Blacklisted artist challenges politics
Korean art doomed to fail without change
The satirical paintings of powerful political figures by Korean artist Lee Ha, 49, have often appeared on the streets — at subway station entrances, on sidewalks, or on the sides of moving trucks. Art is a medium through which Lee sends a social message and communicates. And the art industry here is doomed to fail if it continues as it is without getting closer to the general public, the artist warned.
His paintings are incisive and illuminating. One painting depicts an odd blending of the faces of the impeached former President Park Geun-hye and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un — in the background is written: “resign.” Flyers of the painting were distributed near Hongik University Station in Seoul, Gwangju City Hall and neighborhoods of Busan in May 2015. Written at the top of another painting of Park is “WANTED” — on the bottom, “Mad Government.” He was fined 2 million won for distributing them in public.
“I wanted to bring serious, powerful political figures into the realm of art and play with them — to ridicule them for being foolish enough to think they can take over the world,” Lee said in an interview with The Korea Times.
Doing so has caused him trouble. He was put on the infamous cultural blacklist drawn up by close aides of the impeached Park used to exclude him from government funded programs; on many occasions he was sued and tried in court.
Challenging politics through art
Lee began his art career in 2009. For years before, he worked as a cartoon illustrator for a newspaper and in animation. He thought of becoming a movie director and headed to New York in 2006. When that didn’t work out, he decided to return to the art scene. And more than anything he wanted to talk about the world through art. His first series, “Pretty Taliban Soldier” was an instant hit, which won him accolades, including second place in the competition, “Make Love, Not War.”
In 2010, he returned to Korea where he first came up with a piece lampooning then-Presi- dent Lee Myung-bak, an unpopular political figure among liberals here over allegations of corruption and abuse of power. “All my friends were denouncing him at the time,” he said.
He continued with his work on dictators Chun Doo-hwan and Park Chung-hee and the latest President Park Geun-hye.
He soon became an outcast for his direct political messages. “You see, in Korea the art industry frowns upon work that conveys social messages,” Lee said. “But it’s the only function of art that suits me.” “All artists should be liberal. And I don’t mean this in a political way — what I mean is we as artists need to continuously challenge existing beliefs.”
Bringing art closer to the people
Lee Ha is most renowned for the methods he uses to display his pieces. To bring art to the general public, he has often chosen display methods that are largely at odds with the conventions of art. Galleries are no longer where he takes his work — instead, he hits the streets.
The height of his career, he said, was the summer of last year. “For two months, I drove a truck all over the country.” On the side of his truck was a painting of Park Geun-hye, surrounded by Lee Myung-bak and Park Chung-hee, among many others in grisly forms. At every stop, he would paint the faces of his audience and watch movies with them, which he played by projecting them onto his truck.
“The art industry needs to open up in order to survive.”
He criticized the art industry here for its distance from the general public. Without getting closer to the people, Korean art is doomed to fail, he said. But he is optimistic it will change, especially as technological advances have opened up routes for anyone to easily share and discuss their thoughts. “No longer are people submissive to authority,” Lee said. “Anyone can express themselves now. And the abilitytoexpressispower.”