Written by Yeonsook LEE / 리타 (Rita) for QA Blog Series “What is ‘Queer’ in South Korea? Explorations of art, identity, and ‘queerness’” curated by QA2018 Committee Member Amy Kahng
With the increase in a “queer” self-identified population, finding “queer art” in Seoul is not as difficult as it was in the past. Any artwork from artists who define themself as “queer” could be labelled as queer art. Despite the ‘old-fashioned’ nature of this category, it still offers an effective criterion. But defining “queer art” needs more diverse and political criteria. Several queer theorists have attempted to define queerness as an attitude to embraces failure as a tool for a better present (Halberstam), as the anti-social and negative ways to subvert heteronormativity (Bersani), and as an vivid utopia that has not yet arrived but is actively trying to be redeemed (Muñoz). Of course, it is not necessary to internalize all these discourses, because people can decide for themself how to define “queerness.”
Personally, I tend to consider all works that are disturbing and difficult to approach as ‘queer art’. A good example is the twitter account of the notorious cross-dresser “창녀CD민망복장막장극초개변태좆씹돼지년” (hookerCDshamegutspervertcockcuntcowbitch), whose account has since been locked. His various tacky and frivolous hand-made objects, all made to decorate his anus, have a truly queer aesthetic. While the artist clearly finds pleasure in fetishizing himself, through the artist’s artisan spirit and meticulous craftsmanship, the work proves to go beyond mere exhibitionism.
Video works from Kwon Yongman (계정주 of ‘시네마지옥” [cinemahell]) are further examples. His works such as 몬도 코리아 (Mondo Corea), 갓건배에 대한 모든 것(All about Godgunbae) are absurdly funny, but are still too disturbing to directly laugh at since they intimately expose the ugly side of contemporary Korean culture. The work, 갓건배에 대한 모든 것 (All about Godgunbae), also in part becomes about endurance since it has an unnecessarily long running time. In total, these elements come together to beg the question, why would somebody produce a work like this anyway? The work does not seem like it is meant to be productive nor helpful. This fanatically apolitical and pessimistic aesthetic characterizes Kwon’s work .
Additionally, I would also like to introduce a drag-show that I have recently experienced. A team of five performers, 여성, 괴물 (The monstrous-feminine) , apparently named after a quote by Barbara Kruger, recently presented its fourth event. While all the performances at this event were compelling, the performance by drag-king 아장맨 (Aajangman) was particularly striking since drag kings are still quite rare in Korea. While Seoul does have active drag communities, such as “서울드랙” (Seouldrag) , it is important to have an organization that leads discussions about discrimination towards women and transgender people as well as about the merits of drag.
Since much of the work that discussed could be, but also may not necessarily be, categorized as “queer art,” then one may ask, is there artwork that could be unequivocally labeled as “queer art” in Seoul? I would answer of course there is. The exhibition Read My Lips (리드마이립스) , which revolved around the concept of drag in the context of queer politics, gathered an amalgam of works that could be described as weird and queer. The exhibition had the underlying ambition of introducing ‘queerness’ as a concept in a broader context. Made up of a hybrid of different media-painting, installation, performance, and live-broadcast (공개방송), the exhibition was intended to be somewhat confusing and ambiguous. The artist, “이반지하”(ibanjiha), wore handmade costumes with obvious sexual symbols and sang some of her famous original songs such as ‘나는 이반 그녀는 일반’ (I am Gay, She is Straight) , ‘레즈바에 온 작은 헤테로’ (‘Lil hetero in a Lesbian Bar), and ‘오염’ (Contamination). If one senses a desperate sense of urgency in her repetitive chorus, it comes from the idea that we all eventually need to go home after the song finishes. To not break the promise of this temporality, we will all endlessly be wanting to collect, encounter, and to be around its “queerness.”
Yeonsook LEE / 리타 (Rita); Host of the podcast channel 퀴어방송 (Queercast). Queer, feminist, and art writer. Exhibition planner and curator. Graduate from Seoul National University, Department of Aesthetics. Personal blog and twitter at http://blog.naver.com/hotleve.
(Translation : Mire LEE)
 <여성,괴물> https://twitter.com/monstrousfem
 <서울드랙> https://twitter.com/dragnerd_seoul
 <리드마이립스> https://www.facebook.com/events/629055017302493/
 In the Korean language, ‘이반Eban’ means homosexual and ‘일반Ilban’ means heterosexual
About the blog series What is ‘Queer’ in South Korea? Explorations of art, identity, and ‘queerness’ :
Drawing from the diverse perspectives of a curator, artist, and podcast host, this blog series investigates the categorization and perception of queer art in South Korea. It is being curated by Amy Kahng, an emerging curator and art historian. Her research interests include contemporary art of Asia, Korean video and performance art from the 1960s-90s, and the intersections of queer theory and art history. She is based in Los Angeles and Seoul. She can be reached at email@example.com
Other blogs in the series: