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Issue 229

Minjung Art’s Influence on South Korean Contemporary Art

Liz Kim on how the social and artistic movement of the 1980s inspired a new generation of Korean artists

BY Liz Kim in Features , Thematic Essays | 31 AUG 22

In Jung Jung-yeob’s woodcut Cotton Gloves (1988), a pair of thick work gloves hangs from a washing line. So convincingly does the artist convey the familiar rough weave of the fabric in crosshatched black ink that you can almost feel it under your fingers. Two pegs – one red and one blue – clamp each glove onto the line at the edge of its rubber wrist band. These colours may signify male and female, referring to the gender designations commonly used at communal baths in Korea, or they may allude to the colours of the twin forms at the centre of the South Korean flag that represent the Daoist concept of yin and yang: the positive and negative forces in nature.

Jung’s work belongs to the Minjung (‘people’s art’) art movement of the 1980s, whose emergence was accelerated by the 1980 Gwangju Massacre: around 1,000 inhabitants of the city of Gwangju were murdered when they took up arms against government troops following a brutally repressive attack by the authorities on a group of students who were peacefully protesting against the dictatorship of South Korea’s then president, General Chun Doo-hwan. Promoting an agenda of democracy and equality, Minjung art criticized imperialism and South Korea’s authoritarian government, while venerating working-class labourers and depicting scenes from everyday life and nature. Moreover, many artists took to woodblock printing (panhwa) as a form of political expression to promote a populist and social-realist aesthetic, as exemplified in Jung’s Cotton Gloves – a subtle nod to male and female labourers.

Juny-yeob Jung, Cotton Gloves, 1987, ink on paper 34 × 27 cm. Courtesy: the artist
Jung-yeob Jung, Cotton Gloves, 1987, ink on paper, 34 × 27 cm. Courtesy: the artist

It was the formation of the artists’ group Hyunsil-gwa Baleun (‘Reality and Utterance’) in 1979 that formally marked the establishment of the Minjung art movement. The group explicitly organized itself around opposition to the formalism of a loose grouping of artists known as Dansaekhwa (literally, ‘monochrome painting’) – active since the mid-1970s, their work was largely non-figurative paintings in neutral hues. The members of Hyunsil-gwa Baleun wanted to, as they saw it, bring art back in touch with the reality of the times; in particular, they wanted to critically examine the rapid social changes that had resulted from the exponential growth of South Korean industry since the 1970s. The group’s inaugural exhibition, ‘Hyunsil-gwa Baleun’, took place at Dongsanbang Gallery in 1980 and featured the works of 12 artists, including Lim Ok-sang, Min Joung-Ki, Oh Yoon and Son Jang Sup. In 1985, Hyunsil-gwa Baleun largely became absorbed into an umbrella organization, Minsok Misul Hyupeuihwe (‘People’s Art Cooperative’), which consolidated a number of different Minjung art groups. That same year, the police shut down the Minjung art exhibition ‘Korean Artists in Their 20s’ at the Arab Cultural Center in Seoul in response to its political and ‘degenerate’ content, and subsequently arrested artists who protested against the authoritarian censorship. It was the widespread media coverage of this event that galvanized Minjung into becoming a national movement with a clearer identity and bigger reach.

In 1993, following the peaceful election of Korea’s first civilian president in three decades, Kim Youngsam, Minjung art lost its political exigency. The first retrospective of Minjung art at the Modern Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul in 1994 also diluted Minjung’s identity as a movement operating outside of the mainstream. Over the following years, the works of Minjung artists largely fell out of favour. It wasn’t until 2015, when a major donation of approximately 200 works of Minjung art was made to the collection of the Seoul Museum of Modern Art (SeMA) by Gana Art’s director Lee Ho-jae, that there was a resurgence of interest in the movement. More recently, in July 2020, Seoul’s Hakgojae Gallery organized an exhibition of Hyunsil-gwa Baleun artists to mark 40 years since it was established. Titled ‘Art and Words’, the show drew national attention even with the constraints placed on the space as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite these significant shifts in Minjung’s relationship with Korea’s art historical establishment, the movement has had a lasting impact on the country’s contemporary art, one of its key legacies being collective organization and mobilization.

‘Art and Words’, 2020, exhibition view, Hakgojae Gallery, Seoul. Courtesy: Hakgojae Gallery, Seoul

A major development to come out of the Minjung movement is the emergence of Korean feminist art. Working collectively, artists such as Kim In-soon, Jung Jung-yeob and Yun Suknam were members of Yeosung Misul Yeonguhoe (Women’s Art Research Society), which in 1986 split from Minjung art’s Minsok Misul Hyupeuihwe (‘People’s Art Cooperative’) in order to promote better representation of women in the male-dominated art world of 1980s South Korea. Their work continues to provide a framework for the development of women’s art collectives. For instance, a number of women’s art groups – which have largely emerged since the 1990s from the sculpture department of Hongik University in Seoul, one of South Korea’s top art programmes – now operate in several spaces around the city: Project Space Yeongdeungpo, founded by Ji Hyun-a; Gonggan Illi, founded by Hwang Soo-kyung; and Art Jamsil, organized by Sagongtalk (the artist duo comprising Kim Sung-mi and Kim Soo-yeon). These groups collaborate on exhibitions, talks, educational programming and residencies that promote gender equality by highlighting the works of emerging women artists or those who have taken an extended career break to raise children. More recently, in 2020 a younger generation of women artists founded Louise the Women, an artist group that promotes its broad range of members through artist-run projects, exhibitions and curatorial workshops.

The introduction of alternative art spaces – in Korean, dae-an gonggan – offered the contemporary art landscape of South Korea both new frameworks and structural diversity. The first, launched in 1999 by Suh Jinsuk, Song Wonsun, Shin Yong-shik and Park Wan-chul, was Loop – an artist-driven space modelled after those they would have encountered while living in Chicago in the mid-90s, such as Randolph Street Gallery. Others followed, including Artspace Boan 1942 in 2017 and Shi Chung Gak in 2013. More recently, a different type of alternative space called shinseng gonggan (‘spaces for emerging art’), modelled after co-operative galleries, started to emerge on the scene, including Post Territory Ujeonggook and the now-shuttered Vanziha, launched in 2015 and 2012, respectively.

Soojung Jung, Concert, 2022, oil and pastel on canvas, 1.1 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and A-Lounge, Seoul

Beyond the significant impact it had on Korea’s art ecosystem, the legacy of Minjung art can also be found in the prominent themes explored by the country’s contemporary artists, most notably motifs around nature and the rejection of Western modernism and elitism. Minjung artists, such as Lim Ok-sang and Min Joung-Ki, whose landscape paintings and portraits of farmers were designed to appeal to the common people, created artworks that supported a utopian vision of an agrarian society, one that would see a corrupt world devastated by the power of nature. One contemporary artist whose work expresses this idea clearly is Soojung Jung. In her painting Concert (2022), for instance, a primordial creature or god with a human head and a stretched, stool-like body arises out of a space created from a mash-up of symbols of 20th-century society: bending skyscrapers, a church steeple, Western sheet music. A musician playing a double bass bids farewell to civilization as the creature surveys the scene of disintegrating reality, with waves cascading into the ether – a return to nature, or a purging of foreign influence.

Ko Young Chan, Dorori, 2022, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Plan B Project Space, Seoul

Minjung art’s emphasis on nature and traditional farming communities can also be seen in Ko Young Chan’s video and photographic works. In the single-channel Dorori (2022), he investigates the disappearance of Jimdaehanassi, a 300-year-old sotdae. Taking the form of a tall wooden pole or a stone pillar topped with the carved figure of a duck, sotdae were traditionally located at the entrances of villages for protection, in accordance with Korean shamanic practices. In this context, the duck represents a creature that can transition between sky, earth and water. Devoid of people, Ko’s lingering, desaturated shots of a village, Dongjung, in Buan County convey the aftermath of the controlled burning in winter of dry rice paddies. The artist’s pursuit of the story of how the sotdae went missing and was then found again takes the viewer on a journey through competing narratives and prompts us to reflect on how cultural heritage is deeply rooted in the landscape.

Hee Vaak, Pieces of Oksoon, 2015–22, video still. Courtesy: the artist

Another aspect of South Korean contemporary art that may find its roots in Minjung art is transcultural pop – or what has routinely been defined, since the 1990s, as Korean postmodernism. This tendency is rooted in the aestheticization of day-to-day life in Korea, as well as in the widespread use of American pop vernacular and Japanese manga, such as the animated series Slam Dunk (1990–96) and Crayon Shin-chan (1990–ongoing). In their narrative-based, moving-image works, some artists also manifest their interest in the romanticism of Hong Kong cinema, whose richly nostalgic, oneiric imagery and deeply saturated colour palette can be found in the works of artists such as siren eun young jung – who represented Korea at the 2019 Venice Biennale with A Performing by Flash, Afterimage, Velocity, and Noise (2019) – as well as emerging artists such as Hee Vaak, who makes video installations about aging and the disappearance of history in works such as Pieces of Oksoon (2015–22).

HwaHyun Kim, The Guardian, 2017, ink and light colour on Korean paper, 60 × 40 cm. Courtesy: the artist
Kim Hwa Hyun, The Guardian, 2017, ink and light colour on Korean paper, 60 × 40 cm. Courtesy: the artist

Transcultural pop’s utilization of American popular culture and kitsch not only served as a foil to criticize the West, but also as a tool to reach the masses – tenets of both Minjung art and Korean postmodernism. Minjung’s repudiation of Americanization and Western culture also witnessed a revival in Buddhist and shamanistic imagery to uplift popular traditions in Korean culture. The move saw an amalgamation of agitprop styles with more traditional technique. Similarly, transcultural pop artists, such as Tae Kim and Grim Park, who have been trained in traditional methods, often combine their Korean ink-wash painting techniques with the contours of Japanese animation. (A vestige of historic Japanese colonization that has become the basis of preserving and developing traditional techniques, art schools in South Korea still divide departments into ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’, with the latter further subdivided into sumukhwa [monochrome ink painting], chaesekhwa [colour ink painting] and Buddhist art.) Kim Hwa Hyun, for instance, combines Buddhist and Christian iconographies in her images of male figures that also evoke Japanese romance manga comics from the 1980s and ’90s (e.g. Gunsundo, 2017).

Kim was trained in sumukhwa – a form introduced to Korea by Chinese political exiles during Mongol rule in the time of the Song Dynasty, who produced these amateur ink-wash works alongside their calligraphic practices. By painting a small, solitary figure in the middle of a vast natural landscape, these artists – who in exile refused to participate in politics, and allowed their artistic skills and training to gradually dissipate – silently communicated their dissidence. In the Eastern calligraphic tradition, the movement of the brush is considered to be a meaningful reflection of the calligrapher’s character – a belief echoed in The Guardian (2017), in which Kim’s twisting, energetic brushwork overpowers the central figure. In this work, a combinate figure of Saint Michael and a Tang Dynasty Buddhist guardian blankly stares at the weighing scale suspended from his left hand (which seems to mimic the shape of his upper body) while he stabs his lower body with the spear in his right hand. Utilizing the pop language of Japanese comics, Kim sets out to perform the obsolescence of the male hero.

Jaewon Kim, Island of Restriction, Island of Paradise, 2020, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Visual AIDS

With an aesthetic that harks back to the golden age of Hong Kong cinema from the 1970s through to the ’90s, Kim Jaewon’s videos combine prose poetry and explorations of the relationships between places, people and viruses, whether HIV or COVID-19. Many of Kim’s works are staged in hotel rooms during moments of conflicted melancholy, moving between celebrations of gay cruising culture, monogamous love and the need to scrub away something internal. In Island of Restriction, Island of Paradise (2020), for instance, Kim describes beds as islands – places where he has sought both refuge from society and healing from illness. As the video shifts from a shot of one mattress to the next – decorated with shiny balloons and flowers, or illuminated as though under a streetlight – there is a sense of gratitude for these spaces as arenas for personal growth in a South Korean society that is often conservative and homophobic, denying LGBTQ+ people and culture public visibility unless under strictly contained and regulated contexts.

Ram Han, Save our souls_04, 2022, archival pigment print, 14 × 28 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Whistle, Seoul; photograph: Yang Ian

A more recent prevalent theme within Korean contemporary art is digital art – or, to adopt the term that became widely used around 2010, ‘post-internet art’ – which sought to express the fragmentation and reconfiguration that epitomized the digital era. Artists such as Moon Sang Hoon and Dew Kim, for instance, draw on meme culture and YouTube documentaries to offer social critique in works such as No Future (2021) and Dreams Come True (2022), respectively. Combining imagery of animated figures and emojis in a data-based world, Ram Han’s work offers an organic, cybernetic sensibility of sinewy, replicating connections. Her digital paintings such as Save our souls (2022) twirl and sparkle, taking on the glossy, airbrushed look of internet world-building. Her works are often displayed on lightboxes, lending further visual contrast to the figures and creatures they depict, who are often in the process of being cleaved or melting.

An Ga-young, KIN online, 2020–21, video still. Courtesy: the artist

Kin Online (2020–21) by An Ga-young is a single-channel video that employs the aesthetics of video games to create utopian worlds. The three main characters – Hyeji, Minji and Jihye – are artists who are seeking existential freedom in an online metaverse known as VRChat, each in the shell of their own avatar. Hyeji, ruptured and fragmented, hopes to find refuge from the intellectual theft of her creations; Minji, in outdated steampunk, always feels behind and lost in today’s fast-changing art scene; while Jihye, pictured as a femme fatale in military gear, seeks to reclaim the agency of her avatar from sexual objectification. Navigating the eerily lit digital realm, Kin Online is a social commentary whose characters band together to shine an empathetic light on the realities of the contemporary art world for women artists working in Korea. Just as Jung Jungyeob’s work critiqued South Korean society in the 1980s through her formal expressions, later generations of artists working today, like An Ga-young, are using Minjung art’s commitment to nature, connectivity and mass culture to define new ways forward in South Korean contemporary art.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 229 with the headline ‘The People’s Art’. 

Frieze Seoul is open Septemer 2–5 at COEX, Seoul.

Main image: Jehyun Shin, The Shape of Water, 2021, wood from an abandoned house and performance. Courtesy: the artist

Liz Kim is a PhD lecturer of art history at Texas A&M University in Kingsville, USA.