Black­listed artist chal­lenges pol­i­tics

Korean art doomed to fail with­out change

The Korea Times - - NATIONAL - By You Soo-sun ssyk­times@gmail.com

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.”

Lee Ha

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