You must survive. And later become witnesses to history.
– Sang-won Yoon (1950-1980), activist
At a time where the importance and maintenance of democracy seems to be more of a challenge than a basic fact of life, the show Blood and Tears: Portrayals of Gwangju’s Democratic Struggle – which was on view at John Jay College’s Anya & Andrew Shiva Gallery in New York City – goes deep in defining these issues directly and, most importantly, how lasting, personal freedom has manifested itself for South Korea and for other countries in the Asian region.
Around nineteen artists and one artist collective have come together to represent an important period in South Korean history: the Gwangju Uprising of May 18th 1980 – an event where a large number of demonstrators, in the metropolis of Gwangju, were killed by troops of the then-ruling military dictator Doo-hwan Chun. The exhibition presents a fine display of the artists and their work, known as minjung (“of the masses”), and directing its attention not just of history and identity, but of solidarity as well. As mentioned by Thalia Vrachopoulos, co-curator of the exhibition and Professor of Visual Arts at John Jay College:
“The artists were all born in Gwangju, or the surrounding countryside, and want to be witnesses to the truth through their art and statements.” In light of the uprising’s 42nd anniversary and all the current affairs of the day, the show couldn’t have come at a better time.
The first work that caught my immediate attention is Metaphysical Star – Gwangju (2022) by Jeongju Jeong – an elaborate sculpture strikingly done with stainless steel, LED and Acrylic – all presented as a kind of cosmic entity full of light, yet with a sense of desolation and despair. The inspiration comes from the artist’s admiration for architectural space and the placed where he lived. Most striking of all are the distinct lights which flows sharply throughout the piece – a direct memory of the narrow windows from his rented room in Germany.
Adjacent to it is the piece entitled Compassion – Oh Saehee (2022), by Yong Chang Chung (see image). Done on canvas with Korean ink, acrylic and lacquer, the image of a young Korean woman appears to be bowing quite humbly in sorrow – a possibly direct and subjective handling of the human condition. Quite photographic in its realism, Chung strikes a vivid detail of what sadness, desperation and desolation truly entails – yet presenting it in a most poetic form. The black and white contrast projects the image further into the viewer’s range, making the experience more profound and impactful.
The exhibit is spacious and well executed: the gallery has a distinct selection of paintings, sculpture, prints, video/audio installations and books, each representing its own representation of the Gwangju Uprising with heartfelt vision and historical forethought.
Maelee Lee is a multidisciplinary artist in a boundless approach to her work. A video / variable installation entitled Lost 42 Years: We’ve Forgotten Them (2022) incorporates video projection with materials such as transparent bags (with poetry printed on each item) and earth from the actual site of lost persons’ remains, thus creating a connection between the past and the present, all representative of the pro-democracy uprising and the 42 years that each victim would’ve enjoyed had they not been killed. The feeling one would convey onto the installation could read as bleakness, repression and abandonment.
Another work I found quite striking is by the artist collective Gwangju-Jeonnam Artist Community, whose 1992 work entitled Gwangju Uprising Woodcut Series – Bloody May (see image), presents the viewer a most intriguing scene of violence and brutality, reminiscent of Francisco Goya’s The Disasters of War. One can’t help but to feel pity and sadness for the defenseless protester, trying to protect himself as much as possible, while a government soldier executes aggressive swings from his baton at all part of the victim’s body – all taking place under an aggressive array of light flashes.
Yoan Choe’s work Stand up with your fists clenched (2015) used the iconic photograph of Faris Odeh throwing a stone at a IDF tank (taken in October 2000) as a silhouette to depict how the Gwangju Uprising, though peaceful, ended in tragic circumstances. What I found quite interesting are the many collages that was used to fill the entire work – various photographs of atrocities committed to protesters in different periods of history (such as the Vietnam War) as well as present countries in Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Asia. Different interpretations, positive or negative, may come from patrons as viewed firsthand; nevertheless one thing is for sure, the work stands up quite powerfully just the same.
Lastly, as I make my way over to the exit, most overlooked was one piece used for the marketing of the show, Wildfire 1 (1990) by Kyungjoo Kim (see image). Created with ink on Hanji, a paper known for its extreme durability, the interpretation was surely of interest to me. In this work, one sees what appears to be a protester wearing a gas mask, fully clothed and harnessing a rifle over his right shoulder. All the while, he i in the middle of a gas inferno – gray, yellow, brown and white blotches permeating the immediate area of space – a futile landscape as dystopic as one can imagine, a direct reminder of how the most meaningful and democratic of things can be seen as intrusive and destructive for the ones who deem opposed to it. Overall, Blood and Tears: Portrayals of Gwangju’s Democratic Struggle was a most provocative and thought provoking show.
The exhibition was on view at the Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery (860 Eleventh Avenue in New York). For more information about the exhibit, go to https://shivagallery.org/featured_item/blood-and-tears-portrayals-of-gwangjus-democratic-struggle/