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Hong Song-Dam - VM - Grady van den Bosch

Hong Song-Dam: Resurrection

Rebellious Art

By Grady van den Bosch

Central in this woodcut is a lotus flower. In Asian culture this flower often symbolizes purity and the origin of life, also new life. The lotus flower emerges out of the dark water and radiates in all its beauty. Beneath the flower the farmers are toiling on the land. Further down lies a man with a rifle. In the lotus flower stands a man with one child on his shoulder and another on his back.

This is an artwork by the politically committed South Korean artist Hong Song-Dam. With his art he criticizes societal and political injustice. When in 1980, in the heyday of the dictatorship in South Korea, he survived a bloody suppression of an insurrection, he wanted to do something in response. He began to devote his art to the injustice that he saw all around him. This ‘resurrection’ is possibly one of the layers in the woodcut Resurrection.

Hong Song-Dam is one of the eminent men of the South Korean Minjung art movement. Minjung means ‘people.’ The Minjung art movement started in 1980, when South Korea was still under a dictatorship. The occasion for the origin of the Mingjun was the slaughter at Gwangju. This was the uprising in which Hong Song-Dam participated, as I described above. Gwangju was at that time his hometown. With their art, the Minjung artists called for democracy and unification with North Korea. They glorified nature, workers, and farmers in their art and criticized imperialism and Americanism. Even though some artists were accused of it, the Minjung artists were not communists.

The art of this movement consisted mainly of woodcuts and wall paintings. These woodcuts could be easily reproduced and distributed, reaching a large public. This can be seen as a kind of democratization of art. They could also serve as pamphlets and could be printed on flags to be taken to the streets.
In Resurrection we recognize the themes of the Minjung movement. Attention is paid to nature and the farmers and the injustice towards the oppressed is exposed. The lotus flower is for Hong Song-Dam undoubtedly a prospect of a new South Korea and the ‘resurrection’ of the oppressed population. When we zoom in a bit more, it is possible that the man with the rifle is a dead and buried freedom fighter, who is rising again in the lotus flower.

Hong Song-Dam

The style of Minjung art was initially inspired by, among others, German expressionistic artists such as Käthe Kollwitz. Minjung artists later rejected this link with Western art and began to draw on traditional Korean and Buddhist art. In general it can be asserted that Minjung art broke with the modernistic Korean art that was then current. Because it played such a large role in the democratization movement, the intellectual establishment wanted to stem its influence and Minjung art was declared to be non-art. It was not taken seriously by the artworld because the message was supposed to be more important than artistic quality. In spite of that, Minjung art became a very influential movement with a powerfully eloquent style of expression. In the meantime South Korea has become a democracy and Minjung art has become more mainstream. The government even gives commissions to Minjung artists and there was a large overview exhibition in 1994.

The Minjung art movement did not exist by itself. It moved side by side with, among others, the student democracy movement and Minjung theology. This theology is inspired by the liberation theology that originated in Latin America. Liberation theology and thus also Minjung theology focus their attention on compassion for the underprivileged and the oppressed and see social oppression as a sin from which we must be liberated. Some believers fought against the rulers; others were pacifists.

Via Minjung theology we could draw a parallel between Minjung art and Jesus. In the harsh Roman society Jesus asked people to pay attention to the vulnerable. In his sermons, parables, healing and discussions, he constantly put the neighbour in the central place. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me,” said Jesus (Matthew 25:40). Another parallel with Minjung artists is Jesus’ destiny; he had to experience arrest, torture, and even death. Hong Song-Dam has also been imprisoned, silenced by the regime. Finally, there is of course the parallel with the theme of this work of art, Resurrection, namely Jesus’ resurrection. Whereas Hong Song-Dam strives for a new society without injustice or corruption, the resurrection of Jesus is of a totally different order. In his resurrection we may see new and restored life in the light of eternity, the Kingdom of God.

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Hong Song – Dam: Resurrection (Buhwal in Korean), 1989, woodcut on paper, 56,6 x 42,6 cm. In the collection of Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art. This gallery often organizes exhibitions where they use the power of contemporary art to throw light on human rights.  Resurrection was acquired via Amnesty International; the artist was at that time (1991) imprisoned. In 1990, when Glasgow was the European Cultural Capital, the citizens of Glasgow and Amnesty International adopted Hong Song-Dam as a prisoner of conscience.

Hong Song-Dam (1955) was born on the South Korean island of Haui-do and grew up in Gwangju, South Korea. In his youth he worked as a studio assistant until his talent was discovered. He studied visual arts at the Chosun University in Gwangju. His time at university was overshadowed by poverty; he had to work in order support himself. He also had to deal with serious tuberculosis. When he was lying in the sanatorium with severe tuberculosis, he saw how all kinds of people who wanted to hide from the dictatorial regime of that day, found themselves a place in the hospital, alongside of people who were miserable because of bad life circumstances. He was confronted with poverty and injustice. This motivated him to join the Gwangju uprising from May 18 to May 27, 1980. He survived the bloody slaughter of the uprising by the army and wanted to do something in response. That is why he started to make art as an accusation against injustice and became part of the Minjung art movement, a popular and artistic response to these oppressive events that took the lives of an estimated 2,000 people.

Grady van den Bosch is Master of Education in Arts and works as an art and music educator and artist from her own business Studio Grady Art & Art Education. She is a committee member of Platform Kerk & Kunst [Church & Art] and member of the workgroup of the Christian art collective Arsprodeo. Grady is an editor of ArtWay. www.gradyvandenbosch.nl

ArtWay Visual Meditation 11 April 2021