The Antinomy of Two and Love of Just Being Together
Multicultural Families: an Overview
According to the demographic research by Statistics Korea and related studies, the solution to the further drop of the working population due to young women’s refusal of marriage and childbirth the foundation for patriarchal capitalism and the drastic shifts in contemporary lifestyle, have become major problems that the Korean nation has to urgently confront. Moreover, 10 % of marriages in South Korea are transnational, where the speed of falling birth rate and ageing population is the most rapid among 37 OECD countries. These statistics support the recognition that the realization of diverse facilitation and policies for foreigner settlement in Korea has become more necessary than ever. “As the migration across the borders has become a constant and general flux,” the Korean government can no longer adhere to the previous policies which emphasized assimilation and has to adapt actively to a more sustained degree of multicultural policies. As a matter of fact, entering the 2000s, transnational marriages mainly consisted of those between women who immigrated from Southeast or South Asia and Korean men. The enactment of the Multicultural Families Support Act in 2008 is a typical example of policies reflecting such a shift. The neologism of ‘multicultural family’ comprises new forms of family consisting of Koreans and immigrants, who arrived from not only Asia but also from almost every part of the world, including developed countries in Europe, North and South America and Africa . Consequently, the term became more vague, exceeding the initial clarity of its framework defined as “a family consisting of a Korean native and an immigrant or naturalized citizen bound to the marriage.” However, it is unmistakably true that the representation of multicultural families highlights the marriage of a Korean man to an Asian immigrant woman. Originally coined based on the neutral or politically correct as formulated in the West notion of multiculturalism, it is undeniable that the neologism of multicultural family is still perceived as a ‘pejorative’ that indicates the margins of a ‘normal’ family, a somewhat inferior family in the context of the contemporary reality of South Korea. The ideology of assimilation prevails even now and to the insiders who are lacking experiences of difference or diversity, or who refuse to update their awareness, multicultural family is generalised as a ‘politically incorrect’ label implying the minority group who can only secure an insufficient amount of cultural, symbolic and economic capital. Nonetheless, multicultural family is certainly a broad locus––an irrefutably substantial site of insuperable differences, a place of change and creation where new family relations push away traditional familism, the outside where intimate relationship becomes a liminal space of acculturation that cannot be defined by a singular concept or perspective.
Oksun’s Place Inside the Multicultural Families
Before the revision of the Nationality Act in 1998, foreign men who were married to Korean women were not granted the rights of residence and work, but only the right to temporarily visit their families (F-1, Joining Family Visa) in South Korea. After the revision, a foreign husband could apply for naturalization upon fulfilment of additional requirements after two years of marriage. Since then, the Nationality Act has been updated with new clauses added, seemingly with a focus on minimizing troubles and conflicts with transnational marriages. And since the enactment of Support for Multicultural Families Act in 2008, multicultural family has expanded its denotation as a loose term embracing differences that had been omitted by the previous representation of marriage typically between Korean men and immigrant women, for example, by including families of North Korean defectors or Korean women married to immigrant men. Until then, under the Nationality Act based on patrilineage, the child who was born to a Korean mother and raised in South Korea was still not a legal Korean. Unless the Korean mother registered the child under her own lineage as an illegitimate birth, it had to take the nationality of the father and reside in South Korea as a foreigner.
Oksun recalls that it must have been around the time when her daughter Hanna entered kindergarten (probably after another revision of the Nationality Act in 2003), that her status as a foreigner registered under her father’s family name shifted to that of a Korean national under Oksun’s. Unlike researchers or activists who trace social shifts based on the policymakers’ official documents, her account of the memory and experience is closer to that of the ones affected, who directly deal with such reality in their lives. (If I were willing to learn about how one experiences the change in ‘affiliation,’ I would have to interview Hanna Kim. It would be difficult to grasp it through the conventional metaphors or analogies known to me; the feeling of being renamed and referred to differently, while residing in the same location. However, I can still surmise that such a strange experience or difficulty must have or will ultimately turn into a gift to Hanna. I would dare to imagine it this way: the exceptional experience of becoming ‘another’ through an event, in which a woman is ‘exchangeable’ under patriarchy but turns to matriarchy by taking the mother’s family name. I eagerly wish to interpret it as an unexpected gift and opportunity.)
A brief introduction to Oksun’s life: 25 years ago, after marrying a German, she moved to Jeju Island where she had no relatives. There, she must have undergone double discrimination from the people of Jeju and of persons from the mainland (I can’t and won’t delve into the history behind this topic in this essay).1) She must have witnessed how the island has been devoured by people from the mainland or the continent for land and property speculation. She must have discovered palm trees, onto which she could project herself and photographed them. She also must have photographed the interior landscapes where couples dwell, embracing the irremediable differences like her family does.
Just as the term multicultural family lost its initial meaning by absorbing almost every marginalized model and became almost obsolete in my eyes, the figures in Oksun’s photography are depicted as marginalized beings and live without indicative names or entitlements; which may only be assumed with reference to the exhibition title that accommodates all these meanings. For example, her catalog Museum of Innocence, subtitled as Interim Report 2016: GoEun Museum of Photography’s Annual Exhibition, was edited and composed into an endless enumeration of almost every possible position, without names or titles as the indication of an ‘origin’ or ‘identity.’ They somehow entered and settled on Jeju Island, where the disappearance of ‘native’ residents and plants is still ongoing. For example, the Washingtonia palm trees were intentionally transplanted with the desire to turn Jeju into a tropical island within reachable distance and became a modern symbol for the region. Just as their survival and flourishing look so natural that it feels almost uncanny––could the analogy of the descendants of Africans, for example, who were forcibly brought from Africa to the Caribbean sugar plantations, be applied to these trees? A new image of Jeju Island emerges through the depiction of immigrant workers, who entered Korea out of economic reason or necessity, or the global nomads roaming around this planet. This Jeju is also Oksun’s, who relocated there out of financial necessity and discovered it anew through the artist’s eyes. Oksun’s photography is an anthropological document as well as a photographic ‘autobiography,’ in which the artist herself also appears. Oksun not only reveals images of ‘them’ as insiders but also talks ‘about’ the collective culture, to which she belongs, as a researcher and observer.
Oksun’s photographs of her life don’t stop at accomplishing the peculiarity of intimate and subjective photography but show how the most intimate can become an official, historical and objective document. It rejects any political representation and portrayal of the minority she might belong to. Therefore, it is an artistic photography that subtly skips the visual ‘identification’ in the imaging of the minority. As an unfamiliaroutsider on the inside, global nomadism or migration is literally the story of her life, which she kept telling us through her work. This story has been told traversing the liminal space where confessions and documents merge, and is located at the point where the intimate inside and the strange outside conjoin. Because photography is one of the most representational media and captures visually recognizable objects, it is also taken hostage by the ideology of visibility apparent in the modern representation system. Documentary photography used to be attributed with politically correct and transgressive attitudes. The generalization that it surrendered to the colonial and the patriarchal under late capitalist domination and appropriation sounds like a rough and imperfect discourse, yet it is still worth considering. The fact that something it can be seen and read means that it is already amalgamated within the given classification system and tied to processes of assimilation and integration. Foremost, submitted as a proof that the object actually ‘exists/existed,’ photography gets mobilized in the fulfilment of the hegemonic desire of identification that seeks to determine whether something is fake or not. As such, it keeps erasing the position of the photographer who aesthetically plays and subjectively composes the object in-between the fake and the real. Oksun’s photography looks documentary, because it suggests that the people and trees stood there in real life. But for Oksun, who is disinterested in politically correct statements about the ‘categories’ that she belongs to, her photography is about documenting “things that stand somewhere they don’t seem to be comfortable” and to stage “a hybrid space that cannot be quickly described.” The interior space of a transnationally married couple is neither a stage for the idealistic ‘fantasy’ of two becoming one nor a place dedicated to the physical reproduction to become three. In other words, it is recomposed as a stage for ‘existential’ antinomy and negotiation, where two ultimately remain as two.
Oksun’s trees, according to her, are “trees standing nearby, on the sidewalk.” Projecting her double ‘alienation’ as a person from the mainland as well as an outsider on the inside, her photography appropriates or composes objects into scenes of one in isolation or two in confrontation, with no interest in satiating the pleasure of ‘viewing eyes.’ To my eyes, Oksun’s photography appears rather bare, unembellished, and silent. It neither entices the viewer with the internal attraction of conventional anthropological or ethnographic photography that contributes to the perception of minority communities by exposing them toward the outside, nor overwhelms the viewer with potent affect, which gets created when the personal unravels. Instead, it is filled with uncertain faces, indecipherable situations, and the ‘daily life,’ which appears to be so mundane that it could be easily ignored. In this manner, just their presences are captured, indicating that someone is here, visually identifiable; yet without relying on any information about the Other, aesthetic pleasure for the viewer, or interventions of the politically correct. Oksun’s words, that her photography “never pretended to be art but is situated in an art museum,” deliver her hesitant yet tranquil acknowledgment of how she eventually came to be called an artist.
Of course, it is undeniable that art museums are becoming a backdrop or landscape for Instagram pictures currently. We are inundated by too many photographs that could have been taken by anyone; they are empty indeed, because they contain too much content and information. Commodified spectacles, overwhelming (pornographic) gazes, dead images; lost appetites, while witnessing the aesthetics of voraciousness and gluttony; a nation swallowed by the ‘well-made,’ paralyzed senses…
Hanna, Friends and the Palm Trees
I have never yet met a student from a multicultural family (of course, I am oversaturated with the information delivered through the media; therefore, I am still not actually knowledgeable). In studies about multicultural families, ‘they’ are often represented as interviewees feeling embarrassed or insecure existing between two cultures. Reminiscing about the historical development of subculture in the UK as an analogy, I try to imagine a subculture, which the youth from multicultural families would suggest. According to studies, the number of students from these families decreased throughout the elementary to highschool years. Either they failed to adapt to the fusion of cultures or chose to deviate from the mainstream. It doesn’t require much imagination to see them as outsiders on the inside who will allegedly cause new ‘social problems.’ It is a well-known historical lesson or fact that Korean society wounded them by insisting on homogeneity and rejecting heterogeneity and difference, and their wounds would lead them thereafter into troubles and secluded clusters.
Oksun’s two series portraying the youth from multicultural families, Park Portraits and Riverside Portraits (2019-2020) are documentary as well as autobiographical photography, including her daughter Hanna. These two categories operate side by side in the series. Riverside Portraits, where Hanna appears, are portraits taken along the riverside in the suburbs of Seoul, during the month of March. In contrast to other girls facing the camera, Hanna is presented in a remarkable way, lookfacing away. By exhibiting and portraying from a side view her own daughter as the closest Other, possibly and one of the easiest photographic objects to appropriate, Oksun chooses to discard simple identifications but signifies the distance and tension between herself and her loved Other and gives it who has a face recognizable to her. Parents and children may be intimate Others, who believe that they know each other the best, regardless of their ignorance of each other. Here, the daughter appears as a manifestation or an image from a ‘collection’ of portraits in the mother’s catalog, rather than in a family picture. The distance between an actual spouse of a second generation transnational marriage and her descendant is carefully contained in the composition or selection of the photograph of Hanna along with other pictures, displaced as objective photography regardless of its inevitable subjectivity. Therefore, I can find no other word than ‘love’ to describe this photograph, because I believe love endures the fact that the closest stands in reality furthest from us, while discovering over and over how this distance remains impassable.
Hanna’s friends or young acquaintances from multicultural families are sitting by the riverside, where plants are dying and growing anew at the same time. Oksun photographed transnational couples indoors where objects from two different cultures intermingle, whereas their children are captured outdoors by the transient, solitary and arid riverside where certain energies of life seem to slowly spread. The children are located within Oksun’s composition and perspective. They might have expected that the photographer would make an adequate or even gorgeous picture for their Instagram accounts, yet Oksun waited until the typical composition, and the expression of this desire had dissipated. She finally captured them, when they had morphed into empty, stiff and silent objects, almost indistinguishable from the dying and newly sprouting plants. At a closer look, even though the pictures were taken by a professional photographer in a decisive moment, they don’t seem to be much different from the ones taken by us; they appear rather bland, to the extent that the viewer might even feel too vague to ask the artist what this is about. Is it trying to escape from photographic practices (studium?), which talk too much instead of showing? Is there a willingness to protect the children from the political, social and educational agenda surrounding the youth from multicultural families? Is it displacing the March landscape of a riverside as an allegory of youth? If only the speechless gestures or images, finally liberated from words, were qualified to talk, we would be in need of new eyes and ears to see and listen to this enumeration of difference. The visual, surface level and photographic differences of the children, whose only proof of having existed on that stage had been arranged by Oksun, turn into her object completely through such isolation, removal and exposure; remote from any information, feeling, expectation and insecurity projected onto them.
Thus, the following paragraph by Foucault reading Magritte’s painting is adequately applicable to Oksun’s photography and the status of multicultural families that she reveals as an outsider on then unfamiliar inside:
To me it appears that Magritte dissociated similitude from resemblance, and brought the former into play against the latter. Resemblance has a “model,” an original element that orders and hierarchizes the increasingly less faithful copies that can be struck from it. Resemblance presupposes a primary reference that prescribes and classes. The similar develops in series that have neither beginning nor end, that can be followed in one direction as easily as in another, that obey no hierarchy, but propagate themselves from small differences among small differences. Resemblance serves representation, which rules over it; similitude serves repetition, which ranges across it. Resemblance predicates itself upon a model it must return to and reveal; similitude circulates the simulacrum as an indefinite and reversible relation of the similar to the similar.2)
Similitude indicates the place or site of images, signs, copies that roam and circulate without any original or “model,” as the similar repeats itself endlessly irrespective of timewithout any point of conclusion. Similitude won’t reach home (just as Oksun’s 2010 series No Direction Home suggests) and stays faithful to the fake/simulacra replayed by images and signs, which are similar but do not refer to an original.
During an art residency in Kaohsiung, Taiwan (2019–2020), Oksun invited local youths from multicultural families and photographed them against the backdrop of palm trees, which are her persona and allegorical representation. About a decade earlier than in South Korea, as the exchange between Taiwan and China was re-initiated and immigrants from neighboring countries entered Taiwan in the context of global migration, the number of multicultural families rapidly increased. There, Oksun encountered situations and faces similar to those in South Korea, recognizing the history revealed on the faces of the Other through a similar yet not completely identical history of another place and arranging it as a repetition and expansion of her daughter, her closest stranger. To bring them heedlessly to the palm trees, her persona, instead of setting up any community or interior they would be willing to cultivate in the future; that the ‘interior’ they had stepped into without knowing it had indeed been meticulously arranged with carefully considered intentions. The photography looks anthropological, yet it is actually permeated with a certain empathy I could be almost stubborn enough to call it love. The children look isolated and alone, but in fact, they are two. In Oksun’s practice, two don’t necessarily converge and become one. If I were asked what it all means, my explanation would require plenty of time. Then, I would be determined to insert an exaggerated interpretation, that hers could be called a form of matriarchal photography, staged by Oksun herself as a female-mother-artist.
Finally, I reach the photographs without children, with palm trees only. Hung together, they mimic panoramic photography, appropriating the form of a Christian triptych and its attendant religious rituals. The three in confrontation expose uneven edges and connections, resisting the representation of the whole as in panoramic photography; problematizing unison and assimilation continuously; and thus, departing from the hierarchy of representation and rebelling against it simultaneously.
1) [Translator’s Note] From its status as a region of political exiles during the time of pre-modern dynasties to a military massacre on April 3, 1948, Jeju’s relation to the Korean peninsula has been blighted by multiple segregations, suppressions and tragedies.
2) Michel Foucault, This is Not a Pipe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 44.
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