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Aesthetic Constructions of Korean Nationalism: Spectacle, Politics and History (review)

From: Journal of Korean Studies
Volume 17, Number 1, Spring 2012
pp. 201-206 | 10.1353/jks.2012.0005

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Hong Kal’s Aesthetic Constructions of Korean Nationalism: Spectacle, Politics and History takes the reader on a guided tour of exposition pavilions and museums in Seoul. The six short chapters cover two exposition venues from the colonial era (1915–29), three national museums built in the 1980s and 1990s (War Memorial of Korea [WMK], the Independence Hall of Korea [IHK], and the National Museum of Contemporary Art [NMCA]), one war memorial in Japan (Yūshūkan), and the recently constructed waterway of Ch’ŏnggyech’ŏn.1 Even though the sites are widely separated in time and space, Kal believes they manifest the re-imaginings of the “Korean” nation as the embodiment of both an ancient, but also a modern construct, engineered by successive autocratic regimes beginning with the Colonial Government General of Korea (CGK, 1910–45) to the current president, Lee Myung-bak (Yi Myŏngbak) for their own legitimization schemes.

As Kal correctly observes in her introduction, fundamental questions surrounding interpretations of Korean nationalism since the colonial period have been stymied due to the over-reliance on textual sources. As a remedy, in this book, she wants to show how exhibition complexes constructed at key junctures in “the historical process of making Koreans” served as a technology of governmentality (p. 3). Established in central locations where the state allowed people to relate to themselves as part of a national community, she asserts that these exhibition complexes created shared sensations and experience at a time when society was perceived as in need of a reordering collective body (p. 3).

The book’s chapters are grouped into two parts and eras, the colonial era (modernity, colonial expositions, and the city) and the postcolonial era (Korean nationalism and postcolonial exhibitions). The first part revolves around “the visual and spatial languages encoded in the built forms” (p. 13) on the grounds of Kyŏngbok Palace during the few short periods when the two largest colonial exposition venues—the 1915 Korean Industrial Exposition and the 1929 Chosŏn Exposition—were sponsored by the CGK. For the former, Kal identifies three main exhibitions: Kwanghwa Gate (figure 1.3), Railway Hall (figure 1.7), and the Development Display Hall (figure 1.9), as the main vehicles for advancing CGK’s “civilizing mission” and introducing the “Japanese” idea of progress to the masses. The building of the CGK headquarters (figure 2.2) required the transfer of Kwanghwa Gate to the east, a move that was followed by the construction of a linear visitors’ corridor into the palace’s main exposition halls in 1929. Kal claims that, as a result, the CGK not only upended the North-South layout of the palace, but that this alignment had the unintended consequence of transforming Kyŏnghoe Pavilion into the new ethnic symbol of Korea. The re-landscaping of the palace grounds with an unprecedented east-west causeway, she suggests, was more in line with traditional spatial axis for Shintō shrines (pp. 35–37), all part of a grand CGK-initiated urban development project to reorganize the city center as a showcase of their assimilation policy and racial slogan of the Co-Prosperity Sphere.

The latter half of the book is devoted primarily to two war museums: the War Memorial of Korea and the Independence Hall of Korea built in the 1990s in Yongsan (the former site of the U.S. Army headquarters) and Ch’ŏnan, respectively. Kal describes the WMK as the “temple of ethnic nationalism” (p. 61) because its exhibition halls lined with busts of war heroes, dioramas, and video narratives take the viewer on a temporal journey from Korea’s sacred origins to the secular present. The displays of the Korean War room, which occupies the largest section, is where the Republic of Korea situates itself as the true victim of the war, and therefore, projects itself as the sole legitimate government (pp. 66–73). Following the WMK, she makes a brief detour to Tokyo’s Yūshūkan, in order to see how the Yasukuni Shrine portrays the war dead. Even in the more neutral and aesthetically pleasing space of the National Museum of Contemporary Art (pp. 94–99) in Kwach’ŏn, Kal...

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