On Friday, May 10, the May Hall gallery held an opening reception for their current exhibition: Nine Bullets. The May Hall is a small gallery in downtown Gwangju, just five minutes’ walk from the YMCA. Nine Bullets is a solo exhibition of work by Hong Seong-dam.
Hong is an internationally recognized artist, and the reception was attended by many patrons and interested art enthusiasts. In fact, by the next day, all of the smaller pieces had already been sold.
Hong became an internationally-recognized artist after the 1980 Gwangju Uprising. He was a student at Chonnam during his junior year and an active participant in the protests. At the time, Hong was only mildly interested in studying art; his real interests were music and folk dance.
He began pursuing art as a way to give voice to his strong political views. His talent and the strength of his message commanded immediate attention. His message reached artists and politicians in Japan, Germany, the United States and even North Korea.
Hong often works with woodcuts because they enable him to make multiple prints allowing his messages to be spread as widely and to as many people as possible. Four of the prints he made after the 1980 Uprising were displayed in various locations in North Korea, including in Pyongyang, which, he says, led to him being accused, tortured and imprisoned for three years by the Korea CIA before he was finally released. He believes that it was the advocacy of the international contacts he had made through his art that made his release possible.
Hong’s work often focuses on government violence and weapons. This exhibition focuses on the two most significant images from the Gwangju Uprising: the gun and the bullet, as demonstrated in the big paintings featured in the main gallery. These pieces are not woodcuts, but one-of-a-kind large paintings.
An important element in many of these paintings is the M16 rifle. According to Hong, the M16 was designed to do maximum damage to its victims and create the highest number of fatalities because its bullets travel faster than sound, and they rotate so that they do not just penetrate the victim’s body but also tear and shred it in an ever-widening path.
Hong said the M16 had been banned by international agreement, and added that the U.S. army broke this agreement when they decided to make it their army’s standard rifle during the Vietnam War. Hong uses the M16 in these paintings because it is the weapon soldiers used on unarmed civilians in the Gwangju Uprising.
Hong illustrates the destructive power of an M16 bullet in a sculpture featured in the exhibit. From the front it shows a small bullet hole in a man’s forehead, and from behind it shows that most of the back of his head is missing.
A large painting that is next to this sculpture shows a soldier firing upon a civilian. The soldier is in the upper left-hand corner. Near the middle of the canvas, you can see the bullet which is on its deadly path towards the bottom right-hand corner where a civilian is challenging the soldier. The painting is almost empty except for these three elements which draw our focus to the small bullet. This painting is about confrontation. Hong wants the viewer to realize that though the citizen is about to die, he can still pose a lasting spiritual challenge.
Another painting shows a soldier firing at a child across a lake. It illustrates an event that took place at Junam, when soldiers entered the village on their way to Gwangju. Four middle school students were swimming in the lake and when they saw the soldiers they ran and hid. One of the children lost his new shoe as he fled, and since the shoe was new, he made the mistake of returning for it and was shot and killed. The villagers at the bottom of this painting are shown peacefully continuing their work, a negative commentary on peoples’ ability to ignore atrocities and not take action even when it is necessary and just.
A third large painting shows a pregnant woman being shot by a soldier. This painting is based on the story of Choe Mi-Ae, a pregnant woman who was passing by the protests and was shot. When she was found she was already dead, but the baby was still moving inside of her. The protesters tried to rush her to the hospital to try to save the baby, but the soldiers would not let them pass and her baby died as well. Hong uses brushstrokes and angles to make the bullet look as though it is moving. The fish in the center of the painting represents rebirth.
According to Hong there were three great and lasting effects from the Gwangju Uprising. First, people began to mobilize and take action to gain democracy on a larger scale all across the nation. Second, laborers and farmers began to stand up for themselves and ask for the right to a comfortable life. Third, until the Gwangju Uprising, people had a very favorable opinion of the U.S., but afterwards there began to be more of an anti-American feeling. These feelings are from the U.S. unofficially approving armed forces to be moved from the DMZ to Gwangju to stifle the Uprising.
The reception room of the gallery features half a dozen small paintings which have a different feel from the larger ones in the main gallery. They contain small details and organic content which represent rebirth and rehabilitation, and they show the healing from the harm done during the Gwangju Uprising.