Yuni Kim LANG (유니 킴 랑) (American [born South Korea], born 1986), Comfort Hair ( 컴포트 헤어 ) , 2013, Mixed fiber, Collection of the artist © Yuni Kim Lang

The shape of self: A Korean adoptee reflects on Mia’s show of contemporary Korean art

By Taylor Bye //

Parents hold an adopted Korean baby with judge at the ceremony.

The author is held by her mother on her adoption day, in 1997, flanked by her father and the judge who made it official.

I was 23 before I fully embraced my identity as a Korean American woman. Until then, I had never truly considered my ethnicity or race to be something central to my identity. This denial was founded in the micro-aggressions I faced from an early age: classmates asking “where my real parents were,” a boss making assumptions to my face about my parents’ reasons for adoption.

The story I told myself was that if I embraced anything from my Asian heritage, I was abandoning my family, whose roots were in Scandinavia, Holland, and the United Kingdom. The story I told others was that I just don’t care for that kind of art/those kinds of stories/that kind of food, denying my interest and thus starving myself of an incredible feast of rich culture.

So when I learned that “The Shape of Time: Korean Art after 1989” was coming to Mia, I was excited. Here is a show featuring artists of Korean descent (like me!), from a time period I’ve also lived through (for the most part: I was born in 1997). I expected to see things that would trigger some sort of resonant response, an echo-like memory.

Instead, I was met with a language and a history I didn’t recognize. In the very first room is a panel titled “Dissonance”—“the clash resulting in the combination of two disharmonious elements,” according to Google. And it’s really an odd thing when those two disharmonious elements are yourself and your own ethnic identity.

As I read the labels and listened to the audio guides and videos, I learned things about the place and people I come from for the first time. In the process of bringing this show to Mia—I work for the museum as a project coordinator—I learned that I am one of almost 20,000 Korean adoptees in Minnesota, the highest concentration in America and a vast community of which I didn’t even realize I was a part.

A sculpture made of dog tags by Do Ho Suh.

Do Ho Suh’s “Some/One” sculpture takes center stage in ‘The Shape of Time” at Mia.

Sometimes I find it hard to think about the fact that other people know my ethnic culture and history better than I do. But something this exhibition explores is the difference between collective and individual memory, and what it means to be seen in both. I stood in the exhibition, looking at the collective memories of my people—memories of authoritarian rule and repression, of reconciling tradition with newfound freedoms. And although I couldn’t find my own individual memory in them, I found connection to the desire and need to honor the past while understanding the present reality, to push for a renewed and hopeful future. I empathized with the pain caused by constraining one’s identity to fit a certain mold.

Overall, I saw the hope of artists who wanted to convey their own stories in their own way, free from the expectations of what it “should” be based on where they came from. I saw myself, where for so long I had avoided looking.

Come see “The Shape of Time: Korean Art after 1989”, now through June 23 in the Target Galleries at Mia.