Supplementary skins: the female nude in South Korean contemporary art

South Korean female artists, even when completely nude, conceal more than they expose. 

Art Radar focuses on three female artists from South Korea who use the body as subject matter in their work, considering how exposure can be the most revealing form of modesty.

Rim Lee, 'Consensus No.25', 2010, oil on canvas, 170 x 154.5 cm. Image courtesy Kasia Kay Art Projects Gallery.

Rim Lee, ‘Consensus No. 25’, 2010, oil on canvas, 170 x 154.5 cm. Image courtesy Kasia Kay Art Projects Gallery.

In Spring 2013, a rumour 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 miniskirts. The international media, by now accustomed to images of scantily-skirted Korean pop stars, wondered where such conservatism had suddenly sprung from. The rumours of the miniskirt’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.

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Modest exposure

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.

Miru Kim, 'NY1', 2010, digital c-print, 101.6 x 152.4 centimeters. Image courtesy the artist.

Miru Kim, ‘NY1’, 2010, digital C-print, 101.6 x 152.4 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Portraits with pigs: Miru Kim

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. In her artist statement Kim says 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.

Miru Kim, 'Composition 2', 2010, digital c-print, 90.5 x 127 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Miru Kim, ‘Composition 2’, 2010, digital C-print, 90.5 x 127 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

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 discloses in an interview with T Magazine that during the process she would be covered in urine and feces 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.

Click here to watch images from Kim’s recent series “The Camel’s Way” on Vimeo

Nikki S. Lee, 'The Hip Hop Project (2'), 2001, c-print. Image courtesy Nikki S. Lee and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Nikki S. Lee, ‘The Hip Hop Project (2’), 2001, C-print. Image courtesy Nikki S. Lee and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Culture chameleon: Nikki S. Lee

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 but 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.

 

Nikki S. Lee, 'The Seniors Project (19)', 1999, c-print. Image courtesy Nikki S. Lee and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Nikki S. Lee, ‘The Seniors Project (19)’, 1999, C-print. Image courtesy Nikki S. Lee and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

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.

Nikki S. Lee, 'Layers, Seoul 1, 2, 3', 2007 c-print. Image courtesy Nikki S. Lee and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Nikki S. Lee, ‘Layers, Seoul 1, 2, 3’, 2007
C-print. Image courtesy Nikki S. Lee and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Lee’s ability to challenge conventional notions of identity was unintentionally demonstrated at the 3rd 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 biennal.

Concealing identity: Rim Lee

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 organisers refer to the feeling as akin to invisibility.

Rim Lee, 'Beyond Max Ernst (penis envy) No.8', 2010-12, archival pigment print, 100 x 80 cm, ed. of 3. Image courtesy Kasia Kay Art Projects Gallery.

Rim Lee, ‘Beyond Max Ernst (penis envy) No.8’, 2010-12, archival pigment print, 100 x 80 cm, ed. of 3. Image courtesy Kasia Kay Art Projects Gallery.

The second set of works are a tribute to the Surrealist artist Max Ernst. The bodies present in these works are, like those described above, disguised. According to the press release for “Retrospective”,

Adopting Max Ernst’s work elements (sic) 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.

Kate Korroch

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Kate Korroch is an independent curator and holds a teaching position at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. A specialist in South Korean contemporary art, in 2013 she will speak in Macau and Chicago on gender and the body in Korean aesthetics.
 This series is made up of articles written by contributors selected for their knowledge and experience of niche topics.

Related Topics: Korean artists, the female form, the human body, women in art

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