MMCA's latest exhibition remembers the 'Forgotten War'

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MMCA's latest exhibition remembers the 'Forgotten War'

"The Weight of the Water" by Elaine Hoey. [MMCA]

"The Weight of the Water" by Elaine Hoey. [MMCA]

A new exhibition on the Korean War (1950-1953) at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in central Seoul is hoping to change the younger generation's perception about the historical event.  
 
“The war had been dubbed the ‘Forgotten War’ abroad but truth be told, if you ask a young Korean person today about the war, they will not be able to relate much about the event either,” said Yi Soo-jung, curator of the exhibition “Unflattening” at the MMCA.  
 
“There is a divide between a generation who knows too well about the war and its atrocities and a generation for whom it is but an event in a textbook,” Yi said. “We wanted to change that. How you see the war can vary depending on your vantage point. And we wanted to exhibit different vantage points of not only the Korean War, but also ongoing conflicts around the world. That is why we borrowed the title of Nick Sousanis’s book, 'Unflattening' in naming the exhibition.”
 
Because the museum is closed temporarily due to the recent increase in Covid-19 infections, the opening of the exhibition will be hosted online on the museum’s YouTube channel, with curator Yi leading the audience on a 40-minute guided tour.
 
The exhibition, located on the first basement floor of the museum, is divided into four sections, taking the visitors through the vantage points of those who have experienced the Korean War and survived and of those who are currently fleeing conflicts in other parts of the world.
 
There and back again
 
The first two sections of the exhibition display paintings and drawings dating back to the days of the Korean War.  
 
Famous abstract artist Kim Whanki was a military painter during the war and his works are one of the first to meet the visitor near the entrance of the exhibition.  
 
Titled “Shanty” and dating back to 1951, the oil on canvas work shows an example of shantytowns commonly seen in Korea, though expressed in pastel and bright colors, giving the work a cheerier vibe than what one could expect from a time when the country was at war. 
 
"Shanty" by Kim Whanki, painted in 1951. [MMCA]

"Shanty" by Kim Whanki, painted in 1951. [MMCA]

Behind Kim’s painting are rows of sketches done by Yoon Jung-sik, an artist who was based in Pyongyang but fled to Busan when the war broke out. His sketches were done quickly while he was on the road, and serve as a chronological record of his flight, as well as a window into how the world looked to those fleeing the war.
 
Kim Seong-hwan, also a military painter, produced dozens of sketches of the war, 80 of which have been included in the exhibition at the MMCA, including one of his most famous pieces, “Near Donam Bridge.”
 
Sixteen countries sent troops to aid Korea during the war and six more sent their medical staff and assistance. Their faces have also made it into sketches from the time. 
Kim Seong-hwan's "Near Donam Bridge" dated 1951. [MMCA]

Kim Seong-hwan's "Near Donam Bridge" dated 1951. [MMCA]

Many of these artists’ lives were changed permanently following the war, including that of Lee Dong-pyo.
 
Lee was originally a North Korean soldier. He was caught by South Korean forces then served as a portrait painter in Busan. He was then drafted into the South Korean air force. Lee's self-portrait titled “Dual-Role Internecine Conflict,” shows him on one side of the picture in the North Korean army uniform and on the other side in the South Korean air force uniform.
 
Becoming
 
The third and fourth sections of the exhibition invite visitors to take part more actively through installations and VR-enhanced works.
 
Elaine Hoey’s virtual reality installation, “The Weight of the Water,” takes visitors on a nine-minute journey on a small motor boat packed with refugees, stranded in a vast sea. Although the viewer is placed alone in a cell-like space built for the art work, the moment the goggles and headset are on, the dark shadows of other refugees sitting just inches away from one’s face makes it a difficult experience to forget.
 
“So many people came to the aid of Korea during the Korean War,” said Yi, curator of the exhibition. “But would we move for a similar cause abroad? There are ongoing conflicts in other parts of the world and people fleeing for their lives. What would it feel like to be placed in their shoes? We wanted to pose this question more potently by having visitors experience the feeling of devastation and fear themselves during the tour.”
 
Ai Weiwei's "Law of the Journey." [MMCA]

Ai Weiwei's "Law of the Journey." [MMCA]

Ai Weiwei’s installation “Law of the Journey” also depicts a refugee motor boat, expanded to a larger-than-life size, against the backdrop of a wallpaper depicting the world’s deadliest bombs used in battles worldwide from the M11-T14 bomb, dubbed the “Grand Slam,” used by the UK in 1945, to the PC-1400X, a guided bomb used by Nazi Germany in 1943.  
 
Video installations such as “Airways” by Joanna Rajkowska and “Adult Games” by Erkan Ozgen are also included in the final sections of the exhibition.
 
"Adult Games" by Erkan Ozgen. [MMCA]

"Adult Games" by Erkan Ozgen. [MMCA]

 
“‘Unflattening’ was arranged in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War as an exhibition that professes a love for humanity and delivers a message of peace,” said MMCA director Youn Bum-mo. “This exhibition will be an opportunity to explore the newfound role of art and to instill a sense of hope among domestic and overseas audiences during a global emergency.” 

 
Once the exhibition is open to the public, it will remain open until Sept. 20, according to MMCA. 
 
BY ESTHER CHUNG   [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
 

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