Arts and Entertainment

Only the Young: The Birth of the South Korean Avant-Garde

The Guggenheim debuted an overlooked collection of South Korean art from a time of military dictatorship.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Jaden Bae

General Park Chung-hee staged a coup on May 16, 1961, overthrowing the democratic South Korean government and instating a military dictatorship. Under the new government, Korea went from a country torn apart by civil war and Japanese imperialism to a land of rapidly urbanizing cities—at the heavy cost of personal freedom. The National Security Act of 1948 was established to shut down national socialist and communist ideology and was used by Park to censor criticism of the government and torture political dissenters, effectively eliminating free speech. Reacting to this new era, art radicalized as Korean artists transitioned from traditional painting to photography, video, installation, performance, and sculpture to subtly criticize both the new regime and the country’s cultural shift. These artists—retroactively referred to as “experimental” for their use of new and unconventional mediums—rejected the mainstream state-established National Art Exhibition, instead opting to use alternative small artist groups as platforms for their work. The National Security Act put many experimental artists at risk of arrest, forcing them to work in fear while also dealing with the controversy their provocative work elicited in the art world. Pieces from this period of avant-garde art are compiled in Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s–1970s, which debuted at the Seoul National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in May of this year before coming to the Guggenheim in September. Small but impactful, this exhibition showcases defiance, protest, and expressive innovation from artists in the face of a corrupt government and a society in the throes of chaos.

As a nation, the South Korean people are proud of how far their country has come since the Korean War. The sprawling metropolis of Seoul is a symbol of Korea’s prosperity and possession of one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. The consequences of Seoul’s urbanization—economic inequality, pollution, and homelessness—are typically glossed over when discussing South Korean history. In that sense, Kim Kulim’s The Meaning of 1/24 Second (1969) was ahead of its time—and still is. The grainy video footage depicts life in Seoul through fleeting images of traffic, children playing in the streets, and buildings. Spliced in between are shots depicting a grimmer Seoul: a man sleeping on the streets, workers laboring in a factory, etc. Viewers don’t get time to process these images; with every shot lasting only 1/24th of a second, the viewing experience mimics the real-life fast pace that engulfs the city. A few frames are dedicated to the actor Chung Chanseung, a sign of the artists behind the production. He sits and yawns with a detached expression as his cigarette fills the air with smoke. The film portrays people who have failed to keep up with Seoul’s advancement: people who are forced to live on the streets or endure hard industrial work. In the city’s bleak state, artists—meant to be advocates for hope and progressive change—instead accept the reality of the big city, succumbing to their fatigue. Seoul is presented as a depressive, draining, capitalist urban jungle—the cost of the city’s great success.

When the Republic of Korea’s constitution was introduced in 1948, women were granted the promise of gender equality, alongside the right to vote. There was an increase in working and educated women as the confinements of domestic expectations loosened. As a result, the 1960s saw the societal view of women in Korea change, though not necessarily positively: while traditional gender roles continued to exist, the period ushered in an increase in the commercial sexualization of women through the male gaze. This phenomenon was similar to countries in the West, reflecting the westernization South Korea underwent as a result of industrial advancement and the American occupation of the country post-World War II. Artist Jung Kangja, who is considered one of Korea’s first feminist artists, responded to this change in Kiss Me (1967). Kiss Me is a plaster sculpture of bright pink lips and white teeth faintly glowing from inside. The saturated, harsh colors of the lips and thick black outlines of the teeth are reminiscent of American pop art, emphasizingWestern culture’s increased presence in Korean society. Some of the sculpture’s teeth are missing, and taking their place are a red dishwashing glove, a chemistry flask with an eye drawn on it, and a wooden female face with white glasses. The tooth gaps represent imperfections in appearance, with the dishwashing glove invoking the traditional role of a housewife. The wooden face is also not conventionally attractive by Korean standards, featuring chubby cheeks and a short, round bob. Though Kiss Me is meant to invoke inherent sexuality, it does so specifically through a female perspective. It rejects both the restrictiveness of patriarchal roles and the male prioritization of attractiveness while still embracing modern sexual freedom through the bold imagery of exaggerated lips. Jung’s work brings an essential voice to an ideological conflict rooted in the patriarchy, which placed women into the roles of crude sexual objects or modest housewives.

Korean women were not the only ones challenging established authority. Since 1957, South Korea has drafted males between the ages of 18 and 35 for mandatory military service. Under Park Chung-hee’s dictatorship, military efforts were concentrated on supporting American troops in the controversial Vietnam War. At the time, the regime was dealing with student rallies in colleges across the country and attempting to shut down press coverage of the protests. Many student protesters were conscripted and found themselves deployed in Vietnam, forced to fight in a war for a government they did not support alongside the United States, a foreign nation that had occupied their country. These pent-up feelings of frustration and disarray brought art student Lee Tahyeun to create the work Command 1 (1967). On a long light yellow canvas lies a dark green military gas mask over an army backpack. The mask’s folds are pushed in so the mask falls in on itself, highlighting its hollowness and portraying military service as something lacking personhood and identity. The backpack’s straps droop down to create a powerful, oozing shadow, enhancing the image’s grim appearance against the bright, saturated background. Command 1 consolidates the political unrest facing the Korean people on both a national and global scale. By being conscripted into the military, Korean men had no choice in the fight. Regardless of how they felt about their government or Vietnam and its place in the overarching Cold War, they were forced to obey their commands, strengthening the very political institution that oppressed them.

The artists featured in Only the Young faced scrutiny and outrage upon the release of their art—when it was even acknowledged at all. Many Koreans did not understand the work while others objected to the subject matter. In the context of today’s art world, however, South Korean experimental art is finally receiving its long-deserved recognition. The 21st-century audience is more willing to embrace unorthodox ideas, political convictions, and the calls for protest and feminism that unified these bold artists. These once-shunned messages were precursors and are parallels to contemporary art; in this way, Only the Young reaffirms the far-underestimated extent of Korean social and cultural radicalism during this period