Regarding Foreign Cultures —Kim Oksun
Vice-Director, Bridgestone Museum of Art, Ishibashi Foundation
ex-Chief Curator, Tokyo Photographic Art Museum
For Kim Oksun, encounters with foreign cultures are a common occurrence. Her daily experiences are reflected directly in what has become her breakthrough work, Happy Together (2002–2005). The subject of her photographs is mixed couples, consisting of a Western man and Asian woman, and as we can tell from the titles, the women originate from Korea, Japan, China, etc. Some of the couples consist of gays or lesbians and also some Asian or Caucasian couples appear among them. All the subjects of the works have been photographed in the places where they spend their daily lives—they invite Kim Oksun into their most personal spaces, the living rooms, kitchens or bedrooms of their own homes. This is something that could not be achieved without a great deal of trust, but none of the subjects of her works appear relaxed or smiling. The women all stare into the camera’s lens while their partners avert their eyes. Of course, this has been staged by Kim Oksun. The background interiors of the subjects’ homes, the pictures on the wall, the clothes they are wearing, the food spread out in the kitchen, the books on the shelves and the atmosphere of the rooms, all of these speak to us of the way they live, their culture and their everyday lives. Using a large-format 4x5 camera and a minutely calculated composition, she captures her subjects in the moment when their expressions cease to be formal. It is obvious at a glance that these photographs have been composed, but due to this very fact, the tension that fills them, and the sense of fatigue arising from the repetition of daily life, presents a stronger sense of reality. Each photograph is filled with hints of the long drama they contain and in them there can be found no simple yes or no answer to question posed by Kim Oksun, ‘Are you happy together?’ What these works capture are complicated, yet vague, emotions and an image of married life itself.
The inspiration for this work came when Kim Oksun left Seoul, where she had lived for many years, and moved to Jeju Island to live with her new husband, a German named Ralf. Looking back, she remarked, ‘Happy Together started off from a question regarding my marriage. I wanted to find a solution to the problems that I couldn’t answer through the lives of other couples.’1) Starting with a portrait of her and Ralf, she went on to develop her theme using her friends or Ralf’s, friends of their friends and couples in the same situation as herself. In marriage, is the feeling of discomfort or lack of understanding regarding one’s partner a personal problem or is it a result of cultural differences? Can the problems be traced back to their roots, the country or environment they come from, or are they a result of the system of marriage itself? Is it a problem of men and women or something else? These are all unanswerable questions but surely the very act of asking them has meaning. Naturally, this series does not feature couples consisting of Korean men and Asian women. In Korea, where Confucian morals continue to have a strong influence on daily life, the continuation of the paternal line is considered to be of paramount importance in marriage. Numerically, by far the most common form of international or intercultural marriage in South Korea is that of a Korean man with a Southeast-Asian woman, conforming to the underlying conventional values. Strongly influenced by patriarchal Confucian culture (although of course this varies according to the thinking and situation of each individual) the main object of the marriage is the continuation of the ‘paternal lineage’. The marriages portrayed in Kim Oksun’s photographs depict the confrontation of two individuals, and therefore each possesses different implications. Of course, among the white men in Kim Oksun’s photographs there may be those who believed the fantasy of the ‘subservient Asian woman’ when they married. The Korean men who married Southeast Asian women probably soon discovered that women who are totally subservient to men are rapidly becoming an endangered species. For a woman to marry a foreigner or to be gay immediately indicates a deviation from the norms of a society that strives to preserve traditional values. The strength of the gazes of the women who appear in Kim Oksun’s photographs demonstrate a resolution to stand up to all the difficulties they can expect to face.
She continues to work on themes of conflict/harmony between different cultures and identity in her series of portraits of foreigners living on Jeju Island, No Direction Home (2009–2011) and her series on plants that were introduced to Jeju Island and flourished there, The Shining Things (2011).
The southernmost territory of the Republic of Korea, Jeju Island is situated to the southwest of the Korean peninsular, it is approximately 1,848 square kilometers in size, making it half again as large as Okinawa Island. It is a volcanic island with a population of 587,200, its rich scenery and moderate climate making it one of the leading resorts in East Asia. In 2007 the ‘Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes’ were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, however, during the course of its history the island has found itself at the mercy of politics, being controlled by the Goryeo dynasty, the Mongols, the Joseon dynasty and the Japanese. After the First World War, many of its inhabitants moved from Jeju to Osaka. ‘The soil in Jeju is very poor with low yieldability. On the peninsular, there were numerous landlords who exploited the people who worked the land and lived on the surplus, but the situation was different on Jeju so farmers who broke their ties with the land were unable to even find work as peasants and so had no choice but to leave the island to find employment as manual laborers.’2) ‘The annual number of people arriving in Osaka increased from approximately 3,500 in 1922 to a peak of almost 30,000 in 1933 and of these, those originating from Jeju Island rose from 10,000 to 50,000, which meant a remarkable one quarter of the island’s population lived in Japan.’3) During the 1948 division of Korea into North and South following Japan’s defeat in the war, there was an uprising on Jeju Island that resulted in the destruction of 130 villages and the deaths of approximately 30,000 residents.
Following the end of the Korean War, South Korea underwent a period of rapid economic growth from the 1960s that is known as ‘The Miracle on the Han River’. After the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis the country was placed under IMF management but this did not last long and the economy soon recovered. However, despite this newfound prosperity, the per capita income of the inhabitants of Jeju Island was one of the lowest in the country.4) In order to develop tourism, invite foreign investment and ‘make Jeju Island a Free International City, enabling freedom of movement for people goods and capital,’5) the South Korean government passed the ‘Establishment of Jeju Special Self-Governing Province’ and the ‘Jeju Free International City’ acts’ in 2006, Jeju becoming the only special self-governing province in the country. In 2008 visa waiver agreements were extended to 180 countries, further deregulation and system reform resulting in an increase in tourism and overseas investment in the island.
Some of the foreigners who appear in Kim Oksun’s No Direction Home may have benefitted from these changes. The title of the series comes from the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and is used to describe the people who live in Jeju. However, in the expressions of the people depicted by Kim Oksun we see neither optimistic smiles nor a pessimistic unease, instead they appear to confront reality steadfastly. Brett (2009), who looms head and shoulders above the door lintel, stands awkwardly in a dreary room that appears to be his temporary home. Leela and her friends (2010) features a woman wearing a south islands’ pareo and holding a slice of watermelon in her hands as she enjoys a picnic. Sara’s family (2010) depicts three generations of women in front of a cabinet filled with family photographs taken on special days. All these works present extended families comprising of various races in a most natural way.
Kim Oksun says, ‘The Shining Things, the non-native vegetations that are the main subjects of the series are none other than metaphors for the people living in foreign lands. The tangled and twisted arbors in Jeju Island symbolize the strangers who are survived from different surroundings.’6) Among them there may be those who, like the tall trees that have been brought from overseas to set down their roots around Jeongbang waterfall or in Seogwipo City, have left their distant homelands to settle down in Jeju and become members of the community. Alternatively, there may be some people who resemble contemporary nomads, eventually leaving Jeju in search of new horizons. Whichever the case, no matter what their motives, negative or positive, they have made a conscious decision to live there. They accept the insecurity and risks they confront through living in a different culture and the difficulties of having to relativize themselves, while simultaneously accepting their freedom.
1) Kim Oksun, Happy Together, The Works, Seoul, Korea, 2006, n.p.
2) Kyŏng-su Mun, Jejutō 4.3 jiken ‘tamuna no ku ni’ no shi to saisei no monogatari [Jeju Island Uprising the Story of the Death and Regeneration of the ‘Island Country’], Iwanami Shoten, 2018, p.24
3) ibid. pp. 26–27
4) ARAI Naoki, ‘Kankoku-Cheju tokubetsu jichidō no kokusai kankō senryaku’ [South Korea - Jeju Special Self-Governing Province’s International Tourism Strategy], Toshi seisaku Kenkyū No. 14, 2013, p. 42
5) Ibid. p.42
6) From KIM Oksun’s ‘Artist Statement’
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