HARVARD ASIA PACIFIC REVIEW, vol. 1, no. 2 (Summer 1997): 44-49
Images of Dissent
Transformations in Korean Minjung art
BY FRANK HOFFMANN
Otto Dix, the great interwar political painter, did not die in 1933, in 1939, or in 1945, but in 1969. However, his pre-1945 work almost completely eclipsed his very sizable later œuvre . Similarly, leading Korean Minjung artists, probably the most radical critics of Korean politics and society during the 1980s, share a similar plight. Kim Pong-jun, formerly one of the regime’s most feared critics, who depicted the alienation of farmers in most of his paintings, now paints benign images of peasant families dancing happily under a clear blue Korean autumn sky; not the grotesque, not political parodies, not even hidden ironies, but a nativist vision of Utopia which, without a visual contextualization in the painting itself, can hardly be seen as political or social criticism. How will he be remembered? And does this mark the end of the Minjung Cultural Movement?
Anyone visiting South Korea during the 1980s could see the pervasiveness of the images of Minjung art—as cover illustrations, student banners and murals, or strike placards. Minjung art first appeared in 1980, just after the Kwangju Massacre. Never before in the Peninsula’s history, or perhaps anywhere else for that matter has art played such a prominent role in a nation’s drive to democratization. This was precisely why the intellectual establishment attempted to counter its influence by declaring Minjung art a non-art—subliminal propaganda devoid of aesthetic quality. Castigated by mainstream scholarship and media (state endorsed or controlled) and ignored by associated art journals and galleries until the democratic countdown began in 1987, Minjung art nonetheless developed into a highly influential and evocative force.
”General Green Pea”
In this 1985 colored woodcut (35 x 26 cm) by O Yun (1946-1986), Chon Pong-jun, nicknamed “General Green Pea” because of his small stature, is portrayed as a dancing beanstalk. Chon was the leader of the Tonghak peasant forces, which according to leftist-nationalist interpretations, in 1894 sought to eradicate the hierarchical Confucian system in favor of a Utopian vision of freedom and equality. The use of the green pea as an icon for minjung protest serves as a fine example of the invention of tradition (in Eric Hobsbawm’s understanding): Sin Tong-yop was probably the first to use this term in his epic poem The Kum River (1967), which depicts the Tonghak Uprising not merely as a peasant uprising, but as an anti-imperialist revolutionary battle, the direct historical antecedent of the April Revolution of 1960 that led to Syngman Rhee’s resignation and the country’s short-lived democratic Chang Myon government. Later Kim Chi-ha published a poem entitled “Green Pea Blossom” in an allusion to Chon Pong-jun in his famous Yellow Earth volume. O Yun was strongly influenced by Kim’s work and adopted his motif in several woodcuts depicting the blooming green pea. Today, as Sin, Kim, and O have themselves become somewhat legendary, the green pea has also become an obligatory pattern in leftist literature and in Minjung art. Suddenly we have a tradition of minjung protest, with visual icons that seem to hark back to the late 19th century, even though they were only invented less than two decades ago.
- Minjung artists severely criticized the dominance of “l’art pour l’art modernism" in South Korea’s art scene during the 1970s. Thus, the art world was split between the established modernists, adherents of formative experimentation, and the Minjung artists, who stressed substance over what they perceived to be aesthetic formalism. On the one hand, the modernists, in spite of political oppression, agricultural devastation, intense economic and political dependency on the US and Japan, and many other social ills, abided by the liberals’ taboo against the use of art as political statement. On the other hand, the Minjung approach favored content over technique. In order to build up art’s communicative power in representing marginalized sectors of society, they tried to reach both the middle class and the sector it took as its subject.
It was the educated urban middle class that was the real agent in the use of this art medium. By and large, however, the movement failed to reach the majority of labor and peasant classes, the glorified and romanticized heroes of Minjung art, whose acclaimed involvement in the movement served as its principal cornerstone of political legitimacy. Although this has been a perennial problem of political art throughout the modern period, in practice this contradiction does not weaken its aesthetic and indoctrinal power. With its nativist rhetoric and its earthy, crude, and flashy images that can often be read on several levels of sophistication, Minjung art spoke to the aesthetic needs and political dreams of the educated and wealthy, albeit politically deprived, urban middle class of the 1980s.
As an offspring of Korea’s democratic movement, Minjung art has gradually evolved in response to political developments, and has become part of mainstream art since the early 1990s. In 1994, the Kim Young Sam government felt secure enough to allow a large-scale exhibition entitled Fifteen Years of Minjung Art: 1980-1994 in the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Kwach’on. The museum’s largest-ever exhibit, visited by over 70,000 Korean citizens, seemed like a gigantic funeral ceremony for Minjung art. And in 1996, the government commissioned Hong Song-dam, one of the most acclaimed and radical Minjung artists, to create a 42-meter Minjung mural for a wall of Chonnam University in Kwangju, the center of protest in the Cholla provinces. Assembled from 646 tiles, the relief is the largest in the country.
Prices for Minjung art have sky-rocketed. For instance, Sin Hak-ch’ol was jailed in 1989 for allegedly violating the National Security Law by publicly displaying one of his oil paintings, a work that depicts the yearning for reunification, and thereby criticizes the politics of the South Korean and US governments. The painting was confiscated and destroyed by the authorities. But at a solo exhibit in May 1991, all his pictures sold well; one of his huge oil paintings from the mid-1980s, with an even more radical message than the one for which he was imprisoned sold for 35 million won (US$ 45,000).
Today, the age of Minjung art appears to have elapsed. It now receives much less attention than it did a few years ago. Even during last winter’s nationwide labor strikes, when Minjung art had a great opportunity to reclaim its place, it failed to do so. In the Philippines, which has experienced a very similar political art movement, leading socialist realists like Pablo Baens Santos, Orlando Castillo, and Renato Habulan continued their critical enterprise in the face of a strong rightward swing of the Aquino administration. Back in Korea, one may speculate that if Kim Young Sam’s turn to the right is continued by his successor, political (i.e., Minjung) art will reclaim some of its former intellectual and political ground.
While the major aims of the student movements in the 1980s—democratization, social justice, and reunification—were identical with those of the Minjung Movement, the student generation of the 1990s seems much less mobilized and its political interests have shifted. The environment has become a major issue on campuses. The 1993 Taejon Expo, with its many glass houses and sculptures made of recycled bottles and cans, showed that this shift has become the predominant trend in the Korean intellectual community. Student and activist energies now focus on environmental issues, women’s rights, consumerism, and campus democracy.
The Minjung Movement has never been monolithic and, unlike the communist movement, it is not derived from a single source. Its roots go back to the 1960s and early 1970s, when writers like Sin Tong-yop and later Kim Chi-ha reconstructed narratives of Korean history, society, and politics from the perspective of the suffering minjung, the masses. Minjung refers to the people at the bottom of society, but it also includes journalists, teachers, and other intellectuals. During the same period many Korean theologians studying South American liberation theologies under Bultmann, Gollwitzer, or Moltmann in Germany or elsewhere, applied these revolutionary ideas to Korea. Kim Yong-bok points out how these new semantics work: “The minjung is the protagonist in the historical drama. It is the subject; and its sociopolitical biography is the predicate.” Minjung intellectuals adopted Sin Ch’ae-ho’s colonial period conception of history as the struggle between self and other, the national and the anti-national, thereby reversing the official stereotypes of North Korea as the devil-headed enemy and the US as South Korea’s closest political and economic ally. While the North is usually cast in Minjung art as a romanticized, beloved brother, the US is held responsible for the country’s unfortunate division, the Kwangju Massacre, and the existence of the subsequent Southern regimes to which it had provided aid. (In February 1981, less than a year after the Kwangju Massacre, dictator Chun Doo Hwan became the first head of state to visit the White House after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.)
Our People’s Art Institute
”The Kabo Peasants’ War”
As this huge (260 x 700 cm) pictorial banner depicting the Kabo Peasants’ War, a 1989 group work by Our People’s Art Institute (Kyore Misul Yon’guso), demonstrates, the works of the second-generation Minjung artists are more distinct and more radical in their political message. Works like this pictorial banner from Chonju, which is one piece of a series of thirty banners on the “National Liberation Movement,” have adopted many stylistic devices of Socialist Realism. The commemoration of pre-modern and contemporary revolutionary events in a monumental style of painting, combining heroic grandeur of design with costume and portraiture historical accuracy, that is, history painting, became the favorite genre among the second-generation Minjung artists. While some of these monumental works depict only one historical event at a time, such as one battle, others play with collage effects by patching together several incidents in modern Korean history and combining them under a certain theme or catch-phrase, like “Drive out Westerners, drive out Barbarians!” (with Chon Pong-jun here serving as a historical tree of resistance). The targets in these paintings are usually as explicit as the actions, which are being depicted. Typical of this genre, and not different from its conservative model, minjung history is represented here in an idealized, heroized form.
- Minjung intellectuals were often accused of being communists, and although many may have read Marxist-Leninist texts and Frankfurt School theorists, they tried to indigenize socialist thinking. In contrast to the Marxist-Leninist term “proletariat,” minjung is defined neither as a socio-economic class or social group, nor by status or occupation; it is defined along ethnocentric lines of argumentation. Without Marxian class distinctions, the movement recruited most of its student activists from the urban middle class. The bulk of writings in the 1980s focused on the expressions minjung and han (grievance, resentment, unsatisfied desire) along with a handful of other terms, alleged to describe typical and unique characteristics of the experience of the Korean nation and people (read race). Starting with literature and theology, the movement became a full-fledged (though never all-embracing) cultural movement in the early 1980s. In revitalizing indigenous art forms, Minjung activists severely criticized the intellectual elitism of the country’s power elite and upper bourgeoisie, while at the same time offering Utopian nativist visions of society, freedom and national well-being in a reunified country. All these visions were, at base, anti-modern and anti-Western.
Let us look briefly at the most important trends and transformations in Minjung art: the first Minjung-like images appeared right after the Kwangju Massacre and were replicated worldwide in hundreds of pamphlets and books on human rights in South Korea. These works were done by Tomiyama Taeko, a Japanese female artist with a long record on civilian and human rights activities and a close friend of the poet and social critic Kim Chi-ha. She had illustrated Kim’s poem Rumors with lithographs, and the publication was circulated widely within the ranks of the Korean opposition. She had been involved in the Japanese labor movement, worked with Japanese coal miners, and followed political emigrants to Latin America. After her return to Japan, she established the feminist journal Asian Women’s Liberation and campaigned against Japanese sex tourism in Korea. Tomiyama’s Kwangju woodcut series offers a stunning depiction of crucial scenes from the events of May 1980. As she told this author in 1983, much of her style at the time came from her study of Käthe Kollwitz and German Expressionism. While in Latin America she especially studied the works of the prominent Mexican socialist artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, whose monumental murals, with their mixture of realism and phantasmagoria and their strong depiction of grievance, powerfully appealed to her. It is this same core group of artists that informed the first generation of Korean Minjung artists. Of course, the application of a genealogical model of linear artistic and ideological development, either for establishing a heritage of outside influences or harking back to a few socialist Korean print artists of the 1930s, whose works had not been republished and had vanished from public memory by the early 1980s, does not do justice to the enormously powerful visual language of Minjung art.
However, because of Minjung intellectuals’ ambiguous notion towards nationalism and ethnicity, the first generation of Minjung artists were severely criticized for using Western techniques and for following the modalities of the modernist aesthetic.
It was mostly in the visual media, in painting, prints, photography, and sculpture, but also in cartoons, caricatures, book illustrations, pictorial banners, etc.—art forms that were more or less neglected by Korean modernists—through which Minjung artists expressed themselves. Most of the early activist-artists worked either in a technically unrefined realist style or in a reinvented and politicized folk style. These styles often invoked religious iconography, especially Buddhist and shamanist images, which were depicted in a potpourri of selected folk art elements and icons of modern life. Images of the American flag, Coca-Cola bottles, or the portraits of politicians, kept popping up to replace anticipated religious symbols or historical figures. In terms of style, the strongest impetus came from German Expressionism and Latin American Socialist Realism. Blending Western visual techniques such as photomontage and collage with the narrative forms of traditional Korean religious and folk painting, the work of first-generation Minjung artists succeeded in launching rather shrill, often satirical or grotesque criticism against the country’s military regime and the political-economic elite.
The second generation moved gradually to the left, and the movement became increasingly radical in its means and dogmatic in its political outlook. At the end of 1982, the group Turong was established around Kim Pong-jun. This and other new groups were much better trained ideologically. The Turong Group had organized study and reading circles, and its members were well versed in Marxist and other leftist theories. The visualized messages of this second generation reflected a nativist form of socialism and, from the mid-1980s, also embraced North Korea’s chuch’e (self-reliance) ideology, according to which the minjung are seen as the driving forces and the living subjects of history and arts. Thus, the second generation criticized the first for using Western modernist modes of expression, and sought to replace these with Korean national art forms by employing what they called the “living arts” (san misul ), incorporating and modifying traditional Korean genres like mask dance and shamanistic rituals.
The works of the second generation were in turn accused of being too heavily invested in depicting ideological struggle at the expense of aesthetic. In the wake of major steps toward democratization and continued economic prosperity, the third generation of artists is left with only one unfulfilled collective goal—national reunification—of the movement’s three great goals. It is therefore not surprising to find Minjung artists now either focusing on reunification and, in the process, shifting toward a technically upgraded, highly sophisticated Socialist Realist style informed by North Korean agitprop, as seen in the joint North-South “Korean Reunification Exhibition” in Japan two years ago, or working their way into the mainstream.
”New Colonies and Monopoly Capitalism”
The 1990s have been a decade of mixed messages, diverse in techniques, styles, media, and subject matter. Even a born internationalist like Nam June Paik, the father of video art, seems to have rediscovered his Korean roots (as he donned the garb of a Korean shaman in July 1990 in his first ever performance on Korean soil). Some of the basic features of Minjung Art have also changed. Paik’s performance seems as discordant with his life work as his video sculptures are with Minjung Art. Nevertheless, this is the reality today. For example, Chon Mi-yong’s (b. 1968) installation of fluorescent light bulbs of 1991, included in the 1994 Minjung art exhibit in the Korean National Museum of Contemporary Art recalls Jasper Johns’s Stars and Stripes series and subsequent paintings and Pop Art installations by Donald Lipski and others. In contrast to Jasper Johns’s works, whose revolutionary invention was formal—integrating figurative subject matter with abstract handling of paint—Chon’s work is decidedly political. While Johns and Lipski adopted the flag as an object for its strong metaphoric value and then set its pure visual qualities against it to see what could be evoked, Chon relies on the flag’s conventional symbolic value. The title of her work is as obvious as the homogeneity of its icons: miniature flags of Latin American and Asian nations, including South Korea’s, are attached to each of Chon’s “stars.” The artist’s political message is loud and clear, but without any use of nativist icons or rhetoric. The work is so far removed from the Minjung art of the 1980s, so bound to the sign language of North American postwar modernism, one wonders what the curators of the 1994 exhibit had in mind when they included it.
Is the Minjung Movement really over then? The aforementioned 1994 exhibition suggests that it is. The year 1990 marks the beginning of a new age in Korean art. At first glance, this may seem to be the age of post-modernist art. Just as Minjung ideology was first introduced in theology and literature, post-modernism was first introduced in literature and literary criticism in the mid-1980s and only later in painting and the other visual arts. Post-modernism in Korea is widely seen not only as a reaction to the authoritarianism and elitism of the modernist movement but also as a response to Minjung art with its narrowly anti-pluralist, anti-foreign, idealized idea of “Koreanness” and its simplified dichotomies: Korean vs. foreign, substance vs. aesthetic, minjung vs. elite. While populist simplifications may be inevitable in political art, they are naturally more appealing in a climate of severe political or sociopolitical repression than in a pluralist society with far fewer direct forms of repression, a more complex power structure, and increasingly less obvious solutions to sociopolitical problems. Recent trends in art and music suggest that Koreans have finally begun to revise their sense of Korea’s geopolitical situation and of the relationship between the countryside and the capital. What had formerly been experienced only in terms of “suffering” and han now seems to offer Korean artists a chance to express their identity in something other than nationalist idioms and categories.
Today the anti-avant-garde Minjung artists have undoubtedly been outshone by a new generation of avant-garde artists, well represented by Yi Pul (Bul Lee), who did a show at New York’s MOMA earlier this year. Herself the daughter of longtime political dissidents, the young artist’s work avoids pedantries. Instead, she relentlessly deflowers the icons of traditional Korean culture and history just recently enshrined by the Minjung generation. She first shocked Korean audiences with her giant sculptures of buttocks, breasts, and vaginas. In her performances and installations, Yi typically exposes her body and, occasionally, presents herself as a medieval Western prisoner in chains—a risky allusion to the role of women in a society dedicated to traditional Confucian values but outwardly modern and democratic. All her work is playful—often sarcastic, but playfully sarcastic. It’s the late 1990s, the Minjung is surfing the Net, and Yi knows it.
Frank Hoffmann is a Koreanist and art historian currently engaged in dissertation research on colonial Korean painting.