Kim Hyeonjoo

Ipgim: Feminist movement and artist collective in Korea

This article was originally written by Kim Hyeonjoo Korean, is translated in English by Heo Jiwoo and edited by Kim Jinjoo. 

Creation and identity of Ipgim
In October 1997, eight women artists, Kwak Eunsook, Kim Myungjin, Ryu Junhwa, Woo Shinhee, Yoon Heesu, Jung Jungyeob, Je Miran, and Ha Insun, met to take the first step toward Ipgim - this Korean word means breath or influence. Born between 1959 and 1966, they were all in their 30s except Ha Insun, and had various majors such as painting, video and design, and varied careers. Kwak Eunsook and Jung Jungyeob had earlier been keen on the group activities of Minjung Misul (People’s Art), including Yeosung Misul Yeonguhoe (The Women’s Art Research Group), since the 1980s, while Ryu Junhwa and Woo Shinhee have joined women’s art movement since the early 1990s. However, after Yeosung Misul Yeonguhoe was disbanded in late 1994, the four artists, who were working in isolation, realized the need for a community of women artists of the same generation and each four recruited a new member. Joined by Ha Insun, a member of Minhwa (Korean folk painting) class in Minjok Misul Hyubuihoe (Korean People’s Art Association); Kim Myungjin and Je Miran, who were the designers of the first feminist journal in South Korea, IF which published in the same year; and Yoon Heesu, who was seeking a women artists group after studying abroad from Germany, the eight fixed members were decided. Above all, they gathered based on their awareness of the unstable position of women artists  and the urgency of their survival in the male-dominated social structure, shared thoughts about their positions and experiences of life as women or artists, formed a sense of emancipation and solidarity, and created a platform to support and rely on each other.
Before launching full-scale group activities under the name of Ipgim they focused on individual creative activities for more than two years and held regular study meetings, continuing to engage with senior women artists and scholars and activists through Yeosung Munwha Woondong (women’s culture movement) which was in full swing in mid and late 1990s. Regular study meetings, in which they read and discussed papers on contemporary art or feminism art as well as translation on western theory or practices in the same subjects, were times to strengthen their solidarity and mutual relations: their external relations have expanded through active participation in academic and cultural events held by feminists activists group Ddo Hanaeui Munhwa (Alternative Culture), the journal IF, or Feminist Artist Network that pursued alternatives to patriarchal culture.1 Going through such a time together, they officially named themselves as Ipgim in 2000, and conducted unrivaled activities as a feminists that pursued social movements and art practice until 2006.
In the spring of 2000, as their curatorial work Jipsaramui Jip (House of Housewife) was selected in an open call of emerging gallery Boda, Ipgim was recognized for their artistic ability and began their official activities. At that time, their official name had been Feminist Project Group Ipgim which was changed to Feminist Artist Group Ipgim in 2005, but continued their project-style work that speaks women’s struggle publicly. They sought activities and methodologies to melt and soothe the world with women’s “gentle respiration” or “warm breathing.”2 In particular, instead of rigid organizational management, they pursued democratic communication based on mutual equality and respect, regardless of age or experience. Occasionally, project managers were chosen, but no leader was representing them. Since the members’ residences were scattered in Seoul, Gyeonggi, Gongju, and Bonghwa, and there were cases of personal circumstances, each project sought ways to decide whether to participate in the exhibition: shared roles according to the democratic decision-making process: improved perfection of their projects through sharing each other’s reviews and critics openly.3 Also, their diversity became an ability to handle various media that was an advantage in their practices.

Case study of artistic movement Abanggung: Occupy Jongmyo Project
Although settling in the art world without difficulty, Ipgim faced a crucial situation at their second project Abanggung: Occupy Jongmyo Project (hereinafter Abanggung Project) that turned into a social incident. In the process of breaking through such a situation head-on, Ipgim introspected their identity as a feminist artist collective that combines social movement and art practice; Abanggung Project is now considered the most meaningful work of Ipgim.
As their second collaboration project, Abanggung Project was one of the selected exhibition works in a public art festival that supported by the government of Kim Dae-Jung administration and opened to celebrate the new millennium. Originally, the project was to be held for three days from September 29th Monday to October 1st Sunday in 2000, at Jongmyo Square Park, but was thwarted due to organized obstruction by the royal Jeonju Lee clan. The trigger of this disturbance was that feminists artworks exhibited not in gallery space but in the park before Jongmyo Shrine, a sacred place that contained the essence of patriarchal Confucian culture. Getting the announcement of the exhibition in the newspaper, the royal Jeonju Lee clan thought that any woman cannot disgrace the sacred place although it’s an art festival so they threatened and caused violence to Ipgim and their works in the park. At that time, the case was reported in the society section not in the culture section of media,4 and Ipgim was mainly called a women’s organization, not artists, and the project was understood as a “feminist movement” rather than an “art practice.”5
To resolve the case, an emergency committee of 17 cultural organizations was formed and held a press meeting on October 4th to demand a public apology by the royal clan and an open discussion or conversation about this vandalism on feminist artworks. The committee issued a statement saying would litigate against the violence if the demand is not accepted. Ipgim accused the clan which didn’t take any response to the statement. The lawsuit proceeded for four years and Ipgim won the case eventually. 

On October 29th, a month after the incident, Ipgim held a Women’s Culture Festival at the park with the support of women cultural activists and artists and organizations in the universities. As support for Ipgim, the participants of the re-organized festival were marching together in the streets and calling for freedom of artistic expression. Although Abanggung Project fell through as an art project, Ipgim has fought a cultural war outside through it.
The name of Abanggung Project has a double meaning of an abbreviation for “Areumdabgo Bangjahan Jagung (a beautiful and bold womb)” and a luxurious palace of Emperor Qin. The project is linked to the essentialist view of feminist politics, which actively developed the uterus/vagina icon to subvert the symbolic space of patriarchal culture and reveal patriarchal oppression on women’s bodies.6 The project itself fell through, and the contents of the project or entries were not subject to artistic consideration, as most of the works were lost. Even so, it is important to look at the project with the remaining photos, videos, objects, and detailed plans. Various media such as handicrafts, collages, holograms, installations, objects, and performances were mobilized for the project, which attempted to tear down the boundary and overthrow the hierarchy between art and craft, sophisticated art and raw art. Also, various hands-on events, bringing such as the senses of touch, hearing, taste and smell, had been prepared through playful participation with humor, satire and joyfulness.

For the project, Ipgim set up four thematic parts and created various works corresponding to the themes. The themes focused on the cultural experience of women’s bodies beyond sexual objectification, restoration of femininity and positive values of women’s culture, awareness on prohibitions in systems and daily life governing women, and challenge to authoritative social order and gender norms. The works raised comprehensive social issues in feminism, and their details were not to the extent of being highly stimulating, disgusting or provoking. While summoning mother goddess through a huge cloth doll of Magohalmum - one of the legendary figures of the mother goddess legend who is said to protect the Korean Peninsula - placed at the entrance, pink skirt used as a sort of coats for the upper class women in Joseon Dynasty were arrayed in the trees to heighten the festive mood through a space production that seems to have been reincarnated by women ancestors. The pink traditional skirts were also reused in Ipgim’s several subsequent projects because the installation of the skirts marked the overthrow of the patriarchal system and positive values of femininity, and the colors gave a splendid and strong visual effect. Meanwhile, a large uterus-shaped hand-made structure made of flexible fabric was to be set up in the center of the park. It was to experience the birth process of human beings. The pink interior was full of elements that were as smooth as the inside of the body and stimulated five senses, including various sounds and images. Experiencing through the passage, the uterus demystified from a dichotomous sign of life creation and sexual pleasure into an actual bodily space in which joy, pain, destruction, and creation coexist.

Eating honeycomb toffee in shape of female and male genitals (Ppopgi Ddamuggi) and tossing rings to the ground on which shape of female body was drwan (Norimadang (Playground)) urged the audience to reconsider gender objectification, disturb high- and low- culture and re-examine women’s bodies by combining childhood play culture with adult sex culture. Also, popping up balloons with prohibition phrases such as “Go home and take care of children,” “Don’t sit apart at night,” and “Don’t wander around late” made us feel a sense of liberation from unwittingly repeated sexist remarks in our daily lives and from taboos against women. The party event, Jongmyoe Ddancehalleul Heohara (Allow Dancehall in Jongmyo), was designed to provide an experience of the disintegration of authoritarian social order and strict gender norms while participants were dancing and playing excitedly, dressed in ridiculous party costumes made by dismantling normal military uniforms and former highschool military drill uniforms that were a symbol of military culture.

Ipgim filmed an on-site situation on the day Abanggung Project was set up, the following response by them, and the Women’s Culture Festival, and Kim Myungjin edited the footage and produced it as a documentary-style video work. As a work of alternative art by Ipgim, the video recording of Abanggung Project was screened at various exhibitions and film festivals at home and abroad. In 2004, it was invited as the opening film of the Osaka Women’s Film Festival, helping promote the activities of Ipgim internationally. Like appraisals that “a symbolic event in the history of feminist art in Korea,” or “an event that awakened an art movement that was silent after Minjung Art,” Abanggung Project helped to open the floodgates of art and cultural activism in the 21st century and to unfold the door of practical tendency in the 1990s’ Korean art scene that had given spotlight on individual artists’ works only.7 Therefore, the project can be marked as an important and exemplary local case of co-creation by temporary solidarity, which is also a characteristic of art in the era of globalization.

Other major projects of Ipgim
After Abanggung project, Ipgim was invited to various group exhibitions, including Water (Seoul Museum of Art, 2001), Women’s Art Festival: East Asian Women and Herstories (Seoul Women’s Plaza, 2002), and Now: Modernization & Urbanization (Marronnier Art Center, 2003) and continued their own projects. Among them, the Island-Survivor project in the Busan Biennale 2004 was a collaboration with the US activist feminist group “Guerilla Girls on Tour.” The theme of Island-Survivor was the sex trade issue that heated Korean society at that time, and it took concrete ideas and titles of work from the newly emerging concept of “survivor” and the sex trade victim’s escape of an island near the biennale city, Busan.8 Through the collaboration process between the two groups, Ipgim produced two kinds of art posters. The two posters as collaborative work, consisted of a combination of white, black, and red text and images with strong contrasts of red, white, and gray background. One of them stands out the strong phrase, “We accuse the Republic of Korea of overlooking sex trafficking,” with definitions of survivors printed in English and Korean in the middle. Besides, the image of a woman holding a picket “I want to live” against the backdrop of an empty sea at the lower corner conveys the lonely cries of the victim, who escaped from the isolated island.9 To understand the reality of prostitution or sex labor, Ipgim visited to a sex trade site called Muui Island in Incheon in early 2004, and had a one-day practice that they performed to exclaim survial, to hold “I want to live,” and to escape the island then produced photos and videos of their performance.10 As part of the Island-Survivor project, all members of Ipgim performed a silent, one-woman protest-style performance at the venue of the opening ceremony, on the beach, covering their faces and bodies with the pink skirts.

In 2005, their Sarajinun Yeojaduel (Disappearing Women) project noted the story of women forgotten in history by the grand narratives and women who are disappearing in this society. The project took three forms of websites, posters, and performances, expanding the fields for feminist aesthetic practices. A website for mourning these disappearing women, Sarajin Yeojaduel ( unavailable now) was created with the support of a provincial foundation, Gyeonggi Cultural Foundation, and operated for two years from July 1, 2005, organizing co-creation of paintings, videos, and animations. To the  mourning exhibition in cyberspace, disappearing women were has been summoned for followed five reasons: women who have disappeared from history, women who have disappeared due to social class (A Smile in front of a Wall that embodied Choi Okran, a first-degree cerebral palsy disabled woman), women who have disappeared due to physical violence (Flower Withering in Hwasung, and Becoming a Bird and Flying Away that dealt with femicide of the Hwasung serial murders and Yoo Youngchul serial murders at the time.), women who have disappeared due to systematic problems of the Korean society (Oh My Daughter! that embodied women died in Gunsan Red-light District Fire), and women’s desire to disappear through the media’s representation of women. The women summoned here are female grass-roots who have lived from modern to modern times, those who resisted the patriarchal system, those who kept their faith at the risk of death, or victims of violence.11 They were not glorified or heroized, rather became visible through aesthetic tools accompanying writings full of allegory, suggestion, and satire, rather than factual description.

With the operation of the Sarajin Women website as a momentum, in 2006 with Feminist Artist Network, Ipgim co-organized Disappearing Women — Stories of Eumsa: Eumsa means private matters or sexual intercourse. Linking the cyber exhibition to an offline exhibition hall, Ipgim reorganized and expanded the Disappearing Women project. The theme was the excavation of women who resisted the prohibition on Eumsa, which was considered an important example of women’s oppression during the Joseon Dynasty. The prohibition on Eumsa was one of the measures taken by the state to strengthen patriarchy based on Jongbubjilseo (the Confucian patriarchal order) of the Joseon Dynasty. Not to mention that this was a measure to reject superstitions, to restrict women’s living radius to the home, and to control their behavior under Neo-Confucian ideology and ethics. According to Ryu Junhwa’s expression, the exhibition was converging into “working to break the wall of history” which was metadiscourse written on a male-centered basis.12 The highlight of the exhibition was the Black Hole, a co-creation of the members of Ipgim.13 The Black Hole, a wall structure consisting of a large ceiling-high wall painting and installation, resembles an impregnable patriarchal space, but women who have once disappeared reappear from every corner of the wall appear, break into the structure, and speak to us. The myriad of stairs that are twisted, distorted, and endless, and large and small spaces that cannot tell whether it is an entrance or an exit that is in contact with it are nothing more than holes in history, or black holes, where countless women have disappeared. The staircase structure protruding into the space of the exhibition hall means that the missing history of women is still in touch with the space of the present woman’s life. The 10 drawer structures that popped out of the wall were filled with postcards containing memos, letters, oral statements and poems of women who were not included in the official historical description, allowing viewers to freely take them and ruminate on them. The exhibition hall, which has become a shambles with the presence of so many female subjects, shakes, twists and cracks the foundation of history, which has been a masculine space, and proposes to reshape the horizon of history completely.

Aesthetics of Ipgim
The artistic orientation and aesthetics that Ipgim pursued can be summarized into three themes.14
First, Ipgim pursued “feminist art combined with art and activism.” On one hand, Ipgim rejected value-neutral, male-dominated art, the art excluding others, and challenged the myth of artists. On the other hand, Ipgim sought a place of art practice and politics to realize a gender equality society, finding a close link between women’s lives and art. Thus, Ipgim’s art practice aims at the dual structure of “making art and participating in movements.”15 For the activist art practice, Ipgim wanted to bring about a change in the sense of gender equality through expanding communication with the general public by actively engaging in activities that took place outside of the institutional art world or exhibition halls. What Ipgim did in the early projects was the creative development of being and senses as women, the utilization of craft as a subversive medium, and the revisiting of women’s productivity as nature’s equivalence, which are related to feminism aesthetics based on an essentialist perspective. Ipgim has gradually developed regional feminism that is closely adhered to women ‘s issues in Korean society, including gendering of space, labor problems for women, rural problems, women’ s bodies and sexualities, class, prostitution, and the restoration of women’s history. 
Second, Ipgim aims for ‘project art.’ Ipgim did not constrain the freedom of personal creation, pursuing joint planning and co-creation with temporary solidarity based on needs. Various projects by Ipgim were made through voluntary participation in consideration of personal circumstances rather than forcing the participation of the whole. Acknowledging the differences among the members, such as fields of activity or levels of feminist consciousness, Ipgim has pursued common goals with solidarity. On the other hand, the form of project art by Ipgim is significant as its early reference in Korea art history. 
Third, Ipgim’s work is naturally linked to ‘art as public conception and feminine play.’ The introduction of playful and festival formats instead of serious and logical approaches is in line with the methodology of feminism culture, which has actively sought daily change by taking advantage of subversion in humor and laughter since the 1990s. Because Ipgim valued public conceptions and temporary play, it was not interested in creating works as a permanently preservable or distributable object, but instead, ‘recycling’ became their important method. Therefore, most of the remaining works of Ipgim are in literature and photographs in archival forms, for example project image records, poster replicas presented at the Busan Biennale, and the pink Hanbok skirts.
Over seven years from 2000 to 2006, Ipgim co-organized seven of self-made projects and presented them at many group exhibitions covering social issues. Ipgim inherited the legacy of feminist art in the 1980s, while operating group flexibly, using various media, understanding contemporary women’s issues in Korean society, embracing newly changing sensibilities, expressing temporary solidarity based on needs, and opening a chapter in feminism that combines movement and art. Since 2006, Ipgim’s activities as an artist collective have actually ended. Since then, several members have been engaging in artistic activities partially, but Ipgim officially disbanded in 2018. 
Ipgim is constantly invited to related exhibitions as a major social movement collective and an unparalleled feminist artist collective of the 2000s. Most of the co-created or temporarily produced works have been lost, instead, their archival materials have been displayed. In the winter of 2019, an exhibition about activism feminism titled as Between the Lines opened in a gallery, Hapjungjigu, in Seoul. In the exhibition, Vagina Cushion which was produced for Abanggung Project was shown after 19 years, and ppopgi capsules (gashapon) of 2003 was also on display. Through genital-shaped cushion made by hand with strong pink color and soft fabrics, shapes of a lip cushion and a breast cushion that are lost be imagined. Between the Lines has become an opportunity to find long-standing works of Ipgim, especially as the first golden note to find a clue of connection and communication between Ipgim, who were actively working before the #MeToo era in 2015, and current feminist artists and collectives that later appeared.

Source: Kim Hyeonjoo, "Ipgim: Feminist movement and artist collective in Korea", SEMINAR Issue 03(2019), Courtesy: Ágrafa Society.