Allison is a scholar of Korean Art and Archaeology based in London. Learn about the beauty of Korea on her Medium page.
The late 20th century brought about drastic changes to South Korea that would alter its political, cultural and economic characteristics. In 1987, the shift from authoritarianism to a more structured democracy led in the pursuit of stronger international relations. Additionally, the 1988 Seoul Olympics also allowed for the nation’s diplomatic horizons to normalize and for its economy to globalise, paving the way for the country to be internationally recognized as an industrialized nation by the start of the 21st century. South Korea was no longer viewed in negative terms due to its relationship with North Korea or Japanese colonisation, but rather as an independent state with a personal agenda for progression. Despite these positive transitions, it was in 1997 that the IMF (International Monetary Fund) crisis occurred, affecting the South Korean economy and its national patriotism. Since this event, many South Koreans have expressed increasing fatigue and hopelessness about their socio-economic status. Although new work opportunities have become available, temporary and underpaid jobs have aligned with one of the world’s longest working hours. With these changes, South Koreans around the globe began to question their national identity.
To use the definition given by Nandita Kaushal, ‘displacement’ is a concept that tends to occur where rapid economic development takes place and emerges as something that adversely affects the lives of the local people. Displacement reflects the relative power of various groups involved in politically, economically and socially stronger classes to impose sacrifices on those deemed weaker and less privileged. In order to understand this idea within a modern South Korean setting, this essay will focus on themes of displacement amongst women through the medium of contemporary photographic art.
Three female artists have been selected for analysis, as they have successfully used their international reputations to bring the matter of South Korean feminine displacement to the attention of global audiences. Furthermore, photography has been selected as the medium of choice for this essay as it is a mixture of both a lived experience and an artistic vision. In this way, contemporary photographic art parallels what has been academically written on the subject in a more personal and engaging way. It is also important to note that the documentary photography displayed within this article does not necessarily paint displacement in negative terms, but asks the audience to discuss its formation and consequences.
Displacement is expressed in three ways throughout this article: diaspora, Westernisation, and Confucianism. In the works of Nikki S. Lee, we can see displacement via diaspora and immigration. Oksun Kim similarly expresses this idea through the topics of Westernisation and interracial marriage. Lastly, the works of Young-sook Park explore Confucianism within contemporary South Korea and how it affects modern women.
Nikki S. Lee was born in 1970 in South Korea, where she later received her BA of Fine Arts in Photography. Shortly afterwards, she moved to New York to complete an undergraduate degree in Commercial Photography. Cabaret music, documentaries and fashion photography were all largely influential to her art, resulting in a hybrid medium that blends performance, collaboration and documentary photography. Although much of Lee’s art has been featured in prestigious collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, one particular photographic series is arguably the most influential in her portfolio. This would be the Projects series, which was created between 1997 and 2001.
When Projects was created, the rapid exchange of culture amongst minority groups was occurring within the United States. For example, popular music such as the Wu Tang Clan blended African-American and Asian-American influences, alongside the popularity of mixed race celebrities such as Tiger Woods and films discussing both African and Asian traditions such as Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. In the 1960s, shared discrimination between American minority groups such as yellowface and blackface, led to the collaboration of liberation collectives who worked together in order to reduce such discrimination. For Korean-Americans to be considered a minority at the end of the 20th century was a new phenomenon, as South Korea had only introduced international passports in the late 1980s. Therefore, the label of ‘minority’ for South Koreans started a conversation on displacement due to the unfamiliar culture around them. Lee’s Projects series openly examines this through documentary photography.
In Projects, Lee became a temporary member of twelve specific subcultures and groups such as tourists, the elderly, Hispanics and skateboarders. To do this, she first approached the subculture of which she had an interest in, asking their members if she could spend time with them. Not only did she adapt to their lifestyle, but their physical appearance, dress and mannerisms. This process went on for three months or until Lee felt friendly with the other members. It was only after this that she would ask a passer-by or fellow member to take a snapshot of her in the new setting. Although there is an element of chance within the snapshots, as the artist does not take them directly, Lee’s work remains art in that they are situations and settings prescribed and circumscribed by the artist herself. She is able to decide which members she is photographed with, as well as which cultural aspects she wishes to be presented. The name of each series does not allude to race, ethnicity, nationality or gender, but rather the activity that brings the group or subculture together.
In The Ohio Project (1999), we see Lee in what may be stereotyped as an ‘unusual’ setting for a Korean-American. In this project, Lee spent time with locals of an Ohio trailer park, adapting to their farming culture and more conservative, lower-income lifestyle. In order to better fit in, Lee’s hair was bleached blonde, a common representation of white American females. Not only does Lee’s race emphasise her displacement, but the contrast of objects within the photography itself. In the first image, the contrast of the floral wallpaper and Lee’s bright pink shorts clashes against the domineering image of the gun resting in the man’s lap. Her position between him and a Confederate flag, a symbol of racism to many Americans, suggests the indication of conquered territory. Although Lee seems relaxed in the snapshot, this strikingly different imagery once again represents her displacement in the community she has grown to recognise as friends.
Similarly, in The Yuppie Project (1998–9), Lee’s body language and camera work is where the implication of displacement often arises. The lush, candlelit restaurant suggests an upper-class society and one that Lee aims to once again present as predominantly Caucasian. The snap-shooter has aimed the camera downwards to highlight the valuable objects in the foreground such as the silverware, Tiffany and Company jewellery box, and the crystal flower vase. This camera positioning directs the viewer’s eye immediately to the embracing couple, highlighting their physical differences regardless of a shared lifestyle. Similarly, the third image highlights displacement within Lee’s gaze, as with several other photographs within the Projects series, which seems to extend beyond the borders of the snapshot. Her expression is often flat while her line of sight meets perfectly with the audience. This insistent connection to the camera is too strong to be coincidental, implying that Lee is allowing for her displacement to be openly recognized by the audience and allowing them to question any stereotypes of Korean-Americans that they may have.
Lastly, in Lee’s The Hip-Hop Project, we can see what is considered a more extreme adaptation to a group. Lee has physically transformed herself to the appearance of African-Americans by dying her skin a darker shade. Coincidentally, she also emphasizes her race through strongly winged eyeliner to highlight their Asian, almond shape. Although blackface is considered socially unacceptable in the United States, Lee’s conscious choice opens the discussion of racial hierarchies within America, even those amongst minority groups. By using blackface, Lee is likely suggesting that she is part of more privileged race that can do so without repercussions. This project also emphasizes the dynamic relationship between Asian-Americans and African-Americans in the late 20th century and how these two communities shared feelings of displacement within their own country.
Projects questions stereotypes within America. Lee is aware that audience members will ask questions along the lines of how a South Korean women became associated with these groups, such as ‘why is she there’ or ‘what is she doing there’. Engaging with those different to herself are tools for Lee to “[inquire] deeper into her own sensibilities and identities” as well as asking the audience to do the same.
Additionally, Projects takes a personal approach in that it shows a gap between what people think of the artist versus how Lee views herself. As Lee says, “…I have a lot of different characters inside and I was curious to understand these things. I wanted to see some sort of evidence that I could be all those different things”.
Lastly, the series “shows an exploration of environmental determinants including sociocultural and audience contexts and how that affects the sense of self”. Projects implies that a new identity can be acquired through clothing, makeup and entertainment choice, while also suggesting that identity should be divorced from political, social and economic affiliations.
Projects opens the discussion and analysis of the subcultures one is born or accepted into by implying that they are more fluid and open than commonly believed. Lee’s work is also concerned with how an identity changes in intimate or close situation, exposing a paradox of identity by implying that most people long for the same forms of acceptance within society, whether they are from a subculture or even race. Lee’s sincere experiences with diverse groups relates to feelings of displacement due to the new status of South Koreans as a minority group caused by diaspora beginning in the 1980s.
Similarly to Lee, Oksun Kim’s art plays with the medium of documentary photography. Kim was born in Seoul in 1967, where she later received her MA in Photographic Design. Kim deals specifically with Korean wives of foreigners in her 2002 series Happy Together. Similarly to addressing of one’s minority status in Projects, the real couples photographed in Happy Together consider their interracial married lives as different from those around them.
After the Korean War ended in 1953, the relationship between the United States and South Korea strengthened. With the division of the Korean peninsula came a dualist viewpoint of white men as both “humane rescuers and as imperialist invaders”. However, the image of the humane rescuer was promulgated by the South Korean government, therefore leading the country into a profitable market for “heroic white masculinity abound in Hollywood texts”, as seen through the highly popular films within South Korea, Ghost, Titanic and Gladiator. After moving overseas or entering into an interracial partnership, South Korean women became integrated into foreign cultures that often already had constructed concepts of race, gender and class, as well as self and professional identity. Being part of a multi-ethnic community allowed for the search of their cultural, socioeconomic, and gender identities.
During a set of interviews with nearly thirty South Korean women, anthropologist Nadia Kim noted that the attractiveness of white males also came with a draw towards their ‘liberal’ lifestyles. For example, one interviewee felt that she would not be restrained to the role of a housewife if she married a white man; that she would be able to progress more with her personal interests. The woman felt that she could become “an income-earning and independent woman with a white husband”. With the modernization of South Korea came the questioning of traditional Korean morals of patriarchy. Foreign men, and more specifically white men, were also becoming more familiar with South Korean culture and many interviewees noted that the men did not act “so white American” that “culture clashes would erupt”.
The idea of the ‘submissive’ and ‘exotic’ Asian wife was also a concern for South Koreans, where any derision of white men was brought on by their “subordination by gender, race and nationality”. With the passing of time and the progression of South Korea’s economy, the country’s relationship with the United States began to falter by the end of the 20th century. Incidents of violence brought about by American soldiers in South Korea led many locals to the conclusion that the United States no longer appreciated South Korea’s modernization, democratization and globalization. These situations likely influenced South Korean wives of foreigners, as they were forced to re-examine “language barriers, cultural differences as a racial minority, modify their Korean ethnic concepts… and adopted ideologies”.
The photographs within Happy Together hold many notable points of imagery. Firstly, one should note that the white men, the husbands of the South Korean women photographed, are never looking at their partners. Some look down, disinterested at the idea of being in a snapshot, while others stare off into the distance. This look pushes the thought that perhaps these marriages are faltering due to cultural differences. Although this is not necessarily true, it allows the audience to create their own narrative into how the relationship is progressing.
Conversely, the women are looking directly into the camera, as per the instruction of Kim. Their gaze, similar to that of Lee’s, forces the audience to examine the situation by either accepting or questioning it. This is given evidence through Kim’s comments on her own marriage to a white German, and her struggle to adapt to differences in culture and language.
Secondly, the location of the photograph is important to note. While several photographs are taken in the living room, the rest are in nurturing places such as the kitchen, dinning room or bedroom. The women are often busy doing something for the men, who lounge lazily, such as bringing them food. These photographs are taken of interracial couples residing in South Korea, emphasizing that although these women remain inside of their own culture, interracial marriage does not always provide the liberal and gender equal lifestyle that many believe it to.
Lastly, nearly every photograph has a symbol of East Asian culture embedded within it. For example, in one image we can see a poster of ‘Tokyo’ near the window. In another, the husband eats from a bowl of oranges, a common dessert amongst East Asian countries. In other photographs it is more noticeable, seen through bamboo plants, a Ming-inspired vase, and traditional clothing. These small details emphasize cultural unification and force the viewer to ask the same question that Kim wondered when meeting the couples: “What separates them? What keeps them together? Are they happy? Or are they just together?”.
These photographs symbolise that previous beliefs of “hegemonic white masculinity ideal of gender progressiveness, romanticism, and open-mindedness” has shifted with South Korea’s growing independence, and that the combination of various cultures give these women a unique cultural identity. Although there is a sense of displacement in the photographs, with the women seeming to be dismissed within their own household, their firm stares into the camera may not read as a cry for help, but as proud acceptance of the diversity around them.
Lastly, the final series to be examined is by the artist Young-Sook Park. Park’s work is highly influential within South Korea, where she lives and works. Inspired by the famous feminist contemporary artist Yun Suk Nam, Park’s photography touches on themes of Confucian values within Korean society in relation to the roles of women.
In the past, Korea had been strongly segregated in terms of sex due to Confucian tradition. Women were required to abide by the “rule of three obediences” that expressed subordination to one’s father, husband, and sons upon becoming widowed. This domination of males within the family system, in which women were unable to head a family, has continued until recent years via the hoju system until its abolishment in 2008. The first higher education program for women’s studies was established at Ewha Womans University in the 1980s. Feminist philosophy, however, was not seriously discussed in South Korea until 1993, when a group of female academics gathered to reflect on feminist issues in Korean philosophy.
Park, who openly labels herself as a feminist artist, represents the social limitations of South Korean women within private and domestic spaces throughout her work. Perhaps the most significant example of this rhetoric is within her Mad Woman Project series, a collection of staged photographs that explores the hidden lives of everyday South Korean women. By focusing on the discussion of feminine issues within South Korea, and inherently the displacement of South Korean because of these issues, the Mad Woman Project brings embedded Confucian traditions into the public light.
BACK TO LIST