The Gwangju Museum of Art, for me, is a place of refuge. It sits on the edge of Jungoe Park, set back from the highway, apartments and the action of the city; it provides a quiet place where one can let his or her mind wander and explore what the minds of others have created. To stop and look at the art is something we do not do nearly enough and it is time that we take those words seriously.
On May 1, the Gwangju Museum of Art (GMA) opened a new exhibit that works to engage the city in the reality of its own history. The exhibition 5-18-1980: Art of the Democratic Movement (5월 18일 1980년대 광주민중미술) is a collection of artwork created by artists in the immediate wake of the Gwangju Massacre of May 18. All of the artists made the artwork here in the city between the years of 1980 to 1990. They are dark, intimate and immediate. Some call out for answers and some lament, some take a cynical edge and others seek to bring closure. Together, it is one of the most powerful art exhibits I have seen.
The art spoke honestly and thoughtfully to a reality that existed not too long ago and must always be remembered.
Walking through the exhibition, the artwork does not follow a chronological order, opting to group the pieces by artist and theme. The first room begins with a statue of an incomplete man torn apart with bullet holes followed by a rather abstract series by the artist Shin Kyong-ho (신경호) that recycles the colors of red and green, a stark contrast between the Earth and the blood of those killed.
It is striking to note that the majority of the paintings were created directly following the massacre in the year 1980. A series by Hong Seong-dam (홍성담), completed in 1980 and 1981, features reoccurring images of the streets of Gwangju, quiet and unassuming with a looming statue of a general on a horse casting a shadow over the people and shops; a reminder of the military rule that Korea found itself under.
On the wall facing the works of Mr. Hong is a series known as “The Cities” by Kang Yeon-kyun (강연균). The large paintings picture layers of bodies drawn in an almost comic-like fashion piled on top of one: another juxtaposition with the image of decaying fish.
Our limited condition of being human is a constant theme throughout the exhibit.
Rounding the corner to the remainder of the exhibit, the viewer is met by a striking portrait by Lee Gun-pyo (이근표). It is one of the few portraits in the entire exhibition and it caught me off-guard. In the midst of the sorrow and shadows and images, there is a face: a reminder that this happened to human beings, by human beings.
A centerpiece to the exhibit is a series of woodcuts created by Hong Seong-dam. They line an entire wall of the exhibit and they show various scenes from the massacre, during and after. They begin a shift in the exhibit from the deeply introspective to the activist. The museum has two very large wall murals (걸개그림). The large wall pictures depict the outward message of those fighting for democracy in 1980.
Along one wall, a mural, completed by three artists, depicts Gwangju: wounded to the far left of a world map that features a scathing picture of America on the right with all of our vices, a picture of Michael Jackson and the Statue of Liberty hiding a gun in her robe charging across the world with the Japanese and General Chun Doo-hwan (전두환) barreling through a series of indigenous Pacific-Islanders from various places occupied by the west on their way.
It was indeed a period of deep anti-American sentiment and resentment for the Reagan Administration siding with General Chun. American cultural centers were burned to the ground more than once in Gwangju and students went as far as immolating themselves in protest of Reagan’s support for Chun.
This is the part of history we do not hear and it is such an important perspective to have. Korea was a very different place not too long ago and it is a part of the story that we need to hear.
The exhibition is a great collection of artwork and historical artifacts surrounding the events of May 18, 1980. It is a living, breathing statement that declares “I was there,” and it clearly shows the truth and history with a plain picture.
No words are necessary. It is all there to see for yourself.
The exhibition 5월 18일 1980년대 광주민중미술 is open from May 1 until July 21. If you have never been to the Gwangju Museum of Art before, I highly recommend this exhibit as an introduction. Art made in Gwangju that illuminates one of the most important moments of Korean history, it is a must see.
The Gwangju Museum of Art is located in Jungoe Park, opposite the Gwangju Folk Museum and the Biennale. Take a Saturday and check it out.
A special thanks to Lim Jong-young (임종영) for his insight, company and tour through the exhibition.