MMCA exhibit on Korea's DNA draws criticism for being 'nationalistic'

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MMCA exhibit on Korea's DNA draws criticism for being 'nationalistic'

A view of “DNA: Dynamic & Alive Korean Art,” a new exhibition of the MMCA at its branch in Deoksu Palace in central Seoul. [MOON SO-YOUNG]

A view of “DNA: Dynamic & Alive Korean Art,” a new exhibition of the MMCA at its branch in Deoksu Palace in central Seoul. [MOON SO-YOUNG]

A view of ″DNA: Dynamic & Alive Korean Art,” a new exhibition of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) at its branch in Deoksu Palace in central Seoul. [MMCA]

A view of ″DNA: Dynamic & Alive Korean Art,” a new exhibition of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) at its branch in Deoksu Palace in central Seoul. [MMCA]

 
“DNA: Dynamic & Alive Korean Art,” a new exhibition at the Deoksu Palace branch of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in central Seoul, gives visitors a rare opportunity to view important pieces of Korean cultural heritage juxtaposed with famous Korean modern and contemporary artists’ works.
 
However, some critics say that the exhibition’s intention “to identify the DNA of Korean aesthetics which transcend time and space,” which the museum declares in its statement, is an anachronistic nationalist idea. In addition, there are questions about the validity of the four keywords with which the exhibition unfolds.    
 
According to the MMCA, it selected ten Korean cultural assets based on the studies of the most influential Korean art historians in the 20th century such as Koh Yu-seop, Choi Sun-u, and Kim Yong-jun. The “ten assets” include the Seokguram Grotto and its stone sculptures from the United Silla period (668-935), celadon pieces from the Goryeo period (918-1392), paintings by old masters such as Jeong Seon(1676–1759) and Sin Yun-bok (1758-1813) and white porcelain moon jars from the Joseon period (1392-1910). Then, the museum explored their influences on Korea’s modern and contemporary art.

 
″Celadon ware with Grape and Child Design,″ from Goryeo Dynasty. [NATIONAL MUSEUM OF KOREA]

″Celadon ware with Grape and Child Design,″ from Goryeo Dynasty. [NATIONAL MUSEUM OF KOREA]

″Children in Spring″(1952-3) by Lee Jung-seob (also spelled as Lee Jung-seop). [MMCA]

″Children in Spring″(1952-3) by Lee Jung-seob (also spelled as Lee Jung-seop). [MMCA]

 
The exploration was made with four keywords, which became the theme of the exhibition’s four sections. They are “Seong” which the museum translates as “Sacred and Ideal;” “Ah” which translates as “Elegant and Simple;” “Sok” which translates as “Decorative and Worldly;” and “Hwa” which translates as “Dynamic and Hybrid.”  
 
“These four keywords, each representing a central element of East Asian aesthetics, have served as a basis for how tradition is understood in East Asian modern and contemporary art,” the museum claims in a statement. However, the four keywords, at least the latter two, don’t seem to match the content of the exhibition well.  
 
In the first section, titled “Sacred and Ideal,” the archive of the mythological murals in the tombs of the ancient Goguryeo kingdom (37 B.C.– A.D.668) and the archive of the Seokguram Grotto including its photos are juxtaposed with modern paintings and sculptures that they have inspired. Although the matches look relatively simple, they make sense.  
 
Kim Whanki's abstract painting from his New York period is juxtaposed with celadon pieces from Goryeo period. [MOON SO-YOUNG]

Kim Whanki's abstract painting from his New York period is juxtaposed with celadon pieces from Goryeo period. [MOON SO-YOUNG]

A dot painting by Kim Whanki. [MMCA]

A dot painting by Kim Whanki. [MMCA]

 
There is also a blue dot painting by modern art master Kim Whanki (1913-74) from his New York period (1963-74) on display together with Goryeo celadon pieces. It is true that Kim was greatly inspired by not only Joseon moon jars that he loved so much but also Goryeo celadon pieces’ jade color and patterns and that he reflected the inspiration into his half-abstract paintings before the New York period. However, his dot paintings in the New York period are only loosely related with Goryeo celadon. Therefore, the juxtaposition seems to result from the simple impression that the painting’s overall color and tone is similar to those of the celadon pieces.  
 
The seemingly-one-dimensional juxtapositions continue in the second section, “Elegant and Simple,” which juxtapose ink paintings of landscapes by Jeong Seon and moon jars with Dansaekhwa, or Korean monochrome abstract paintings, by Yun Hyong-keun and Park Seo-bo.  
 
The selection of cultural heritage pieces and modern and contemporary art pieces that they are matched with in section three and four just don’t seem to make sense. In the “Decorative and Worldly” section, a copy of the famous “Portrait of a Beauty” by 18th century artist Sin Yun-bok hangs with a painting of a woman smoking by Chun Kyung-ja (1924-2015). The two paintings seem to have no relationship with each other. The last section “Dynamic and Hybrid,” which features the pioneer of video art Nam June Paik (1932-2006)’s works with some artifacts and other artworks is just chaotic.  
 
Art critic Chungwoo Lee told the Korea JoongAng Daily, “It is an idea of extreme ethnic nationalism to attempt to ‘identify the DNA of Korean aesthetics which transcend time and space.’ Furthermore, the four keywords originate from the now-outdated aesthetic discourse of Japanese scholars in the early 20th century, which inspired Korean scholars during the Japanese colonial ruling. Accordingly it is so ironic that the exhibition is heavily influenced by Japan while being very nationalistic.”  

 
“The title of section four is ‘Hwa’ in Korean,” he continued. “The museum translates it as ‘Dynamic and Hybrid’ but ‘hwa’ translates as harmony. Is there really harmony between Korea’s old and modern culture? There are rather the dynamics of collision and dissonance.”

 
The exhibition runs through Oct. 10. For more information, visit www.mmca.go.kr.

 

BY MOON SO-YOUNG [moon.soyoung@joongang.co.kr]
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