28 Korean artists shine a spotlight on the vibrancy and complexities of their country

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28 Korean artists shine a spotlight on the vibrancy and complexities of their country
Lights of Weolgok-dong, 2005, AHN Sekwon (b. 1968), Digital C-print, collection of the artist.

PHILADELPHIA, PA.- Through the lens of 28 Korean artists, all born between 1960 and 1986, The Shape of Time: Korean Art after 1989 focuses on South Korea’s growing influence on the world stage and how the country continues to grapple with its past.

The late 1980s was a time of great political change for South Korea. Its long-standing military dictatorship transitioned to a legitimate democracy, and an international travel ban was lifted, creating opportunities for global engagement, powerful economic growth, and cultural exchange. This marked an important turning point for South Korean artists as they began to connect in earnest to the global art scene.

Using a variety of mediums, including ceramics, painting, fiber, photography, lacquer, installation, metalwork, mixed media, embroidery, video, and performance, these artists explore themes like conformity, displacement, gender and sexuality, coexistence, and dissonance, making universal connections that offer a deeper understanding of South Korea, its history, and its culture.

The featured artists, 12 of whom are women, are well established in South Korea and Europe but newer to an American audience.* Examples include:

OH Jaewoo (b. 1983), Let’s Do National Gymnastics!, 2011​

In this ten-minute, single-channel video, Oh evokes the compulsory exercise program prevalent in Korean schools between 1977 and 1999. Emphasizing collectivism and obedience, the video is set to the militaristic beat of the Korean National Stretch Anthem in a commentary on the ubiquitous pressure to conform and the associated anxiety pervasive across Korean culture.

Yeondoo JUNG (b. 1969), Eulji Theater, 2019

Blending multilayered historical events and personal stories with an alternative narrative and theatrical framing, Jung’s colossal photograph provides what for many people will be an important introduction to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Set at Eulji Observatory, one of 13 such observatories along the Military Demarcation Line, the work depicts a “Miss Korea” swimsuit competition that actually took place in the observatory in the past, alongside other factual and fictional elements. Jung recalls and reinvents the DMZ’s history in a monumental and multisensory manner, grappling with the trauma caused by conflicts that continue to impact Korea’s identity as a divided nation yet reclaiming a unified identity for all Koreans by uniting North and South in a shared history of the artist’s own re-creation.

Kyungah HAM (b. 1966), What you see is the unseen/Chandeliers for Five Cities, 2016–17

In What you see is the unseen/Chandeliers for Five Cities, Ham underscores the ongoing tension between North and South Korea by attempting direct communication across the DMZ. Through covert back channels, Ham’s contacts smuggled the plans for her impressive, oversized embroideries into North Korea to be hand-stitched by highly skilled artisans there. The precariously hung chandeliers both reflect the Korean Peninsula’s historic instability and represent the foreign powers responsible for its division, which Ham and her collaborators take great risks to attempt to overcome.

Donghyun SON (b.1980), Portrait of the King Series, 2007-8

In this series, Michael Jackson (the “King of Pop”) is portrayed using painting techniques historically reserved for rulers of the Joseon dynasty. Son expands the traditional role of portraiture to reverentially depict a contemporary pop icon in a way that reflects the zeitgeist of the late 20th century US, blending the past with an ever-changing present that is further complicated by Jackson’s divisive legacy.

“Korea has a growing and vibrant art scene, so including the Korean voice is crucial to a more fully realized and inclusive global art narrative,” said Sasha Suda, George D. Widener Director and CEO. “In presenting this exhibition, we are introducing new voices—ones that have experienced this pivotal place and time in history firsthand—to share their unique perspectives. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is honored to create a platform for these powerful works and to help tell these authentic stories.”

“The timeframe of this exhibition was a formative one for South Korean artists and is aptly reflected in the exhibition’s title, which refers to an individual’s conception of the present and future as framed by and predicated upon memories and experiences of the past. Our hope is that through this exhibition, we tell this story and inspire a wider audience to learn more about this mighty nation,” said Elisabeth Agro, Nancy M. McNeil Curator of American Modern and Contemporary Crafts and Decorative Arts, and Hyunsoo Woo, Pappas-Sarbanes Deputy Director for Collections, the exhibition’s co-curators.

The Shape of Time: Korean Art after 1989 opened on October 21, 2023, and will be on view until February 11, 2024. A multimedia tour will be available, featuring audio, images, and videos. The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue that will not only be the first major English-language publication to feature many of these artists, but also will make a significant contribution to the interpretation of and scholarship on contemporary Korean art and culture.

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