Korea, a Haven for Nobody?Looking back at Korea through the eyes of domestic, yet foreign artists
Seo Hyeon-dong  |
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승인 2014.05.09  14:08:06
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THROUGHOUT RECENT decades, Korea has undergone rapid economic and political development. Peoples lives have become much more affluent than in the poverty-stricken past. Also, democratic values were further spread throughout the country, providing its citizens with more political freedom. However, Korea is still being plagued by many unsolved problems. Concerned with such issues, three overseas Korean women artists, Min Yong-soon, Yoon Jin-me, and Jo Sook-jin address these problems in the exhibition SeMA Gold: Nobody, held in Seoul Museum of Art. Through the exhibition, the three artists implicitly suggest the path that the Korean society should take in our constantly changing world.

 Min Yong-soon, the supporter of nobody


   Min Yong-soon was born near Seoul in 1953, the year the Korean War ended in an Armistice. Min immigrated to the U.S. in 1960 to join her father and grew up in Monterey, CA. While in the States, she received a Masters degree in Fine Arts (MFA) from UC Berkeley in 1979, and a postdoc at the Whitney Museums Independent Study Program. Her artworks are mostly about human rights. She is especially interested in the comfort women issue, and her enthusiasm is lucidly shown in one of her works, Wearing History. This work consists of clothes that Min had personally worn to insist the Japanese government give a sincere apology to the victims of sexual slavery. On the surface of the clothes, there are numbers from 1931 to 2014, which all have symbolic meanings: Numbers from 1931 to 1945 signify the period of sexual exploitation of the so-called comfort women, while those from 1946 to 2014 represent all those years the victims had to live through, disgraced. By displaying the clothes, Min tries to remind others of the memory of the atrocity committed by Japan that is fading from peoples memory, and to help the victims be compensated for their sufferings.


   Min not only focuses on the comfort women issue, but also on the rights of foreigners living in Korea. Her work Moving Target represents such interest. This work is composed of several black balls, and a video of a group of people running from an invisible force. The balls symbolize foreigners residing in Korea, and the video is a representation of them fleeing from government policies which attempted to banish foreign workers from the country. The title of the work, Moving Target depicts how the government regarded them as targets that should be hunted down, and the harsh lives foreigners had to embrace due to racial discrimination. Through these works, Min conveys the message that there are still nobodies in contemporary Korean society who are in great need of care and attention, and that their voices should not be neglected in order that they would no longer be nobodies. 

Jo Sook-jin, the searcher for the basis of life


   Jo Sook-jin was born in *Gwangju*, and received her MFA degree from Hongik University. She moved to New York in 1988, where she got an additional MFA degree from the Pratt Institute. Jo has been noted for her works with abandoned wooden materials such as tree trunks and broken table legs. She is also renowned for producing drawings, photographs, installations and public works that inquire into the topic of death and absence.

   One of her works, Nobody 1 effectively shows Jos style of art, as it consists of abandoned chairs with all their legs cut off, facing a blank wall. From this, the artist had tried to emphasize how dominant Western culture has become in our daily lives, through the depiction of the chairs. In order to put more emphasis on the traditional sitting culture, Jo got rid of the chairs legs, so that they would be lying flat on the ground. The absence of legs can also be interpreted as physical or mental scars that nobodies these days bear throughout their lives, stressing the hardships they are facing.

   Tombstone Landscape, another work by Jo, is the piece that most directly deals with the theme of life and death. As the title indicates, it portrays a group of tombstones piled up into a mountain, exuding a gloomy atmosphere. Nevertheless, the work is not a mere portrayal of transience of life; rather, it is a portrayal of the circulation of life and death. The piece is made out of used and abandoned wood and metal rods. By utilizing them to create a new artwork, Jo attempts to imply that after death, life follows, and the circulation goes on. The discarded objects that are used in Jos works signify the nobodies of Korea, and by making use of them she intends to highlight that they can be recreated, since they are also the fundamental basis of life. 

Yoon Jin-me, and her craving for harmony

   Yoon Jin-me immigrated to Canada in 1968 when she was eight years old, and grew up there. She obtained her degree at the Graduate School of Concordia University, and currently lives and works in Vancouver. Yoons works mostly address the identity crisis she had encountered as a Korean living in a foreign country, and the negative effects that rapid modernization brought about in Korea.


   A Group of Sixty-Seven is about Korean immigrants in Canada. As one can anticipate from the title of the work, it features the portraits of 67 different Koreans residing in Canada, and among them, there are Yoons family members as well. It might be difficult for the viewer to notice anything special about the work at first glance, but a thorough look would allow one to see that the facial expressions and postures of the characters are awkward and unnatural. This sense of awkwardness was intentionally brought out by Yoon, who wanted to show the discord between Korean immigrants and Canadians. Throughout her youth, Yoon had been discriminated against due to her ethnicity, and the feeling of being a nobody had continuously plagued her. Consequently, as A Group of Sixty-Seven clearly shows, many of her works illustrate the anxiety she had felt throughout her experience as a foreigner.

   Yoons other work, As it is Becoming tackles the issue of individualism that became widespread in Korea, along with modernization. It is basically an array of videos. Yoon appears on those videos, wearing a black raincoat and crawling on the sidewalk, suggesting an image of nobody. However, the most shocking thing about the videos is that no one really cares about her, despite the abnormality of her actions. As it is Becoming highlights the prevalence of individualism in contemporary Korean society, and sheds light on Yoons hope to live in a caring world where no one is treated as a nobody.


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   The message of the three artists is clear: there are still many unnoticed nobodies in contemporary Korean society, and further efforts should be made to acknowledge them as rightful members of the community. Keeping this lesson in mind would make Korea a haven for nobodies, where they can be freed from discrimination or indifference. Visit the exhibition and find out how Korea can be their haven.



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