An artist wonders

What's driving the conflict between North Korea and South Korea now?

March 09, 2008|By Mina Cheon

When I travel between the U.S. and South Korea, it is hard not to notice the striking differences between Korean and American media when it comes to world events. As an artist, I am intrigued by this cultural and political media gap. The two countries may be allies, but each has its own version of reality.

With my artwork, I try to make note of the differences - in particular regarding the relationships among North Korea, South Korea and the United States. As a Korean-American female artist living and working in both Korea and the U.S., I often question what drives the conflict between North Korea and South Korea today.

The tension between the two Koreas seems like a bigger deal in America than in South Korea. If you go to Seoul today and ask people if they are concerned about North Korean nuclear weapons, chances are that you will get a casual smile and the response: "What weapons?"

I am interested in observing how the American media present the concept of the enemy. Could U.S. politics play a role in the increased focus on North Korea and the potential for conflict? South Korea is a shining example of U.S.-influenced capitalism, while North Korea exemplifies a failed communist regime. America's vision of a binary world - allies and enemies - was a symptom of the conflict between the U.S. and the Soviets. Now the Soviets are gone, but the binary worldview is intact.

The recent performance by the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang raises many questions. Who benefits from this type of classical music/pingpong diplomacy? Why was it necessary for the trip to have occurred now? And whom was the performance really for?

To me, there is a disturbing postcolonial undertone here - one that my American friends may not easily understand. There is a narrative here of the "civilized" and classically trained Westerners called to enlighten the primitive "others" of an unfortunate, backward Asian country.

My exhibit Addressing Dolls responds to the North Korean-South Korean conflict and the precarious relationship between the Koreas and America in a seemingly nonpolitical way: through girls' playthings, such as handmade dolls and paper doll dresses.

One piece, 99 Miss Kim(s), is a wall-size installation of 99 North Korean military "fembot" dolls lined up in perfect unison. These figures all share a name, Kim - the most common surname, which is also shared by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. The images draw attention to the fact that North Korean women are idealized and fetishized by many South Korean men, who tend to view them as more beautiful and more authentically "Korean." This phenomenon is not unlike the way many Westerners, especially men, exoticize Asian women in general.

Dresses for Different Events, by contrast, consists of paper doll dresses blown up to life size. These dresses are scanned from actual South Korean paper doll dresses from the 1970s, a time of increasing Westernization and industrialization.

The dresses portray Western fashions, ranging from Victorian to 1970s disco style. Using these paper doll dresses, I tried to convey how Westernization, Americanization and capitalism are contained even in everyday objects back then - colonial and Western influences in South Korea that are still prevalent today.

Artists have contributed in many ways to life and society. Today, artists are also cultural critiquers, redefining their role as social commentators.

Ever since North Korea was named a member of the "axis of evil," it has been hard for me to neglect the American political agendas behind the way that nation is presented in the media as a way to propagate fear of the "other." This, in turn, generates support for additional surveillance of the population and more spending of resources on homeland security. It even increased the possibility of war.

Noticing things that often go unnoticed, and reacting to the political climate, are among the roles of an artist.

Mina Cheon, a Korean-American artist living in Baltimore, New York and Seoul, is a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Her solo exhibition "Addressing Dolls" is on display at the C. Grimaldis Gallery. Her e-mail is mcheon@mica.edu.

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