At the end of the Asia-Pacific War (1937-1945), a ›guest‹ by the name of the USA received the opportunity to act the role of lord and master of East Asia. Starting from military bases on three islands, this ›guest‹ established a comprehensive system of control and administration. These three exceptionally beautiful, but profoundly sad, islands are Jeju (an island forming part of divided Korea), Taiwan and Okinawa (Japan). It is no exaggeration to say that in their current condition, they are like triplets born of a monster named the Asia-Pacific War. In East Asia no-one is likely to believe that the division of Korea could be overcome without resolving the conflicts on Taiwan and Okinawa; nor, by the same token, that the problems of these two islands could be dealt with unless the division of Korea is overcome. The fundamental solution to many problems in East Asia depends on the simultaneous resolution of the conflicts on all three islands. Only then can the islands achieve genuine liberation from the trauma of their distressful history and their present disreputable state system while restoring the beauty of life and unrestricted reign of human rights.
The complex history of modern Taiwan is typified by the historical event of the 2/28 Massacre which ignited under the burning rays of a convex lens.1 On 27 February 1947, a violent assault by a civil servant of the Kuomintang Régime on a female cigarette vendor triggered an uprising which was quashed with considerable loss of life. Immediately after the events, the artist Huang Jung-tsan (黃榮璨)2 made a woodcut of the key scene, which was swiftly disseminated across all towns in Taiwan. Huang Jung-tsan had studied the art of the woodcut at the Lu Xun (鲁迅)3 School of Printing and later opened a bookshop outside Taipeh University. He himself took part in many exhibitions of the printing arts, taught drawing and history to young artist colleagues, and brought the woodcuts of Käthe Kollwitz to the attention of the Taiwanese. In his own woodcuts, he adapted the revolutionary printing tradition of the ›Lu Xun‹ school to Taiwanese taste, with the result that the strokes and lines became even more audacious and fine. As his art engendered the transition to a new style, it came to offer a very apt reflection of the threatening mood surrounding the Massacre of 28 February 1947.4 The artist’s sketches and woodcuts convey a sense of the intesity of his interest in and love for the natives of Taiwan. As evidenced by the few notes he left behind, it becomes clear how strongly he was committed to the culture and art, and also to the customs of these people.
Today, the traces of his life and work, which were almost lost forever, can be reconstructed only with great difficulty from his few works that have been preserved – for during the suppression of the uprising, he and his girl-friend were arrested and, with many others, detained in a Taipeh prison. One dark, rainy night, he and ten others were shot on the cattle market beside the river, and on the following night, his girl-friend as well.
On 3 April 1948, an allegedly communist uprising took place on Jeju, some 85 km south of the Korean coast. After the liberation from Japanese occupation, the USA instigated separate elections in the south of Korea, a set of circumstances that triggered a rebellion supported by thousands of peasants.5 What followed has no parallel in post-war history. A barbaric punishment was imposed on the population. Under the supervision of the then US military government, the police and the army forcibly put down the uprising, and some 30,000 people were murdered or disappeared – a figure equal to a quarter of the island’s population. This tragedy heralded the Korean War (1950-1953) which cemented the division of Korea. Partition, however, brought about an unbearable situation for the inhabitants of Jeju. Now, any mention of the massacre was forbidden, and a denunciatory interpretation of it was imposed in an authoritarian manner. For more than fifty years, the inhabitants of Jeju lived with the feeling that the word ›red‹ was engraved in scarlet letters on their bodies and souls. Many of the surviving family members left their country to escape this stigmatisation. They lived scattered abroad, many emigrated illegally to Japan, forming a branch of the Korean diaspora there.
Only on 31 October 2003, at the suggestion of a ›Truth Commission‹6 founded after 1999, did the then President Roh Moo-hyun acknowledge that the confrontation between the insurgent islanders and the army, police and paramilitaries had cost tens of thousands of lives. He offered apologies to the surviving relatives and to the island’s inhabitants. Before this official government apology, however, there was a hard-fought struggle over the truth concerning the massacre of 3 April 1948 and its aftermath.
At the end of the 1970s, the Minjung (i.e. ›the people, the masses‹) political movement emerged. It also developed into an artistic movement which founded the tradition of a narrative and figurative pictorial language with clear political messages. The unrelenting artists of Jeju, with their ›Art for True History‹ movement, brought an irrepressible energy to this movement, shaping its political and cultural orientation,. Many artists were tortured for infringing on the National Security Laws and suffered stigmatization as North Korean spies, a good number having to spend many years of their lives in prison before democratization eventually led the government to officially permit a retrospective of Minjung art in 1994.
In 1945, the island of Okinawa was the theatre of one of the biggest battles in the Pacific War. Some 120,000 members of the native population, who were completely uninvolved in the War, died under cruel circumstances. In the Sakima Art Museum in Ginowan hangs the picture ›Battle for Okinawa‹, painted by the married couple Iri and Toshi Maruki. The foundation colour of the picture is a light, blossomy tone, symbolizing the inhabitants’ optimism and their sense for fanciful musing, love, and community spirit. Rough, dry strokes (galpil brush technique) in thick ink, charcoal and conté are repeatedly applied to this foundation. Densely interwoven, sombre lines and clusters evoke the fear of a cruel death; thick ink spreads viscously over the entire surface of the picture; and the shocked eye of the beholder can make out countless corpses.he artists are representatives of traditional Japanese painting. Based on the tradition of Ukiyo-e (pictures of a world in flux) from the Edo period (1603-1868) and the polychromically vigorous and the ascetically subtle ink painting from more ancient traditions, they developed a style that was capable of expressing the horrific historical truth hidden behind Okinawa’s raw winds and magnificent landscapes.
Although Asiatic Minjung art received its name in Korea, the examples depicted here demonstrate that it left its mark on artistic consciousness on all three islands. What binds them is that all artists addressed in their work the history of savage wartime and post-war massacres with all their consequences for the survivors and for the culture of the post-war years. In the history of artistic realism, there is probably no comparable example where we find the parallel historical experiences of three different countries portrayed. If we analyse these pictures more closely, we find shared stylistic features that, in my opinion, distinguish them markedly from Western Art:
Firstly: Hope. However terrible the events portrayed may be, the pictures do not exclusively show suffering and hopelessness. In one part of the picture, there is a hymn of hope, of the idea that suffering and despair are to be overcome so as to move on afresh into a new world.
Secondly: The artists do not remain inertly transfixed in their indictment of the massacre as a human crime, but go beyond this to pose and reflect on the fundamental question of what it means to be a human being.
Thirdly: These pictures secretly whisper to us an alternative path by which the cruelties of the past can be overcome – the ›reinvigoration of the spirit of community.‹
Fourthly: In stylistic terms, most of the pictures employ the principle of complexity: life and death, past, present and future, soul and body, sky, earth and sea, hope and despair, sadness and joy – all of this contrasting subject matter is harmonized into one pictorial surface. That is the aesthetic attitude to Man and the Universe which is the hallmark of East Asian traditions.
Fifthly: The artists do not merely indict and lament the cruelty of the deaths portrayed, but demonstrate a serious-minded, sublime attitude, bent on appeasing death and assuaging the soul. That is to say, they avoid featuring abstract or aesthetic concepts and alienating art from reality, and they refuse to degrade the figures depicted on the pictorial surface into absurdity by any playfulness of portrayal.
Sixthly: Present in these pictures is the bold world-view that death is not the realm of nothingness but a further, active existence, imbued with new life in the making. Under the earth, our bodies decay into humus, allow seeds to germinate, stalks and leaves to sprout and beautiful flowers to blossom; bees and butterflies come by on the wing. The sun, the rain and the wind are summoned; when the blossoms wither, they bear fruits; we, the living, eat these fruits – and thus the souls of the deceased enter our bodies and begin to live anew. That is the world-view of reincarnation, which is reconciled with death.
I see the art produced on the three islands as a process in quest of the primeval form and identity of East Asian realism. In the works of art discussed, the most important themes are ›life‹ and ›hope‹. How we further develop this ›art of life and hope‹ and let it affect the disturbed and tawdry conditions of today’s world, and whether this art will survive as a manner of portraying change, transience (相生 sangsaeng) and co-existence (共生 gongsaeng) is now the responsibility of artists living in the present-day world – and therefore your responsibility too.
All footnotes are annotations by the translators from the Korean.
Hong Sung-dam wrote this lecture for the symposium on »Attitude and Activism in South Korean
Minjung Art« held at the International University of Okinawa in May 2014.
Translated from the German by Richard Humphrey
Up to 1987, it was prohibited to talk about this massacre. It is estimated that there were between 18,000 and 28,000 fatalities. (http://asienspiegel.ch/2012/03/eine-unvergessene-tragodie/ )
2 It has not been possible to establish the exact dates of the artist’s life.
3 Lu Xun (chinesisch 魯迅 / 鲁迅, Pinyin Lu Xùn) (1881-1936) was a Chinese writer and intellectual in the Fourth of May Movement which had its origins at the Beida (Peking University). Along with other intellectuals, he was part of the Baihua Movement, a reform movement concerned with literary genres and style.
4 In those years, the saying in Taiwan was: After the dogs (= the Japanese colonial overlords) had gone, came the pigs (= the mainland Chinese from the Kuomintang Party, KMT)
5 The plan was for a joint election in North and South Korea. The elections held solely in South Korea are considered to be an important act in the partition of the Korean peninsula. Five months later, North Korea proclaimed its own Republic.
6 The Committee’s full name is: The National Committee for Investigation of the Truth about the Jeju April 3 Incident
1. The artist Hong Sung-dam lives almost exclusively for one symbol, one experience, one outcry: Owol Gwangju – Gwangju in May. He is the only artist who has devoted his entire life to the effects of this symbol, the depths of this experience and the aesthetics of this outcry. After the Gwanju Massacre, during which on 18 May 1980 the initially peaceful demonstrations of an emergent democracy movement were forcibly put down by the government with great loss of life, many artists let themselves be borne along on the wave of history and then went their own ways, revelling in a world of kaleidoscopic change. Hong Sung-dam, however, developed Owol Gwangju into an artistic motif, which he pursued and unfurled over many years.
2. His pictures are strongly marked by two characteristics.2 On the one hand he creates world-landscapes, in which a contradictory, seething reality is portrayed by means of collage. The purpose of this, however, is not to transform a dystopia into a utopia, as in Buddhist portrayals of Asura – a world of endless wars, but to reveal in this heteroclite jumbled mix the true nature of our world. And on the other hand, allegories of persons are inserted so as to achieve an aesthetics of vivid liveliness. This liveliness is not only in the usual sense of fun and interest (heung), elegance meot) and joy (gamheung). Here there are living gods, spirituality, spirits from the heavens and from earth. Some pictures are dominated by scenes of killing or show dank and dark landscapes, but they too are rich in gestures of enlivenment and show the conception of new life. Such pictorial characteristics resemble the aesthetic conventions of the Pictures of Sweet Dew (甘露圖 Gamnodo), which form part of the Bulhoa (佛畵 Buddhist Likenesses).
3. In addition, Hong’s painting is close to the aesthetics of Geolgae-Gurim (걸개그림 Hanging Pictures). Their artistic conventions developed out of Minjung art3 and paraphrase the Gwaehoa (掛畵), which are likewise described as »pictures to be hung«. Gwaehoa are large-scale portraits of Buddha that are presented at open-air ceremonies. Geolgae-Gurim are displayed not only for religious purposes but also at major [political] events at courts or on squares. The likenesses of Buddha are to inspire religious belief, but Geolgae-Gurim are to work in favour of a genuine salvation of the people and of community life.
For this reason, Geolgae-Gurim are closely linked with the present and with the reality in which they are created.
Hong Sung-dam’s pictures show contemporary persons and events, and yet take on the spirituality of Gamnodo. They consequently represent a rebirth of the Buddhist likenesses of the Minjung: for this reason, I term Hong Sun-dam’s art »shamanistic realism«.4 He follows the aesthetics of realism and yet sees the present with the eyes of a shaman.
4. Sewol Owol is the creative product of an act of shamanistic ceremony. In July 1980, on a peaceful river bank in Nampyeong near Naju in South Jeolla Province, Hong Sung-dam and the artists of the Sigakmaeche yeonguhoe (a research group working on visual media) began a Jinhon-gut, a shamanistic ceremony for the dead with the title Owol Gwangju. The work on Sewol Owol is to a certain extent a continuation of Owol Gwangju. And just as this ceremony is an exciting masked dance, in which the shamans dance with the other participants, so a Geolgae-Gurim is not to be created by the artists alone but together with all the citizens.
5. For years, Hong Sung-dam and his old colleagues in the Sigakmaeche yeonguhoe had been using »collective creation« as a creative method. Now they expanded this idea, trying to make the communal spirit bear fruit by »painting the Geolgae-Gurim with the citizens«, for the Geolgae-Gurim should not be rooted in the past, but should be reborn in the present-day reality of the city of Gwangju. The open aesthetic consciousness of Minjung should not be the sole preserve of the artists, but should be conveyed to lay people in accordance with the principle of »First I enliven myself, then I open up everyone else«.
6. In their reception also, the Geolgae-Gurim are action art, which is why they thrive on the here and now. If they are not shown in public, they are as if dead. In particular, they cannot fully release their pictorial aesthetics unless they are witnessed in open places. Hence Sewol Owol was created on the assumption that it would be hung on the outer façade of the Gwangju Museum of Art, so turning the entire city into a »great open square«. In this way, it would not only have attained aesthetic liveliness but would also have been able to arouse the communality of a »relationship with others«. As a consequence, the picture would have made not only the museum but also all Gwangju into a place of outcry, which would have been heard in Asia and all around the world. As through a peal of bells in the early morning, the consciousness of all the world’s creatures was to have been illuminated.
7. Sewol Owol was not permitted to be shown at the special exhibition that formed part of the Gwangju Biennale. Burning Down the House!, the major theme of 2014 Gwangju Biennale, crumbled into grey ash and the Sweet Dew, which owed its name to the Gamnodo, became dry as dust. After Sewol Owol had been thrown out, no other work could take its place and rescue the success of the event. Those who say that Sewol Owol could not be equated with Owol Gwangju and, at the same time, that even without Sewol Owol the Gwangju Biennale embodied the spirit of Gwangju, cannot be judging with alert and clear minds!8. In 1839, Honoré Daumier made his début as an illustrator for the magazine »La Caricature«, and, in the years that followed, established himself as a cartoonist. He was accused, however, of showing disrespect to the King in his works, and was thereupon imprisoned, with the magazine also being closed shortly afterwards. The fact that now, in the 21st Century, the satirical Geolgae-Gurim are having a hard time of it is reminiscent of the Daumier case.
That Sewol Owol portrayed President Park Geun-hye as a scarecrow was considered to be unpardonable, but even when Hong subsequently replaced this depiction with a red chicken, the picture was not re-exhibited. Sewol Owol thus became an event which leads us to ask what freedom of expression actually constitutes and why we need it.
9. If one recalls that the 1980s were a dark, undemocratic period, in which the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee passed over into the military régime of Chun Doo-hwan and artistically inspired freedom of expression was suppressed, the recently emerging attempts to impose restrictions on art are distressing. We are no longer living under a military régime and circumstances are not so undemocratic as to lead to the formation of an opposition artists’ movement – but are we nevertheless still to be unable to exercise the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution?
10. The heart of the problem is a failure to understand the situation at the beginning of the 21st Century – the continuation of a »democratic dictatorship« that arose out of the coming together of a divided nation and a political ideology. Did it all begin with the Ceasefire Agreement at the end of the Korean War? No, actually it began as early as 1948 when Korea was divided into a socialist and a democratic state, creating two republics, each with a strong leader at its focus. In the North, Kim Il-sung (1912-1994) seized power. In the South, Rhee Syngman (1875-1965) was, admittedly, elected first President of the Republic of Korea with over ninety per cent of the votes – but not in a general election, only by a Constituent Assembly, and with the opposition boycotting the vote.
11. In contrast to these authoritarian régimes, the present-day governments of Lee Myung-bak, President from 2008 to 2013, and Park Geun-hye, the President in office since 2013, are legitimated by popular elections. Nevertheless, regarding the power of the strong Presidency it seems as if nothing has changed since the days of Rhee Syng-man. Instead of suppressing freedom of expression with the forces available to a military dictatorship, today’s government attacks the art world only in isolated cases and rarely by direct means, but with all the more effectiveness.5 Regardless of the fact that local self-administration was introduced in 1995, local governments today tend towards a policy of reinforced »self-censorship« as soon as the attitude of central government has been made known.
12. The aesthetic form of Sewol Owol reminds one strongly of the 1980s. This time, however, Hong called his old colleagues from the »Research Group on the Visual Media« together, allowed the citizens to participate in the creation of the picture and organized festivals with concerts and discussion sessions. From all over the country, his former students came together to help him apply the paint. Today, the artistic means of defending freedom of expression seems no longer to be »I alone« or »only with my colleagues« but rather »together with the citizens«, »together with the populace«. Because if a work of art is no longer created as »my work« but as the »work of us all«, then it has more than aesthetic power. Do we not here have the aesthetics of resistance appropriate to the Minjung for a new era?
The title of the picture Sewol Owol alludes to two historical events – the Sewol ferry disaster of 16 April 2014 with the death of 304 passengers off the west coast of South Korea and the Massacre of 18.05.1980 in Gwangju, South Korea. The word Owol means ‘May’ in Korean. The two tragic events stand symbolically for the feelings of helplessness that arise when a large number of innocent people lose their lives. [Note: Nataly Han]
2 Regarding the characteristics of Hong Sung-dam’s pictures, I refer to: »Gongdongchejeog sinmyeongui gieogtujaeng – 5•18 Gwangjuminjuhwaundong 30 junyeon ginyeomjeon <hongseongdam – huinbich geomeunmul>«, »Misulpyeonglonga gimjonggilui hyeonjangbipyeong – poseuteu minjungmisul syameon / rieollijum« (Publisher: Samchang, 2013), 269 pages
3 The term Minjung denotes both the people and the masses. In the course of the 1980s democracy movement, the term was used above all for the art of resistance that had its origins in the masses. [Note: Nataly Han]
4 The term »shamanistic realism« was probably first used by Sokyong Hwang in his novel »Baridegi« in the year 2007. The historian Honggu Han and the writer Haeseong Seo employ the term in their criticism »Shamanistic Realism: Sung-dam Hong’s ‘Yasukuniwa Kal’« written for Hong’s exhibition »The Illusion of Yasukuni« in 2009 (Peace Museum, Seoul). I became aware of their text only a short time ago, but believe that my use of the term is little different from theirs. I would like to express my deep respect to Honggu Han, Haeseong Seo and Sokyong Hwang for having first proposed the term »shamanistic realism« and having elaborated its theoretical framework.
5 What is meant here is that the current government has only to make an example every now and then by branding a work of art »pro-North Korean« and »hostile to the state« in the terms of the National Security Act. This mostly has the effect that many artists or art institutions, in an act of anticipatory obedience, do not even treat or handle politically explosive topics. The fear of being socially outlawed is a legacy from the days of strict military dictatorship. [Note: Nataly Han]