Shin Sung Ran, independent curator and writer, wrote her Korean art history MA, A Study of the Paintings by Shin Myeongyeon (1809-1886), at Hongik University. She was formerly the lead curator at the Peace Museum’s space99. Currently she is a lecturer at the Dongduk Woman’s University and Sejong University where she teaches the history of Korean art history and oriental art history. Shin has also written for the Korean publications Monthly Art, and article, as well her thesis was published in Misulsa Yeongu (월간미술). In addition to teaching, she was recently named curator of exhibitions for the office of Nam Yun In Soon, a member of the National Assembly. When I first met Shin in the spring of 2011, she was lead curator at space99 (or space goo goo as it is known). The exhibition The Eye of the Needle was on view in the gallery. I was impressed by both political nature of the show and the quality of the work supporting its framework. Shin’s curatorial efforts, which are unapologetically political, have focused on tough issues like migrant workers, and state violence. Since, leaving space99 Shin has been occupied with teaching and working with other likeminded cultural producers in creating a dialog about the contemporary definition of Korean art.
When we sat down last winter (January 2012) our discussion focused on art making in Korea, its history, identifications, motives and zeitgeists; how art and culture diverge for the public and Shin’s desire for art to part of public culture, and in turn receive the support of the public.
The following interview questions, which where answered via email, are based on the conversation we had in January 2012.
Julia Marsh: Your experience working at space99 was very political and focused on social issues of the underserved or overlooked. Can you speak about how you went from being an art history major focusing on oriental flower painting to being involved in such murky waters?
Shin Sung Ran: Many people are curious about the fact that after studying artists who mainly painted flowers and birds during the Joseon dynasty I then worked for space99 where the exhibitions dealt with political and social issues.
After western modernization, like the economic development plan, Korean contemporary art has been changed in the way it chases western art trends, not just for form and content, but also in the spirit of this art, under the premise of “fitting in the international scene.” Outside of the art world, this assimilation is a general problem within Korean society, as well as a phenomenon appearing all over Asia. Instead, I think it is important to escape cultural subservience by finding out what are the dynamic and drives of Korean indigenous culture. For these reasons in grad school I studied the pre-modern art of the Joseon dynasty, which held as its criteria in general the native beauty of Korea. More specifically I selected nineteenth century flower and bird paintings, which were the leading genres of this era of change from traditional to modern, in order to comprehend the adaptation of culture in our history. And so while I was working at an exhibition space for contemporary art, I continue to participate in seminars on philosophy and culture in Eastern classics.
Because I started my career as an intern for the National Museum of Contemporary Art, and this being different from my research, I needed to understand the changes and the essence of contemporary art. After this initial stage, I chose to work at space99 where I could pursue investigating the relation between the society and art without having to deal with the burdens of commercial galleries and public museums, such as marketability or governmental controls. The low budget and the complicated identity of the space, on the other hand, presented difficulties for the artworks and also for publicizing social movement organizations. But great accomplishments were made, which only this space could have achieved. As a space focused on such egalitarian dynamics, it was possible to experiment with various sociopolitical art forms focused on minorities, while seeking solidarity for these groups. So even for me, it is hard to directly connect my interest in Korean traditional culture and a career started at the National Museum of Contemporary Art and space99. But I think these are leading me to find my ground as a curator.
JM: Did working in such a political context alter your ability to think of art as discrete and separate from other more abstract social pressures?
SSR: There are no major changes. I am not attached to a certain form of art. I am just more interested in the social role of art that captures and investigates the voices of the people’s life.
JM: Having worked for the Peace Museum, which is not a typical museum organization in that its mission is to promote peace and advocate for non-violence, in your estimation what is the role of the curator in exhibitions and society?
SSR: space99 is an exhibition space, but also a space that serves the peace movement as a nonprofit social organization. The concentrated pursuit of a certain cause may limit the autonomy of art. So, my most important role was to create an environment that did not overwhelm the art under any great premise, but rather aggrandized the work’s content, in a situation where art and the peace movement desire to negate violence and form a balanced society.
The second part I focused on was solidarity. For example, when I was handling an exhibition about labor issues, in order to avoid any solely ideological approaches, I created an actual bridge between the artists and the workers in the field, so the artists could become aware of the reality and circumstances of the laborers. This role was only possible because the Peace Museum, an organization that wants to remember and accord the agony in society, was already equipped with a broad social network. I think it is a very important job to connect art and society, which have different methods to express the experiences of life in society.
JM: When we met you spoke about the identification of Korean artist with past eras. Can you elaborate on how Korean artists do or do not identify or reflect the past in their attitude and/or work?
SSR: Some contemporary Korean artists are using the materials or methods that were used in traditional arts in new ways. It is very inspiring to see artists bringing traditional art into the ongoing process of making and to see such methods progressing. But just as Western culture can sometimes see Eastern art in the guise of the orientalism, many Korean artists also regard their traditions in terms of otherness and nostalgia, and only utilize its materials or methods. Beyond just taking the materials and the methods, I want to see artwork made with profound thought, which synthesizing the artistry, as well as using Korean thought and lifestyle, which are fading due to their collision with westernization.
JM: You spoke about finding a way for art to be as interesting to people as sports or TV. How do you conceive of that ever happening?
SSR: Art, for sure, is different from the other public media. Art, till now, is not as accessible or easy as TV dramas and sports. For most people, art is a very specific realm made only for a minority. Especially with its market image as a luxury item of personal preference, art has remained a marker of refined taste of the upper class within the socioeconomic structure. Recently the number of people looking at art has grown, obvious in the many newly opened galleries, but we cannot deny this interest also reflects a desire to be upwardly mobile. The artworks that are generally considered for the public are just products of marketing that combine desire and consumption.
An important question to ponder about the foundations of art is whether art should be popular. But if we look at this within the greater notion that art represents the aesthetics of each era, we must be led then to the question: who does art represent today? This idea is related to zeitgeist, which changes with every era. After the modern era, it is true that the class who led and built the society has increased in numbers. And we can’t deny that our future will be more varied and include the will of many people. Here, I am interested in what social role there is for art. I think artworks that approach the diversity of people’s lives and their voices, and create more varied stories and ideas, will accomplish an artistic achievement, and also change the definition of what is art.
So I have paid great attention to public and community-based art, as well as the socio-political art that concerns social minorities who are alienated from art. Beyond the enlightenment and the propagandistic, I long for art that has both the artist’s contemplation and introspection, which can also reach more people in order to invigorate their lives.
JM: Since art remains a specialized area of expertise, what are the ways that artist and curators alike can and undermine the hegemonic role of capital in the exchange of art or more essentially ideas?
SSR: Capital has absolute power over art. The commercialization of the general art world has spread rapidly to include the artworks of younger artists just entering the market, which has mainly been selling the works of older artists. Buyers now want art as an investment, which can be later sold as a commercial good; although it hasn’t been that long since this desire permeated the art world, more than a cultural asset, art now symbolizes highly developed taste or wealth. It can be said that galleries, critics, press and museums have played a major role in this transition.
Fundamentally speaking, the order of this process includes that first favorable review by a critic, followed by fame, and finally the sale of the artwork, and all are very essential for the artist to make a living. However, if the process leans towards commercialism, it creates a dilemma for any producer, whether an artist or a designer of stylish goods. As a curator, I have a major concern about this boundary. It is like a lonely tightrope walk for the artist to live without being swayed by the market. To make valuable contributions free from market forces there needs to be a special support in capitalist societies. It is imperative to have governmental agencies with supporting policies and to establish sponsorship associations, which are perhaps part of corporations with the sole purpose of supporting such artistic efforts. It is necessary to share the cost of artworks that do not have a price tag, nor offer any immediately recognizable practical good. The value of such work is more readily available when the public nature of art is expanded. Additionally in exhibition, I think it is important to increase the art historic value of especially excellent artworks and to promote these and to make conditions for them to be collected by the national museums as public assets.
Translated from Korean to English by Kim KwangSoon