SHIN Gyung Jin / Art and Power: Tracing the Figure of the Artist in Korean Art History (4) 藝術與權力 – 韓國藝術史中藝術家身份形象的遞變(四)

SHIN Gyung Jin / Art and Power: Tracing the Figure of the Artist in Korean Art History (4) 藝術與權力 – 韓國藝術史中藝術家身份形象的遞變(四)

Gyung-jin Shin 辛庚珍

發表於: 30 Jun 2020

Nam June Paik (Paik Nam-June) represents Korean contemporary art, but only becoming a solid case in the 1980s, 34 years after he lived away from his home country. Artists and their fame are often appropriated to be subsisted to political agendas. The story remains, unveiling the story of globalization, what is missing, and what voices are never recorded, in the mainstream discourse of Korean art history? 白南準離開本家韓國34年。他的蜚聲國際把他「送回」南韓,成為1980年代及往後國內全球化策略下的國際級大節慶紅人。白南準的藝術地位和貢獻不可置疑。問題是,著眼於他這樣級數的藝術家的同時,我們失卻了甚麼?誰的主體性被泯滅?那些有關藝術的實存被滅聲?這不單是寫藝術史的人的問題,是每一個人如何存活於政治機器中要關注的。

/…4th of a 4-part essay / continued from part 3


  1. Media Artist Transplanted by “3S” and “Globalization” Campaigns

Without doubt, Nam June Paik is one of the best known Korean contemporary artists. His prominence profoundly changed Koreans’ perception of art, and he has been turned into a stereotype of the “experimental media artist” in Korea. Given the promotion of a “show” culture by the military regime in the 1980s, it would be necessary to shed new light on his sudden appearance into the Korean art scene in the context of political control of the time. He is certainly an important figure in art history even outside of Korea. However, he was barely known in the Korean art world even until he had his retrospective in Whitney Museum in 1982, long after he achieved renown from Germany. It is not until 1984 when he was first introduced to the Korean people through a TV show that broadcast his project “Good Morning, Mr. Orwell.” [Figure 9]

KBS1 TV channel will broadcast an international satellite art show “Good morning, Mr. Orwell” created by Nam June Paik, the originator of video art, at 2 am on 2 January. The show is produced as a pre-event of the Seoul Olympics…. KBS1 TV will air “Video artist: Nam June Paik” 1 hour prior to the show to help understanding of his life and artistic accomplishment which are not familiar to domestic viewers. (23 Dec, 1983, Dong-A newspapers)

This newspaper announcement introduced “Good Morning, Mr. Orwell” as specifically produced for the Seoul Olympics. In fact, the show was not intended for the Olympics in Korea; rather, it was an interdisciplinary project performed and produced by multiple European and American artists, journalists and producers, not Korean. The article also shows that Nam June Paik was unfamiliar to most Korean people at the time. In June 1984, 34 years later since he left his home country, the Korean government invited him to “return” as a national guest — to promote the American artist’s long absence from his home country by airing his performance and documentary images on the national TV channel. What was behind the reconstruction of Paik as a Korean national icon?

To understand this phenomenon, it is worth discussing the cultural policy of the military government in the 1980s. The then new military regime adopted a “3S (Screen, Sex, Sports)” policy – not an official name, but coined by the people and media – in order to divert people’s attention from the democratic movements. TV broadcasting started to be more colorful than usual, and the apparently free use of erotic expressions on screen was unprecedented. Big sports games, such as the Asian Games and the Olympics, were enthusiastically hosted by Korea. In this context, the sudden promotion of the “video artist” Nam June Paik was no surprise, nor was the attempt to relate him to the Seoul Olympics, all of which aligned with the strategy to divert people’s attention from politics. Many newspaper articles then criticized this campaign by the military government. “Good Morning, Mr. Orwell” was only the first of the many instances when Paik was appropriated to be an active signifier in the national festivals of the 80s. The ’88 Olympics, for instance, saw the creation of huge art projects such as “Wrap around the World” (1988) and “The More, The Better” (1988), could be read alongside Paik’s “return.”

Under the newly launched Kim Young-Sam regime from 1993 to 1998, the government’s motto shifted to “globalization,” which was an indiscreet adoption of the policy of the United States in the 1990s. This was also in line with “modernization projects” sought after throughout the authoritarian governments since the 1960s. In this new political milieu, Paik Nam-June successfully hosted the “Whitney Biennale Exhibition” in Korea, and contributed to the launch of the Korean Pavilion in Venice Biennale in 1993. He also assisted in organizing and founding the first edition of the Gwang-ju Biennale in Korea in 1995. A report in 1995 from the “Korea Culture and Tourism Institute” (KCTI) states “globalization” as follows:

… “Globalization” is based on the advancement and internationalization of a nation. In this sense, “globalization” in the art scene is thought to be the promotion of international cooperation through stronger national competitiveness.

“Globalization” in art requires a fundamental re-definition of the conception of art and art policy.” [15]

This 1995 report also specifies the concept of “globalization” to apply to all parts of the art world, including art education, art criticism, journalism, art markets, and political and financial support from corporate and government. Indeed, the 1990s saw a boom in exhibitions from overseas and exports of Korean artists to the world. “Globalization” was proactively pursued in the Korean art scene. From this angle, Paik’s activities in Korea was a great asset for the Korean governments “globalization” policy. Despite the opening of the Nam June Paik Art Center in 2008, Paik’s artistic accomplishments in Germany and the United States remained insufficiently understood by the Koreans, partly due to the fact that his artistic activities have more to do with the German or American historical, social, and cultural contexts than Korea’s. Nonetheless, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that Paik’s artistic prominence in Korea was the product of the government’s strong cultural control in the name of globalization.

Figure 9. Nam June Paik, Good morning, Mr. Orwell, 1984, News One, www.news1.kr (*screening and installation view of the 2014 exhibition at Paik Nam June Art Center)


A Concluding Note: subjectification and revisionist historiography

This 4-part essay traces the changing discourses on subjectification. According to premises put forth by structuralism in the 20th century, the human subject is constructed. But such a shift in thought, called “the death of the subject,” does not suggest the obliteration of the subject; rather, it is an attempt for reinterpretation, restoration, and rewriting of the subject. The “death of the author” thesis applies to my discussion of the changing figure of the Korean artist in this essay – how “the artist,” who they were and what was expected of them, had always been constructed by the political discourses that sustain nationhood, in specific ways that fit into the broader agenda of government and control. In this light, the author is not an absolute principle for understanding art but, rather, is itself is an object of interpellation —  produced, reproduced and shifted according to changes in art-specific mechanisms that defined the preferred artistic material and symbolic tendencies alongside political climates. Perhaps art could still be explored as the internal expression of the immutable subject, but there exists a kind of system in which intended “influences” are circulated within society, and art cannot be free from it. The study of art history centered on artists and movements will remain incomplete, without attention to the subjectification processes examined in this essay. Therefore, the question of “Who is the artist?” is also a question of “What is the social system or operating structure within society in a particular era that produces the artist?” The status and figure of the artist have changed accordingly and will continue to change.

In response to the longue duree principle of the French Annales School of historiography, I took up the over three thousand years of Korean art history for a long view that I would not gain by concentrating on one moment. The figures of the artists have changed along with the changing power regimes, each embracing its own ruling ideology, articulated as class structure, official cultural policy, and sustenance of the nation’s economic health, provisions and sanctions for the ordinary people’s engagement in politics, imposed values versus popular ideology, and subsequently the rule of the art market. Critical changes in the power relationship that created the “discontinuous” strata in history — for example, war and division, military coup d’etat, or sudden economic boom — have considerably influenced the environment that harbors the artists as the creative subject of the time.

What has been proposed, however, does not mean that artists are entirely passive. As much as the ruling power that defines art must be illuminated, we must also shed light on the self-initiated energy of the artists in response to domination, and the different modes of resistance resulting from their thoughtful strategization. The study of art history should discern the genealogy of such creative activities that are unremembered, fragmented, and excluded from mainstream discourses. The many past attempts to define Korean art via constructed notions of “Koreanness” as something static have been found dangerous and problematic. The efforts to find a fixed, unitary identity in thousands of years of Korean art can entail totalitarian violence. The neglect of differences – those artists whose practices have not fit official ideals, off-stage voices and many more – is a form of exploitation by the authority via uniform theorems. What Foucault sought to do through archeology is precisely to escape from what we undoubtedly believed to be the mainstream by discovering isolated strata and establishing a new series within the given history. Such an effort will enable the artistic discourses to become more diversified rather than homogenous. And this is a project that is yet to start.

Due to its geopolitical position, South Korea has gone through dynamic power struggles, including frequent wars, colonial domination, ideological clashes played out in the domain of public life, military dictatorship, and attempts of democratization — all of which has found its impact within the artistic realm. The early 21st century is no exception. Caught in the midst of a trade war between China and the United States, and perennial conflicts with North Korea, Korea has seen the conditions that shape Korean art and culture fluctuates alongside regime and policy changes. In this regard, the macroscopic look at how the major artist’s images have been shaped by the composition of sociopolitical power would be a good starting point for an attentive historiographical agenda for examining Korean contemporary arts. In addition, the following studies should archaeologically excavate the hidden clues that were not recorded in mainstream art history for rewriting a new history; the topics for study may include activities performed beyond official facilitation, creative acts that were not defined as art at the time they occurred, or a new artist’s figure beyond the figure of the artist we have held by convention



[15] Yang, H. M. (1995). “Art and Culture in the era of Globalization”. Korea Culture and Tourism Institute (KCTI). www.kcti.re.kr

 /… end of a 4-part essay


About the Author

Gyung Jin Shin (辛庚珍) is artist, researcher, and PhD candidate at the School of Creative Media, the City University of Hong Kong. Her art works have been exhibited and screened in the US, Europe, and Asia. Her research interest includes art’s social engagement, post-media discourse, post-digital art, new materialism, media archaeology, and Critical Theory.


Related Reading: Shin Gyung-jin’s “Art & Power” series

FP Editor’s Recommendation

on Paik Nam-June: HANNA HÖLLING: Revisions, or on the aesthetics of change” by M&P, Media in the Expanded Field Site, 7 June 2016.

on the Okin Collective: Okin Collective,  the Korean Artist’s Prize.

Floating Projects Collective 2023