Stephanie Seungmin Kim

Arts and Politics: Art for Art’s Sake versus Art for Life.

PhD Viva completed 2020-2021

Arts and Politics: Art for Art’s Sake versus Art for Life.

ABSTRACT

‘Curating’ has evolved to reflect changing artistic practice. Having worked as a curator, which means operating in a complicated network of roles as a producer, mediator and translator, I think critically about the limitations and challenges of curatorial practice through the representation of Korean art. This research focuses on the subject of historical trauma and asks how historical amnesia can be brought to the surface through the mediation of the curatorial project. It examines this by asking how artists have revealed conditions of collective trauma in their work. Artists turning to historical subjects have periodically encountered, and often opposed, the complex network of institutional efforts to enforce nationalistic narratives. Although the level of representations that artwork should be accompanied by is a contentious issue, I argue that context and history are essential to understand the fuller meaning of an artwork. Thus, I have paid attention to the 1990s in Korea, which revealed ruptures and the suppression of Korean tradition and historiography.

The thesis thus questions how a generation of Korean artists emerging in the 1990s was the result of generations of oppression, and how they were different from earlier generations. I look closely at the work of artists Choi Jeong Hwa (b.1961), Park Chan-kyong (b.1965) and Jia Chang (b.1971) and suggest a paradigm of ‘suppression’ to interpret both their work and representations of their work. Their work is contextualised by historical interviews with witnesses and influential figures of the time. I have interwoven diverse materials, findings and theories into what I call ‘a curator’s film’.

This research problematises the fact that there is not sufficient context available to apprehend contemporary Korean art in international exhibitions. Concurrently, the research asks whether historical amnesia is caused by privileging the art and history of the West. While the research reveals art emanating from various traumas caused by multifaceted suppression, this contextualisation with curators exposes the limitations of conventional curatorial formats. This process enables me to propose a new curatorial method by observing how different generations of artists from Korea emerged and internalised artistic strategies as methods.

This exploration of ‘what it means to curate exhibitions on historical subjects’ was prompted by experiences of working as the founding curator of the Korean Cultural Centre UK; and as an independent curator working internationally for 15 years. For more than 80 exhibitions, I worked with over 485 artists in international settings. These experiences allowed transnational discussions but also made me feel limited when explaining complex meanings to the public. Not only did the public have much less knowledge about non-Western art and philosophy, but there were also fewer chances to get to know the context. The artists concerned have tackled such complexities through artistic strategies, and I apply the skills learned from artists to the practice part of this research. In other words, artists’ strategies of self-reflexivity, autoethnography and the mixing of personal/public memory are learned, and Fragments interweaves interviews, archives, audio-visual materials, artworks and new commissions to elucidate the entangled memories.

I used an interpretative model designed as a ‘Deck of Cards’ for Fragments. These cards were visual symbolic cues, defined by me, and designed by an illustrator to work within Fragments. The cards punctuated points beyond words, using visuals coupled with numbers and symbols. The cards link the film to the thesis, which is divided into ‘Introduction, ‘History’, ‘Context’, ‘Medium’ and ‘Conclusion’. ‘History’ narrates the history of suppression (in the film, it is signalled by a card showing a broken bridge); ‘Context’ places my research within a curatorial context (an Island card); and ‘Medium’ demonstrates how my film becomes a new proposal for a curatorial method (a Memory card). Meanings of multiplicities and mystery are signified by the Maze card, the leitmotif of the film. And, finally, the introduction and conclusion are connected to the 13 numbers. This Deck of Cards is my curatorial rendition.

Collaboration with musicians and editors became an expanded form of curatorial practice. Eight original soundtracks were composed for the film, and the editing went through several phases to create Fragments – an amalgamation of theory, storytelling and conceptualisation.

Through Fragments and the corresponding thesis, the research argues how historical amnesia can be brought to the surface through a research-based curatorial strategy and method. It provokes the further question: as artists are shaped by history, in what ways do artists become narrators of history and reveal the collectively forgotten past?