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South Korean female artists, even when completely nude, conceal more than they expose. Here, we take a closer look at South Korea’s legacy of nudity in contemporary art, which challenges traditions and speaks to national culture, identity, and aesthetic.
In Spring 2013, a rumor spread that Park Geun-hye, the first female President of South Korea and daughter of former Dictator-President Park Chung-hee, was about to pass a law banning mini skirts. The international media, by now accustomed to images of scantily skirted Korean pop stars, wondered where such conservatism had suddenly sprung from. The rumors of the mini skirt’s demise transpired to be unfounded, but they revealed attitudes to modesty, concealment and the nude female form that run through South Korean contemporary art and society.
South Korea is a country with a history of treating the body – especially the nude female body – conservatively. According to Seong Yoon-jin, who in 2013 curated a review of female nudes in Korean art at Lotte Hotel Gallery in Seoul, ‘the nude’ was introduced in Korean art almost 100 years ago.
Stylistic and conceptual developments have taken place since then, particularly after the turbulent 1960s. According to The Korean Herald, “Artists broke away from the academic style [of the western nude] and experimented with their own styles.” Even today, artists using the nude figure create a distance between the model and the viewer and convey a sense of modesty. The body, even when fully unclothed, is exposed modestly.
Artist Miru Kim (b. 1981) poses naked in bizarre surroundings: crouched on bridges, cuddled up to pigs, strolling with camels. Naked City Spleen was the first of these bare-skinned series. Kim said of the work: “I have always been fascinated by living beings reclaiming the urban ruins, having come across more than just rats: wild dogs, cats, birds, and bees nesting in sugar barrels in abandoned sugar factories. Envisioning imaginary beings that could dwell in these spaces, I began to occupy them myself. I became an animal or a child interacting with the surroundings. As I momentarily inhabit these deserted sites, they are transformed from strange to familiar, from harsh to calm, from dangerous to ludic.”
Similarly, The Pig That Therefore I Am features two types of photographs of Kim with pigs. One format shows Kim’s body mingled with the pigs in their habitat. She does not just join them, but attempts to endure being among them. The contrast of Kim’s clean smooth body and the pigs’ pink bristly bodies is distinct.
She disclosed in an interview with T Magazine that during the process she would be covered in urine and faeces and that the pigs would bruise her body. The other format of the series is an abstraction of the same scene. Kim’s and the pigs’ bodies become one, their skins pressed together creating an organic whole of varying skin tones and textures. At Art Basel in Miami in 2011 a performance version of the photographs caused controversy among animal rights activists.
In some ways similar to Miru Kim, Nikki S. Lee’s (b. 1970) body of work is also about placing her body in unexpected spaces. However, in Lee’s case the body is not only a tool to be positioned but also a canvas used to represent what the artist sees. In her immersive photography series Projects, Nikki S. Lee finds distinct groups of people and reinterprets her physical identity in order to adopt theirs. Various Projects see Lee appropriating the identity of the hip-hop crowd, seniors, lesbians and yuppies to name a few. If one were not aware of the project, in each snapshot Lee would seem like a member of each group in which she inserts herself. In an interview with The Creator’s Project Lee states that the Projects series is about her attempts to define her own identity through her interactions with unknown bodies.
“The question is about me, but to show me with the other people in the project becomes very much significant. The identity question of myself requires me to look at the relationships with myself and other people.”
Since Projects, Lee has embarked on various other identity related artworks, many of which were presented in a ten-year retrospective, Projects, Parts, Layers, at One and J Gallery in Seoul. The exhibition included more recent work such as the Layers series, which, according to The Creators Project, shows photographs of Lee’s portraits drawn on the streets of different cities. With these prints Lee takes a different approach to identity, layering interpretation of herself upon interpretation.
Lee’s ability to challenge conventional notions of identity was unintentionally demonstrated at the Third Gwangju Biennale in 2000. Born and raised in South Korea, the artist gained her initial professional prominence in New York. The resulting confusion about her identity led to the accidental placement of her work in the United States section of the biennale.
In Rim Lee’s (b. 1982) 2012 solo exhibition Retrospective at Kasia Kay Art Projects Gallery in Chicago, the artist presented two bodies of work. The first was a series of large oil paintings such as Consensus No. 25 and The Mess of Emotion No. 12. The paintings were made during a performance in which both Lee’s and a model’s naked bodies were covered with black and white oil paint. Boasting skin covered with a lustrous texture, these paintings are enticing, urging the viewer to become a participant. There is something incredibly freeing about the idea of being completely exposed, yet covered. In these artworks the naked body becomes a vehicle for modesty and privacy. The exhibition organizers refer to the feeling as akin to invisibility.
The second set of works are a tribute to the Surrealist artist Max Ernst. The bodies present in these works, like those described above, are disguised. According to the press release for Retrospective, “Adopting Max Ernst’s work elements serve only as a vehicle to help Rim Lee in defining her own story. Following in Ernst’s footsteps, Rim Lee experiments with different techniques and complicated productions.”
Taking part in this experimentation, posed around Surrealist paintings, the naked female bodies are powdered white and in some cases even masked with a white owl headdress. Save for the powder, the figure’s breasts and pubic area remain exposed while their faces are completely concealed. Direct representation is obscured into a dreamlike oblivion.