As an art critic in the 1990s, Park Chan-kyong would often refer to what he called the ‘colonial unheimlich’, a theory that is key to understanding his visual work. He claims that there is a serious rupture between Korea’s past and its present: a kind of collective amnesia effected by the country’s rapid economic development, which has made even the recent past an unfamiliar, almost ghostly, figure. ‘Farewell’, the artist’s solo exhibition at Kukje Gallery, characterizes this ghostly past as a spirit to be exorcised by means of a gut, a traditional Muist (Shamanic) rite that has largely been neglected in contemporary Korean society.
The victims of various historical and more recent tragedies in Korea appear together in the three-channel video Citizen’s Forest (2016), which is the show’s centrepiece. The film features several figures in the straw hats that condemned criminals were made to wear in the late 19th century. Amongst the trees, men with skulls for heads play trumpets: an image borrowed from Oh Yoon’s incomplete painting The Lemures (1984), which portrays the victims of the 1980 Gwangju Massacre. Teenage girls standing next to a boat in school uniforms seem to be the victims from the Sewol ferry disaster in 2014. A dog barks throughout, spooked. We also hear a funeral song sung by elderly men from Jindo and the sounds of gut performed by elderly women from Jeju Island. The ghosts find the solace needed to rest in peace and then leave one by one, as though bidding farewell to their tragic pasts.
The video work is a tapestry of fragmented memories and references. Other pieces of this unfinished puzzle can be found on the wall opposite the projection. Small Art History 1-2 (2014-17) comprises 27 photos, including images of Korean amulets and a scan of a book on the history of mudang (female Shamans) written in the late Choson dynasty (1392-1910) as well as reproductions of old master and contemporary artworks from both Eastern and Western traditions. The images are annotated with handwritten captions, many of which make reference to ghosts and spirituality, reconfiguring art history through Park’s particular thematic lens.
One of the photos included is a scanned page from ‘Way to Sit: Tradition and Art’ (2016), an essay that Park co-authored with Lee Youngwook. It analyses Colossal Roots (1964), a poem by Kim Soo-young, and Oh’s The Lemures, seeing both as a revalorization of forgotten folk traditions that bridge past and present.
While the logic of Citizen’s Forest, structured by the cathartic release of the gut ritual, seems clear, this video crowded with souls seems to say far more about contemporary cinema and its production values than it does ancient spirituality. In this respect, I prefer Seven Stars (2017), a birch plate mounted with seven myeongdu (shamanic implements used as spirit mirrors).
‘Way to Sit’ concludes with the suggestion that drawing on traditional Korean shamanism might offer one way of overcoming Korea’s ongoing social trauma from its colonial past and division at the end of World War II, which was not of its own volition but forced by the US and former Soviet Union.
This proposition seems disappointing – after all, such ideas were already manifest in the minjung (people’s) art movement over 30 years ago. Since then, there have been huge changes in the Korean art world – and in Korean society as a whole. The fact that Citizen’s Forest was showcased simultaneously at Kukje Gallery in Seoul and in the Unlimited section at Art Basel attests to the evolving relationship between Korean culture and the rest of the world. I would have been interested to see the ghosts of the past better reflect the present.
Main image: Park Chan-kyong, ‘Farewell’ (detail), 2017, Kukje Gallery. Courtesy: Kukje Gallery, Seoul