[Marxism] An Artist Is Rebuked for Casting South Korea’s Leader in an Unflattering Light

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 31 09:25:24 MDT 2014


NY Times, August 31 2014
An Artist Is Rebuked for Casting South Korea’s Leader in an Unflattering 
Light
By CHOE SANG-HUN

GWANGJU, South Korea — After 250 South Korean high school students died 
in the sinking of the Sewol ferry in April, the artist Hong Sung-dam 
lashed out at a political and business elite he considers responsible 
for the disaster, doing so in the way he knows best. He painted, pouring 
his protest onto canvas just as he did during the country’s long years 
of military dictatorship.

He was not imprisoned this time, as he was in the waning years of 
military-backed rule. But Mr. Hong’s 34 foot by 8 foot canvas, which 
includes a caricature of President Park Geun-hye, was pulled from South 
Korea’s best-known international art festival in a type of censorship 
usually reserved for those accused of supporting communist North Korea.

“This is a ridiculous insult to an artist,” Mr. Hong said of the 
treatment of the painting, in which Ms. Park is depicted as a puppet 
controlled by her late father, who led the country for nearly two 
decades after engineering a coup. “What they did was proof of what I 
tried to say in the painting. Under Park Geun-hye, the country is 
reverting to the old practices of her father’s era, repressing freedom 
of expression.”

Ms. Park’s administration has come under withering criticism since the 
disaster, first for a botched rescue effort, then for resisting the kind 
of broad independent investigation the victims’ families have demanded 
into the muddled emergency response and the lax government regulatory 
system many say helped lead to the sinking.

The painting, which Mr. Hong painted with other artists he invited to 
participate, shows the doomed ship at its center, upside down. Two 
enormous figures have lifted it out of the water, and — in an imagined 
happier ending — the passengers are emerging from the boat, smiling and 
waving. Surrounding that scene is a phantasmagoria of politically 
charged images from South Korean history, some dating from the country’s 
years of military rule. A prisoner is tortured under interrogation, and 
sinister figures lurk, wearing sunglasses and army uniforms.

Gwangju’s leaders defended their initial refusal to allow the painting 
in the festival, the Gwangju Biennale, an act that was unexpected in a 
city with a long history of resistance to conservative political power.

“We demanded the exclusion of Mr. Hong’s painting because of its 
explicit political intention, such as the parodying of the president,” 
Oh Hyeong-guk, a vice mayor of Gwangju, told reporters this month, 
adding that the city could not tolerate such a work in an art exhibition 
it helped finance. But as criticism mounted, the city later backtracked 
a bit, leaving the final decision to the festival’s authorities, who 
banned the painting.

Some artists pulled out of the biennale in protest, and a few of its top 
officials resigned, saying they were torn between defending Mr. Hong’s 
freedom of expression and respecting the wishes of the city, one of the 
event’s main financial backers.

The controversy, which Ms. Park’s office has not commented on, has 
renewed longstanding questions about the limits to artistic expression 
in South Korea.

South Korean artists are vastly freer than they were under military 
rule, when a brand of crayon called Picasso was once banned because of 
the artist’s Communist associations. But artists who venture into 
political satire — like other government critics — often say they feel 
ostracized and harassed, and unflattering depictions of political 
leaders can lead to lawsuits and even criminal defamation charges.

For Mr. Hong, a 59-year-old painter who decades ago was jailed and 
tortured for his political expression, the fight over the painting is 
the latest skirmish in a long battle with repressive forces he believes 
are still at work.

“He is the last standing artist of resistance from the days of 
dictatorship,” said Gim Jong-gil, an art critic.

As a young man, Mr. Hong studied art in Gwangju, which in the 1970s was 
a center of activism against the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, Ms. 
Park’s father. By the time Mr. Park’s rule ended with his assassination 
in late 1979, Mr. Hong was an award-winning painter and a participant in 
the city’s underground pro-democracy movement.

Hopes that Mr. Park’s death would lead to democratization were soon 
crushed as power was seized by Gen. Chun Doo-hwan, one of Mr. Park’s 
protégés who was the head of military intelligence during the last year 
of his rule. Gwangju erupted in protests, and the regime sent tanks and 
paratroopers into the city in May 1980, killing hundreds.

“I saw with my own eyes so many of my friends and colleagues killed,” 
Mr. Hong said. “I decided then and there I would make it my lifetime 
duty to record and indict state brutality. Painting is my language, my 
picket protest, my placard.”

Under Mr. Chun’s rule, Mr. Hong, who was often on the run from the 
authorities, produced lithographs depicting scenes from the Gwangju 
massacre. But he is best known for his large canvases, which have often 
focused on South Koreans who suffered at the hands of their leaders.

Mr. Hong’s works, along with pieces by other activist artists, were put 
to use by the student-led democracy movement of the 1980s. Police 
officers using tear gas raided university campuses and tore their 
paintings down.

Although Mr. Hong escaped imprisonment during the darkest years of 
dictatorship, he was arrested in 1989 as the country was moving toward 
democracy. Mr. Hong was arrested after sending slides of some of his 
work, including a painting that depicted the Gwangju uprising, to 
Korean-Americans who were headed to a youth festival in Pyongyang, North 
Korea. He was deemed to have violated the National Security Law, still 
in effect today, which prohibits any act judged to be “helping the 
enemy” in North Korea. He was interrogated under torture and spent three 
years in prison.

After South Korea’s transition to democracy in the 1990s, most artists 
who had been active in the resistance to military rule moved on to other 
themes. But Mr. Hong continued to produce politically oriented work. In 
2012, when the conservative Ms. Park ran for president, he made her a 
target. One scathing painting showed Ms. Park doing the now-famous 
“Gangnam Style” dance created by a South Korean performer. She was 
dancing below a noose, an allusion to the hanging of dissidents under 
her father’s regime. Another painting put Ms. Park in a delivery room, 
having just given birth to a baby who resembles her late father.

Furious conservative politicians have compared Mr. Hong to Joseph 
Goebbels. The National Election Committee accused him of violating South 
Korean election law, which prohibits defaming candidates with the intent 
of preventing their election. But he was not charged. (Another artist, 
Lee Ha, was less fortunate; he was indicted after depicting Ms. Park as 
Snow White, holding a rotten apple with her father’s image engraved in 
its skin. He was acquitted two years later.)

“Sewol Owol,” Mr. Hong’s painting about the ferry sinking, alludes both 
to the disaster of the ferry, the Sewol, and the Gwangju killings. 
(“Owol” means May, the month when the massacre occurred.) Both events 
hit especially close to home for Mr. Hong, who not only witnessed the 
Gwangju murders, but has lived for years in Ansan, the city where the 
high school students who died aboard the Sewol were from.

One of those students, a girl who was in her junior year and who he said 
came from a poor family, worked part-time at his studio to help earn 
money and pick up skills to pursue her dream of being a painter. 
“Thirty-four years after the Gwangju massacre, in the Sewol disaster, I 
saw another massacre perpetrated by a cartel of crude capitalist 
businesses, corrupt bureaucrats and an irresponsible and feckless 
government,” Mr. Hong said, referring to the corporate greed and 
government corruption that investigators say contributed to the 
disaster. “This was state brutality.”

After the city’s original rejection of his work, he retooled the 
painting, slightly. He replaced the caricature of the president with a 
chicken, a reference to a nickname used by critics: Geun-hye, the 
chicken. Startled city officials rejected that version as well.

Mr. Hong sees the reaction to the Sewol painting as symptomatic of a 
dysfunctional society that cannot discuss its problems openly. Such a 
society, he said, is prone to disasters.

“Satirizing political power should not be a crime,” he said.



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