In November 2012, in the run-up to the South Korean presidential elections, the artist Hong Sung-dam put on display a painting entitled ›Golden Time‹ (2012) that manifested a critical stance towards the then candidate Park Geun-hye, the work being shown in the exhibition The Soul’s Departure from the Body – The Portrait of the Yushin Reform held in Seoul’s Museum of Peace (Pyonghwa Bakmulkwan). Park Geun-hye, now the country’s President, is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, who following a military putsch ruled South Korea with dictatorial severity from 1961 to 1979. On account of her frankly avowed belief in her father’s policies, progressive and critical forces in South Korea view her election as a grave defeat for the advance of democracy. In the course of the exhibition, Hong Sung-dam was in fact accused by the National Electoral Commission of defaming Park Geun-hye, the Museum of Peace was searched by police, a list of donations was confiscated under the pretext of embezzlement of funds, and the Museum was thus issued a ›warning‹ over the exhibition’s content.
The theme of the current exhibition Banned Images – Control and Censorship in East Asian Democracies, however, is not only the situation in South Korea but also that in the neighbouring countries of Japan and Taiwan. When viewed from outside, these three countries are seen and treated as exemplary East Asian democracies. They are in the ›good camp‹. This perception ignores, however, that none of the three countries has a genuinely functioning democracy in the western sense. The imperialist era in Japanese politics, with which the country has still barely come to terms, the concomitant colonization of Taiwan and Korea – this too an open sore – and the aftermath of the Cold War are all important reasons why in each of the three countries the state does not accept freedom of opinion as a matter of course. One consequence is that the rudimentary, dichotomized portrayals common in Western Europe and the United States also determine public consciousness in the three countries themselves. North and South Korea, just like China and Taiwan, are presented in terms of simple oppositions – socialism v. a free market economy, dictatorship v. democracy, evil v. good.
The current exhibition displays the works of two artists from each of the three countries, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The artists chosen cast a critical eye over present-day politics, trespass into taboo areas in their respective countries, take a stand on freedom of opinion and human rights, treat sensitive topics from the past and do not shy away from the social and political conclusions inherent in their work.
Tomiyama Taeko here presents her entire life in the form of a montage of 50 works created with an ever-critical eye on the Japanese Empire. Nakagaki Kasuhisa is exhibiting his latest installation, censored by the curator of the Metropolitan Museum in Tokyo. Chen Chieh-jen and Chen Ching-Yao use their critically engagé approach to point up topics that have long been taboo in Taiwanese society. Hong Sung-dam, politically persecuted and tortured in the 1980s on account of his critical stance, did not allow his will to be broken and never gave up the struggle. His polemical criticism of Park Geun-hye has come to be seen as so ›terrible‹ and ›grave‹ that his pictures have become INSUPPORTABLE or unbearable in the double sense of the word: at the last minute, the South Korean art forwarding company commissioned for the job refused to transport the works of Hong Sung-dam to Germany through fear of gaining the reputation of a disseminator of banned pictures – anticipatory obedience functions on all levels of society. Sunmu, now a South Korean artist, comes from North Korea and makes himself unpopular with both régimes because he takes a critical stance not only on North Korean but also on South Korean politics. His works were not transported by the South Korean forwarding agent either. We took the decision to reproduce in the present catalogue the pictures which we had intended to put on show. During the exhibition, the two artists will give a re-presentation of their works in performance style.
We would like to express our gratitude above all to Prof. Dr. Vladimir Tikhonov, to Kim Jong-gil, to Prof. Dr. Rebecca Jennison, to Arai Hiroyuki and to Prof. Dr. Suh Sung for their detailed analyses of East Asia’s complex history and of the oeuvres of the artists represented in the exhibition. Our thanks go equally to Prof. Dr. Richard Humphrey for his indefatigable translation work, to Dr. Kai Lorenz and Kerstin Karge for their copy-editing and proof-reading, and to Dong-Ha Choe for the design of the present catalogue.
Berlin, 31 March 2015
Han Nataly Jung-Hwa, Yajima Tsukasa, Yoo Jae-Hyun
There is hardly any such thing as an absolute freedom of expression – whichever society we take. German citizens, as is well known, are not free, by law, to publicly deny the Holocaust; it appears that this particular prohibition enjoys wide support across the socio-political spectrum. More generally, it is a widely accepted notion that, even if legally unproblematic, the expressions perceivable as culturally or religiously offensive by a significant number of citizens should be voluntarily tamed, especially when the expression is grounded in the societal mainstream whereas the offended group has a comparatively non-privileged background. Thus, the sympathy towards the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack was often tinged with scepticism towards what was perceived as the journal’s lack of sensitivity and respect towards the particularity of beliefs among the Muslims of France, with their relatively estranged position vis-à-vis mainstream French society. However, on one point the liberal common sense of most European societies is adamant. Any attempt to restrict anti-governmental criticism, by pen or brush, is seen as an attack on the very basics of the liberal socio-political order. By definition, the liberal government is to tolerate any critical expressions against itself, as long as they do not contain direct libel or personalized threats of violence.
However, in many countries with the experience of authoritarian catch-up development from above – often referred to as ›conservative revolution‹ – the state is strong enough to disregard these liberal niceties; and the civil society is too weak to force the state to retreat. Such states often develop complicated and inclusive systems of censorship, which reinforce not only governmental authority but also conservative sets of social, ethic and aesthetic norms and criteria which the government wishes the society to internalize. As Barrington Moore (1913-2005), a famed US sociologist, suggested, Imperial Japan (1868-1945) was a primary example of such a ›revolution from above,‹ which ended up in a state ruled by a block of authoritarian officials and reactionary, state-dependent bourgeoisie. Imperial Japan’s censorship system was a textbook example of an authoritarian state remoulding the public sphere in accordance with its likings. In arts and films, not only direct criticism of the imperial system or heroization of any anti-governmental resistance, but also positive descriptions of any ›disturbing‹ violent acts (arson, murder, theft etc.) as well as adulterous and other ›illicit‹ sexual activities were prohibited. The films – in accordance with the regulations first adopted in 1918 and then further amended in 1925 – were subject to censors’ prior approval and at the same time could be screened only with the local police permit. While this system was successfully shielding Japan and its colonies, Korea and Taiwan, from the revolutionary art (the early Soviet cinematic masterpieces, Battleship Potemkin and Mother, were never shown in colonial Korea), it also made the Japan-controlled part of East Asia into a golden market for the Hollywood producers eager to please the Japanese censors and cut the ›objectionable‹ scenes (if any). By 1934, Hollywood dominated approx. 62% of Korea’s domestic film market, vividly demonstrating the full compatibility of authoritarian state censorship and commercial cinematic profit making. In addition to the stick, the Japanese imperial state also wielded a carrot, providing to the artists – as well as filmmakers – an opportunity to gain fame and profits through ›uncontroversial‹ expression inside the controlled public space. The annual Korean Art Exhibition first opened by Korea’s Japanese Governor- General in 1922, was one such opportunity as the winning pictures and sculptures were then to be sent on a government-sponsored tour through the country. This exhibition was steadily dominated by the Korean works faithfully copying the Westernized Japanese art – ›modern‹ women cheerfully submitting to their destiny as ›wise mothers and good wives‹ being among the most popular subject matters. The ›Oriental‹ part of the exhibition usually featured ›archetypically Korean‹ landscapes and ›Oriental‹ beauties, thus contributing, knowingly or not, to Korea’s Orientalization by its Japanese rulers. Such prize-winning Korean artists as Kim Unho (1892-1979) or Yi Sangbom (1897-1972) collaborated then full-heartedly in the Japanese war efforts in 1937-1945; their disciples and the younger artists they trained still dominate the South Korean art scene.The Japanese imperial state officially disappeared in 1945; however, the set of authoritarian practices it developed – censorship included – continued to thrive, albeit sometimes in less explicit form, in the parts of East Asia now to be forcibly integrated into the US influence sphere.
It is noteworthy, though, that – as the organizers of the recent exhibition, Hyogen no Fujiyu Ten (»Exhibition of Unfreedom of Expression«), in the Tokyo-based Furuto Gallery sharply commented – many of the taboos central for the self-censorship practices are of pre-war origins. The image of the war-time emperor, Hirohito, - and the images of other Japanese emperors as well – are generally shielded from appearing in critical contexts in cinematic and artistic works, at least mainstream ones, suggestive of the pre-war laws which prohibited lèse majesté and/or criticisms of the imperial system. Even more troublingly, the crimes committed by the emperor’s army are not deemed suitable to be publicly criticised, especially by the popular media outlets. For one example, in the NHK documentary on the mock war crimes tribunal which was aired on Jan. 30, 2001, the key portions on the issue of Hirohito’s responsibility for war and its crimes were cut out, in accordance with the conservative politicians’ ›wishes‹. Nikon, a Japanese corporate giant, cancelled in 2012 an exhibition of photo portraits of the former sexual slaves of the Japanese army (»comfort women«), obviously afraid of the possible (ultra)conservative (over)reaction to the event.1 In a way, the conservative consensus, which has been dominating the Japanese society since the US occupation authorities’ purges against the Left, does not tolerate any radical criticism of the supposedly ›symbolic‹ head of the Japanese state (the emperor), nor does it tolerate deep-going and thorough critical discussions on the crimes the state committed – at least inside the public space dominated by the state and corporate power. In this respect, Japan, a supposed ›liberal democracy‹ and the key subordinate partner of the US Empire in East Asia is not a liberal state and indeed never was one. Its pre-war ›hard‹ authoritarian structures evolved into the softer, less explicit authoritarianism of the post-war consumerist society tightly controlled by bureaucratic and corporate might.
In other East Asian countries, even formally ›liberal and democratic‹, state censorship often acts even more boldly: in South Korea, an amateur artist was detained and then fined in 2010-2011 for satirizing then president Lee Myung-bak in a graffiti on an official G20 summit poster.2 And in all East Asian countries, be they formally ›democratic‹ or formally ›socialist‹, art is more and more defined as part of the ›market‹, the tastes of the moneyed buyers – who demonstrate in most cases little interest in anti-bourgeois or radical self-expression – quickly becoming the chief aesthetic arbiter. Even North Korea entered the worldwide art market in the recent years, even producing the pictures of bikini-clad women on the beach explicitly for the ›foreign taste‹.3 State censorship, self-censorship and commercialization put together make the freedom of expression an abstract principle, enshrined in most constitutions in East Asia but hardly relevant to the daily working of the East Asian societies. And only a conscious attack on the mainstream taboos by the activist, radical segment of the civil society has a potential of making this abstract principle into a living, tangible reality. As any freedom, the freedom of expression is obtainable and maintainable only in constant struggle.