Being a Queen: Korean Art Now


One of the many geo-political oddities about Japan in Asia is how little social and economic interaction there is with close neighbours – relative, say, to the quite extraordinary regional integration going on elsewhere on the planet, such as in Europe. Given how close they are, it is amazing that Koreans and Japanese are not more integrated – in terms of social connections, migration, economic trade, business cooperation, or cross-border culture. Parallel societies, with similar post-war development trajectories, as well as similarly problematic relations with the US and China, you’d think they’d find a lot more in common. Of course, there are deep and sensitive historical reasons for this, and things are slowly changing: the “K-wave” of soap operas and pop stars in Japan, for example, has put a new face on the otherwise marginalised presence of Koreans in the society.

Art connections could be much better too, although there have been recent examples of successful collaborative ventures. Yoshitomo Nara had a massively successful solo show in Seoul, and there was also a very interesting group show of young Japanese artists in May-June this year, “Re: Membering: Next of Japan”, curated by Fumihiko Sumitomo and others, that was showing in Seoul. Japan Foundation keeps trying to put money behind these connections. Korean artists share a similar seriousness to their Japanese cousins: as in Japan, it is a less money dominated scene, but the Korans are more connected than Japan with global conceptual developments in art. There is less hesitancy in Korea to involve the art in political themes, protest, questions of national identity or gender, as well as different historical traditions to draw on.

Koreans like young Japanese are also highly mobile in the West, following similar trails of fellowship and residencies to the US and Europe. I caught the show “Being a Queen” this week in Aarhus, Denmark, by the video and photographic artist Kyungwoo Chun. He is best known for his very humanistic video work, where he films people interacting in confined spaces or under rule based situations. There is always a time dimension and often physical contact involved. It’s somewhat similar to the work of British artist Gillian Wearing, only gentler and more sympathetic to its participants. For the current show, he had the idea of seeking out by newspaper advertisement Danes who would like to dress up and personify for the camera their beloved queen, Margrethe II. Dressing the part, they were then asked to sit in character for a length of time corresponding to their age, while their portrait is taken as a blurred photo that suggests the royal iconography of this popular monarch. Kyungwoo also took backstage photos, of people dressing or waiting, such as the one above, and also made interviews with each of the 17 final participants (out of about 35 who applied).

It’s a quite delicate and insightful meditation on identities and identification. Queen Margrethe is hugely beloved in Denmark. She is like a Japanese Emperor in her aura, only beloved because she is so normal – for a Queen. She cycles around her realm, often goes out to meet people in everyday life, and does not overdo it with ostentatious wealth. The interviews, though, revealed quite telling psychoses behind the identification on camera: participants wanted to be like her because she was a tall, large woman, or because she also suffered exclusion from normal society, being a Queen. Of course, the interesting other thing about the show, was that while Kyungwoo was playing with nationalism and culture for one set of audience – Danish people who care deeply about their royal family – he was presenting something quite different for people like me, who have no idea who the Queen of Denmark is, and would not even recognise her if they saw her in the street. Any of the blurry characters in pretty blue dresses could have been the queen as far as I was concerned. And, of course, all the photos for me just looked like a bunch of random people dressed up in drag. One of the queens was indeed a fifty something Danish man. Kyungwoo himself was open to all kinds of engagements with the work: it is bound to look quite different when it is shown in Seoul. The show was completed with an open workshop area where parents were invited to bring their children to make tiaras, choose a dress, and put together a favourite queen’s costume for the camera. This being Denmark, both little girls and little boys were equally allowed to join in the fun.







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