In Art as a Form of Reality, the philosopher Herbert Marcuse asserted that modernists, “far from playing down alienation, enlarge it and harden their incompatibility with the given reality” - that is, everyday life is reified and exaggerated in the art objects themselves as a way to critique capitalist modernity. Modernism was not simply an aesthetic practice, a new way of making art, but was also involved in a matrix of national and international relationships and a dialectical connection between social, economic and technological development.

In Kimberly Chung and Yeon Shim Chung’s new book Korean Art From 1953: Collision, Innovation, Interaction they reflect on the entwined development of modern Korean life and modern contemporary art. The book begins in 1953 with the end of the Korean War and the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement which divided the peninsula in two.

It was also the start of the incipient stages of Modernist art in Korea. The first section of the book, Part 1: 1953-1987, The Korean Avant-garde, Modernism and Modernity’, charts the social landscape from the post-war era of the 1950s through to the avant-garde zeitgeist of the 1960s and 70s, showing how artists such as Lee Jung-seob combined traditional techniques with aspects of Cubism and Fauvism.

‘Part 2: 1988 – present, From Postmodernism to Contemporaneity in Korea’ suggests that the 1988 summer Olympic games should be seen as a watershed moment: the realization of a process of democratization following a long period of military dictatorship. These changes are paralleled in the punky political Minjung art (people’s art) movement.

The section then links the rapid period of transnationalism and marketization in the 1990s with the conceptual art movement and a renewed interest in the materiality of traditional Korean craft, of hanji (Korean traditional paper), pencil, ink and brush rollers. It ends in the present day with artists such as Nam June Paik who consider the relationship between technology, globalization, reality and identity. 

Korean Art From 1953 is published by PHAIDON and is available to buy here.

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