Korea: Reflection on an exhibition of queer art

Camille (Ji Eun) Sung is a PhD student in Art History, Visual Art & Theory at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Her current research explores experimental and performative art, particularly in postwar Korea and Japan. As a former queer feminist activist drawing from her background in aesthetics, Camille also has worked on the materiality of art and movement.

In May 2017, Jinsil Lee and I organized an exhibition titled Read My Lips at the art space, Hapjungjigu, in Seoul, South Korea. Themed around “drag” as a concept, an important term in queer politics, the exhibition gathered and exhibited queer artworks. Drag often refers to the play and practice by sexual minorities of putting on the costume and exaggerating the gestures of the opposite gender. However, the exhibition explored drag in a broader sense, following Renate Lorenz’s theory which stated that “drag may refer to the productive connections of natural and artificial, animate and inanimate, to clothes, radios, hair, legs, all that which tends more to produce connections to others and other things than to represent them. What becomes visible in this drag is…an ‘undoing.’” 

From this perspective, the artworks in the exhibition were read as figurative attempts to transcend and transform in-between male and female, things and human, everyday life and art, and the white cube and subculture. They included paintings by Yongseok Oh and Eunsae Lee, drawings by Bob Kim, sculptures by Mire Lee, an archive by Dong-jin Seo, performance bu Ibanjiha and Sungjae Lee, and internet radio broadcasting by Rita, as well as and extensive exhibition catalogue.

After the exhibition opened, we received various comments and reactions, including interest, excitement, and doubt. The exhibition was based on meticulous observation and minute conceptualization of drag and queerness, which was originally formulated in the West. One could say that such subtle theorizations might be too early for Korean society. The slogan of Korea Queer Cultural Festival in Seoul (Seoul Pride) in 2016 was “Queer I Am,” which called for the recognition of queer people in Korean society.

The slogan paradoxically proves the absence of queer presence in Korea and thus the urgency of this issue. To borrow Elizabeth Freeman and Lorenz’s theory on the queer space and the queer time, the queer practice and theory in Korea is at the level of discussing only the queer space. In other words, Korean society does not see the queer because it does not know it. This also holds true to queer art: the Korean art scene does not make queer art because it does not know it. Read more via Queer Asia