Seoul Museum of Art

A few people have asked about whether I’m teaching or not. I am, inshallah. I’ve resisted blogging about my troubles with Immigration because it would take many pages of boring detail, and I don’t want to give the impression that the immigration bureaucracy is representative of the country.

Presumably they don’t mean the De-Militarized Zone:


As I’ve mentioned before, Koreans are friendly and polite and, with a little beer or makgeolli, very expressive. Whereas the people charged with making life hard for migrant workers are an international class, incompetent and occasionally unpleasant in every country. In my case, one office says they’ll let me teach a course, and another office says they won’t. I get my documents together this week, send it to them and wait. If the gods are smiling, I’ll lead a graduate seminar in September on whatever topic I want. So far I’m thinking Trotskyism, imperialism, new wave cinema, Red Army uniforms… if you’ve always wanted to take a seminar on a particular topic, leave a suggestion in the comment box.

A couple of weeks ago, after a trip to my embassy to pay $50 to get a stamp on a piece of paper, I rewarded myself with a trip to the Seoul Museum of Art, to see Mapping Realities: Korean Art in the 1970s-80s. I made a grand entrance to the gallery, having found it after a long hike in the crippling sunshine. I was so tired I didn’t see a step in front of me, stumbled and nearly fell head-long onto the main entrance. But after a few fast, impromptu silly-walk steps I recovered my poise and dignity and sat in the lobby for some minutes to cool down, pretending like no one saw me.

The Korean democracy movement came of age in the 1980s, and it was a radical, socialist struggle of both students and workers. People organized themselves to study illegal books (you couldn’t own a copy of Marx in South Korea before 1990) and demonstrate. Democracy was not bourgeois democracy, the right to elect a politician every few years to decide how to make your life miserable. It meant people fighting for the rights of women, the working class in general, for freedom of speech and against the rule of the military backed by the chaebols, or giant family-run corporations like Hyundia and Samsung that dominate the economy to this day. 10,000 people died; and when you read a statistic like that, you also have to consider the number of people who were tortured, imprisoned and harassed by state security was much, much higher. They didn’t kill a few thousand and leave everyone else alone. There’s a long history of this, dating back to the anti-Communist revenge massacres led by the American military and allied Korean forces, that doesn’t get mentioned in the tourist brochures.

I mention all this to explain the intensity of the art on display. Here’s some modernist art from the 1970s, before the struggle came into the open:




I like them, but they don’t fill me revolutionary fervour. Yes yes, art doesn’t have to do that. But when thousands of people are fighting and dying around you, the stakes become a little higher and artists engage in the struggle through their work. Warning: some of these images are disturbing, as they should be. The pieces were organized in four themes: politics, labour, consumer society and my favourite:


I’ve never seen a major gallery in Canada, or anywhere, demonstrate an understanding of those terms, let alone an interest in them.

Bourgeois comfort is built on the backs of the working class:



I’m not sure if this is a statement on women’s labour in general or if it refers to a specific incident. It works either way:


There were many pieces on the US military occupation:



This is so menacing, I love the use of colour set against the shadowed American soldier:



Before waterboarding there was good old-fashioned drowning:



I’m not sure what the fiery effluent is supposed to be but it’s a great image:


While the battle rages outside, bourgeois society maintains an uneasy calm:


On a lighter note, this man is wearing a Korean-style baggy suit:


Images of labour:


It finally occurred to me that I don’t need to take photos of entire images, I can just focus on parts I like e.g. this man is using his head for a lunchpail:


Who has to rebuild society?




Alienation. Apparently a dragon made of many heads is a traditional image:




My favourite of the exhibition, by Ahn Chang-Hong. If this isn’t an album cover, it should be:


Critiques of mass society – always an easy target but they were well-done. Click through on this one to see it bigger:



Primary and secondary colours – my favourite! OK, tertiary are pretty good too:


Despite physical isolation, Korean leftists were still internationalist:



After all this, the contemporary collection felt lacklustre. Sure, it’s clever, conceptually challenging and makes you perceive the world differently. I kept wanting to ask, So what?

The signifiers don’t match the signified. Oooo.


I liked the lego corpse:


One skeleton tree, reflected in mirrors to look like endless skeleton trees:


A nightclub installation, complete with pounding music and strobe lights:




One thought on “Seoul Museum of Art

  1. Pingback: Busan Museum of Art | The Rootless Metropolitan

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