Mr. Shim drew widespread media attention for performing almost entirely nude as a protest to urge the government to maintain Hongdae as a creative artist’s vicinity.
“But often it’s the media who stress nudity to draw readers’ attention more than anyone else,” he says. “Even in performances where I am fully clothed, editors tend to emphasize the fact that I am a nude artist more than the actual work.”
Others suggest that the apparent lack of cultural understanding in determining the lewdness of visual images is evident in the inconsistency of what is shown in pop culture and the art scene here, relying mainly on the status of artists rather than the nature of the content.
In a gallery in central Seoul two years ago, for example, there was a grand retrospective of Nobuyoshi Araki, a Japanese photographer whose works are loaded with explicit sexual imagery and heavy-handed erotic metaphors. Another exhibit by Helmut Newton, a fashion hipster known as the master photographer of sexual perversity, was held last year in a Seoul gallery.
“It would probably be a critical consideration when legal judgments are made,” Mr. Lee observes. “If it were Paik Nam-june, there is the possibility that the court’s decision would have been different.”
Debbie Han, a Korean-American artist, observes that society seems especially intolerant of male nudity in Korea, suggested by the reaction to the display of public nudity by male artists.
Ms. Han said she recently saw a sculpture of a female nude at Maronnier Park in Daehangno, in which the woman’s body is a highly sexualized object as it leans forward to reveal a hip facing the park’s entrance.
“It comes down to the sensibility of art,” she says. “When I looked at the sculpture, I wondered why is this okay? People call this an artwork. But have you ever seen a sculpture of a man with an erect penis in a public park in Seoul?”
Ms. Kim, the editor of Marie Claire Korea, has a clearer view of the accepted boundaries of nudity here.
In its latest issue, the magazine ran photos of mothers and daughters who were topless; they were shot by renowned fashion photographer Zo Sun-hee.
“The cultural atmosphere here still doesn’t allow fashion editors to take a radical position in deciding on measures of nudity,” she says. “We will allow images where models look ‘sexy.’ But we don’t go beyond that. That’s an irony, because you could easily see female nudes just by logging onto the Internet through your mobile phone nowadays.”
Mr. Jeong, the theater director, predicts that the level of nudity will become stronger to challenge the public’s conceptions.
To render fair judgments, he suggests that the authorities develop a clearer understanding about nudity as a cultural production rather than leaving it up to broad descriptions of societal norms.
“Like it or not, people will remember the young band members who dropped their trousers on TV,” he says. “Because they were the first to do that. That’s important. Sensation still works on people. So there is always someone who aims for that ‘first time.’”
by Park Soo-mee