Kim Hong-hee

Postmodernist Feminist Art in the 1990s

1. Korean Feminist Art as a Form of Non/Anti/Post-Modernism

Feminist art fundamentally arises from criticism of gender-discriminatory culture and male-centric art circles, in which women and women’s art is perceived as the other. This perspective, therefore, results in criticism and rejection of modernism, which is predominantly a male-driven movement.
Modernist art first emerged from French avant-garde art in the late 19th century, ultimately maturing in the post-WW2 United States. Modernism’s purist attitudes toward media and formalist absolutism threatened the existence of women’s art. Given these circumstances, American feminist critic Lucy Lippard asserted, “The greatest contribution of feminist art movements is that it has contributed nothing to modernism.”1 British art historian Griselda Pollock also stated, “Feminism must comprise a complete criticism of the practice, system, and critiquing structure of modernism. Of course, pro-modernist feminists such as Pauline Johnson argued that modernism is compatible with feminism, but the modernism that they spoke of is Habermasian enlightenment modernism, which is distinct from the type of formalist modernism that has been established as an art style.

Korean feminist art emerged comparatively later than in the United States or Europe and with lukewarm support, but it too derives from criticism of modernism. Ever since it was introduced to the Korean art community by artists who had studied in France or the United States, modernist art developed through the 60s and 70s and led to the popularity of abstract styles such Art Informel, monochrome painting, and geometric abstraction. As exemplified by the figurative art of Pyohyun Group in the 70s, the neo-expressionist women’s figurative art of the 80s, and the realist figurative art of Minjung feminists, the critique of modernism by women artists emerges, whether consciously or not, as a rejection of abstraction and support for figurative representation.

Where for men, the anti-modernist figurative movement emerged with Fact and Reality (Sasilgwa hyeonsil), a hyperrealist group established in 1978, for women it began in 1971, with the Pyohyun Group. That women were first to pursue a figurative style partly reflects the gender characteristics of women, who prefer the figurative over the abstract, but it is more an urgent recognition of the reality of a male-driven modernist movement. The figurative work of the Pyohyun Group is distinct from that of hyperrealist groups. Where the latter thematizes the peripheries of contemporary life and the banality of everyday life and utilizes hyperrealistic trompe l’oeil to create an objective, formalized, and abstract representation of the subject matter, Yoo Yeunhee, Kim Myong Hi, and Lee Eun-san of the Pyohyun Group depict women’s psychological and social experiences in a manner that is both subjective and emotive. In so much as it is expressive, autobiographical, and empathetic, the figurative art of neo-expressionists such as Kim Wonsook is no different. Where the Pyohyun Group and neo-expressionists are non-modernists, the realist figurative art of Minjung feminists, as an official style of Minjung art, is clearly anti-modernist.

In short, the non-modernist figurative art of the 70s to the 80s and the anti-modernist figurative art of Minjung feminists represent feminist influence as a feminine response to modernist abstraction. Even so, the figurative art of women artists was not interpreted as an anti-modernist resistance but rather a non-modern, primordial, or narrative, female style. In contrast, male-driven hyperrealism, Minjung art, and neo-expressionism were recognized as a newly emerging anti-modernist force, shifting the flow of art history under the umbrella term “postmodern painting.”

Where feminist figurative artists in the 70s and 80s worked with a will toward non/anti-modernism, the postmodernist feminists of the 90s experimented with deconstruction of genre and medium specificity under de-modernist sentiments. Rather than criticizing men themselves, they criticized patriarchy at the level of society, which had produced patriarchal discourses. From a de-modernist perspective, they focused on issues of gender, representation, and body as they made a statement on post-modernist feminism. In short, Korean women’s art has undergone phases of non-modernism, anti-modernism, and de-modernism to reach the present situation.

2. Pluralization of Feminist Art in the 1990s

While the members of the Pyohyun Group pursued non-modernist styles, their work was a feminine style within the framework of modernism. As such, it is inevitable that what they pursue differs from anti-modernist Minjung art. In an art community divided into modernism and Minjung art in the 80s, the two branches of feminism cut off communication with each other and therefore were unable to manifest feminism as a single, unified force. But towards the 90s, the emergence of postmodernism resulted in the two factions of feminism engaging in exchange or even partial cooperation, which led to the formation of a pluralist current.

As if answering the call of pluralism and decentralism, postmodernist feminism in the 90s transcended the ideological, stylistic, and genre limitations to incorporate a diverse range of works from modernism, Minjung art, and postmodernism. This led to an era of prosperity for not only women artists but the wider Korean art community as a whole. As a result of sociopolitical shifts, Minjung feminism, therefore, turned its eyes from matters of class and labor to women’s issues. This required a new style to fit their new area of interest. In the 90s, Yun Suknam, an early member of the Women's Art Research Society (Yeoseong misul yeonguhoe), developed a unique style that overcame the limitations of the pre-existing socialist realist style. This new style served as a new visual language for feminism. She developed a style of painting that resembles reliefs, depicting women, in particular mother figures, on wooden planks and scrapwood. She collaborated with photographer Park Youngsook in expanding the themes of her work. From the mid-to-late 90s and onward, Yun began to make installation works that allude to the inner world of contemporary women, shifting her focus from motherhood and mother figures to daughter and herself, in an attempt to once again transform her themes and style. Park, who had worked on the theme of the oppression of women’s bodies, depicts sadomasochistic female imagery through her Mad Women Project in the late 90s. Through an approach to feminist issues at a psychoanalytic, semiotic level, she presents the aesthetic, political potential of feminist photography.

At the same time, the second-generation Minjung artists who apply deconstructionist styles to socialist themes, such as Jo Kyoungsook, Seo Sookjin, and Ryu Junhwa, all raise the issue of gender identity, the reality of women’s lives, and multiple selves. They make tangible the issue of power in the context of gender, and thus they emerge as critical postmodernists. They borrow popular images such as advertisements and comic strips as a form of attack on high-brow art and modernism. In methodology as well, they use printers and copy machines to highlight the issue of communication. The oppression of women in contemporary systems of meaning is exposed by Seo Sookjin’s descriptive yet critical texts and images, Jo Kyoungsook’s autobiographical metaphors of women’s images as visualized through mass media, and Ryu Junhwa’s representation of objectified and commodified female bodies and the idea of femininity as established by society.

In 1997, a feminist artist project group named Ipgim was formed by second-generation Minjung artists.  It spurred the popularization of feminist art with their alternative programs focusing on life, recreation, practice, and communication. The project group was comprised of eight members in various fields, including painting (Jung Jungyeob, Ryu Junhwa, Ha Insun, and Woo Shinhee), design (Yoon Heesu), animation (Kwak Eunsook), multimedia (Kim Myungjin), and art direction (Je Miran). The members chose the name of the group with the intent of “thawing and giving life to frigid earth, hands, hearts, and a world with the warmth that emanates from a woman’s mouth.” Their primary goal would be the study and critique of women’s art and artists and the organization of women’s art as an alternative art group.

One of the results of their research and organization was the A-Bang-Gung: Jongmyo Seized Project in 2000, which led to a lawsuit that as of 2003 is still ongoing. What was originally organized as an alternative art event challenging patriarchal authority and oppressive traditions was disrupted by the Jeonju Yi clan and other Confucian groups. The project was later revived in the form of a street performance held along with various women’s organizations, and it became an event that confirmed the necessity of creating a discourse on women’s art and solidarity between women’s organizations. Ipgim emphasizes femininity and the female mythos, and at the same time, it strategizes and politicizes them. As such, it represents a practical application of essentialist feminism. In that they subscribed to “real femininity” and promoted gynocentrism, separatism, and activism, they portray a pan-generational sensibility as opposed to a 90s feminist sensibility. Through on-site group works, they attempted to overcome contemporary elitist feminism by communicating with public. This means that they are therefore given legitimacy as a popular feminist group.

Where second-generation Minjung feminism strengthened and expanded feminist aestheticism and politics, the Pyohyun group disbanded after the 21st members’ exhibition in 1992. Former members including Kim Myonghi, Yoon Hyojoon, and Noh Jungran now continue a 20-year legacy through solo work. Of these, Kim is known as an important figure among the 90s feminist figurative artists as a result of her neo-expressionistic oil stick paintings.

Neo-expressionism emerged in the 80s and through the 90s became popularized as a mainstream genre of postmodernist figurative art. Associating more with content than form and autobiographical narratives than objective reality, it was preferred as a style by female artists in that it could express social, psychological, and physical experiences of women in such contexts. The correlation between neo-expressionism and feminine/feminist art can be found in the work of Cha Ouhi and Yeom Seongsoon, who anthropomorphize elements of the universe including wind and water and thus reveal a neo-expressionistic sensibility; Eom Jungsoon, who metaphorically depicts an organic botanical world through delicate fibrous drawings; Younhee Chung Paik, who visualizes dreams and fantasy worlds through a surrealistic imagination; and Yang Kwang-ja, who crafts her own unique images through a combination of abstract expressionism, the Minjung style, and neo-expressionism.

The work of Kim Wonsook, who crafts allegories of basic emotions from her personal stories, and Kim Myonghi’s oil stick paintings represent prototypical styles of postmodernist figurative paintings. Kim Myonghi creates unique realist works as an “on-site observer and experiencer” who focuses on insignificant things and unnamed people. Simultaneously based on reality while also portraying a trans-factual, surrealistic, and poetic sensibility, her brand of realism can be defined as an “imaginative realism” that overlaps objective fact, personal experience of social truths, internal inspiration, and potential imagination. Based on a total of 15 years living abroad and educational experience traveling within non-Western countries, she has produced recent works that thematize “dislocation” as a result of diaspora, migration, and exile. These works convey a powerful message of feminism from a postcolonial perspective.

Other feminist groups such as 30 Carat and Hyeongsang Misul of Busan also emerged, spurring the multifaceted multilateralization of women’s art in the 90s. Busan’s Hyeongsang Misul group, for instance, combines feminism with figurative art to explore possibilities for women’s styles. Representations of feminine eroticism are presented through humorous images by Kim Nanyoung in a way that demystifies sex, and plant-like and organic styles containing sexual subtext in Kim Chunja’s painting. In 1993, 30 Carat was formed by a group of women artists in their 30s, including Ha Minsu, Yum Jukyung, Ahn Mi-young, Park Jisook, Ha Sangrim, Kim Mikyoung, Choi Eunkyung, and Lim Mi Ryoung. Through joint exploration and continuous group exhibitions, the group sought to overcome the limitations of conventional women’s art, particularly as married women artists. Comparing themselves to expensive diamonds, they emphasized their role and significance as women artists in their 30s. Through their diverse styles and media experiments, ranging from abstract paintings to videos, they visualize femininity and women’s issues.

Like the Pyohyun group, rather than thematizing and strategizing women and femininity, they harnessed these as subject matters, beginning from a narrow female perspective arising from their experiences as married women, therefore bearing the limitations of familial feminism. But they also sought to overcome the visual and conscious limitations of the previous generation by analyzing Minjung feminism and the activities of the Pyohyun group. The second member’s exhibition, Existence of Men: Wavering Classicism, reflects these efforts. Rather than representing the oppression of women as victims, here they turned the tables, objectifying men and raising the issue of masculinity, therefore exposing male chauvinism and gender biases.

In feminist art, traditional crafts such as textiles, clothing, embroidery, sewing, and dyeing cannot simply be regarded in terms of media and subject matter. Rather, they embody a powerful political significance as visual metaphors of female lives that transcend time and space. Following the textile needlework of Pyohyun group’s Yoon Hyojoon, which incorporates the motif of pillow maguri, 30 Carat’s Yum Jukyoung depicted the sensibilities of traditional Korean women through textiles and dyeing. Ha Minsu replaces drawing by sewing on fabric. Since her time in Meta-Vox in the late 80s, Ha used fabric as a medium, but upon joining 30 Carat, she turned her interest from textiles as a simple media and came to regard textiles as a form of feminist art, working on feminist art that criticizes husbands, fathers, and patriarchal society. Beginning in the 90s, Kimsooja began creating visual works that comprised collages of textiles, transforming into the “Bottari (cloth bundle)” artist, harnessing Korean motifs as represented by bottari. She portrays the bottari as a symbol of nomadism, of travel and wandering, and thus brings light to the issue of identity. Hong Hyunsook harnesses worn clothes and textiles in the context of ecofeminism, and Kim Yousun employs mother-of-pearl inlay, often considered a ‘men’s craft’ that is used primarily by women, as a medium, creating minimalist objects that are gender-ambiguous in form and context.

3. A New Generation of Post-Modernist Feminists

Feminist art in the 90s was above all driven by postmodernist artists with new sensibilities, who were the product of their time. In addition to feminists, a number of women artists who took an interest in the issues of otherness and gender from a postmodernist perspective were converted to feminism, which has led to a robust development and diversification of not only Korean feminist art but postmodernist art. Although these artists are apolitical and post-ideological in their concerns, they are producers and observers of contemporary postmodernist culture, responding keenly to contemporary reality and thus promoting a new form of feminist art.

 Whether they are feminist or not, the new generation of women artists have moved away from formalist interest, displaying a great questioning awareness and working from a socially critical perspective. They question the premises of Korean patriarchy, which has established an almost ubiquitous patriarchal discourse historically, and they bear in mind the cultural meanings of “gender” rather than “sex,” taking issue with the representation of women. Through a psychological and material approach to the body, they confront the politics of sex with the politics of the body and in so doing resume the feminist task that the previous generation of women’s art had set out to accomplish. As an effective means to deliver this critical message, they choose object, installation, and performance over traditional painting and sculpture, and they make use of mass media and moving images such as photographs, film, video, and computer graphic. As a result, they emerge as the de facto pillars of postmodernist art.

This new generation of postmodernist women artists can be largely divided into three categories. The first group comprises established artists in their mid-to-late 30s, who continuously worked as part of small underground groups or as independent figures. As seen in the work of Lee Bul and  Lee Hyeong Joo, who were members of the Museum group, and Park Hye Seong, who was a member of Off and On, the underground movement presented a pioneering example of postmodernist artists, who depicted the latest themes of gender, sexuality, body, grotesque, and homosexuality through new media such as performance, installation, and digital technology featuring a post-genre sensibility. Among these, Lee Bul was invited alongside Kimsooja to major international exhibitions, achieving recognition abroad. This caused a feedback effect on Korea, and they have become self-made success stories in that they have also achieved fame in Korea as well. Early in her career, Lee displayed potential and talent as a body artist and performance artist through her nude performance. Although performance as a genre is perhaps the most suited to accomplishing the aims of feminism, women artists in Korea have largely neglected the genre, and there has been a gap in this space ever since the mythic performance of Jung Kangja in the late 60s. Lee’s Abortion (1989), wherein she substituted the pain of abortion by suspending herself upside down in the nude, was a revival of the short tradition of Korean female performance art, and it provided a new genesis for feminist performance that embodied a powerful progressive message. Following her celebrated rotting fish installations that combined the concept of decay with a majestic aesthetic vision, she continues to expand the horizons of postmodernist feminist art through her recent series of ‘grotesque’ works depicting cyborgs and monsters.

The second group comprises artists who returned to Korea in the mid-to-late 90s after studying abroad as well as progressive women artists who were quickly absorbing new information through direct and indirect overseas contacts. It is through this context that present-day women artists are expanding in quality and quantity. Through provocative installations and videos, Chang Younghae thematizes suppressed sexuality. Yoo Hyunmi and Yeesookyung approach gender issues at a conceptual level, practicing feminism through a nondeclarative appeal. Chung Seoyoung, Chung Zuyoung, Lee Mi Kyung, Kim Joo Hyun, Lee Somi, Kim Sora, Hong Su-ja, and Nayoungim aestheticize the issue of communication with a novel post-genre sensibility on a foundation of purity and intellect. A uniquely feminine sensibility and intellect is being expressed by artists such as Ham Kyungah, Kim Jihyun, Shin Hyekyung, Park Hwayoung, and Jo Gyehyeong, who work with photography and video, as well as Hwang Hae Sun, Kim Yousun, and Ahn Sung Hee, who explore new subject matter and media such as textile, mother-of-pearl inlay, and sticker. Oh Kyung-hwa, a video artist, focuses on filmic narrative, creating works that incorporate the reality of the social and psychological experiences of women. Yu Hyeonjeong uses interactive technology to bring women of the past face to face with the oppressive reality that defined their existence.

The third group is comprised of the so-called “emerging artists,” individuals in their late 20s to early-to-mid 30s. They possess a different sensibility when compared to the previous generation, commercializing and branding not only their work but also themselves. Drawing upon their prominent organizational skills and initiative, they look towards establishment and stardom. IUM approaches recreational and fashion joie de vivre through performances and object installations, and she narcissistically, conventionally approaches feminism through video work. Cho Helen uses artificial leather and photograph to express the sadomasochistic sexual psyche of a pubescent girl. Kim Heekyung, Kim Sejin, Ham Yang Ah, Rhii Jewyo, Jung Yun-Mi, Choi So-yeon, Jang Min-Jung, and Mira Park visualize issues of the new generation through various media and their own unique ideas.

Furthermore, at the start of the 21st century, overseas-based or diaspora artists such as Nikki S. Lee and Sowon Kwon have been introduced to the domestic art scene, and imbued a new energy to the Korean art community. Beginning her career as a fashion photographer, Lee debuted as an artist by choosing to photograph herself rather than models. For her photo projects, she inserts herself into and identifies with marginalized groups such as Latinos, punks, yuppies, and lesbians. She also poses in front of the camera, at times as a lonely traveler, an obese elderly woman, an office worker, and a stripper. Through her documentary snapshots of her journey of transformation and wandering, she tracks a multifaceted identity or a third self that transcends the barriers of race and culture.

Kwon analyzes the living spaces of women and their relation to furniture from a gender structural perspective using diverse media that includes blueprint drawings and computer animation. Like clothing, furniture represents the preferences, lifestyles, and social status of its user, the choice of which carries a cultural meaning beyond use value. The interior is not only a physical space but also a cultural space. On top of that, it is a psychological space for women who dream of “a room of one’s[their] own.” From this perspective, Kwon examines the ideology of a patriarchal family structure that separates spheres of private and public, or inside and outside; the gender meanings of the interior, which constructs and reflects feminine fantasies; femininity and decorativeness, and their relation to modernism.