How Korean Artists Captured and Resisted a Turbulent Political Era

LOS ANGELES — Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s–1970s, a vast survey exhibition of silheom misul, or Korean Experimental art made in the 1960s and ‘70s, comes to the Hammer Museum after presentations at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Seoul and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Coined by art historian Kim Mi-kyung in the early 2000s, silheom misul, a movement sandwiched — and largely forgotten — between Korean Informel and dansaekhwa, tells of how artists in Korea navigated a quickly globalizing art world in the midst of rapid political and societal upheaval. However, to consolidate this moment into a neat narrative package does the artists a disservice: The wide range of highly individual material and conceptual concerns on view in this exhibition resist categorization.

Most of the artists in Only the Young were born during or just after the Japanese occupation ended in 1945, and were children during the Korean War (1950–53). After the resulting division of the country, South Korea was governed by the autocratic Rhee Syng-man regime, which was toppled by a student revolution. A subsequent coup d’état of the interim government elevated Park Chung-hee into power, whose authoritarian government brought rapid industrialization to South Korea while simultaneously clamping down on pro-democracy dissidents and protestors. In 1972, Park, inspired by Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, dissolved the National Assembly and declared martial law. He suspended the existing constitution and organized his new government under the Yushin Constitution, which essentially instituted a legal dictatorship. 

Amid this upheaval, artists in Korea were learning about global avant-garde art movements through magazines, lectures, and participation in international biennials. They were searching for a way out of the Arte Povera-meets-Abstract Expressionist impulse of Korean Informel painting, which many artists felt represented institutional, conservative taste. Some responded through painting: They adopted a flatter and almost colder way of handling paint, as in a gorgeous example from Lee Seung-jio’s Nucleus series (1968–74), included in the exhibition. His signature motif of stacked pipe-like forms is a rejection of Informel’s expressive paint handling as well as a reflection on the new shapes and forms that accompanied the rapid industrialization happening around him. In contrast to the muddy hues of Informel, Lee Hyang-mi’s triptych “Color Itself” (c. 1970s) uses highly saturated colors, which drip down from the top of each painting. The thin bands of watered-down paint cross and mix with each other as they travel down the works, adding an element of chance as well as making gravity and the paint itself collaborators in the process of creation. Notably, Lee is one of the exhibition’s few female artists — a reminder of the highly patriarchal and conservative gender roles in Korea at the time.

Others searched for ways to inject traditional Korean objects and ideas into their work. In “Situation” (1967–68), Moon Bok-cheol combines bak, hollowed-out dried gourds traditionally used in Korean homes as bottles, with a more Western style of monochrome painting. Lee Sung-taek, too, incorporated Korean folk and cultural objects, as shown by a room dedicated to his work. An installation of several large sculptures called “Untitled (Sprout)” (1963/2018) are based on and mimic the form of onggi, traditional Korean earthenware vessels. And works like “Tied Stone” (1958) reveal his decades-long fascination with tying, initially inspired by godeuraetdol, small stones that traditionally served as weights in Korean weaving looms used to make sedge mats. 

Most of the artists in this exhibition, however, incorporate their own bodies into their work via performance and performative strategies, influenced by movements like Fluxus. Exploring the limits and reach of their bodies became a way to explore their own identities and roles amid the stifling silencing of free speech that accelerated under Park’s rule. In the photographic series Logic of Hand (1975/2018), Lee Kun-yong forms his hands into various shapes, transforming mundane actions into art. In restricting his art into that small range of movement, the piece also becomes a commentary on the way that authoritarian regimes apply control and limits onto people’s thoughts and movements.

One of the most engaging elements of the exhibition is a large chronological timeline of happenings and performances in Korea between 1967 and 1981 that includes descriptions, preparatory sketches, documentation, and even reenactments. “Happening with Plastic Umbrella and Candle,” one of the first in Korean art, occurred at the Union Exhibition of Young Korean Artists in 1967. Members of the artist groups Mudongin (Zero Group) and Sinjeon dongin circled Kim Young-ja, who sat in a chair holding a plastic umbrella. The participating artists walked in a circle around her, placing candles on it while singing a Korean folk song. Suddenly, they blew out the candles and rushed to destroy the umbrella. Thus, a benevolent and protective object transforms into a recipient of violence, perhaps a commentary on artists’ ambivalence toward supposedly benevolent and protective institutions like a government or national identity.

Kang Kuk-jin, Jung Kang-ja and Chung Chan-seung’s “Transparent Balloons and Nude” (1968), widely considered to be the first feminist art performance in Korea, had viewers affixing transparent balloons to Jung, which were then popped, exposing her semi-naked body. By transforming the image of a female nude into a living, breathing body, Jung holds a mirror to the way that women have been objectified while also reclaiming agency over how her body was viewed.

For his 1973 solo exhibition at Myeongdong Gallery in Seoul, Lee Kang-so set up bar tables and chairs inside the gallery, serving makgeolli (Korean rice wine) and snacks to the strangers and friends who mingled and visited throughout the run of the show. Notably, this exhibition took place less than a year after Park Chung-hee’s declaration of martial law in October 1972, which banned political gatherings and censored the press. “Disappearance, Bar in the Gallery” (1973) can be seen as a way to circumvent these restrictions by providing a space for gatherings under the guise of an art exhibition.

One of my favorite works in the show is “Location” (1976) by Sung Neung-kyung. In this series of photographs, the artist holds an issue of Space (Gonggan) (1966–2017), the only widely available Korean journal devoted to art and architecture at the time, carrying out 10 actions with the magazine, such as placing it on his head or holding it between his legs. The deadpan logic and performance of the actions is hilarious: in one, he awkwardly holds the magazine between his toes while staring blankly down at his feet. This series speaks to the conundrums that many of these artists faced during this turbulent time: Where does an artist belong within a rapidly globalizing and increasingly market-driven art world? What is the role of an artist and what role can art play during an authoritarian regime that is actively silencing and censoring political dissent?

Nearby is a series of self-portraits from 1975 that Sung took in a mirror visible in the center of each frame. As he pivots slightly for each photograph, the changing background creates a panoramic view of the neighborhood with the artist in the center. This world of one-story houses with hanji-paper windows seen surrounding Sung was then quickly disappearing, the political climate rapidly deteriorating, and Korean national identity rapidly shifting. The only constant in these images is the central image of the artist, his camera, and the mirror, as if to say that the only way he could respond to the dizzying changes surrounding him was to emphatically and repeatedly assert his presence. The work is titled simply: “Here.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The author helped organize the symposium, An Encounter with the Korean Avant Garde, at the Hammer Museum, which will take place on April 12th, and will lead a walkthrough of the exhibition for the Hammer Museum on April 9th.

Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s–1970s at the Hammer Museum continues until May 12. The exhibition is co-organized by Kyung An, associate curator, Asian art, Guggenheim Museum, and Kang Soojung, senior curator, MMCA. The presentation at the Hammer is organized by Pablo José Ramírez, curator, with Nika Chilewich, curatorial assistant.

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