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|Yun Suknam's Arts and the Story of W
| Yun Suknam's Arts and the Story of Women |
Art Historian, Adjunct Professor, Chugye University for the Arts
Yun Suknam has been devotedly fulfilling her role as one of Korea? most notable feminist artists for over thirty years. Well known for her art work about her mother, Yun`s career is more than enough to fill a chapter in the history of Korean feminist art. In addition, Yun has worked hard to further the feminist goal of making an equal society, by actively participating in feminist cultural activities. Meanwhile, these activities have challenged the concept of pure aesthetic experience and premises taken for granted by modern art, thereby breaking new ground in Korea? modern art history.
It may be difficult to believe that Yun was over 40 years old when all these activities began and even more difficult to believe that she never received systematic art education. Yun considered her late start as a motivation to work harder, not a handicap. Yun`s passion for her work and creativity were second to none and are the very power that made her who she is today.
Yun`s idea of art was far from a lofty or purely aesthetic artistic exploration. She was never interested in art that has no connection to life or art that is uncommunicative. All her work involves stories of women, be it her own story or that of other women. The overall theme progressed from maternity to self-identity, to women`s history, and to ethics of care, realized by more specific sub-themes such as 'mother,' 'Pink Room,' 'Blue Room,' and 'Lengthened.'
Yun believes that the search for aesthetic elements and proper formative language is as important as artistic theme. Her method of expression was spatially expanded from painting and drawing to sculpture and installation in the 1990s. But recently, Yun`s interests have been increasingly leaning back toward drawing. As for content and form, Yun`s works bring to the fore major issues of the contemporary feminist discourse and art, and at times restructure the discourse, writing a new chapter in feminist art.
An Artist who Has Come a Long Way
It took Yun Suknam over a decade of harsh training, frustration, doubt, and pain to be acknowledged as an artist. She didn`t graduate from a fine arts college. Neither did she receive any other formal art education. Hence the humiliating label of "lady artist" and even "housewife artist" of her early career. Considering Yun`s status today, these references are unimaginable and probably no one remembers them. Yun disproved doubts of her competence with continuous, committed work and exhibitions.
Reading through her career file, the first question that comes to mind is why Yun wanted to become an artist at the age of 40. Nowadays, married women can pursue self-realization far more easily but during Yun`s times, it wasn`t easy for women to even have a dream. In particular, middle-aged women simply don? have time to look back at themselves because they are overwhelmed with traditional roles such as housekeeping, childbirth, and child rearing. At this stage of life, many female artists leave their careers for complicated reasons such as personal conflicts in life, lack of motivation, and self-doubt about their competence. This is all the more reason why Yun Suknam`s entrance to the art community at this age stands out.
It was said that Van Gogh had no choice but to become an artist because his life was too hard and Joseph Beuys chose to become an artist after barely surviving a war. Compared to the episodes of these famous, destined male artists, Yun Suknam`s story of rite of passage in becoming an artist is nothing grand --- only calligraphy lessons she began to take in middle-age. Relative to the great social, philosophical stories of motivation of male artists that often involve frustration from failing to get a desired job or near death experience, Yun`s story is very personal and seemingly insignificant. However, one must remember that it was through little attempts to escape from a constrained life that many women in history found their true selves and gained courage to take on bigger dreams.
Yun Suknam began calligraphy lessons at the age of 36 to search for her true self, lost amid the roles of being a wife, a mother of a daughter, and a caretaker of her mother-in-law. During the four years of learning calligraphy from the poet Park Doo-jin, Yun practiced extremely hard, writing hundreds of sheets a day. In that process of training, Yun discovered her strong desire for self-expression and determined to become a painter. Soon, she joined the personal studio of master painter Lee Jong-Moo and received drawing and painting lessons for six months. During this period, Yun healed her heart, ill-stricken by the loss of self and conflict, coming from a life trapped at home after marriage. Art became Yun`s very raison d`etre.
Another important influence of calligraphy was on the way Yun produced her works. The calligraphy lessons were the closest she ever came to art education, but Yun became very used to flexible brush strokes she learned from calligraphy. Her early painting mostly involves western brushes and oil colors but in the 1990s, her medium was replaced with wood. This is when her free-spirited brush strokes using calligraphy brushes began to appear in full-swing. Yun may not have been fully accustomed to the stiff, surface-resistant western brushes and oil colors, but that is not why she stopped oil painting. What Yun wanted was spontaneous and free drawing on a wooden surface, which is not smooth like a canvas or paper. For Yun, the use of flexible calligraphy brushes, with which she could sense instantaneous touch, would necessitate the use of acrylic washes.
After her decision to become an artist, Yun joined several group exhibitions to be a part of painting circles. In 1982, she had her first solo exhibition. Yun had her exhibition at what is now the Arko Art Center. Her realistic description of her mother and women merchants in markets received favorable reviews. Since then, her mother often appeared as an important subject for Yun and her mother`s life was a theme she concentrated on for over 10 years.
Based on the reputation she earned with her solo exhibition, Yun now had greater ambition for her talent. She decided to continue her art studies in the US. In 1983 for a year, Yun lived in New York, the center of modern art, and studied at the Pratt Institute Graphic Center and Art Students League, which has a well regarded faculty offering courses open to the students at any stage of their lives and careers. Famous American female artists like Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, and Eva Hesse studied at the League. One would be surprised by Yun`s choice not to enroll in a formal fine arts college, but considering her background of having dropped out of Sungkyunkwan University English Department in her sophomore year and leaving behind a husband, young daughter, and mother-in-law back home, this was indeed the best choice she could make.
Yun found college disappointing and dropped out. Since then she has come to regret not having had a college education and the chance to take academic art courses. However, her sense of regret that she did not get a general college education motivated her to work harder. To make up for her lack of education, Yun avidly read about everything from art to society, philosophy, history, and literature. Reading became a strong habit.
Reborn as a Feminist Artist
Yun came back to Korea in 1984 and stayed until 1989 before leaving again for the US. This five-year period was Yun`s time of compromise and conflict in search of direction in her art. Shortly after her return, Yun started seeing Kim Djin-sook and Kim In-soon, who were working near Yun`s home in the Banpo Apartment complex. The three married painters were of similar age and together found themselves in a difficult balancing act between being a woman and being an artist --- two conflicting identities. In 1985, the three formed The October Group and held two exhibitions.
In this period, the world of Korean painting began to show clear signs of division into pure art and participatory art. Since the mid 1970s, pure art protagonists had been widely supported for their accession to modernism in a movement that produced monochrome paintings and pursued pure art, while participatory art, or Minjung Art, used realism to recover communicative functions of art and convey stories of the mass and the people. In the 1980s, art was sharply divided into 'art for art`s sake' versus social art, abstraction versus representation, and also, older (father`s) generation versus younger (son`s) generation. However, both trends were strong manifestations of masculinity; on the one hand, was the art form of pure, mental transcendence and on the other, strong physicality. Both stressed that art was male territory.
No artist is free from the context of the time. Needless to say, to develop as an artist and continue the artistic endeavor, social and cultural support base, emotional exchanges with colleague groups, and sharing of information are important. Back then, Korean female artists were at a disadvantage on this point compared to men and had to overcome various challenges to establish themselves in the art world. The October Group members were no exception. They united to encourage each other`s work and placed importance on realistic expression of a woman`s life experience. Therefore, their position was opposite from modernism that excluded stories in pursuit of a pure form of art, and in line with the Minjung Art movement.
The first exhibition of The October Group presented large drawings of no particular theme. The October Group became widely known when an art magazine introduced it as a new group. However, the members were labeled as 'housewife artists,' their passion was described as extreme expressions by 'Amazon women,' and the quality of their work was sidelined for quantity. However, the second exhibition in 1986 was different. Entitled, <From Half to One>, the media spotlight was on this exhibition for being the first to announce itself as feminist art. Many from the cultural sector and feminist movement are said to have gone to the exhibition.
Although the artists did not have clear awareness of feminist issues at the time, Yun Suknam`s Even I had ten hands, Kim In-soon? A wise mother and good wife, and Kim Djin-sook`s Towards the future are remembered as pieces that vividly conveyed specifics of women? reality. A hand that counts money and holds a basket on the head, a hand that does house chores with a spatula and a bucket, and a hand that raises children all describe the sacrifice and pain of working-class mothers in Even I had ten hands. Yun`s Mrs Lee depicts a middle-aged housewife who lost her sense of self, complacent within the boundaries of her home and material wealth. In these two pieces, Yun persuasively describes the reality of women who cannot lead independent lives, regardless of social class.
Members of The October Group began to take interest in feminist issues, under direct and indirect influence of Korea? feminist movement in the late 1970s and through their own experience. To prepare for the exhibition, the members went to Professor Lee Hyo-jae of Ewha Womans University to study feminist issues in the historical and social context. They began to link their experience to feminist issues. Despite criticisms like "explosion of anger" or "lack of sophisticated form," this exhibition is considered the first feminist exhibition where women seriously raised feminist issues.
Shortly after <From Half to One>, The October Group received two offers. One was from Minjung Art Association, established in December 1986, to set up and run the Women? Arts Department and the other was an invitation from the Alternative Culture Corporation (Tomoon). The October Group members`s path diverged when Yun Suknam and Kim Djin-sook accepted both offers and Kim In-soon focused only on Minjung Art activities. Yun herself probably did not know at the time that this choice would determine the direction of her work.
As a central member of the Women`s Arts Department of Minjung Art Association, Yun participated in the 1987 <Women and Reality> exhibition. However, Yun felt estranged from the Minjung Art circle, because of its rigid, organization-oriented atmosphere and urges to join group art activities bound with women`s social groups. Meanwhile, Tomoon was a comforting place for Yun. Established in 1984 by feminist scholars and literary figures in order to pursue an alternative feminist cultural movement, Tomoon was open to free creativity and intellectual independence. Engaging in Tomoon`s activities that involved discussions of diverse feminist issues overarching different experiences and theories, Yun developed her feminist consciousness.
Yun`s exchanges with Tomoon resulted in <Interaction Between Woman? Liberated Poetry and Painting: Uri Botmurul Tuja> (<Interaction>) exhibition of illustrated poems in 1988. This exhibition displayed over 30 works by four artists: Yun Suknam, Kim Djin-sook, photographer Park Young Sook who was interested in the reality of women, and an emerging artist Chung Jung Yeop. The exhibition was a result of a year of reading and interpreting poems of and with over ten female poets, including Ko Jung-hee, Kim Hye-soon, and Cheon Yang-hee.
Of over ten works by Yun Suknam displayed in this exhibition, Chungrangri 588, illicit prostitution street, Ra Hae Suk`s complex, and Let`s flow together with a deep and faraway river are illustrations based on with theses titles poems by Kim Kyung-mee, Kim Seung-hee, and Ko Jung-hee. When these works were produced, traditions of feminist art were non-existent. Nevertheless, they show clear signs of deep thought on how to portray major feminist cultural issues such as women? suppressive reality, self-discovery, maternity, and sisterhood.
According to French feminist theorists, writing in black signified the other sex or masculine territory where suppression on women was reproduced, while women`s writing was in white (the color of milk), written by the female body, signified the entrance of the female actor on the historical stage. This argument was quite new at the time. Feminine writing gradually gained attention as an alternative to break down the boundaries of binary oppositions. This method of creation had a huge influence on art. Ra Hae Suk`s complex is an early example of applying feminine writing to art through the female body. This work reveals Yun`s level of knowledge of feminist theories and her efforts to embody them.
Even though "Interaction" exhibition was remarkable in its efforts to pursue new embodiment instead of simply delivering lines of poetry, it failed to receive much attention. The tendency of modern art to disengage from literature was still dominant and the feminist cultural movement was bound to be marginalized in the late 1980s due to heavy influence by the complex social and political conditions of Korea at the time. However, the exhibition was an opportunity for Yun Suknam and Park Young Sook to begin a life-long friendship and establish their identities as feminist artists. Their exchange of ideas is often expressed in the form of collaborative work. Notable examples are Our Stories(1992) and Park Young Sook`s photographies(2002), which Yun modeled for, from 'Mad Women' series. Yun developed a sense of common ground with Chung Jung-youp, a much younger artist, and together became the locomotive of Korea`s feminist art.
If Tomoon was an external source of nurture that helped Yun`s intellect to mature, Minjung Art was an internal basis that provided her with an artistic sense of identity and belonging. In the late 1980s when the democratization movement reached its culmination, Minjung Art was engulfed in explicit social participation and group art creativity. As much as the theme of her work, freedom of expression and aesthetic exploration were important to Yun. She started feeling an impossible contradiction between her sense of duty towards Minjung Art and the intolerable constraints that it imposed. To free herself from that burden and look back on herself, she left for the US with her daughter in 1989. This decision presented Yun with a new turning point. However, reminiscing about this period, Yun mentions her indebtedness to Minjung Art even today. I hope Yun will free herself from the guilt that she did not join the causes of mass art, a group whose rigidity is widely known.
The Power of Mother`s Great Love
In 1991, Yun Suknam returned to Korea with several changes. First, Yun now had a clear artistic conviction that art should not ignore reality and that content and form are inseparable. Second, Yun had a stronger sense of purpose in working in the feminist cultural movement and feminist art. Third, Yun’s interest in the method of expression expanded beyond the surface toward active use of sculpture and installation.
The time of Yun`s second stay in the US was a time when two decades of feminist art was being reevaluated and Multiculturalism was spreading. In the late 1980s, Multiculturalism permeated the American society. Minorities who had been oppressed because of their race or sexual orientation gained the opportunity to pursue artistic activities openly. The 20-year history of feminist art was reevaluated in connection with multiculturalism, its own race and class-based exclusions were rectified.
Around this time, relevant exhibitions began to take place, Yun found the power of feminist art in the work of Louise Bourgeois. In 1990, Yun was deeply impressed by the work of a young artist at a South American Artists` Exhibition at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. On a wooden plate, the work portrayed a three-dimensional parade of carved figures such as the Cuban revolutionist Che Guevara and archbishop Romero of El Salvador. This was a time when Yun was searching for new means of expression. The vivid, three-dimensional expression and installation using wood left a powerful impression on Yun.
After her return, Yun visited the birthplace of Hur Nansulhun in Gangneung as part of her search for traces of female artist ancestors. Here, Yun picked up a rough persimmon tree branch. Feeling its surface, Yun was reminded of the strong impression she got from the wooden sculpture she saw in the US and attempted combining the two. This was the birth of the wooden sculpture made of discarded branches in the early 1990s. At first, Yun used rough and useless wood but gradually opted for better quality wood. Yun carefully carves, grinds, trims and breathes life into wood.
However, Yun is not a narcissist who falls in love with her own work like the sculptor in the Pygmalion myth. In Yun`s working material, the rough skin of her mother who endured much suffering, the life of Hur Nansulhun, and countless, anonymous women come alive. Working with wood, Yun sensed the rapture of touch she did not feel when she worked on surfaces and discovered in the display methods of installation the possibility to deliver her story in a more theatrical way.
Since the early 1990s, Yun Suknam tried to widen the scope of her feminist activity by working across fields of feminist cultural movement and art. In 1997, she was appointed the chair of the board of directors of Feminist Artist Network and led the group and cultural movement for ten years. As part of her work, Yun published the feminist journal If. Yun has done many kinds of work in media and other areas of culture in order to make feminist goals a reality such as producing the cover illustration of a women’s newspaper.
In art, Yun`s approach to feminist issues began from a search for her roots, which started with her mother, her blood roots, and expanded to anonymous women in history, to female artists like Hur Nansulhun, Lee Mae-chang, and Na Hye-suk who couldn? live their dreams and were underappreciated in a patriarchal culture, and finally to contemporary feminists who have shared her thoughts. Simply put, Yun? theme is a restructuring of the modern female subject and a track down of female pedigree. The search into this theme continued through three major solo exhibitions from 1993: The Eyes of Mother(1993), The Seeding of Light(1997), and To Be Lengthened(2003).
Women and minorities do not appear in a history revolving around great achievements of heroes or geniuses who contributed to human development. Uncelebrated female existence comes alive in autobiographical stories and memories. Their stories create a chasm in the seamless grand national history to reveal the red inner flesh and wounds. This is how micro-history resists macro-history and reveals the latter? falsity. Female subjects that appear in micro-history were not just scapegoats of their societies. Within the two systems of Confucian cultural tradition and patriarchy, women sometimes accepted and other times stood up to or compromised with the systems and lived as active agents. Restoring "Herstory," full of women`s experience and voice that had been erased in history, has long been Yun Suknam`s key area of interest, as feminist theorists have focused on it as a way to resist men-centered history.
In 1993, Yun`s second solo exhibition, <The Eyes of Mother> was held at Kumho Gallery. Here, Yun experimented with reinterpreting maternity and writing a new, women-based history. At a time when domestic feminist academia and literary circles were engaged in heated discussions of maternity issues, this exhibition attracted much attention as the first attempt in the arts sector to seriously explore the meaning of maternity. The works displayed, coming from Yun`s experience, discovered the power and joy of the love and caring that are latent in maternity and also embodied maternity as women? specific experience.
Yun`s mother has a very special place in her heart. Ever since she began to draw, her mother has been her frequent subject. Yun says she always wished to do at least one project on the life of her mother. Who was Yun`s mother? Why does she appear in Yun`s work so often? Her name is Won Jung-sook. She married Yun`s father, Yun Baek-nam at the age of 19. Yun Baek-nam was a senior member of the world of culture and arts who studied in Japan and worked on novels, plays, and films during and after the Japanese colonial rule over Korea. Yun`s mother loved literature and her family ran a lodging house. She met Yun`s father, who was at the time a middle-aged novelist separated from his wife whom he had married by family arrangement. The two fell in love and went to Manchuria, where Yun Suknam was born after her two elder sisters. 'Nam' of her name means 'male' which shows her parents`s wish for a son. However, her parents treated both sons and daughters equally. Yun Suknam was particularly loved by her father. When she was 15, her father passed away due to illness, handing down nothing but passion for art.
Her mother was 39 years old and all she had was her physical strength. She made ends meet by all kinds of labor and peddling and superbly raised her seven children. You would think Yun`s mother might have complained about her life, but she never did. Instead, even after a hard day? work, Yun`s mother spent time with her children and lived a positive life, always making sure their children had self-esteem. Yun expresses her gratitude and respect for her mother? deep love for her children and courage in life. Yun discovers the practical power of maternity and its potential to resist patriarchal order.
But why was the title, <The Eyes of Mother>? They say eyes are the window on the world. When you look at the world, the world looks you back. The stare that detaches you from yourself is called a gaze. Therefore, what sees and what is being seen are always interconnected and unequal. Gender inequality even reaches gazes and thus, women? gaze was considered nonexistent or to be the same as that of men. The issue of gaze gained more attention as postmodern theory of the subject gained ground on the argument that a subject is formed by the gaze of others. However, this theory does not take into account the history, forces of social and cultural change, practical dynamism, or gender difference and explains that the structure of the gaze is fixed. Feminists have thought hard on how to subvert the gaze, and so did Yun Suknam. One way to resist the gaze was to return to women their individual eyes, what we call, looks. The "Eyes" of Yun`s mother positioned across the exhibition hall emanated intensity. As a result, women`s bodies looked at like a spectacle disappear and are replaced by bodies engraved with reality of life.
Works produced from mother`s point of view include the Mother series, Genealogy, Mothers and daughters, and Son, son, son. These works portray maternity experienced by women in the pre-modern and modern ages. The Mother series consists of six works against the backdrop of a photo image of modern women`s history: Mother I19 years old, Mother IIDaughter and Son, Mother III - Lady, In front of the house, For the sake of family, and Mother VI-On the benches. The series depicts in a chronology of Yun’s mother’s life from the age of 19 to old age, how maternity is formed within the institution of marriage. From a young woman with inner passion, her mother is changed into a bent old lady through child birth, child raising, house works, and other seemingly trivial women`s labor. Yun overlaps, trims, and roughly carves scrap wood and uses washboards and doors to portray her mother’s life.
The stout body and warm features that represent fertility and peace, expected in stereotypical maternal images, are nowhere to be seen. Instead, as in For the sake of family, mother? daily life of cooking and washing is described. The background of In front of the house is a time when Yun? father died and life was difficult. Yun`s mother had to sell grain in front of her house because she had to be close to her children. Son, son, son expresses preference for sons over daughters and here, the mothers' old age and deep wrinkles are conspicuous.
In Genealogy, the contrast is shocking between a woman who sits with her head high after giving birth to a son, and another woman who hung herself for failing to do so. Placed against a huge family genealogy book, which symbolizes patriarchy, the fates of the two women were decided by whether or not they gave birth to a son. Although the fates differed, neither woman could have their name listed on the genealogy. It is ironic that patriarchy, a system to maintain the power of men, has continued thanks to active assistance from women. In Korea, women`s internalization and self-sacrifice have served as important pillars of the Confucian patriarchy. Never had this point been so explicitly described until Genealogy. This work carries multilayered meanings of the contrast between empirical circumstances where pre-modern women experienced maternity and the social institution of maternity.
As you can see, Yun`s description of maternity is a challenge and reversal of the myths and traditional reenactments of maternity that are filled with mystification, praise, and sacrifice. Yun tries to explore internal power based on the empirical reality of women. However, in Korean society, maternal myth is very powerful and the artistic tradition of depicting empirical maternity was weak. Developing a new image in this situation was surely a burden and challenge. In fact, the reason Yun received attention in the 1990s was more because the subject of her work was her mother than because she reinterpreted and reenacted maternity from a feminist perspective.
In 1996, Yun became the first female artist to win the 8th Lee Joong-Sup Award. Here is an excerpt from her acceptance speech: "I am happy but at the same time a bit confused. Master Lee Joong-sup expressed the humanity in strong family bonds in hard times. However, I constantly raise familial problems to the point that I might be misunderstood as a family disintegrator. I think I was given the honors because my major theme so far has been 'mother' and that was considered close to the theme of familial love." As Yun`s concern, art works that portray mothers have often been simplified as strong 'Korean female figures' who were patriarchal scapegoats or who endured painful times, and were shown in group exhibitions held with the theme family, mother, or Korean history.
One major reason behind this misconception was Yun`s distant method of expression. Women in her works have stoic facial expressions, static postures, and above all, remind you of people of the past. In Yun`s works, clothes are always used as indicators of past or present women. Mothers or women in hanbok, Korean traditional dress, represent a completely different time -pre-modern or modern days - from nowadays where women wear western clothes. To Yun, this is a way of revealing the reality of space and time, but the problem is it leads to lack of reality and relevance. These works may easily be misunderstood as saying that "the past equals tradition or women" and lead to misinterpretation of female subjects of Yun`s works as part of the stereotypical mother image.
Even so, facial expressions and the ages of women that appear in Yun`s work are different. Clear eyes and intense stares are also important elements that make up for the distance. In particular, the process of trimming and carving the wooden surface to reflect life on rough and coarse faces and bodies, and fully using the unique wooden texture are important ways for Yun to indirectly experience the lives of women. The sense of touch is the reason Yun still works with wood. In addition, drawing craft-like decorations, regular patterns, and decorative symbols on clothes, Yun revives the value of hand craft, thereby following in the tradition of feminist art that fought to shake the authority of pure art.
Yun`s interest in the subversive nature of hand craft continues in a joint project called, God Mother. Inside the <Women, the Difference and the Power> exhibition hall was the Uterus Room. At the entrance hung a piece of fabric in the shape of genitalia that Yun and Park Young Sook completed by sewing overnight. Yun displayed a long lining, dyed blue and orange, in the corridor full of sunlight that shone through the windows. This was to transition the passage through the vagina into an experience of women`s sexual ecstasy. This project was in line with attempts by French sculptor Nikki de Saint Phalle, who demystified the female body through an experience of walking inside the body and American feminist artist Judy Chicago, who recovered the positive value of the female body using images of the female genitalia. However, the project is a good example of combining the positive power of the uterus with specific experience.
Another remarkable aspect of her method of work is that Yun collects, combines, and uses not only discarded wood but washboards, chairs, window frames, mother-of-pearl inlaid cabinet pieces, parts of mannequins, barrels, and other everyday discards. Women`s creative activity of recycling rather than throwing away everyday items is often called everyday wisdom. American feminist artist Miriam Shapiro early on translated into art the daily life of women who collect and recycle discards, and coined the term, 'femmage' for this type of art. Unlike Shapiro, who usually used fabric-based objects and textiles, Yun combined different objects in a three-dimensional way. Thus, Yun`s work can be called, 'femmeblage,' meaning female assemblage.
Regardless of whether or not Yun knew of Shapiro`s methods, saving and recycling had become a habit since her impoverished adolescence. Even after her economic situation improved, the habit did not die. Yun collected discarded wood as she walked down streets and brought back appliances from apartment basements or dumpsters. Objects and wood that carry traces of life and human touch are refined in hand craft and reborn as art works that reflect female culture. Self-portrait in a thrown away window frame and woman`s face placed at the back of a chair are not only contestations of art and art or art and daily life but metaphor to the psychological state of entrapment and escape.
Yun`s wooden sculptures and installations are often compared to those of Venezuelan-American sculptor Marisol Escobar. An American critic who saw Genealogy at Yun`s US exhibition, <Across the Pacific>, asked her a question about this. This is because both artists create images of people on wood and deal with female motifs. When their works are compared to those of western artists, most Korean artists are wary of being regarded as imitators of western artists. However, Yun knew of Marisol early on. Rather than trying to deny the similarity of their materials and motifs, Yun asks to focus on the difference between Marisol and her work. Marisol is well known for cutting tree trunks into human sizes and coloring them, attaching plaster arms and legs, and adding accessories like purses. Fascinated by pop art, she depicted the boring life of middle-class American women affected by the spread of consumer culture in the 1960s, using a combination of the sophisticated and commercial aesthetics of pop art. Geometric simplification, smooth handling of texture, interest in the lives of middle-class women, and emphasis on commercial aesthetics characterize Marisol`s works. One must admit that hers are very different from the works of Yun.
Once Again, Looking Back at Herself
Yun Suknam`s work turns another huge corner in 1995. The theme of her mother that she had been devoted to for over 10 years came to a close with The Story of Mother(1995). Installed in the Korean Pavilion of Venice Biennale in 1996, this piece made a grand finale with many candles burning in front of sculptures. As candles are indicators of beginning and end of rituals and ceremonies, the candles lighted in front of the sculpture of Yun`s mother signified a farewell to Yun`s artistic tribute to the life of her mother. The candles shed a more dramatic light on that final moment. Yun has never used candles since. After telling everything about her mother, Yun turned to herself and women in history.
Thus began the stories of Yun herself, which were the most intense, painful, and grotesque of all her work. Yun delved into her femininity and self-identity as a woman. Nightmares kept her up many nights during this period, which was a time of ordeal and a rite of passage for a new leap forward. Fierce conflict came from the clash between her and her reality was expressed using motifs of chairs, iron nails, couches with very oriental patterns on pinkish clothes, and an intense shade of pink. In Diary, small, journal-like wooden boxes describe anxiety over incarceration and desire to escape.
Yun started using chairs in 1995. She used fancy, Baroque-style western chairs that were in fashion at the time. Chairs have layered meanings, one of which is the western culture that penetrated the space of Korean homes - a symbol of cultural hybridization in the process of modernization. Chairs placed in a private space produce an odd contrast with Korean women who live there. Chairs reflect a desire for western modernity that is expressed through everyday objects - a yearning that sprang up in the process of Korea`s modernization. Another meaning of chairs is a metaphor of the female body.
Fixed chairs, immovable because of their auger-like iron legs, chairs without seat cushions, and chairs with many sharp steel nails protruding from the cushion in Day and Night(1995) imply absence of women who have no place to stay in comfort, neither day nor night. Geometric steel nails are designed to wriggle to signify debris of women`s exploding inner desires. Chairs in Being Restricted(1996) display a peculiar contrast of reality and desire that precariously maintain the border between in and out. In Chair(1995) and Looking in the Mirror(1997), chairs and women become one. Chairs become the sign in which women`s desire oppressed by the nationalist mentality and materialistic values of modernization collide.
In the Pink Room series that began in 1996, the meaning of chairs evolved in a more complex way. The Pink Room series consists of four pieces and is the fanciest and heaviest of Yun`s works. It grabs your attention. Shocking neon pink represents the complex aspects of reality and mind where the external and internal sides of a woman`s life are always at odds and women must restrain their desires. A western chair wrapped in flower-patterned neon pink silk satin and belted with a strap of a fluorescent color, broken pink marbles scattered on the floor, and a pinkish woman standing on her tip-toes. The dazzling pink in Pink Sofa takes a room representing women? fixed lives and turns it into a scene of anxious dreams and nightmares. When a overstuffed chair is enlarged to a triple-seated sofa, discomfort is amplified. Scary iron nails on the chair embody women`s desire and hysterical seizures and a violation of patriarchal rules, which they cause greater fear.
Meeting Women in History
The painful time of self-reflection in neon pink gradually turned to hope and challenge with the blue motif in Blue Room and during the time Yun prepared for The Seeding of Light exhibition. This exhibition was held in 1997 to celebrate Yun`s winning the Lee Joong-Sup Award. Here, Yun presented The Seeding of Light─999. The exhibition hall was filled with 999 small wooden figures of women of all shapes and sizes. The figures portrayed different people were of different sizes and shapes. Pre-modern women in hanbok(chima-chogori), modern women with entirely or partially enlarged faces, faces immersed in grief or thought, and occasionally, smiling faces. Although too small to make out, you could still feel the vitality of dark eyes. This was a scene where countless unidentified women ancestors were summoned ? women who lived buried in history without having their names called. Light shone on the past and freely scattered the women`s bodies, as if sowing seeds. Illuminated figures cast long shadows, slowly taking up wider space, telling us their stories with many small voices.
In Yun`s work, numbers have special meanings, as you can see in <999> and Yun`s recent sculpture of 1,025 abandoned dogs. Both numbers are close to 1,000. Carving and exhibiting 1,000 figures is an overwhelming job. 1000 is a round number. Nine hundred and ninety nine wooden figures are one short of 1,000, which makes them incomplete. But still, <999> is full of yearning and expectation for completion. Its incompletion was filled into completion by a single wooden statue of a woman displayed separately in another room.
In many ways, <999> reminds you of The Dinner Party, one of the most notable works of US feminist art. Although the size, production method, and naming of the two works are very different, they both summon women of the past. By coincidence, there are 999 names of women recorded on the floor tiles of The Dinner Party. While The Dinner Party rediscovers the great history of women by uncovering women who brought glory to Western history, 999 is close to a group invocation of spirits, calling out women like Mrs. Kim, Mrs. Lee, Mrs. Park, mother of Soon-ja, mother of Young-ja, etc.
Since 2000, Yun`s exploration of women`s lineages has moved beyond summoning unidentified women towards more detailed descriptions of women and the inclusion of modern women. This work is done using two mediums - installation and drawing - under the themes, 'Lengthened' and 'encountering women in history.' Characteristically, these works have parts of women`s bodies that are elongated as if trying to pull at something or reach someone, and free-flowing bodies that look like they are moving underwater. Extended arms stretch to the ground, the sky, or the women by their sides. Yun attempts mental and sensory contact between women of the past and present who exist in different times and between modern women scattered in different spaces, unable to communicate.
In this sense, the choice of Wing, an expression of a soaring motif, as the poster of the Women`s World 2005: 9th International Interdisciplinary Congress on Women held in Seoul was indeed appropriate. When the past, present, daily life, and deviation overlap, when women in different times and spaces are connected by sparks at the end of their fingertips, the stories of women buried in history penetrate walls one by one and whisper, slowly filling the space with their dialogue and energy.
In 2003, Yun`s solo exhibition, <To Be Lengthened> was held at Ilmin Museum of Art. It was a space of sensory expression that portrayed women of the past and present talking to and brushing past each other. Elongated arms, torsos, long nails stuck into pieces of wood or fruit, and barrels that replace body parts stimulated the tactile sense and revealed materiality, refusing to become mere objects to be seen. Blue Bell(2002), a work that describes Yun`s encounter with the spirit of Lee Mae-chang, a female poet during the Chosun dynasty, engages the auditory sense because blue bells hang from the women`s hands. Hur Nansulhun-lotus, poet Kim Hye-soon who holds out an impaled heart, feminist scholar Kim Young Ok with whom Yun has interacted, and a woman who turned into a fish with a whale on her head reveal the desire to reach each other by opening and permeating.
Starting from 2004, Yun`s somewhat careful attempts to encounter the spirits of women of the past and present surfaced more explicitly by her giving her subjects voices or through direct physical contact. In The Breath of House; Red Gate, Kitchen, mistress`s Room, Windows, Wall, Column(Pillar), and Fence(2004), set against the Gurim Village of Yeongam, a village of traditional Korean houses, life stories of women of the past emanate from the village arbor which is called Hoesa Pavilion, a place previously forbidden to women, and from around the houses. The Wall of Hwang Jin-yi, the kitchen of a bride-to-be-sold, and the master bedroom of a mistress of the house become places reflecting the lives, pain, frustrations, and wishes of seven Chosun women.
To take one example, in Red Gate - A Widow, Yun writes: "My fiance - suddenly died even before we were married. I lived as his family`s daughter-in-law and I kept my chastity. For both his family and mine, I denied myself…When I died, I was glad. I closed my eyes one last time, swearing that I shall never live like this again." The wretched voices of women erased by the red gate, a symbol of Chosun chastity, are juxtaposed against the image of a red rope that seems ready to strangle a neck. This work describes with a specific experience, how women become women. On the other hand, Baghdad, a series of drawings of over 50 pieces, based on Yun`s visit to Iraq in 2004 after the US attack on the country, is an attempt to embody the substance of women`s lives in the Third World.
Practices of Feminist Ethics of Caring
Yun`s works over the past five years seem very different from her previous works. For starters, 1,025 dogs have replaced people. In 2003, Yun read an article on Lee Ae-sin who took care of 1,025 abandoned dogs. Surprised and curious, Yun took her sister and daughter to see Lee. The old lady lived surrounded by abandoned dogs. She was beyond imagination. Her life was the epitome of the ethics of care.
Deeply touched by Lee`s devoted care for abandoned creatures, Yun spent a long time sketching for a work to embody Lee`s unbelievable life. For over three years, Yun spent almost everyday dedicated to carving the same number of dogs that Lee was taking care of. Yun finished With or Without Person only this summer after sculpting 300 healthy dogs, dogs that died and left their spirits, and sick dogs. However, unlike Yun`s initial plan, she could not make a sculpture of Lee, the main character, because her breadth of care was too grand to be portrayed by a single sculpture.
Yun worked on each figure with 12~13 processes including cutting, sanding, applying the base color, drawing the dog figure, and the final touch. This is how she made 1,025 dogs that she caressed and talked to. In Buddhism, 1,000 days are a time to rid of self-centered thinking and look at oneself from others` point of view, during which the human body is believed to change. Working on the dogs took Yun nearly 1,000 days, during which her life and thinking indeed began to change dramatically. Yun developed greater respect for life and started avoiding meat, eventually becoming a vegetarian. The time was also a journey for the atheistic Yun to regain her soul which she had lost in the modern world.
Mothers who recovered the eyesight that let them see world, women who turned into chairs, Yun as a sofa, women dispersed as rays of light, women with elongated bodies, women who became fish, an old lady who became a dog. Yun`s works express women breaking out of constrained lives and becoming free. These women are diverse: some succumb to external institutions that regulate women? thinking and behavior, while others resist. Some are frustrated, while others do not give up hope.
These images are 'my' past and portrayals of different 'others' that exist inside us all. Yun recovers the lives of women of the past and present as our heritage. She restores 'others' who had been rendered into objects to be seen and urges us to respect their lives and listen to their stories, because only then can one meet, care for, and understand the different selves within - the 'others.'
In the 21st century, feminists argue that the ethical task the world must pursue is overcoming violent clashes between religions and cultures and restoring peaceful communication between people. They stress the role of women in this regard. Yun`s works have opened that very ethical ground through art and her recent work expands the possibility even further.
Yun believes that feminist art and feminism still have a long way to go and feels uncomfortable being called one of the most notable feminist artists. Yun has a sense of responsibility that she mustn`t embarrass herself as a role model for younger women artists. Yun also wants more young artists to become active in feminism. As individualism and market theories are increasingly empowered in the art world, there is less and less space for feminist art, which is a fact that Yun knows very well. Nevertheless, for Yun, art is a way to act on feminism. Art is her life. That is why she ponders how to plan her next story as a woman, in what theme and form.
In stead of talking big for fear of losing her status in the art world as she gets older, Yun acts on the ethics of care with her life and works. That is why she is still beautiful at nearly 70 years of age. I hope her path will continue on and other feminist artists will broaden the horizons of art and life after Yun`s example. Last but not least, I sincerely hope Yun`s art work and philosophy will overcome the limitations of the feminist art ghetto and present new visions to both women and men artists seeking co-existence and equality.
(translated by Won Young)
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