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  • Social Changes and Visual Culture in Contemporary Korea:An Introduction
  • Jooyeon Rhee (bio) and Hong Kal (bio)

The candlelight movement in South Korea (hereafter Korea) in recent years speaks to a series of intense and contentious political and social changes that have been widely witnessed by the public. Held up by hundreds of thousands of citizens in public spaces in major cities across the nation, the candlelight vigils have become the most visible symbol of democracy and the power of the masses. As is evident in its spectacular photographic images that were extensively shared among people through social media, the candlelight movement exemplifies a dramatic moment of the protest culture in Korea. The utilization of visual symbols and images and the facilitation of communication technologies played an integral role in mobilizing the masses in the movement. And citizens' active use of currently available visual media and new technologies demonstrated the capability of visual culture to generate powerful impacts on society.

This special issue pays close attention to the new and dynamic relationships between social changes and visual culture in contemporary Korea. Collected essays in this issue were originally presented in an international workshop, "Mobility, Creativity, and Collectivity: Making Sites in Contemporary Korean Visual Culture," held at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in May 2016; and a conference panel, "The Contentious Meaning of 'Creativity' in Contemporary Korea," at the Association of Asian Studies Conference held in Toronto in March 2017. This issue deals with some of the major social and historical issues that [End Page 1] have drawn national and international attention: the unprecedented phenomenon surrounding Sonyŏsang, a public statue dedicated to the victims of the "comfort women" and the formation of new wave feminist activism (Kwon, 2019); the elderly women's protests against the Korea Electronic Power Corporation's construction of a high-voltage transmission line in Miryang (Choi, 2019); the historical significance and the gendered representation of the Kwangju uprising in films (Rhee, 2019); and the visual witnessing of the Sewol Ferry disaster in paintings (Kal, 2019). Contributors look into new practices of citizens' participation, activism, and protest strategies in which visual media and technologies have become crucial for citizens to widely promote their political agendas and to effectively interact with fellow citizens.

Compared to the anti-government, democratic, and labor movements in the 1970s and 1980s, contemporary social movements in Korea tend to be organized by a broad range of participants with diverse social and political backgrounds. And the objects of their political agendas cover various social problems that directly concern their everyday lives, such as environmental sustainability, gender equality, gentrification, et cetera. The "everydayness" in social movements is enhanced by the expanded availability of visual media and the communication technologies that allow people to actively engage in creating, reworking, and disseminating visual images and to widely interact with fellow citizens, ultimately making social movements more participatory than ever before.

Although issues that concern national identity persist, the changing notion of collectivity is inherent in contemporary visual culture as discussed in the collected essays. The current use of the idea of collectivity is more fluid and contingent than in the past: it is local, national, and global simultaneously. In addition, the ways in which participants exercise their collective power are more democratic in the sense that their access to a means of visual media and sophisticated technologies has created a new environment for sharing information and knowledge on a horizontal level. In this process, the previously dominant visual representations of past social movements inevitably have come under scrutiny. The problematic representations of patriarchal nationalism and gender, age, and class inequality are revisited by some of our contributors in their attempts to provide renewed notions and practices of collectivity and collective power in historical continuity.

The relationships between visual culture and social changes are not problem-free or soundly emancipatory. As each author demonstrates, visual images and the ways in which they are produced and perceived also [End Page 2] meet unexpected challenges and contradictory effects. Visual culture, in other words, is a contested field where different interests and ideas clash with one another and produce new social meanings. It is ironic to see how some participatory and...


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