Drama of the cold war by Chan-kyong Park
DRAMA OF THE COLD WAR BY CHAN-KYONG PARK
In discerning the identity of Korean modern art, the dichotomies of conservatism versus radicalism from a political viewpoint and purism vs. realism from an artistic ideological viewpoint have rendered difficult any effort to discover commonality in the language of art, particularly when describing modernity and issues related to modernism. One would be especially hard-pressed to find the self-referentiality, criticality, and social reflexivity that are the core theoretical values of Western modernism, in the mainstream modern art of the 1970s in Korea. Minjung Art (People’s art), on the other hand, attempted to build its own native language for art as a refutation against modernism, which it considered to be too abstract and unrealistic. But this led to a reversion back to traditionalism, sparking criticism against its proponents as being shackled to essentialism.
It is in this historic context that we should understand the works of Chan-Kyong Park, who takes a unique approach to the situational reality by layering ideological confrontations Chan-Kyong Park himself plays the role of double-agent in the divided country and describes through simple and succinct codes how ideological confrontation permeated everyday life to dominate both the civic consciousness and unconsciousness of the spaces people inhabit. Of these works, SETS, which Park exhibited at Media_City Seoul 2000, was a very timely piece. Slides of streets of Seoul as they exist in the Chosun Movie Studio in the North Korea, DMZ set used in the movie Joint Security Area in the Seoul Movie Studio Complex, and the street battle training site at a South Korean military base are dissolved in chronological order for continuous projection onto a screen that protrudes in an exaggerated way out of wall. The work, recomposed in simulated chronological order, fabricated locations that actually exist as movie sets or military training grounds from two countries that are barred from making exchanges. Interestingly, the work denotes the artist’s critical look at the hidden intent embedded in media like photography and film. Moreover, by recreating, like a magic lantern, spaces that exist as photographs or movies, Park causes us to reflect on the uncanny aspect of the Cold War that is alien yet familiar. As a result, the old and deserted no-man’s land that is a movie set recasts the exhibition visitors or those living in such no-man’s land or our divided country as zombies called out from their graves. In other words, simulacra serves the very critical role of exposing the strong realistic motivation behind post-modern conditions in South Korea.
Park’s most recent work Koreans Who Went To Germany shows that the experience of living in a divided country is no longer something to be defined within the realm of geographical boundaries. Park vividly shows the ideological and emotional patterns weaved by those who emigrated to Germany as people living in a society that also has a history of division. Park lived in Germany for over a year as a participant in the Artist Residence Program of Germany and interviewed Korean miners and nurses who had comes to Germany more than four decades ago with dreams of building modern Korea. The interviews and photographs he recorded and took himself were combined into a book and exhibit piece. Questions on national identity and politics in the divided home country reside like time capsules in the minds of people who have transported into a totally different cultural context, still exerting direct as well as indirect influence on Korean émigrés. And their Diaspora-like situation is captured as a kind figurative contradiction in Park’s own unique loosely and/or tightly weaved fabric.
In Park’s work, real and fabrication, imagination and reality, fiction and non-fiction, movie and documentary, image and sound are all intermingled together to portray a very adventurous story of the ‘Cold War’, and such attempts now seem to be extended to the space of the Universe with his new work of Power Passage. This is more than just a simple extension. ASTP (Apollo-Soyuz Test Project), from which the theme of his work is based, is an aesthetical symbol of the détente era of the U.S. and the former Soviet Union as well as a failed monument. And the failure is all the more dramatically expressed when the sublime of the space encounters the political sphere of the Cold War on the Korean peninsula at super-high velocity. Here, for example, the spacecraft of the U.S. and Soviet Union spiral down to a collage with underground tunnels in South and North Korea. This experience of body deconstruction accelerated by crashing sublime beauty is burned in our body as a thrilling decadence and clear jouissance.
Jee-Sook Beck is an art critic and curator based in Seoul. She is former director of the Arts Council Korea (ARKO) Art Center, former project director of the Insa Art Space of ARKO, and former editorial board member of Journal BOL.