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  • Modern Art in Late Colonial Korea: A Research Experiment
  • Joan Kee (bio)

A young woman sits in the center of a room crammed with laboratory equipment (fig. 1). Behind her are glass flasks filled with unknown liquids and neatly arranged in rows. A large table juts from the painting’s right edge. It groans under the accumulated weight of numerous implements all intended to measure, gauge, and subsequently coax into orderly submission the unruly world of the living. Next to the woman is a kymograph, used for measuring physiological response in animals. Battery powered, it records responses transmitted through electrodes attached to the subjects and is frequently used in pharmacological experiments monitoring the effects of drugs.1 Two white rabbits housed in round wire-mesh cages below the table await their fate. Particularly conspicuous against the general pallor of the laboratory space is a black microscope placed on one corner of the table. It is positioned to the right of the young woman, who wears a laboratory coat of such dazzling whiteness that it seems to thrust her body toward the painting’s surface.

Consider Research, an ink and color painting on paper by Yi Yu-t’ae. A Korean national living under Japanese colonial rule in Seoul, he created this work in 1944, a year before Japan’s defeat in World War II and the consequent liberation of colonial Korea. Part of a diptych shown at the last edition of the Sǒnjǒn, colonial Korea’s most important exhibition of visual art, Research joined the ideas of personhood and picturing at a time when both were acutely subject to transformative social and cultural pressures. The colonization of Korea by Japan from 1910 to 1945 fundamentally altered the lens through which artistic production was viewed. Newly defined as misul in Korean, or bijutsu in Japanese, [End Page 215]

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Fig. 1.

Yi Yu-t’ae, Research, 1944, ink and color on paper, 212 × 153 cm, Courtesy of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea.

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art was classified according to medium and genre based on categorical divisions like Western versus Oriental, and oil versus ink. Such divisions mirrored and reinforced assumptions of national and cultural exceptionalism, which were made especially pronounced by the exigencies of wartime.

Modern art in particular emerged in lockstep with imperialist valorization of an attitude towards modernity founded upon beliefs in rationality, universality, and, above all, the persistent idealization of an unspecified future. Yet at the level of everyday life, the modern social order was more often defined by inequality, oppression, and the concentration of power in the hands of a select few. After the Second Sino-Japanese War began in 1937, ideological pressures compromised the links between personal subjectivity and tangible forms of material expression. Exploring what kinds of self-determination could be possible became a challenge for Korean cultural workers, particularly for those whose own political orientations were unresolved or explicitly ambiguous. This exploration may be what Ko Yu-sǒp, the first formally trained Korean art historian, was had in mind when he argued that modern art was more than a presentist symptom of newness or innovation. Modern art, he claimed, was more accurately described as sidae ǔi yesul, or “art of our time,” a phrase he used to encapsulate the aspirations of those seeking to make artworks relevant to a specific time and place.2

Research was an experiment that gauged how and whether representation could still be viable when it otherwise seemed fated to collapse into the most literal interpretations of ideology. It produced a viewing experience that operated beyond the register of allegory by decoupling the act of picturing from a state-driven enterprise of image production that suppressed debate. Central to the operation of Research was the unclear position of the main character, the young woman in the laboratory coat. Her portrayal invites speculation as to whether she is a nostalgic icon of a partially realized modernity based on notions of speed and progress or an agent participating in the formation of a grimmer modernity rooted in perpetual doubt. The historian Miriam Silverberg alluded to this duality in...


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pp. 215-243
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