The voices of artists who could not ignore social issues

The 16 artists who participated in the exhibition “Art and words 2020” (Hakgojae Gallery)

In the late 1970s, a group of young South Korean artists rebelled against abstract art which enjoyed great popularity throughout the country. They thought the art world was too focused on aesthetics at the expense of social issues.

At the time, Korea was experiencing rapid industrialization and was ruled by an authoritarian military regime that did not respect human rights.

In 1979, around 20 like-minded artists who believed that art should reflect the reality of people’s lives began to gather in Seoul and formed a group that was later named Reality and Utterance.

They organized exhibitions and discussed the role of art in society during this period of turmoil. They criticized each other’s work, sometimes harshly. Reality and Utterance founded the minjung art movement, which literally means “art for the people” in Korean.

After 40 years, the artists – whose average age is now 73 – are holding an exhibition at Hakgojae Gallery in Jongno, central Seoul. In addition to their old works from the late 1970s and 1980s, they unveiled new works. The gallery features 106 works by 16 Reality and Utterance artists.


The “Art and Words 2020” installation at Hakgojae Gallery in Jongno, central Seoul (Hakgojae Gallery)

In the main exhibition hall stands a 60 centimeters high bronze sculpture depicting a pro-democracy activist fleeing the police. The man is hidden behind a pole, fist clenched, looking over his shoulder. Titled A Steady Gaze, the work was created by sculptor Shim Jung-soo in 1984 after witnessing the democratic uprising in Gwangju. In May 1980, martial law troops mobilized in Gwangju to suppress protests, killing over 200 citizens and injuring over 3,000 – the largest show of military force since the Korean War.

“As an artist, I wanted to show frankly what Korean society was really facing at the time. I wanted to stay away from the remnants of Japanese colonization and Western art influences,” Shim told the Korea Herald.

Cartoon artist Park Jae-dong, a member of Reality and Utterance, drew sarcastic cartoons that offered social and political critique.

“We asked ourselves: ‘If paintings could speak, what messages should they deliver?’ or ‘Can artists overlook the reality of what is happening now?’ said Park.

During the Gwangju Democratic Uprising, many city residents, including homeless people, rose up against the military government and fought for democracy. Painter Shin Kyoung-ho picked up a pair of rubber shoes after the event and concluded that the wearer must have perished at the hands of troops. Shin painted a funeral portrait of this anonymous fighter, with the rubber shoes instead of a face. He titled the work “With and Without a Soul – The Disappeared”.

“At the time, Korean art fell for Korean-style monochrome paintings or ‘dansaekhwa’ paintings. I wanted to counter this trend. As an artist, I thought we needed to talk to the press, to society, and to the world about what was happening in society,” Shin said.


The “Art and Words 2020” installation at Hakgojae Gallery in Jongno, central Seoul (Hakgojae Gallery)

The artists of Reality and Utterance pursue their artistic vision, which is that artists should remain aware of social issues. Artist Ahn Kyu-chul, a member of Reality and Utterance and a professor at Korea National University of the Arts, said the spirit of minjung art still lives on in his art.

His recent work, “Colors of Promises”, is inspired by presidential election posters. The work consists of 69 colored blocks, representing campaign posters stripped of their content. To the right is a list of election slogans, which all look the same regardless of the political ideologies of the candidates.

Discussing the role of minjung art today, Ahn said it involves a critical attitude towards society and towards the art industry. For example, Ahn said the COVID-19 pandemic has given people time to look back on the art world, which until now has revolved around powerful countries, galleries and curators influenced by capitalism.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has suspended international art events, including major biennials. I think it’s a good time for us to think about contemporary art: “Where is the art world going now? “What have we achieved so far? and ‘What is the role of artists?’ are important issues for us.

By Park Yuna ([email protected])

Christopher S. Washington