11 June 2010

The Korean Dream - Statement

Date: October 2008, Seoul, South Korea --- January 2010, Cluj-Napoca, Romania
Technique: mechanical pencils on paper
Size: 230 x 65 cm

Recently, someone asked me what is the concept of my artwork “The Korean Dream.” Since she wasn’t the kind of person who would listen to my never ending descriptions, I answered briefly in two words simply saying “contemporary Korea.” I was surprised to find out that she became so intrigued by my short and resumed answer that she spent the next half an hour asking details, and building up a conversation based on the artwork. 

Regarded in the context of my entire creation until now, The Korean Dream represents a radical shift from my previous dark and gloomy style. It is also the first step that opens my new series Asiasaek [아시아색]. It is a work that raised my standards, after my stay in Korea. I started to make the first sketches for the work during my first days in Korea, but later on the project became more complex including somehow my theoretical research about Seoul.

The Korean Dream’s title can have multiple interpretations. First of all, regarded from an international perspective it makes an allusion to the American Dream. Looking back to the late 19th   and 20th century, for many Europeans the American Dream stood for a new life, a brand new start in the land of modernity, evolution or just simply a good life in a highly developed country. While in the 21st century the US is slowly but clearly losing its superiority with faded influence over Europe, East Asia experiences an unprecedented development. Japan and South Korea are developed top of the world countries with high life standards, while China’s skyrocketing development is quickly pushing it toward becoming a world superpower. In this context, soon, the American Dream might lose its attractiveness and its place might be taken by the Korean Dream, the Japanese Dream or the Chinese Dream.

Second, regarded from an Asian perspective The Korean Dream can be interpreted as the pursuit of the fast economical, cultural or technological development. The fast development of the Korean economy was an unprecedented event and it served as a model to follow for many other Asian countries. Korean technology became a “must have” for contemporary Asians due to its quality, and especially due to its prestige. Furthermore contemporary Korean culture initiated [and continues to do so] mainstream trends in Asia, mostly thanks to Hallyu, or the “Korean wave” promoted through cinematographic productions. In this context, for many Asians contemporary Korea became a model to follow, like a dream…

Third, regarded through a Korean perspective, The Korean Dream stands for the pursuit of both national and individual prosperity. Being a highly competitive society, it formed generations of ambitious people that compared to Europeans, invest much more effort, time and finances to reach a successful modern life. For them, the dream is related to achieving happiness, and it is more or less directly linked to Seoul.

Although the title of my drawing refers to Korea, it has an important connection with its capital, Seoul. Often called as the “miracle on the Han river,” Seoul’s development speed became synonymous with the successful endeavor for prosperity. Having roughly 200.000 inhabitants during the last years of the Joseon Dynasty, it faced a destructive Japanese colonial domination from 1910 to 1945. After just a few years, the Korean War destroyed Seoul and most of the cities throughout the Korean Peninsula, leaving the country divided, people at the edge of starvation, hundreds of thousands of homeless and no clear plans for recovering. Through the efforts of a couple of generations of hard workers, Korea’s fast development is unanimously considered by historians as unique in the history of the world. Today, Korea became one of the world’s top 10 economies, with high life standards and ubiquitous high-technology. Seoul became the world’s second largest metropolis with approximately 23 million inhabitants, bustling of colors, neon lights, futuristic gadgets and… kind people.

However, high life standards and enviable careers became closely related to consumerism. The Korean Dream’s central concept is closely related to consumerism and shopaholic girls. From the beginning, I have to admit that I have seen excessive shopping oriented habits among East European women as well, but I wasn’t prepared for the magnitude of shopping mania among Korean girls. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not totally against consumerism and shopping, and my artwork shouldn’t be interpreted strictly as criticism toward shopping passion. I have to admit that I spent many nice days on the streets of Myeong-Dong shopping district or in other Malls around the city.

A non-Korean might wonder what is hidden behind the Asian text on the girl’s shopping bag. The left side vertical Korean text spells 쇼핑 세대 [shopping sedae], simply translated next to it in English as “shopping generation.” The smaller text follows the traditional right to left vertical writing and spells 나 강남 여자야. The translation is “I am a Gangnam girl/woman” and it is written in informal Korean, being rather a sincere statement about an intimate fact. To make it clear Gangnam can have multiple meanings. Taken syllable by syllable it means “river” and “south.” So, the first meaning defines the southern area of Seoul, a metropolis divided in two relatively equal parts by the Han River. The southern area usually stands for modernity and a westernized urban landscape composed by high rise buildings. While Gangbuk [the north of the city] preserves the city’s traditional cultural heritage and hosts most of the governmental buildings, Gangnam represents the fancy new areas, business districts, fashion centers, and numerous modern art facilities. Being usually much more expensive, it became synonymous with high life. A second meaning of Gangnam refers to Gangnam district, one of Seoul’s 25 administrative districts. It is obviously located also in the Southern part of the city, and it is known as one of Korea’s most expensive living quarters. It is mostly a business, fashion and shopping area, but it hosts sky scraper apartments as well. Analyzed from a sociologic perspective, living in Gangnam district is a sign of wealth, sometimes even an intended show off of prosperity. Taking it through fashion’s perspective, Koreans often create an analogy among Gangnam district and feminine beauty. It is the home of high life, most wanted stars, glamorous careers and evidently… skyrocketing prices. [More details about Gangnam in my future research about Seoul’s urbanism and architecture]

I’ve heard it quite often among my friends: “I am a Gangnam girl,” but it took some time until I gained enough knowledge about contemporary Korea to fully comprehend the meaning of such a statement. Anyway, it is a cute and quite funny declaration depending on its context, and it doesn’t necessarily suppose that one is boasting herself. However, there is one more thing that links to the Gangnam generation: significant losses of traditional values. And this isn’t reflected only by the urban landscape, or by the life style. Although it isn’t obvious for ordinary foreigners, there is a relevant change of mentalities. I won’t spend time trying to explain the reasons for such a complex flip of mentalities but the essence is related to one’s attitude. Dating back to the Joseon Dynasty [1392-1910] Korea inherited a Confucian based society. This lead to a clear order and strict hierarchy between different social classes and differently aged people. Moreover, modesty in behavior and the pursuit of wise thinking were promoted. Modesty and wisdom were somehow leading to a relative shyness regarding affirming oneself. But these days, hearing from somebody saying “I am a Gangnam girl/woman” while smiling happily/proudly marks a clear change of mentalities and attitudes. It is not just the statement of a social class, a sign of a relative pride, a sign of declaring one’s wealth or beauty. It is a symbol for the overall endeavor of the S. Korean young generations to usher toward high standards and loosing traditions in front of western influences. This leads to loosing the traditional concept of collectivism in front of the western individualist thoughts.

Following a grammatical perspective, we can say that the statement from the shopping bag expresses indirectly an individualist mentality. This is one of the many everyday sentences that one may say during a day, without even fully comprehending the implications that it might say about one’s subconscious. The statement says “I am a Gangnam girl.” Not we, it is just me, “I.” Starting from Confucian values, today’s Korean language steel has expressions that are used on a daily basis like 우리 집 “our house,” 우리 어머니 “our mother,” 우리 나라 “our country” etc. These expressions are based on the idea that something doesn’t belong only to one person, it belongs to a group. It is not only one’s house, it is the house of the entire family; she is not only one’s mother, she is a mother for all the extended family members.

But now things changed. Today one may be a Gangnam girl without ever considering the effects of losing the Korean traditional values under westernization. Today one may be a Gangnam girl living the (pseudo) Korean Dream.