A new discovery for me in town, the Korean Cultural Institute on Northumberland Avenue, currently has an exhibition to mark the anniversary of the start of the Korean War in 1950. There are many news reports on the war today, and most of them noting that it is a conflict much further from public consciousness than the major wars that bracket it, World War 2 and Vietnam. I struggled to think of many Korean War films beyond Sam Fuller’s Steel Helmet, and of course MASH which is often identified with the Vietnam war because of the the decade it was produced. The Wikipedia entry on the Korean War in contemporary culture is surprisingly short.
The exhibition is a selection of works from contemporary Korean artists on their response to the conflict. Grouped under four themes; “connections that transcend time and space”, “destruction and creation”, “Forgotten War, Unforgettable People” and “My Korea and it’s fragile Peace”.
It struck me walking round, just how little attention I’ve paid to this war, how little I know of it and how is surprising it was to see art inspired by it. I’ve never even thought about how it could be central to Korean existence even now, despite listening to reports of a torpedo attack endangering the ceasefire and watching the both sides of the divided nation play in World Cup games over the last few weeks.
Naturally given the role of a cultural institute in London a lot of the promotional material reference the role of the UK, and offers thanks for their support in the war. Not a sentiment I can easily relate to, but in this case, at least South of the 38th parallel and understandable one. The oddest aspect though is the quotes from British servicemen, veterans of the conflict, on the walls above the art work. They don’t really connect with what is on display, but I realised that these too were voices I’d not really heard before. Perhaps some of them had served in World War 2, but these were thoughts coming out of a conflict without the weight of mythology that war carries. I’m not sure if reverence or esteem is ever something that should be afforded to military actions, but Korea in this way seems to sit somewhere between the defeating evil legend of the 1940s and the shame of say Suez, Algeria or Vietnam.
I may be reading significance where known exists, but the art is worth a visit. I’d highlight Seung Woo Back’s Utopia Korea, which is a collage like reworking of photos of functional North Korean architecture, and DMZ Forest by Sang Youp Lee which is a wildlife photograph of part of the DMZ which reminded me of images from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady or The Zone from Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
Exhibition runs until 17 July