Heinkuhn OH (South Korean, born 1963), from the series Left face, 2006–present, inkjet prints. Courtesy of the artist

“The Shape of Time” reveals the creative spirit behind South Korea’s rapid rise

By Tim Gihring //

The year 1989 is remembered for many things, like the birth of both the World Wide Web and Taylor Swift, though perhaps primarily for the protests in support of democracy that were by turns successful (the fall of the Berlin Wall) and unsuccessful (the uprising in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square). Often overlooked is the shift that year in South Korea, from dictatorship to democracy, which has propelled the country’s remarkable rise in economic and cultural power. The roots of everything from its G20 status to K-pop to Parasite go back to 1989.

“The Shape of Time: Korean Art after 1989,” opening at Mia on March 23, suggests what has been gained and lost in the bargain. Featuring twenty-five artists who came of age in this time of transition, the exhibition reflects on new freedoms and new anxieties, the boon of prosperity and the bane of gentrification. In often monumental works of sculpture, video, photography, painting, and installation art, the artists open a window onto Korea today, taking viewers to the tense but touristy border with North Korea, to neighborhoods uprooted by development, and into fraught conversations about social change.

They also have a lot of fun. As the show suggests, South Korea made a deliberate choice to spearhead its growth with the soft power of cultural exports: food, art, entertainment. Hallyu, as the global wave of all things Korean is known, is big business. Boy-band factories drill recruits for 14 hours a day to hone their performance skills. Designers plot the next iterations of “Korean cool” for cellphones, cars, and virtual reality. (South Korea has had nearly country-wide access to broadband Internet since 2010.) In Seoul, the racing heart of hallyu, the mantra of ppalli-ppalli (hurry-hurry) is as palpable as it is parodied.

And yet, as the lead organizers of the exhibition from the Philadelphia Museum of Art note in the catalogue, “Despite Korean popular culture being on trend today, many other aspects of South Korea as a nation, such as its history, politics, and traditions, remain largely unknown.” Indeed, the country’s reorientation has happened so quickly as to be disorienting even to its closest observers.

All of the artists in “The Shape of Time” are of Korean descent. Some were born and still live in South Korea, others in the United States or elsewhere. No matter where they are, however, they capture a sense of uprootedness, of a culture off balance, trying to find a new equilibrium. Here, a sampling of their work from the exhibition shows the range of reactions to South Korea’s global moment.

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

From 1977 to 1999, South Korean children began each school day by pledging allegiance to the country’s flag and then doing gymnastics—to the beat of the so-called Korean National Stretch Anthem. In emphasizing the martial tone of the anthem and the military precision of the performers, Oh Jaewoo’s humorous video reveals a darker side to this relic of the country’s authoritarian era: how easily children can be indoctrinated into collectivism and obedience.

Sang-hee YUN (South Korean, born 1978), The Bad Dream of Marriage, 2016-17, 3D printing, ottchil (lacquer), hemp cloth, mother-of-pearl, ABS polymer, brass, gold plating, bean curd, gold powder, gold leaf. Collection of the artist

Sang-hee Sun created this rather dangerous-looking sculpture as part of a series documenting her life, decade by decade. Here, the decade is her 20s, when she endured an unhappy marriage. In fact, the medium is the message: lacquer work has traditionally been the province of men, and the durable, almost impervious lacquer suggests both protection and empowerment.

AHN Sekwon (South Korean, born 1968), Lights of Wolgok-dong I, 2005, inkjet prints. Collection of the artist

This image is part of  a triptych showing a dense, older neighborhood gradually succumbing to government-sponsored high-rise developments. As the lights flicker out, artist Ahn Sekwon demonstrates the familiar trade-offs of economic development—something South Korea has scarcely had time to consider in its rush to modernize.