Cross-cultural Seoul searching to find a place to call home
By Clarence Tsui
Sunday Morning Post, The Review | Arts (HONG-KONG) , Sunday Jan. 23rd, 2005
A group of South Koreans raised abroad are using art to question our perception of identity and belonging in a powerful new exhibition.
“Korea is known as the hermit kingdom,” says Mihee-Nathalie Lemoine. “Koreans are very nationalistic. If you don’t fit in with what they have in mind of being Korean they often treat you even worse than a foreigner.”
For some people, such words probably amount to orientalist bigotry. But Lemoine is no cheerleader for small-minded right-wingers. Born Cho Mihee, she is a Korean-born Belgium-bred and now a Seoul-based multimedia artist and activist for the rights of her fellow Overseas adopted Koreans. Theses “Oaks”, as they call themselves, were sent to foster parents in Europe and the U.S. in the 60s and 70s, and are now back to Korea looking for their biological relations.
What fuels Lemoine’s ire was the ill-treatment endured on her return to her birthplace – something she never experienced in Belgium. “There was no support to help adult adoptees or search [for their biological parents], she says. “The attitudes of adoption agencies and social workers were and are very rude, discouraging and disrespecting.
It’s emotional abuse. And it’s the reason she established an adoptees’ rights group in Korea. “It was for a year,” she says. “And I’m still here. Adoptees are immigrants without roots and connection.”
“Over the past decade I spent in Korea, I can see that, after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) crisis, Korea welcomed adoptees more than before – hoping somehow [we could use] our western knowledge to overcome the country’s economic [problems]. But it’s for immigrant children who could speak Korean and English and have a sense of Korean etiquettes – and not adoptees who are useless foreigners with Asian faces.
Lemoine’s art challenges perceptions of national identity, too. Defined by a Korean heritage and a Belgian upbringing, she confronts fantasies about Asians in the west and also Korean constraints – the “oriental” and the nationalist idea of “identity”. Combining the two terms, Lemoine came up with the term Orientity – the name for a group exhibition at the Hong Kong Fringe Club that aims to subvert the meaning of “Korean-ness.” through the work of seven European, American and Japanese artists with Korean ancestry.
Ethnic roots are the only tie unifying this disparate group of installation artists, fabric designers, photographers and filmmakers. Among them are emigres, adoptees, and second generation Korean-Americans. Divers cultural influences define their works, but there’s none of the clichéd, kitschy mix of western aesthetics and eastern spirituality that many still expect of mixed cultural artists. Instead, their work questions the notion of identity – and whether certain characteristics are biological.
The most vociferous of the artists involved, Lemoine – who initiated the first run of Orientity in Kyoto in September with Korean-Japanese fabric designer Oh Haji – also presents the most provocative work in the exhibition. “Today I feel” is an installation of 30 wall posters, each containing a square of reflective material pasted in the middle, with the words “Today I Feel” on top and an emotion or a social identity at the bottom.
Walking through the mirror-like array, viewers will see their reflections framed by proclamations about feeling “creative”, “Asian-American” or “Straight”. The humorous suggestion that you can position yourself as something different every day – whether it’s in sentiment, race or sexuality – is a statement about volatility of one’s being.
“It’s flid and multiple,” says Lemoine. “People tend to reduce and accept just what they want to see in a situation, It will be interesting to see the reaction of the visitors.”
Hong Kong seems obsessed with superficial facets of Korean culture, which accounts for yesterday’s two seminars about the allure stars at the City Fringe Festival. Orientity, also part of the festival, offers a more thoughtful take on the country. “The artist drawns from his or her entire life experience,” says Long. “And that includes being Korean, being overseas and wondering who we really are.”