Anti-Monument/ Anti-Sublimation Work: JoSeub's Wretched Humor
Jo Seub's early works began with performances that problematized historical monuments and religious fanaticism. It seems that these works began as a rebellion against the grinding inculcation of powerful ideology and religion. For example, the artist stands in front of monuments for Admiral Yi Soon-shin General MacArthur. He is grinning and making frivolous gestures. By partially mutilating the surfaces of these photographs, he satirizes the mythical idols that have new become historical fossils and begins to challenge the phallic disposition and the legitimacy of the historical violence of the military government. He has also dressed himself as evangelist of a pseudo-religion he created called ¡°Myungrang(¡®cheerfulness') church¡± and documented his evangelical gestures on the street. He has also produced a bronze statue of himself, the kind that one sees of ¡°great men¡± in government buildings or public parks. His recent works are about destroying the great psychological monument called anti-Communism. The works challenge the return of anti-Communism and nostalgia for nationalism and military dictatorship manufactured and promoted by mass media; in other words, they challenge a series of well Publicized works that have glorified the political use of violence, such as the films Friend and Taegeukki Hwinalimyeo .
Jo Seub is not only skeptical about the ideology and religion that he is satirizing but he is also rebelling against the excessive weight and seriousness of the doctrinarian teaching and its rigid methodology. In fact, anti-Communism under the military dictatorship in South Korea, which took place in the context of South-North confrontation, is not much different from the anti-imperialism inculcated in North Korea, In North Korea they have slogans such as ¡°Merciless Punishment to U.S. Imperialism!¡± Such slogans are not much different in nature from the slogans painted in red across elementary school walls in South Korea such as ¡°Let's Pulverize Communism!¡± Another Slogan from North Korea, ¡°Potato is Rice¡± is not much different in language style, feeling, and effect from numerous slogans of the Saemaeul. Movement under the Park Chung Hee regime, which emphasized hard work and thriftiness, as did the North Korea regime. Such doctrinarian learning and competitions for best anti-Communist posters and slogans are the activities that Jo Seub and anyone born before 1970 would clearly remember form his or her school days in Korea.
Here then is Jo Seub's reason for his aesthetics of the frivolous, for his use of comedy as an art form; today's younger generation understands comedy. Jo demonstrates clearly that one can communicate seriously while at the same time being funny. In fact, he is able to deal with all the more grave issues because he is funny, and the viewer has an opportunity to out about startling facts of the past. What is funny is on the surface. Underneath. One finds bitter smiles, i.e., the traces of historical scars. Bringing together fragments of historical trauma, low-class culture, popular street culture of teen-agers, and vulgar comedy, Jo's works are a bottom-up resistance against the repressive and top-down politics. Having grown up under the control of open state violence, Jo focuses on the internalization of violence he experienced. He remind us of the teachers violence committed in name of education, and of the violence committed in the name of fraternity between seonbae and hubae. 1) He portrays a school scene from the 1970s or 80s where one who recklessly wields violence is feared but also revered as being virtuous. 2)
A recent work by Jo Seub is an ambitious work called When the day comes , 3) A series of staged photographs whose theme is the Korean War. The work gives a feeling of a low-budget film. It borrows the theme song and sound effects form popular films such as Taegeukki .
By doing so, he is clearly criticizing the inculcation of anti-Communism and representation of violence in mass media. The work begins with an old couple's visit at the War Memorial Museum in Seoul. The old couple, who reminisce about the Korean War, is the main protagonists in the subsequent scenes. An officer of the North Korean army survives a hillside skirmish and falls in love with a nurse from the South. This rather preposterous story is presented in over 300 sequential photographs.
The notable scenes are probably the ones in which Jo Seub, impersonating the officer, has to relieve himself in the middle of a bloody battleground and he is shot in the private parts. Then, he and the South Korean nurse who is attending his wound are having sexual intercourse. In the oral sex and fondling scenes, Jo uses dildo and fake breasts. These scenes go a step beyond the bitter humor one is used to seeing in the artist's other works where the artist is invariably beat up, bloodied, and is prostrated on the ground. The dildo and the fake breast seem to work as devices for providing a certain type of catharsis or sense of relief. Why is it that the use of dildo, a cheap technique, perhaps a simple shock device, provides such a sense of catharsis? First of all, the fact that the introductory scene is the enormous War Memorial Museum in Seoul provides the context. Jo is making a ¡°bad¡± joke about such wasteful and singular projects for commemorating historical events and about its oppressiveness. As was mentioned in main essay ¡°Violence and Modernity: The Re-inscription of Memory,¡± Benjamin refused the complete mourning and consolation of his friends who committed suicide in protest against the World War, and many German artists made anti-monument installations, refusing to accept symbolic healing. In a similar manner, Jo Seub reawakens the collective trauma of Koreans, officially long over with and dealt with, by picking a fight with a dildo.
Of course the dildo is not the only source of catharsis that can easily become a target of controversy; it is also in the film Taegeukki , the object of parody. As in the films Shiri and Joint Security Area , Taegeukki is kitsch, where the purposes of political propaganda and entertainment are superimposed on each other. The problem is that such mutually exclusive genres are indeed so mutually osmotic that they can hardly be distinguished. 4) Jo Seub's When the Day Comes looks like kitsch in that it borrows from Taegeukki . In particular, in the fact that it provides an easy catharsis, a salient characteristic of kitsch, the work produces an effect similar to Taegeukki , the original that is being copied. We can say Jo Seub's work is ¡°so bad it's good¡± as Susan Sontag put it. 5)
The avant-garde appropriates kitsch elements for the purposes of subversion and irony. What Duchamp mutilated was not da Vinci's masterpiece but a facsimile of the masterpiece that has now become a cliches called Mona Lisa. The reproductivity itself, the main culprit for distorting tradition, signifies kitsch and this is what Duchamp insulted. 6) In my opinion, When the Day Comes is a similar case. The anti-Communism and patriotism promoted in Taegeukki distort history and truth, and to subvert them Jo Seub uses kitsch devices such as fake penis and breast. By making an explicitly kitsch use of these already kitsch devices, Jo Seub want to stoke historical memory. As we have already observed from the controversies of the two cemeteries commemorating the victims of the Gwangju Uprising, most of the doctrinaire monuments and giant architectural structures are built without much input from the public. They make myths; they bury history in the back alleys of reality; and they are distortions of truth. Some people would ask, what is wrong with establishing a monument that will remember forever? Perhaps the problem is not with any monument itself. Regardless of the amount of discussion of the inherent problems of monuments, the government will always build monuments. Perhaps making monuments is one of the basic instincts of humanity. Metaphoricallyspeaking, the act of keeping an ordinary item left by a deceased friend as a treasure is an act of making a monument. Ultimately the question is not the monument itself but how to remember history, and how to represent and narrate it. It is a question of methodology and process. 7) Ultimately, an understanding of complex mechanism of visual representation based on moral responsibility and legitimacy, historical justification and evidence, and sincerity must precede construction of any public monument. 8)
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Jo Seub's works are the most ¡°rambunctious¡± among the works presented in this exhibition. He uses an effective strategy to draw history out form the public's diminishing memory and to deconstruct. His strategy is to resist the sublimation of painful memories through monuments. One must remember that the event of the democratization struggles were too recent to forget.
The title of a recent solo exhibition by Jo Seub was ¡°Do not quesrion.¡± 9) The title refers to the military government's position that the public should accept history as told. not be skeptical about censored media, and restrain from asking any questions. The title can also be interpreted as the artist's imperative to not bury historical pains and wrong-doings, not to forget. His anti-monumental tendencies can then be interpreted as an effort to pose the question of ¡°how to ask,¡± and to aid the process of building monuments at another level.
1) Seonbae and hubae Upper-class and lower-class school mates, respectively. They are broadly used as social ¡®seniors' and ¡®juniors' ? tr.
2) Yi Mun-yol's short story Pillon ui doeji (Pillon's Pig) deals with the violence within such a peer group, the ¡°aura¡± of the one who perpetrates it, and the contradictions in the group's response to such violence.
3) When the Day Comes (Geunari o-myeon) is also the title of a government propaganda TV drama about the Korean War produced in the mid-1980s. It is also the title of one of the popular democracy movement songs from the same period. From telephone conversation with the artist ? tr.
4) Matel Calinescu. Five Faces of Modernity (Durharn: Duke University Press, 1987), 236.
5) Ibid. 230
6) Ibid. 254-5.
7) The following book has much discussion of issues of memorial projects and public sphere: WJT Mitchell, ed., Art and the Public Sphere (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990). One should also take into consideration the long history and controversy involved in building the Berlin Holocaust memorial completed in 2005 by peter Eisenman.
8) In order for this to take place it is necessary to have the right environment to nurture expert practitioners and critics in the field of not only art but all the visual fields including film, architecture, urban environment, and popular culture.
9) In terms of continuous re-invention of the image of the artist in relation to thier audience, there is a strong affinity between Jo and Cindy Sherman the pop star Madonna, as well as Yasumasa Morimura, who capitalized on the mutually influential relationship between the two women artists. See
John Walker, Art and Celebrity (London: Pluto Press, 2003). 66-69. Of course, Jo differentiates himself from these artists by appropriating specific events and figures in Korean history. To the extent that Do not question features caricatures of real people who were sacrificed in various historical events under the military dictatorship, the exhibition touches upon the issues of historical representation and carries with it ethical responsibility. For Jo, these remain important tasks that are yet to be dealt with. Do not question was held at Alternative Space Pool, Seoul, May 2005.
Moon Young-Min( Art Critic)