BY Louise Menzies in Reviews | 15 SEP 07

Collective Action and Korean Contemporary Art

At Govett-Brewster, New Plymouth, an exhibition direct-sells the gallery’s interests in social and political issues of migrant peoples in South Korea

BY Louise Menzies in Reviews | 15 SEP 07

A large banner asking ‘Where is Asia?’ hangs above the entrance to the Govett-Brewster gallery providing a welcome to Mercedes Vicente and Beck Jee-Sook's curatorial project ‘Activating Korea: Tides of Collective Action’, a survey of collective strategies in contemporary Korean art. Produced by the Seoul-based collective mixrice, the question is printed in English and Korean as well as Mianmarese, Nepalese, Bangladeshi (the three main migrant groups living and working in South Korea), and Maori. Through the simple but effective strategy of employing language as a way to focus our thoughts on ideas of place and identity, mixrice continue their occupation of the gallery’s street front to direct-sell their established interests in the social and political issues of migrant peoples working in South Korea. Adhesive signage on the windows announces video documentation of the performance by Minu and Soe Moe Thu as Stop Crackdown (also known as the Migrant Workers Band), from the Migrants Arirang 2007 festival in Seoul.

Operating as an education, media and activist project as much as an artist collective, mixrice provide the perfect entry point for how collective action can be understood within the context of Korean (art) history. Within its given national setting, ‘Activating Korea’ specifically aims to unravel the influences of the Minjung Art period of the 1980s. Often translated as ‘People’s Art’, Minjung was a dominant concept in post-war Korean culture, advocating an active art openly opposed to dictatorship and capitalism, providing a legacy of critical and politically-engaged art in Korea – as is proven by the gutsy works on show.

This crossing between aesthetic production and political action makes for a reflexive exhibition on how art and politics continue to pull against and define each other, however it does beg the question: what relationship can Korean art have to other local and global political and artistic movements, and in this case a provincial New Zealand audience? To put it simply, ‘Activating Korea’ is a move of solidarity, where the values of art as political action are endorsed within a regional and international situation. To the extent that this gesture preserves the integrity of those practices presented is the real challenge here, as it is within the wider international trend to assess the many enscribed and potential connections art has to political action.

The main site of such action is of course the street, as Minouk Lim's celebrated video installation New Town Ghost (2005) reminds us: accompanied by live drumming, a young woman with a megaphone stands astride the deck of a KIA Motors truck, rapping a personal narrative against the rapid urban redevelopment in the area of Yeongdeungpo, Seoul. Comments on the effects of Korea's rapid development flow thorugh a number of the works, from Bae Young-whan's balloon-topped hardhats, a cartoonish safety measure for children navigating the Seoul traffic (Sideways, 2006-07), and the production of a handbook for homeless people based on the artist’s own period of research spent living on the street (Homeless Project, 2000), to Ko Hynjoo's photographic series of government sites with restricted public access (‘Another view of the institutions’, 2004 -06). To quote Lim: ‘Festival atmosphere of accidental encounters/ Mixed-use housing-commercial, oh my, complex.’

Main image: Minouk Lim, New Ghost Town, 2005, film still. Courtesy: the artist