The May Woodcut Print of Gwangju — A Testimony of Resistance
The May 18 Democratization Movement of 1980 in Gwangju brought enormous change to many aspects of Korean society. Under the influence of an unjust and violent military dictatorship, the spirit of the 1980s was imbued with incessant civil resistance and practices of social activism aiming to overthrow the military dictatorship and achieve a democratic society. In turn, the impact of political and social unrest influenced the way that Korean contemporary art and its aesthetics have evolved. The experiences, recordings, and memories of those who were directly involved in the uprisings in Gwangju cast a light on fundamental questions about mankind as a whole: the nature of human existence, the purpose of political power, the extent to which we are aware of social hierarchies, and the ways we value universal human rights. Within the historical and political commotion of the 1980s, artworks were produced which promote the aesthetic of ‘realistic realism’ and ideas of populist democracy and existential contemporaneity. The political climate of 1980 in Korea gave rise to a distinctive discipline with notable ideological and artistic characteristics.
Among the work of the time, woodcut prints are considered one of the most significant genres, distinctly testifying to this period of socio-political unrest. In particular, the woodcut prints of the conflict-ridden city of Gwangju have emerged as a crucial example of resistanceof scenes and symbolistic images, the woodcut prints functioned as one of the central visual mechanisms of revolution against state violence. The duplicability and powerful expression of these woodcut prints played a key role in enabling Korean society to overcome defeat and despair in the face of the state’s violent acts of killing. The prints also engendered a sense of hope and a global civic attitude, declaring principles of universal human rights and peace. Through provocative slogans, poetic sensibilities, and narrative portrayals, the woodcut prints pose persistent questions to the issues and paradoxes within democracy, independence, labour, reunification, and social hierarchy in Korean society. The greater the wound was, the deeper the engraved expression became. And that wound prompted critical reflection on the Korean society as a whole, which went beyond the parameters of Gwangju. The woodcut prints behaved as ontological reflections on the act of killing and sparing lives, a mechanism of humanistic introspection, and as artistic matrixes of socio-political practices.
Included in a special section of Spring of Democracy, the woodcut prints from Gwangju masterfully weave together the experience and spirit of resistance found in the recordings, testimonies, and sentiments of the May 18 Democratization Movement. While vividly capturing their own anger and pain, as well as that of the impacted citizens of Gwangju and the greater Honam region, the artists invite viewers to understand the reach and implications of the 5·18 Gwangju Democratization Movement that prompted many subsequent civil resistances. It is unfortunate that the exhibition had to be reduced due to COVID-19, but it is my hope that the woodprints from Gwangju will be introduced throughout Korea in the near future.
|Dates||June 3 – June 30, 2020 (Closed on Monday)|
|Venue||Namu Artist Space
(03146) Insadong- gil 54-1, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea
Jinha Kim is the director of Namu Artist Space and a specialist in woodcut print. He began his career as a curator at Hankang Museum in 1984. Between 1989 and 1999 he was a chief curator at Namu Gallery, and served as a research fellow at Art Consulting Seoul. He has published widely, including Sang-ku Kim’s Woodcut print – back to nature, towards trees (Hangil Art, 2009), Modern and Contemporary Woodcut Print 1883-2007: Tree Mirror (Woorimisul Yeonguso Poom, 2007). He is also a critic and a woodcut artist himself.