A bid to silence the subject of sex dolls brings cancel culture to the art world

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A bid to silence the subject of sex dolls brings cancel culture to the art world

A captured image from Jung Yoon-suk's documentary film titled "Tomorrow" (2020) on display at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Seoul as a part of the museum's "Korea Artist Prize 2020" exhibition. [JOONGANG ILBO]

A captured image from Jung Yoon-suk's documentary film titled "Tomorrow" (2020) on display at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Seoul as a part of the museum's "Korea Artist Prize 2020" exhibition. [JOONGANG ILBO]

 
While cancel culture — when people are ostracized for perceived wrongdoings — is mainly seen in the world of celebrities and online personalities, a recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) has brought the phenomenon to the art world and raised questions about freedom of expression, in particular in an industry which thrives on the notion. 
 
“Tomorrow” (2020) is a documentary about sex dolls accompanied by photographs with related images created by Jung Yoon-suk, one of four finalists for the “Korea Artist Prize 2020” who have been chosen to exhibit their work at the MMCA.  
 
The documentary runs for two hours and 40 minutes with three separate stories that all revolve around the idea of “surrogate human forms.”
 
The film begins in a factory in China that produces sex dolls, with interviews of its employees and owner as well as a closer look at the process that goes into producing these dolls, from the initial silicon molds to makeup application to make the dolls' faces look more realistic. The film then moves onto two stories in Japan: The story of Senji Nakajima, who lives with five sex dolls, and the story of Michihito Matsuda, who formed a political party based on the promotion of the usage of artificial intelligence (AI) as a political decision maker.
 
Although much of “Tomorrow” revolves around the interviews with the factory employees and the two protagonists in Japan, Jung paid particular attention to the scenes in the Chinese factory that show how the dolls are processed. Stills from these scenes are among those on exhibit, showing the workers attach limbs and genitals and then hang the finished dolls from the ceiling. These pictures are particularly jarring given the likeness of the dolls to actual humans and even provoke a sense of exploitation.  
 
Artist Jung Yoon-suk [MMCA]

Artist Jung Yoon-suk [MMCA]

 
“I wanted to question what it means to be human in an age that is rapidly changing by showing the different choices that people make in their lives,” Jung said, explaining the motif behind his work. He added that he especially wanted to point out people's contradictions. 
 
“There could be people who feel uncomfortable about the subject of the film from different perspectives, but that sense of discomfort shows the very reality that we try so hard to run away from. One thing that is clear is that the issues that are dealt with in this work are the future that awaits us and problems that will need to be solved. The title ‘Tomorrow’ thus carries that double meaning.”
 
Despite Jung’s explanation and the message of the reality of human's future, reactions to the film and accompanying exhibition have been harsh and have also been directed at the MMCA. 
 
Those against Jung have been using a hashtag on social media platforms that translates to “Korea Artist Prize 2020 take away Jung’s qualifications” and have taken to the MMCA’s official social media accounts to express their dismay that Jung's work is being displayed at the country's biggest art museum. Artist and feminist groups have also spoken out against the museum, demanding that the exhibit be closed and Jung be removed from the list of possible candidates for artist of the year, an honor decided by the MMCA and the SBS Culture Foundation. The “pornographic” way that the sex dolls are portrayed within the film, as suggested by some, is problematic, but choosing sex dolls as a subject is also an issue in itself, according to opposition.
 
A captured image from Jung Yoon-suk's ″Tomorrow″ (2020) shows sex dolls at a manufacturing factory in China. [JOONGANG ILBO]

A captured image from Jung Yoon-suk's ″Tomorrow″ (2020) shows sex dolls at a manufacturing factory in China. [JOONGANG ILBO]

A captured image from Jung Yoon-suk's ″Tomorrow″ (2020) shows a Japanese man who lives with five sex dolls. [MMCA]

A captured image from Jung Yoon-suk's ″Tomorrow″ (2020) shows a Japanese man who lives with five sex dolls. [MMCA]

Jung Yoon-suk's documentary ″Tomorrow″ also follows the members of the AI Party who tried to get votes by promoting the usage of artificial intelligence as its decision maker. [MMCA]

Jung Yoon-suk's documentary ″Tomorrow″ also follows the members of the AI Party who tried to get votes by promoting the usage of artificial intelligence as its decision maker. [MMCA]

 
“The MMCA has forsaken its duties as a public museum that is responsible for the values of the public,” a political party called the Women’s Party said in a press release. “The MMCA is a public institution that has the power to enhance the country’s culture by providing citizens with high-quality artwork. Exhibiting content about ‘sex dolls’ that sexually objectify women’s bodies in a public museum that endeavors to enhance culture and keep in line with public values completely goes against those values.”
 
Louise the Women, a network of Korean female artists in the visual arts field, also released a statement saying that “Art cannot justify violence against women.” 
 
The MMCA posted a response on its Instagram saying, “The audiences’ criticism and discussion about an artwork is not only possible, but it’s inevitable in the contemporary arts field which deals with social issues.”
 
Art critic Michael Lim explained that an artwork should not be criticized solely for its subject. Instead, he said that Jung’s work is being criticized because the methodology and message of the work is bad — not because it’s about sex dolls. If his film had been put to the Bechdel test, an indicator of how sexist a film and its production process is, it would be an absolute fail and that’s where the problem lies, according to Lim.
 
“The artist says he wants to talk about contemporary society, which consumes women in their alienated form,” said Lim. “But in doing so, he completely neglects women’s views and fails to give a platform to their voices. He depicts pornographic forms of women’s bodies but the only women that are interviewed throughout the video are female factory workers in China — and even they are framed as ‘poor’ women. Quite frankly, it’s a calculated move to just seem ‘politically correct,’ but it’s a big problem that the artist was not aware of this."
 
A rally is held on Sept. 28, 2019, after the Supreme Court ruled that it is legal to import sex dolls into Korea, demanding that the ruling be revoked and the dolls be banned from entering Korea. [NEWS1]

A rally is held on Sept. 28, 2019, after the Supreme Court ruled that it is legal to import sex dolls into Korea, demanding that the ruling be revoked and the dolls be banned from entering Korea. [NEWS1]

 
Sex dolls — or real dolls, as they are referred to in Korea — first became a talking point when the customs service confiscated one from a man trying to bring it into the country from China in 2017, claiming that it hindered public morals. He brought a case against the Korean Customs Service which a court ruled was in the right for confiscating the doll in 2018. 
 
The man appealed the decision until finally in 2019 the Supreme Court ruled that sex dolls do not qualify as obscene material and should be allowed to be imported.  
 
However, despite the Supreme Court ruling, the issues related to the morality of sex dolls are still a sensitive subject, in particular the negative effects they could have on women. But calls to "silence" Jung's exhibit are not the first instance of cancel culture in the creative field in relation to perceived wrongs that impact women's rights.
 
Webtoonist Gian84, real name Kim Hee-min, was bombarded with criticism in August last year due to his misogynistic portrayal of female and disabled characters in his webtoon series “Bokhakwang.” An online Blue House petition demanding that he be fired from MBC’s entertainment show “I Live Alone” garnered over 56,000 signatures in just one day. 
 
A captured image from Gian84's webtoon ″Bokhakwang″ which faced backlash for its misogynistic portrayal of a female character. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

A captured image from Gian84's webtoon ″Bokhakwang″ which faced backlash for its misogynistic portrayal of a female character. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

A rally is held outside Naver's headquarters in Seongnam, Gyeonggi, on Aug. 19, demanding webtoonist Gian84 and his misogynistic work be taken down from the platform. [YONHAP]

A rally is held outside Naver's headquarters in Seongnam, Gyeonggi, on Aug. 19, demanding webtoonist Gian84 and his misogynistic work be taken down from the platform. [YONHAP]

 
In the “Bokhakwang” series, the character Bong Ji-eun, a college student working as an intern, was depicted as being completely incompetent and it was suggested that she only got her job by seducing the boss. Kim apologized and changed the problematic scene, but it didn’t stop people from criticizing Naver, the platform where the webtoon is being posted, and calls for the entire series to be removed from the site. 
 
Finding the balance between what is deemed socially acceptable and freedom of expression is no easy task but still crucial according to high-profile politicians and business people. 
 
Former U.S. President Barack Obama described cancel culture as “judgmental” and not actually helping to form a correct sense of correctness in society during an interview about youth activism at the Obama Foundation summit in October 2019, while Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, asked in an interview in August 2019, “Where do you draw the lines of free speech and, if you draw [them] too tightly, are you removing voices of society that should be heard? We’re trying to strike a balance of enabling a broad set of voices, but also making sure that those voices play by a set of rules that are healthy conversations for society.”
 
Professor Chin Jung-kwon, a former humanities professor at Dongyang University and art critic, quoted a content warning notification published by Disney on its past children’s animation works in a recent column. One such warning was for “Peter Pan” for containing “negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures.”
 
“These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. We want to acknowledge [their] harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together,” said Disney.
 
“Which value comes first, when the artistic freedom of expression comes in conflict with the demands of political correctness?” Chin wrote. “This is a question that is difficult to answer. The clash of these two values seems inevitable. On the one hand, freedom of expression has a tendency of expanding with time. Contemporary art especially sees its mission as breaking social taboos. On the other hand, social sensitivity to all kinds of prejudices has the tendency to become sharper. So the conflict of the two values can be easily forecast.”
 
Art, as well as entertainment, indeed strives to push boundaries and break rules, according to culture critic Ha Jae-keun. It is up to the public, the media and critics alike to keep a careful watch to make sure that nothing severely goes against social beliefs or ethics, and if it does, that it can be dealt with — and even punished.
 
“The very nature of art forces questions about norms to incite new creations, and in a way, so does pop culture,” said Ha. “Many different things can be subject to those questions, and to ban a question from being asked in the first place can also be subject to criticism. It is frankly quite anti-cultural. Rather than silencing a voice, people need to start a fierce argument about why they think something is wrong. That way, it will allow others to express their opinions and broaden the horizons for all. Pop culture is exposed to the younger generation so has been subject to tighter guidelines, but the same rule must be applied."
 
BY YOON SO-YEON     [yoon.soyeon@joongang.co.kr]
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