Academic journal article Afterimage

The Image Significant: Identity in Contemporary Korean Video Art

Academic journal article Afterimage

The Image Significant: Identity in Contemporary Korean Video Art

Article excerpt

More than 30 years haw passed since Paik Nam June's 1965 exhibition Electronic TV at the Cafe a Go-Go, where he proclaimed in an artist's talk that the cathode ray tube would soon replace the canvas. Since then, Paik and his Portapak video camera have become legend and his work is in museums around the world. But while there is extensive reference to Paik, little attention has been given to other video artists from Korea. Despite the almost overwhelming stature afforded to Paik within Korean art circles and Korean society as a whole (Paik was featured in a series of TV and print advertisements for electronics giant Samsung), contemporary Korean video artists have concentrated their efforts on issues of identity. Instead of embracing Paik's use of the video monitor as a stationary sculptural object, younger Korean artists have expanded upon the notion of antipodality - that feeling of being neither here nor there. The images that many contemporary Korean video artists employ refer specifically to Korean culture or history, yet they also introduce broader topics, most importantly the issue of identity: Identity, in this context, is defined as that sense of serf that distinguishes a particular culture or individual from other cultures and individuals. Is identity based on universal characteristics not tied to any specific culture or background or is it something that is inherently bound to culture, ethnicity and nation? If it is inherently hound to the latter, what is each artist's take on this shared pool of memories, history and cultural codes?

Unpacking the dense content of the images with regard to identity in contemporary Korean video art is not the only task at hand. Questions of how these images play into or resist the assumptions of a particular audience must also be raised. There is a conflict between the natural and almost inevitable reliance on specific "Korean" imagery and the equally pressing demand to make the works relevant to a wider audience. Do the artists unconsciously or consciously compromise their own unique identities in order to meet the demands of their audiences or is identity a concept that cannot be separated from the response of the audience?

Unlike Paik, who concerns himself largely with abstract concepts bordering on neo-Dadaism, the artists discussed here - Park Hyun Ki, Yook Keun Byung, Kim Soo Ja, Seo Hyeon Seok, Park Hwa Young and Hong Sung Min - all incorporate images that are highly specific and relevant to a distinctly Korean audience. Many of these artists exhibit work in international contexts to audiences who may be unable to read the subtle cues and metaphors embedded in the given images. A conflict arises when images lose their meaning in a non-Korean context: and when there is the possibility that they may only be relevant in a Korean setting. Although this problem of meaning confronts all artists using cultural or national images or allusions, these artists argue that the imagery they use is simple enough to be universal. Seo says the images belong to "no one specific era, place or culture" and that art is an "individual and highly, subjective experience."(1)

The flip side of this argument is that the depth of their work is lost because the non-Korean audience cannot decipher their intended allusions. What happens, for example, when the text-based collaborative effort of Seo, Park Hwa Young and Hong is presented to a non-Korean speaking audience? Imagery might survive the translation process to the extent that the audience will understand the gist of the images, but the full meaning, which is highly dependent, on the accompanying text, is lost. The success of these artists in the West suggests that the use of these images might be catered to a Eurocentric art world that still insists on fixed notions of the foreign. Works that consequently do well in the Korean art market are often by artists that succeed in this patently western framework and as a result, contemporary artists must respond to western demands in order to make a viable living. …

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