Sohl Lee

Assistant Prof. in Modern East Asian Art, Department of Art (Art History and Criticism)State University of New York at Stony Brook

Award Information

2012 IDRF Program

Visual and Cultural StudiesUniversity of Rochester

Within and beyond Minjung: The Aesthetics of National Identity and Democratic Participation in South Korean Art (1970-2010)

The South Korean pro-democracy movement called “minjung movement” (or people’s movement) is often cited as a model of the third wave democracy, having successfully established a parliamentary democracy in 1987, as well as the subsequent economic prosperity. Yet, against this celebratory narrative of the victory of capitalist democracy, today’s South Korean artists tell a different story. For them, the political struggle continues, even after the initial revolution—and so does the necessity of art production that actively imagines new forms of citizenship and democratic participation. This project offers a historical and visual analysis of South Korean artists’ continued vision for radical social change, as well as their shifting aesthetics over the past four decades. If many social sciences scholars have focused on the minjung movement’s political and sociological aspects, my visual and cultural studies approach to minjung art (or people’s art) and today’s political art investigates the complex dynamics between aesthetics and politics. How does art give tangible, material forms to the seemingly universal ideals of citizenship and democracy in a post-colonial nation that still lives with the Cold-War era national division? How does art reflect the shifts in South Korean understandings of national subjectivity, from a singular, homogeneous model of citizenship to a more heterogeneous and contentious one? Considering the recent developments in visual technologies, I ask how changes in the actual material forms of minjung art (banners, woodblock prints, oil painting) to today's “post-minjung” art (video clips, photography, multi-media installation) can enrich our knowledge of South Korean art history. With this transhistorical study on South Korea, I seek to complicate the global history of avant-garde political art, one that has been consistently oriented around Euro-American political history (the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Paris 1968, the end of communism in 1989).