Disobedient Object: White Porcelain in Contemporary Korean Sculpture
Upon entering the Korean gallery of the British Museum, London, one can encounter voluminous white porcelains from Chosŏn Dynasty (1392-1987)elevated on a pedestal and carefully encased with protective glasses. More Commonly known as ‘moon jar’, its simplicity in form, imperfection, purity of decoration has become the hallmark of not only the aesthetical style of neo-Confucius ChosŏnDynasty, but increasingly the symbol of Korean national identity. Under the Japanese colonisation (1910-1945), in particular, these objects were “re-discovered” by theoreticians and practitionersofmingei(folk craft) art movement in Japan, who regularly assumed the position of the colonialist master, eroticising and feminising the Korean porcelains, and thereby rendering the colonised subjects as innocent and weak. More than merely being objects of use and veneration, therefore, they are deeply embedded in the discourse of identity politics, nationalism, and post-colonialism. Within such context, this paper examines works by contemporary Korean artists, whereby white porcelains as valued historical artefacts and cultural symbols, are re-appropriated only to be dismantled, disfigured, and disintegrated. For instance, Lee Seung-taek’s Tied Yi Dynasty Porcelainseries consists of plates, bowls, vessels and jars that are tightly bound with thin hemp ropes, and subsequently made obsolete. Variously colored, semi-translucent soap vases by Shin Mikyung, on the other hand, incorporate tactile interaction with the audience, whose abrasive rubbing of the soap eventually leads into disintegration. Through a close reading and comparative analysis of specific examples, I dwell on the disobedient nature of the appropriated objects that resist their given functions and symbolic roles. In doing so, what could be commonly viewed as an act of vandalism is explored as a poetic and political gesture staged by individual artists, questioning the established narratives of nationalism and colonial representation.
Sooyoung Leam is a PhD candidate at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, whose work focuses on the sculptural experiments in contemporary Korean art. Her current research investigates the works and writings of the artist Lee Seung-taek. As an independent curator, Sooyoung has been involved in various contemporary art curatorial projects in London, Seoul and Shanghai. Sooyoung holds degrees in BA from Cambridge University and MA from Courtauld Institute of Art with distinction.