Subversive Portraits of National Heroism in Contemporary Korean Photography
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The formation of national identity often requires heroic stories in order to prescribe ethics and moralities in particular ways. By building on those stories, national hero(ine)s are instrumentalized as the figures which define the boundaries of what is right or wrong for the nation, thereby establishing the norms of socio-cultural performativity. After World War II, the restoration of national heroism and the construction of an ideal image of “the Korean” were political priorities that served to justify militant ruling regimes. Specifically, the former dictator, Park Chung Hee, was a master in the construction of national myths and the facilitation of these mythical figures in his nation-making project.
Sociologist Seungsook Moon argues that “there is a common nationalist interest in ‘restoring’ history and tradition as the essence of nation”. Likewise, in the Charter of National History established in 1963, President Park proclaimed: “We were born into this land with a historical mission for national restoration”. Every textbook as well as government reports had to include the Charter on its first page, and every public building had to display it along with a framed picture of Park’s face and the national flag. Park’s form of patriotism demanded undoubted loyalty as he asserted: “The real national image of the great man was not that of a weak pedant but rather a patriotic fighter who would readily die on the battlefield in defence of his country”. National interests came before peoples’ rights, and individuals needed to be willing to sacrifice themselves for the nation. Therefore, nationalism was the effective way “to legitimize repression and exploitation of the populace”, silencing questions about the atrocities and bloody events under Park’s military regime.
More recently, the historical hero(ine)s reinstated by the military government have been the subjects of criticism among contemporary Korean artists who set out to expose the hidden context of political manipulation behind them. Why do contemporary Korean artists pay attention to these historical figures? Why is the legacy of Park’s regime still a meaningful subject for art, even after the military governments have been dismissed and democracy and freedom have been achieved? The answers to these questions can partly be sought in the following photographic works, which deal with historic figures and reinterpret their positions in contemporary contexts.
JoSeub has persistently worked on the satire and mockery of Korean history, in an attempt to recall the violence of consecutive military regimes and to awake the public’s diminishing memory. In particular, the works from his solo exhibition Do not question (2005) position political figures of modern history within everyday situations, and relegate them to the status of objects of ridicule. In the series Douglas MacArthur, JoSeub disguises himself as the American General MacArthur, whom Korean people were taught was a hero who saved their country from the invasion of communists during the Korean Civil War. JoSeub puts on a blond wig and a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses in a military uniform, blowing off cigarette smoke. His unquestionably implausible disguise as MacArthur completely deconstructs the political weight of the heroic figure by creating a comical situation. His imitation of a march onward with his loose fellows simply reduces the seriousness of war business and its glorious victory into the mere play of a bunch of boys. Art critic Doryun Chong suggests that JoSeub’s “apparent lack of ability” to disguise himself implies that “that particular nation is anything but invented”.
JoSeub’s mockery and comic distortion of history is a continuing tactic in his other works. In the series 5. 16, he relocates the antagonists of the May 16th Coup d'Etat (1961), led by President Park, in a wretched karaoke room. JoSeub, again in an unconvincing disguise as Park, is holding the microphone, accompanied by his military compatriots who are ready to join his lead singing with discipline, passion and even flirtation. By representing Park’s military uprising as an act of entertainment, JoSeub ridicules this once-revolutionized and glorified history of the May 16th Coup d'Etat. JoSeub also deliberately insults Park’s historical position, portraying it as fake stardom by strategically setting up the scene in a karaoke room, where everyone enjoys the vicarious pleasure of illusory popularity when holding a microphone. As art critic Yongdo Jeong asserts, JoSeub “has developed a distinctive system of disbelief”, fictionally structured as a form of tragic comedy. By being disobedient to the order “do not question”(his exhibition title) and disbelieving the history that he was taught, JoSeub challenges Park’s position as a daring leader who is believed to have contributed to the political stability and economic prosperity of Korea. He tries to recover a sense of the reality that has been buried by the deification of militant movements.
Another crucial aspect of JoSeub’s work is that he situates historical events and figures within present-day banal spaces. By so doing, JoSeub tries to evoke the conspicuous presence of violent history in our culture and to criticize collective amnesia. Art critic Pyungjong Park suggests that the political essence of JoSeub’s works is the transgression of the border between the past and the present, as well as between the historically significant and the trivial. He writes, “JoSeub questions this distinction by reducing historically charged events into comic situations [...] By strategically choosing the characteristics of the slapstick comedy genre and blurring the difference between history and triviality, JoSeub also denounces the “fine arts” for their utter failure in the critical reflection of history”. In this regard, JoSeub’s Water Torture unequivocally reveals his typical trivialization of a historical event by means of bitter humour. JoSeub sets up the water torture scene in a public bathhouse, one of the everyday spaces in Korean culture. While two detectives are occupied in torturing the victim, two people who are washing behind do not seem to acknowledge what is happening or rather ignore the situation. Even though the subjects involved in the act of torture are in the forefront, the viewers cannot help curiously noticing these two other people in the background. It is because, as much as they refuse to be engaged with the scene and hence alienate themselves from the viewers’ stance, the viewers may possibly identify with these two who just carry on their mundane work reticently, without questioning what is really happening, or has happened, behind their backs. And their nakedness represents the vulnerability of individuals living under oppression.
As with many of JoSeub’s works, the subject of Water Torture is based on real incidents. Water torture was a common tactic used during political interrogation under military regimes; the dead bodies suspiciously marked with evidence of water torture and found in derelict areas or wastelands, have never been the subject of proper public inquiry. Most cases seem to be simply left behind in history and forgotten in public memory while remaining unsolved. JoSeub’s attempt to re-awaken this violent history is a gesture of grief for the absence of an official apology to the victims of political repression. It is also a warning about the possibility of this history returning if people forget what happened in the 1970s and 80s. As much as his comic portrayal of political figures as rascals and mischievous characters makes the viewer smile, this smile is not straightforwardly one of amusement but rather of a bittersweet truth. The endpoint of the military regimes has never been appropriately marked and hence the issue is still very much alive at the present time. In that sense, what JoSeub tries to represent is not the actual history, which he has not himself experienced, but his own experience of the daily presence and impact of that historical legacy.
President Park’s particular form of nationalism not only justified the violent operation of his rule, but also constructed a gendered division and hierarchy between men and women. Social theorist Chungmoo Choi argues that “the post-colonial Korean discourse of nationalism compounded by the Confucian patriarchal ideology of chastity demands self-censorship from women”. Within that ideology, a woman was often reduced to the status of a “national womb”, without subjectivity, existing only as a precondition for sustaining the patrilineal system. As sociologist Moon states, building “a ‘prosperous and strong’ Korea is a highly gendered process of societal transformation in and by which women are assigned subordinate positions in the nation”. In Park’s desperate endeavour to recover the masculine ideal of the country, the restoration of the stories of historical heroines again played a significant role in disciplining young girls and women.
Sanghee Song’s works keep challenging the repetitive narrativity and myths of virtuous women. In her work A pieta who lost her son (2002), Song mimics the Pietà, one of Michelangelo’s masterpieces, which depicts mother Mary’s grief for her son, whose dead body is laid on her lap. However, the difference between the original work and Song’s mimicry is the absence of the son’s dead body. Song’s version of the Pieta lost her son not only by his death but also by the disappearance of his dead body. The mother’s object of grief has gone missing and therefore she no longer has a reason or justification for mourning. By eliminating Jesus’s body from the original work of the Pieta, Song reveals her ambivalent desire. Song, as a woman, wants to escape from the sacred responsibility of a mother and simultaneously longs for the moment of her unfinished grief. The background scenery reinforces this. It shows a housing landscape developed in a disorderly manner, which could be the result of the radical expansion and urbanization of Seoul, followed by excessive economic development. However, ex-president Park’s “economic miracle” came at the price of democracy. Many who conspired to build a democratic system against Park’s dictatorship were imprisoned or even executed as a threat to national security. Song’s pieta reflects a burdened Korean mother as well as her disappeared son. The missing body in Song’s work manifests the absence of democracy and gender equality, which take a mother and her son’s sacrifice for granted for the sake of national development.
In Mother A (2004), Song continues her criticism of the historical construction of virtuous women. Song adopts a metaphor and the formality of a statue to perform a nationally revered mother figure, Shin Saimdang. Shin was a great artist and writer herself, but she is better known as an ideal mother, who reared her children as national intellects, especially her third child Yulgok who became a master of Neo-Confucian philosophy and reformation policies in the sixteenth century. Shin and Yulgok were also among the historical subjects that ex-president Park tried to restore and promote as national figures. Apparently, Yulgok’s emphasis on the development of military power for national strength was a perfect justification for Park’s militant movement. Yulgok’s mother, Shin, was also depicted as a national contributor who utilized her intelligence and artistic talent to bring up the next generation. Shin’s own achievement as an intellect and artist was underestimated by the ideological construction of her as a devoted mother. Song’s performance as a sculpture of Shin, which could be often found in the playgrounds of girls’ schools in 1970s and 80s, demonstrates the historical manipulation of a heroine’s biography. By adopting the form of a sculpture, Song symbolizes a masculinist version of history, which fixates women as passive objects and domesticates their aspirations. As art critic Manray Hsu suggests, “By restaging these historical myths she (Song) safeguards history from fossilizing into a sequence of unquestionable truths”.
The first lady A (2004) represents Song’s continuing criticism of the idealization of women’s supportive characteristics in favor of masculine nationalism. In this work, she performs Yuk Young Soo, the first lady and ex-president Park’s wife. Yuk has been commemorated as a national symbol of women’s sacrifice for the country, since she was murdered on Korean Independence Day in 1974 by an anonymous man whose gunshot originally targeted the dictator Park, but mistakenly killed Yuk, who was sitting next to him. Yuk’s death was exaggerated as a woman’s highest virtue, sacrificing her own life to save her husband. Her death was not mourned for her sake, but rather she was mystified as her husband’s savior. The nationally-arranged funeral for the highly honored Yuk was not only about grief for the loss of a great mother and wife and the loss of a great national asset, but also about the effective enlightenment of young girls and women who were taught to follow her example. The tear running down Song’s (Yuk’s) face is her appeal to the viewer to recall the grief for Yuk’s instrumentalized death as well as a call to anger about the military dictatorship, which was a cause of her death.
While JoSeub and Song’s performative works challenge the nationalistic narrative of Korean history with their own reflections upon specific historical events and mystified figures, Hwayong Kim’s series entitled Merry Kwansun Odyssey (2005-6) focuses on the subjective position of a national heroine Yu Kwan Sun against collective memorialization. Yu is a respected national heroine for her participation in the resistance movement for Korean independence from Japanese colonization. She died of brutal torture in prison when she was seventeen. Along with Shin Saimdang, the heroic story of Yu was restored under Park’s regime. Yu’s story was advantageous for Park’s nationalism in two ways. One was the educational aspect; her courageous story was a useful tool for disciplining young people and her glorious sacrifice for the nation was included as part of national curriculum to evoke patriotism among young people. The other aspect was the recovery of the masculinity of the country. Feminist writer Hyunyoung Kwon-Kim (2006) argues that the story that Yu valiantly endured the pain of gruesome torture has been employed “as the apparatus to ignite the shame of postcolonial men who could not protect “their” women and to justify the recovery and reinforcement of the patriarchal system”. This is made evident by the fact that the story about Yu always starts with her male family members who were patriotic and considered to be the inspiration of Yu’s involvement in the independence movement. In that story, there is no room for Yu’s personal interpretation of her life and sensibility as a young girl.
Hwayong Kim’s works try to imagine this lost side of Yu’s story. In her note, Kim (2005) states that ‘I would like to ask Yu whether she accepts her constructed position as a national daughter and the ways that people commemorate her on Independence Day’. Focusing on Yu’s subjective position, Kim disguises herself as Yu and performs Yu’s imaginative return on the 60th anniversary of Korean Independence. Kim, as Yu, poses in front of the memorial installation — the City Hall, originally built by the Japanese government during the period of colonization — covered by thousands of Korean national flags for the commemoration. Kim’s cheerful pose with an impudent smile is very different from the way Korean people remember and imagine Yu, a heroine with a solemn face. Kim’s work refutes the overcharged historical and political burden on Yu’s shoulders. Yu’s unexpectedly exuberant appearance conveys Kim’s criticism of sixty years’ historical construction of Yu’s courageous death as a tool of Korean nationalism. Kim attempts to emancipate Yu from the label of a “national” daughter and to expand Yu’s achievement as part of a peace movement against not only Japanese colonization but also against the oppression of the military Korean government. That is why Yu’s imaginative journey does not end here.
In her second work in the Merry Kwansun Odyssey series, Kim’s emancipatory attempt mobilizes Yu beyond national boundaries. Kim joined a visit to Nam Bo Women’s Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in 2006, as part of a peace trip arranged by the Korean NGO ‘Nawa Uri (meaning me and us) and the feminist network group ‘Unnine’ (meaning sisters). Nam Bo Women’s Museum was built to commemorate Vietnamese women who participated in the independence movement, and houses an extensive collection of stories about women’s experiences during the war. In making Yu’s imaginative visit to this museum, Kim raises the issues of the universal suffering of women in warfare, a men’s political game, by blurring the binary notion of a violator (Korea) and a victim (Vietnam). Kim strives to recall Yu’s suffocating position as a patriotic daughter and to expand Yu’s dream of achieving national independence to that of building on world peace. Kim (2006) wrote in her note: ‘I am certain that this visit gives a breathing room for Yu who is only remembered as a tragic heroine. Wouldn’t she also be grateful to meet a comrade beyond the national border?’.
What unifies JoSeub, Song and Kim’s works is the performative aspect. They all perform heroic figures in their ‘personal’ self-portraiture. They realize that history is not only laid to rest in the past, but is also deeply embedded in our present everyday culture. National values built upon the historical construction dominate us in forms of disciplines, ethics and morality, comprising part of our thoughts and behaviors. Hence, opening up new angles on history and rewriting it from diverse subjective perspectives can be accomplished through one’s own subversive embodiments. Self-portraiture, which can involve reading heroic narratives through one’s own bodily experiences, is suggested as a political act of rewriting the propagated history, thereby a performative method disintegrating the present from the legacy of oppression in the past. For JoSeub, it is about the evocation of bittersweet tragic comedy. For Song, it is about restaging for better examination. And for Kim, it is about recovery and imagination of subjective voices beyond national boundaries.
Youngsook Choi is an independent curator and researcher based in London and Seoul. Choi has worked for various public arts projects from a feminist perspective. Among them, she was a founding curator (2004-2005) for the launching of “A Sexuality Museum for Youth” (AHA, YMCA Korea) and chief curator (2003-2006) for the annual exhibition “Women and Space” (Women’s Arts and Culture Foundation, Korea). Choi is currently involved in developing an arts and culture program for traditional market places, funded by the Korean government.
See Mary Poovey’s work, Uneven Development: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (1989, London: Virago Press) which provides examples of the national construction of heroines as part of the enlightenment and disciplining of the public. For more East Asian specific context, see Peletz, M. G. (2007) Gender, Sexuality, and Body Politics in Modern Asia, Michigan: Association for Asian Studies, Inc.
Moon, S. (1998) “Begetting the Nation: The Androcentric Discourse of National History and Tradition in South Korea”, 34, in Choi, C. & Kim, E. H. (eds.), Dangerous Women: Gender & Korean Nationalism, New York and London: Routledge, 33-66.
Moon, S. (1998) “Begetting the Nation: The Androcentric Discourse of National History and Tradition in South Korea”, 36, in Choi, C. & Kim, E. H. (eds.), Dangerous Women: Gender & Korean Nationalism, New York and London: Routledge, 33-66.
Chong, D. (2005) “JoSeub: History is I, 17 x 17”, exhibition catalogue, Total Museum, available at http://www.joseub.com/texts/JoSeubHistoryisI.html (Last accessed in June 2011).
Jeong, Y. (2001) “The System of ‘Believe It or Not, This Is Not Your Problem’: JoSeub’s World of Disbelief”, available at http://www.joseub.com/texts/007.html (Last accessed in June 2011), reprinted in Art in Culture, July 2001, Seoul: Misul-Sarang.
Park, P. (2011) “JoSeub: Politics of Satire and Mockery”, available in Korean at http://www.joseub.com/texts/kor/012kr.html (Last accessed in June 2011), reprinted in Kim, O. et al. (eds.), Seductive Photography, Seoul: Photonet. In a similar context, see also Moon, Y. (2006) “Anti-Monument Anti-Sublimation: JoSeub’s Wretched Humor”, available at http://www.joseub.com/texts/002.html (Last accessed in June 2011), reprinted in Kang, S. and Moon, Y., Incongruent: Contemporary Art from South Korea, Seoul: Hynshil-Munhwa Yeon-Gu, 197-202.
Moon, S. (1998) “Begetting the Nation: The Androcentric Discourse of National History and Tradition in South Korea”, 57, in Choi, C. & Kim, E. H. (eds.), Dangerous Women: Gender & Korean Nationalism, New York and London: Routledge, 33-66.
Hsu, M. (2008: 63-4) “Myths, Hopes and Other Truths: Recent Works of Sanghee Song”, 63, in Hermes Foundation Missulsang 2008, Seoul: Hermes. In a similar view, see also Choi, T. (2010) “From the Subversion of ‘Being a woman’ to the Deconstruction of Myths”, in Kim et al. (eds.), Arco Arts Critic Series: Discussing Contemporary Artists Volume 2, Seoul: Hakgojae, 212-234.
Kwon-Kim, H. (2006) “Different Perspective on Kwan-Soon Yu: Gender, Politics, History”, Searching for Women in History, Issue 76, Unnine Network, available in Korean at http://www.unninet.net/channel/ch_special_vw.asp?ca1=1&ca2=324&ct_Idx=2107 (Last accessed in June 2011).
Art critic Galina Vasilyeva-Shlyapina (year unknown) has classified self-portraits into two different types: the ‘professional’ one in which the artists depict themselves at work and the ‘personal’ one in which the artists try to convey specific messages. Her proposed taxonomy of self-portraits is available at http://ovendenart.blogspot.com/2009/01/self-online-competition-exhibition-of.html (Last accessed in June 2011).