OH Jaewoo (South Korean, born 1983), Let’s Do National Gymnastics!, 2011, single-channel video. Collection of the artist

About that viral video “Let’s do National Gymnastics!” from “The Shape of Time”

In the final gallery of “The Shape of Time: Korean Art after 1989,” the special exhibition on view at Mia through June 23, is a 10-minute video of people exercising. Called Let’s do National Gymnastics!—the exclamation point largely ironic—it’s a stylized edit of a highly regimented routine: arm swinging, neck twisting, and leg lunging to the cheesy strains of something called the National Stretch Anthem. In a show full of bemusing, curious pieces, it is perhaps the most bemusing and curious.

To most South Koreans, however, the routine is exactly that, as familiar as water. For decades, beginning in 1977 under the authoritarian regime that ran the country in the wake of the Korean War, the exercise was compulsory at school and often at work. Performed en masse, the group participation was as important as any physical benefit. The group always mattered most, one nation under squats.

Oh Jaewoo, who was born in 1983, has said it was this social dynamic he wanted to comment on, to surface for reflection. “No matter how much we say that the individuals matters, we Koreans were raised and educated in a certain societal context,” he told the Philadelphia Museum of Art last year, when it organized the exhibition. “The importance of ‘us’—the individual as part of the larger whole—has been embedded in us.”

In fact, the exercises continued until 1999, well after the country’s conversion to democracy in the late 1980s. In some corners of Korean life, including the corporate world, they’re still practiced, if more in the vein of informal yoga. Oh Jaewoo debuted the video in 2011 on a monumental screen in the center of Seoul. When the Stretch Anthem began, people reflexively joined in, muscle memory pulling their strings, the way Americans might sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame. People smiled, nodding at each other in shared recognition of a shared experience, no longer fraught.

“My work could be seen as a representation of a rigid and conformist Korea,” said Oh Jaewoo. “What I’m actually trying to convey, however, is that we have developed beyond the oppression and coercive military culture of the time. We are finally able to look back and examine our history with a degree of humor and subversive wit.”

Watch the video’s 2011 debut below, and get tickets here to see it and the rest of  “The Shape of Time” at Mia.