Kim Hong-hee <The 6th Gwangju Biennale 2006 and The Problematics of Identity in Visual Art>

Critique 평론 2006. 1. 21. 02:20
Gwangju Biennale 2006
2006.9.8 – 11.11
열풍변주곡 熱風變奏曲 Fever Variations 

2006광주비엔날레 아시아미술포럼
The 6th Gwangju Biennale 2006: Asian Art Forum
2005. 12. 5(월) – 12. 6(화) 
아시아의 눈으로 본 세계현대미술
World Contemporary Art in the Eyes of Asia
장소_  전남대학교 용봉문화관 시청각실(4층)
주최_  재단법인 광주비엔날레
후원_  문화중심도시조성위원회, 문화관광부

Venue_  Yong-bong Culture Center, Chonnam National University
Hosted by_  Gwangju Biennale Foundation
Sponsored by_  Presidential Committee for Culture Cities
            Ministry of Culture & Tourism

Keynote Speech
The 6th Gwangju Biennale 2006 and The Problematics of Identity in Visual Art - Korean Case
Kim Hong-hee
Artistic Director, Gwangju Biennale 2006  


      The “Asian Art Forum” takes place as an academic event complimenting the 6th Gwangju Biennale 2006 and as part of the Festival for ‘A Cultural Hub City of Asia: Gwangju’, itself a grand project promoting the city of Gwangju as a cultural center in Asia. This forum gains great significance related to this project, also expressing the Biennale’s conceptual direction to take Asia as its theme to re-interpret and re-construct world contemporary art from the standpoint of Asia.

      Thus, the theme of this forum is naturally related to the basic ideas of the Biennale. The two sessions of the forum are designed to underpin the discourses of the Biennale exhibitions: The first session, “Tradition and New Identity in Asia,” is conceptually and structurally related to “The First Chapter_Trace Root,” and session two, “Asian Contemporary Art and Global Networking,” to “The Last Chapter_Trace Route” exhibition. What we expect to achieve from this froum is to reconsider the problematics of identity in visual art and to seek for a new identity for Asian contemporary art. With this main concern in mind, I would to approach to the issue of identity in visual art by starting this presentation with an introduction to the concept and structure of the Biennale.

      Identity in visual art, in particular for Asian countries where the development of visual art has been influenced by Western art and politics, has been often selected as an opposing or alternative model to self-differentiate from the West, the First World and Imperialism, based on nationalism and localism. Thus models of identity have been determined in relation to the outer world, then altered following historical change and have been continuously challenged by the formulation of new identity. Given that the evolution of identity discourse in Korean contemporary art clearly demonstrates this process, I would like to deal with the problematics of identity in visual art, focusing on Korean cases, followed by a brief introduction of the Biennale exhibitions.  

1. The 6th Gwangju Biennale 2006 “Fever Variations”

      The 6th Gwangju Biennale 2006 takes ‘Asia’ as its theme. It is valid and meaningful to take Asia as a theme of an international biennale and to pose the most relevant and topical of questions, especially in a period when Asia’s changing energy and dynamic vision are expanding and disseminating worldwide, provoking a shift of the center in the world-system. The Biennale pictures Asia as an active subject, not as an “othered” object, re-interpreting and re-constructing contemporary art from an Asian perspective, as the title of the Biennale, “Fever Variations,” suggests Asia’s cultural abundance and diversity, and also the differences within Asia that affect the world.

      Also, the theme of the Gwangju Biennale 2006 is linked to the project ‘A Cultural Hub City of Asia: Gwangju.’ In 2004, the city of Gwangju declared its intention to be recreated as a ‘A Cultural Hub City of Asia,’ and it is currently proceeding with various city projects, such as the construction of the “Asian Culture Complex,” to keep up with the crest of globalization. The city of Gwangju is carrying out this future-oriented, globalizing plan to regenerate itself as a representative Asian city, escaping from its reputation for traditional and parochial art culture with this future-oriented. This epitomizes the change, development and dynamism of contemporary Asia.

      Gwangju’s will to transform into a leading Asian city through globalization and renew itself through its culture and city projects exemplifies a new, changing Asian nature. In other words, the city of Gwangju serves as an apt geographical metaphor illustrating the change and evolution of Asia. In this context, the Gwangju Biennale 2006 starts from a narrative of “from here” whereby Gwangju reaches towards Asia and the world, and Asia and the world in turn gather in Gwangju. Based on this narrative of “from here” the Biennale consists of two comprehensive exhibitions that will visualize the dynamic relation – centrifugal and centripetal – between Gwangju, Asia and the world.

      “The First Chapter_Trace Root : Unfolding Asian Stories” takes a diachronic standpoint, unfolding back to the root of the Asian sprit in the context of contemporary art culture. This exhibition intends to track the process and procedure of the modernization and globalization of Asian art, seeking to re-locate its place in the global context and deconstruct the East-West dichotomy in art. Interpreting the scope of Asian art beyond its regional and temporal definitions, this exhibition strives to understand the historical stages of contemporary art and even to foretell its future prospects, illuminating the flow of exchanges and mutual influences between West and

East. “The Last Chapter_Trace Route : Remapping Global Cities” employs a synchronic method to crisscross global simultaneity and concurrence, and trace their routes, establishing a trans-national network. Starting from Gwangju and Seoul in Korea, but including other Northeast Asian cities as well as cities from other continents with major Asian immigrant communities actively synthesizing regional culture with Asian heritage, this exhibition suggests a vision for globalism in the global expansion of Asian art, by organizing diverse network events out of a collective synergy from artists of different background collaborating in various cities.

      “The Third Sector_Citizen Program : 1.4 Million Torches” is designed as a scheme to link the Biennale to the citizens of Gwangju and the general public and encourage their active involvement. This program accentuates the site-specificity of Gwangju while conceptually and practically joining to the two main exhibitions, The First Chapter_Trace Root and The Last Chapter_Trace Route, in visualizing the narrative of “from here.” ‘Root’ and ‘Route’ – the keywords of the two chapter exhibitions and the citizen program – serves as a conceptual device for tracing the roots of Asia and searching for a new identity.  

2. The Problematics of Identity in Visual Art - Korean case

      1) Identity of the Other

      The problem of identity is one of the key issues of contemporary art in the global era.  It is especially pressing for artists and curators from the 3rd world or non-Western regions faced with an identity crisis provoked by the turmoil of rapid globalization. For Asian countries with strong traditional cultures that have persisted through the experience of colonization and West-oriented modernization to the current flow of globalization, the issue of identity is the most inevitable and critical matter.

      Cultural identity in the Third World and in Asian countries which experienced suppression or colonization by the foreign power tends to stake out an oppositional position to Western influence, stressing cultural uniqueness and difference from the West and trying to restore its pre-colonial cultural purity, often based on nationalism, racialism and localism. Post-colonial theorists describe this tendency as the “national (racial/regional)” model. On the other hand, the “comparative” model, which emerged against the essentialist cultural restoration campaign and separatist partisanship, emphasizes cultural variations derived from the colonizing imperialist culture and hybrid cultural elements through the reconciliating process with the colonizer. These

thinkers, asserting that cultural hybridity represents the true character and power of post-colonialism, conceive trans-cultural hybridization as an inevitable phenomenon and stress the metonymic function and strength of the cultural hybrid.1 Theorists of cultural hybridity, aligned with other theories such as post-modernism, post-constructivism, feminism and psychoanalysis, treats the phenomenon of cultural hybridity in the global era as a dialectic cultural conflict between the imperialism of Europe/America and the ‘others.’2

 A cultural identity can be either outlined by the “oppositional” mode that emphasizes a nationalist model of regional traditional culture or the “complicit” mode that focuses on mediation between The Colonizer/The Colonized, The Suppressor/The Suppressed, and The Subject/The Other as the comparative model suggests. However, according to these theorists, the oppositional and complicit modes are both sides of post-colonial discourses where mutual exchanges and circulation take place.3 It is in the context that we assume a historical identity: the struggle of the colonized, the suppressed and the other inevitably premises an imaginary reflection of the suppressing body or aspires to step into the symbolic order. Edward Said claimed this exchange and circulation of the oppositional and complicit models as a conscious affiliation disguised as filiation, whereas Homi Bhabha described it in terms of ambivalence or metonymy. Bhabha explains that this ambivalence or metonymy is a subversive power that circulates an identity or representation fixed and simplified by colonial discourses that reduce cultural, historical and racial differences of the other into a signifier of collective identity.4 Therefore, an identity of the other can be illustrated as a process of redemption through the metonymic power obtained through an oppositional or complicit mode. In this context, identity, by nature, is an indeterminate process accompanied by continuous change as well as, in Stuart Hall’s words, a human process that occurs among unstable positions of assimilation constructed through myths, memories and fantasy.5  

        2) Identity Discourses in Korean Visual Art

       Throughout the development of Korean visual art, its identity discourses illustrate the substantial indeterminacy and process mentioned above. The history of modern and contemporary art in Korea has been influenced by continuous fluctuations and changes in its cultural and political status, starting with the introduction of Western culture in the Enlightening Period at the end of the Joseon Dynasty (end of the 19th century – 1910), through the Japanese occupation (1910-1945), the liberation and Korean War (1945-1948) to the post-colonial experiences of military dictatorship, democratic government and finally globalization. This turbulent history generated multiple discourses on identity in Korean visual art, changing from phase to phase. Given that many other

Asian countries went through similar historical experiences, I believe identity discourses in Korean visual art can serve as an exemplary case to reflect on the meaning of identity in visual art in general.

        0. Late 19th century (Enlightening Period) – 1960’s      

      The issue of identity in Korean visual art emerged at the end of the Joseon Dynasty with the introduction of Western painting. While receiving Western painting with admiration and awe, Korean visual artists and thinkers, with an identity crisis consciousness, observed also the differences between Eastern and Western arts. Based on the dichotomy between Western materialism and Eastern spiritualism, they asserted a theory of “Eastern Way and Western Vehicle”(東道西器), interpreting Western science and technique as “vehicle (as a tool)” and the Estern philosophical principles as “Way (to the truth).” In terms of visual art, the “orientalist” claim of the supremacy of Eastern philosophy and visual art due to their foundation on spiritual qualities was put forward.6 This spiritual superiority, along with an attitude that views the East as subject and the West as the other, was based in conceptualizing the geographical notion of oriental-ness into ideological “orientalism.” Likewise, post-war art criticism was grounded in Eastern spirituality – it not only sought the substance of art within literary painting as the pursuit of an inner spiritual realm, but also interpreted calligraphy as the source for European abstract expressionism, and the philosophy of Taoism and Zen Buddhism as the aesthetic origin of Western avant-garde art.

 As such, Korean orientalism is grounded in Eastern spirituality, but still strongly linked to the Korean tradition and Korean-ness. During the Japanese occupation, orientalism in Korea was temporarily incorporated into Japanese Pan-Asianim claiming Asia’s coprosperity sphere, but soon turned into a nationalism – so called “Joseon-ism” – rooted in Joseon Dynasty tradition and locality, and significantly strengthened by the patriotic struggle against Japanese oppression. Joseon-ism, which sought to explore the spiritual context of Korean aesthetics, was also a critical discourse against the unilateral acceptance of Western modern art. Orientalism after the post-war period developed into a kind of indigenous nationalism, which researched and re-illuminated Korean traditional elements and motifs from a post-colonial standpoint. Stressing Korean peculiarities and the collective character of the people as a single race rather than a universal oriental-ness, it strived to establish a unique Korean aesthetics based on spirituality by identifying the Eastern spirituality characteristic to Korea.

   The quest for Korean identity was mostly lead by artists’ groups practicing Western

painting or experimental oriental painting who employed the formal code of Western modernism, not by artists of traditional painting reiterating conventional techniques. Attempting to escape from the fixed notion of ‘modernism=Westernization,’ the strategy of Korean painters of the 60-70’s was to use Korean motifs to realize a Korean variation of modernism. It was in this context that many painters rediscovered local and folk elements such as shamanism (Park Saeng-kwang), Dan-cheong, the traditional color patterns(Lee Se-deuk), mandala (Chun Sung-woo), ceramics, masks, traditional hats, cases, kites, roof tiles and Han-ok, the traditional architecture and reworked them through modernist methods, while another group of painters revived the spirit of literary painting through contemporary expressionist painting such as Informal and Abstract Expressionism.

      0. 1970-80’s

     The issue of identity in Korean art rose as a more critical and problematic matter as it was introduced to the international stage in the 70’s. Questioning how Korean-ness is understood by Westerners and how Korean art can be differentiated from that of the West, artists turned their eyes to traditional culture more actively. The Korean modernism of the 70’s was established such a two-fold effort to situate itself, by adapting into Western modernism, in the context of international contemporary art, while maintaining Korean peculiarities. One of the aesthetic clues in this period to simultaneously satisfy the demands of Western modernism and Korean identity was the material Hanji, or Korean paper.7 Artistically applying Korean paper’s qualities of suppleness and receptiveness, artists modified the ground material into a contemporary artistic medium by devising perforating or overlapping techniques (Lee Ung-no, Kwon Young-woo), or creating translucent canvas reminiscent of the paper windows and doors of Korean traditional houses (Chung Chang-sup).

      However, the true potential of Korean paper was found in its whiteness, which provided the basis for the ‘aesthetics of white’. Monochrome paining, one of the main trends of the 70’s, was born from the white, achromatic canvas that echoes the quality of Korean paper. Through a group of art critics who interpreted such whiteness as national color (Yoo Jun-sang), spiritual light (Kim Bok-young), mental space (Lee Il) and cosmic, natural vision (Nakahara Yuske), the aesthetics of white were established. The whiteness was interpreted not as a color but as light, spirit, non-materiality, cosmic vision, breath of life, trans-temporal creation and disappearance, unity with nature and nothingness/void itself, all meanings setting Korean monochrome painting based on spirituality and naturalism different from Western minimalism.8

      However, despite this effort at differentiation and claims of authentic Korean-ness at least,

from the viewpoint of anti-modernist art such as Mingjung Art (People’s Art), it was regarded as a mere variant or modification of the minimalist aesthetics of the West. Minjung Art emerged in the 80’s as a practice of democratic nationalism and an artistic challenge to Western modernism in its introduction into Korea.  This movement also politically opposed the military dictatorship that fostered Korean modernism and took social realism as its programmatic style and trying to promote Korean motifs derived from folk art and craft of Korea as a means of establishing a self-generated Korean art in a nationalist context. However, it was criticized by a modernist group as propaganda art propagating ideology, and showed its aesthetic limitation failing to provide an apt style for Korean Minjung Art.

      The Minjung Art of the 80’s, to borrow a term from the post-colonial theories mentioned above, conceptualized its identity through the “oppositional” mode that emphasizes national and local character as a challenge to Western art or imperialism. Conversely, Korean monochrome painting of the 70’s, despite its artistic goal of establishing a Korean modernism, formed its discourses on identity by means of the “complicit” mode of modifying or compromising with Western modernism. Likewise, paintings before the monochrome trend, such as the Joseonist paintings during the Japanese occupation or modernist paintings with Korean motifs popular in the post-war period, adapted the process of the “complicit” mode by combining Western and national models despite the oppositional position’s insistence on resisting foreign influence. In the course of Korean art history, the Minjung Art movement, supported by socialist and nationalist ideologies, was the first attempt at establishing an identity through the “oppositional” mode in the anti-modernist context.  This radical attitude unprecedentedly polarized the Korean art scene by opposing the existent modernisms.

        0. 1990’s Onwards

    The radical polarization of the Korean art scene in the 80’s was mitigated or neutralized by a new generation of artists in the 90’s influenced by postmodernism. Identity discourses have moved into a more complex and intricate phase as the experience of many international events and the phenomena of globalism and post-colonialism has brought the issues of globalization/localization to the forefront of the debates. Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism was especially influential – it provided thinkers and artists an alternative paradigm to the existent orientalism, demanding a new approach to and understanding of oriental-ness.9 Said’s Orientalism is based on the representational system of imperialism that identifies the colonized with exoticist imagery, sadomasochist taste and its cultivation, fatal woman of death and fear and produces a

colonial discourse interpreting them as an inferior other, realistic existence, tangible entity.10

      With the introduction of post-colonial Orientalism, Korean contemporary art faced the problem of oriental-ness with confusion and trepidation. As Homi Bhabha suggested, Said’s Orientalism discourse, generating oriental-ness from the standpoint of the West, interprets oriental-ness as colonial stereotype, validating or justifying the colonial discourse’s process of constructing the other.11 That is, the representation of oriental-ness or Korea-ness might fall into stereotypes, reproducing Orientalism through self-peripherization – viewing oneself as the other. Now, the fixed notion or persistence of oriental-ness or Korea-ness has become a cliché or an old paradigm. Confronting the phenomenon of globalism and internationalism, artists strive to be emancipated form the probelmatics of identity. Despite this, it is the case in international contemporary art that Korea-ness or national characteristics are demanded as distinctive qualities of the foreign, exotic other. For example, the Venice Biennale, rooted in the tradition of the pursuit of cultural hegemony, still structures itself around pavilions based on racial and national identities. In such an imperialist cultural institution, one that requires national difference, artists and curators cannot fully escape the obsession with identity. Thus those who simply produce Korean or Asian art without any further reflection on the meaning of identity in contemporary art, easily fall into self-contradiction, forced to compromise with exoticist Orientalism expected by international art exhibitions and Western publics.

 The post-90’s new generation of artists face this Orientalist trap in the double demands of globalism/localism, internationality/Korean-ness. Some artists with keen critical consciousness make use of strategies to neutralize Korean-ness or difference through hybrid politics, or to turn Orientalism into anti-Orientalism by using oriental signifiers in a de-constructivist context. In particular, the new generation of artists and curators of the late 90’s emerged from alternative spaces, fully understanding the debate on globalism/localism as a conceptual device for post-ideology and multi-value, rather than as identity crisis resolution. Their artistic practice is in line with the notion of cultural nomadism, creating universal cross-cultures by combining local traditions and cultural heritages with Western pop-culture or technology that transcend any geographical confinement. A new identity of Korean contemporary art – Korean but also global – can be established through the open attitude of these artists and curators, who re-interpret the question of identity beyond its ideological politicization.



      International Biennales, for contemporary Asian artists, provide a stage for experimenting their notion of identity by presenting works that are national but also trans-national, regional yet transcending its regional boundaries. Furthermore, regional issues are expanded to the global context by means of global networking, and the possibility of an incorporated evolution of the West and the non-West can be proposed through this open ground, which provides a learning field for globalism. Through the international exchanges of biennales, we have realized that globalism is not a substitute for localism, but a meaningful encounter between the world and the region, and therefore bound to return to its original roots. However, we need to take a post-colonial standpoint in dealing with the issue of difference and identity through the code of ambivalence, not to misconstrue the recurrence to the root as popular exoticism or colonialist Orentalism.

      The post-colonial stance towards the concept of difference, gap and ambivalence and the politics of identity based on such an attitude all suggest a way of remapping Asia, rectifying the premises and myths of Orientalism, exoticism, localism, nationalism and racialism rooted in the First World/Third World dichotomy. Asia’s new identity – a global identity that sheds the baggage of the ‘Asian Way,’ Pan-Asianism and Asia-centrism while remaining glocal in its commitment to its history and traditional culture – can be achieved when we take Asia as a discursive category and not as a geographical given. It is my sincere hope that the presentations and discussions by the world-renowned theorists and curators in this forum will contribute to the journey to redeem a true root for Asian identity and help find Asia’s new identity through global networking via communication and reciprocation.  

1. Lee Seok-ho, Post Colonial Theories of Literature, Minumsa 1989, p.31-30, 87 (Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back, 1989 Korean translation ).

2. Starting from Edward Said’ Orientalism combining Maxism and Foucaultian post-structuralism, this includes theories by Homi Bhabha (based in psychoanalysis), Gayatri Spivak, Chandra Mohanty and Trinh T. Min-ha(combining de-constructivism and feminism).

3. See the discussion on post-colonial discourses in terms of oppositional and complicit modes by Vijay Mishra and Bob Hodge, “What is Post(-)colonialism?" in Patrick Williams and Laura Chisman eds., Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, p. 284-87   

4. Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture, London and New York: Routledge, 1994, p. 66.  

5. Stuart Hall, "Cultural Identity and Diaspora", Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory, p. 392-396.

6. Chung Hyung-min, “Birth and Transformation of the Concept of ‘Oriental-ness’ in Korean Art”, Rethinking of  

Orientalness in Visual Art, International Symposium on Cultural Comparison of Visual Art 2004, p.123.

7. Kim Jung-hee, “The Multisided Factor for the Formation of ‘Koreanness’ in Korean Modern Art”, Rethinking of Orientalness in Visual Art, International Symposium on Cultural Comparison of Visual Art 2004, p.84.  

8. Exhibition Catalogue of Five Korean Artists-Five Whites (Park Seo-bo, Kwon Young-woo, Seo Seung-won, Lee Dong-yup, Huh Hwang), Tokyo Gallery, 1975 : Lee Il, supporting the Korean Monochrome, asserted that whiteness in the Korean Monochrome is not the achromatic against color but something spiritual and a unique Korean space that “returns to the primordial and natural world, not a space for logical thinking as in Western minimalism.” Also, Nakahara Yuske, who firstly introduced the Korean Monochrome painting to Japan, described that Korean white suggests a “framework for cosmic vision” as a “systematic element eliminating and reducing forms.”

9. To differentiate the post-colonial Orientalism from existent Korean discourses on orientalism, the former is written with a capital letter.

10. Park Hong-kyu, Orientalism, Kybo Book Center, 1991(1998). (Edward Said, Orientalism, 1978 Korean translation) p. 297.

11. Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture, p. 70-74.
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