1968 opened literally with a bang when North Korean commandos nearly succeeded in assassinating S. Korean president Park Chung-hee. Two days later, North Korea captured a U.S. Navy intelligence vessel, an incident that brought the world closer to nuclear war than it had come since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Acute brinkmanship brought unprecedented pressure to bear on the concept of nation, a tension especially palpable in some of the most memorable images produced in both Koreas. The production of liminal space occupied central aesthetic ground in the built and media environments. In North Korea, masculinist displays of military and industrial strength common to state-mandated Socialist Realist painting sometimes yielded to abrupt juxtapositions between nature and industry that betrayed uncertainty or even alienation from the dream of a worker’s paradise. In South Korea, where photography was shaped around the twinning of economic development with state-promoted “tradition,” a new generation of photographers conveyed profound skepticism towards South Korean state enterprise. Requiring a deeper and more singular investment from audiences than mere acknowledgment or even sympathy, such works turned on vulnerability as the most significant lens through which to consider the nation in real, rather than ideal, time.
Joan Kee is Associate Professor in the History of Art at the University of Michigan. The author of Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method (2013) and Models of Integrity: Art and Law in Post-Sixties America (2019), she co-edited To Scale (2015) and a special issue of Third Text on contemporary art in Southeast Asia. A contributing editor to Artforum, Kee’s other writing has appeared in Art History, Art Journal, Law and Literature, American Art, Journal of Law, Culture and the Humanities, and Tate Papers among other venues. Current projects include a discussion of emoji as a visual literacy argument, the emergence of a “greater” Southeast Asia through the lens of Minimalism and Afro-Asian collaborations in postwar America.