The cultural power, and irony, of exile

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The cultural power, and irony, of exile

For years, the notion of “exile” has inspired popular artists and intellectuals around the world to create some of their most powerful works.
In a series he wrote outside of Germany shortly after the Nazis came to power, Thomas Mann (1875-1955), a German novelist, described his loss of personal freedom during his exile as a critical impulse to his writing.
The famous diary of Anne Frank, written by a teenage German Jew, details a moving account of a family hiding in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation.
Dissident authors, intellectuals and artists in Korea have taken similar positions throughout modern history.
The artist Lee Ung-no often portrayed in his paintings his experience of being stigmatized as a national traitor after he was exiled to France for his alleged pro-North Korean activities, involving the “East Berlin Spy Incident.” In 1967, Lee was sentenced to death for violation of the National Security Law. He was released, sent to France and lived there until his death in 1989, never returning home.
The case was recently judged to have been “an overstated event” by the National Intelligence Service under Park Chung-Hee’s regime, in order to strengthen anti-Communist policies and quash ideological conflicts between North and South Korea.
Yet the political turmoil left a noticeable wound in Lee’s life-long career. One image often repeated in his work is dancing people, a metaphor that embodies the artist’s cry for freedom and the political unrest of his homeland. In a drawing “Reunification Dance” that he produced in France shortly after the Gwangju Uprising in 1981, he depicted a group of South Koreans stretching their arms to dance hand-in-hand with people from the North.
While in prison, Lee’s works illustrated his desperation, using materials he found in his cell. Some of the famous works he did during this period were a series of soy sauce drawings on toilet paper and a collage made of papers pasted with rice glue. In a sculpture titled “A Flaming Rage of Boiling Blood From the Mind,” he collected nails from the prison yard and made holes in the aluminum surface of plates and bathroom utensils.
Lee spent more than half his life in Paris, yet ironically, his works are considered to be some of the prime examples of art that reflects the core of “Korean sentiment.”
Lee himself disagreed, insisting that his work is a mix of Korean subject and European influences.
“An aspect of my work is aimed at capturing the ‘Korean sentiment’ to turn it into a common form of expression,” he once said. “My work is a combination of things that are national and international, traditional and contemporary and east and west.”
The East Berlin Spy Incident, for which 190 Koreans in East Berlin were indicted, also earned composer Yun I-sang (1917-95) the nickname “the wounded dragon” from his friend Luise Rinser, a German novelist.
While a student in Europe, Yun visited the North Korean Embassy in East Berlin, news of which was leaked by South Korean secret intelligence agents dispatched there. In 1967, Yun was arrested for violation of the National Security Law and also sentenced to death. The charges were lifted only after the international music community, led by the conductor Herbert von Karajan, put pressure on the South Korean government. Yun was eventually exiled to Germany upon his release, and took citizenship there.
Out of about 150 pieces he composed during his lifetime, he wrote many songs that mourn the lives of the Korean people under oppressive regimes, such as “Exemplum in Memoriam Kwangju” and “My Land, My People.” “Sim Chong,” his opera based on a famous Korean folk tale, was performed during the opening of the Munich Olympics in 1972.
While his works embraced musical styles of the European tradition, the content of his music made heavy references to political subjects in his homeland.
Ideas spurred by the return of exiled pro-democracy activists to Korea also helped to shape and open up new paths of interpretation on various cultural issues.
The notion of “tolerance” stressed by exiled labor activist Hong Se-hwa, the author of “I Am a Taxi Driver in Paris, focused on Voltaire’s philosophy of religious freedom, as a message to Korean society to respect the political opinions of others. In the book, Hong, who returned home in 2000 as a political columnist, traces his life as a taxi driver in Paris to make a living after he graduated from Seoul National University and was sent to Paris by a local trading company. He returned home after 20 years.
The “imminent-critical” theory by exiled sociology professor Song Du-yul in Germany, stressed the notion toward North Korea, as an academic method to try understanding the state both as an outsider and an insider.
For others, the notion of exile is beyond a political condition. Edward Said, a critic and the author of “Orientalism” who was exiled from Israel, saw the notion as a voluntary gesture of a conscious intellectual; an act of distancing from “all form of critical orthodoxies.”
Paik Nam-june, a late video artist, fits that example.
Paik was never forced to leave the country through pressure, though his family fled to Hong Kong during the Korean War. His ideas, though, were strongly viewed from the perspective of a cultural outsider even after he was admitted to the mainstream of the global art scene as a pioneer of video art.
In his most famous series of video works, “TV Buddha,” for example, he combined a critique of the Western media with Eastern patterns of thoughts, referencing how technology and religion both transcend reality.
Paik never seemed willing to fulfill the role of a national artist, and dodged questions by local journalists that were deliberately meant to test his patriotism.
At one point, he said, “I am a poor man from a poor country, so I have to be entertaining every second,” boldly admitting his position within the hierarchy of race and class in the American art scene.
Yet, the last object to be signed by the artist, “Om Mah” (Mother), which was recently shown in Seoul after his ashes arrived home (the artist died in February), had an evocative expression of hope and longing for his homeland, featuring young girls dancing and playing with a traditional Korean garment suspended in front of the monitor.
Paik was never openly patriotic but his name subsequently played a role in spreading his native origin in the global art scene. In his recent memoir of the artist for a local newspaper, John Hanhardt, a senior curator of the Guggenheim Art Museum in New York, referred to Paik as “a gift from Korea to the world.”
History made them exiles, but they became national heroes.


by Park Soo-mee
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