S. Korea: Does Art Spit on Society?

A very serious thing took place in downtown Seoul recently. Many should be aware of it as it was covered by the press. Prof. “K” from “S” University presented a performance, entitled “Post 1945,” at Kukje Gallery in Samcheong-dong with this offer: “A prostitute is looking at the exhibition now, leisurely walking among you. Anyone who identifies her shall be given a reward of W1.2 million (US$1-W992).” As desensitized as we may have become, most of us would be awakened by that sort of stimulus. A notice attached to the wall at eye-level read: “A prostitute has been invited here deliberately.”The notice invited the audience to identify the prostitute by her attire, makeup, hairstyle and demeanor. Officially, the occupation of prostitution does not exist in our society. (One newspaper, perhaps embarrassed in reporting the performance, used the expression “a female engaged in the sex business.”) But the artist maintained that a prostitute had been invited, and suggested that our outer appearance and attire can typically be determined by our occupation. The artist brought out anew our society’s long-buried discriminating prejudices based on outer appearances.

Actions performed in the name and behind the shield of “art” do, and should, have a minimum aesthetic threshold. Art is a performance that mankind alone can do. Asking a total stranger if she’s a prostitute is among the most violent curses we can imagine. It’s more humiliating than asking someone if they are a criminal, murderer or liar.

Within half an hour after the exhibition opened, a person had accurately identified the prostitute. The identifier was a woman in her 20s. “I merely wanted to show myself that I had the courage to ask a stranger, ‘Are you a prostitute?'” she said. Prof. K, handing the woman her reward, explained, “The intention was to denounce the contradictions of capitalism embedded in our society and throw out a question at the very limits of courtesy and ethics.” A Kukje Gallery official evaluated the performance as “a project taking a naked look into this era.”

What is art? And what should art not be? As a netizen who goes by the name Rinteus1 asked, who should be subject to more social scorn — a person who sells her body for W600,000, or someone who betrays their ethics for W1 million? Was the intention of the project to suggest that we are living in a society in which people sell their body, mind, spirit, ethics and what not in return for a sum of around W1 million? Or perhaps, did they want to say that the performance was “an artistic certificate,” exposing our contradictions and proving that our society has matured enough to accommodate a twisting or challenge of such a degree?

Is art like that? Didn’t those of us who “leisurely” looked around the exhibition hall that day, and all of us who reported the event and read about it, become prostitutes? At a separate occasion at the exhibition hall that day, it was claimed that an illicit North Korean laborer called Lee Man-gil was lying inside a toy rabbit. And a video show claimed that a migrant worker from East Timor would appear. Both claims turned out to be false. In that case, couldn’t the woman who played the role of the prostitute have been not a genuine professional sex worker, but an anonymous actress participating in the performance?

This exhibition “deliberately” obscures the depth of truth and the point where the twisting of truth begins. Had they really conducted the performance for their stated purpose, they would have leisurely left the scene after committing their artistic crime. Anything can become art, but evidently there must be a bottom line below which artists shouldn’t go.

The column was contributed by Kim Kwang-il from the Chosun Ilbo’s Culture News Desk.

http://english.chosun.com/w21data/html/news/200804/200804240014.html

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