HIDDEN WORKERS, An Exhibition on Women’s Labor:

How Can We See Art Through Women’s Perspective?

Lee Choong-yeol | 기사입력 2024/02/10 [15:28]

HIDDEN WORKERS, An Exhibition on Women’s Labor:

How Can We See Art Through Women’s Perspective?

Lee Choong-yeol | 입력 : 2024/02/10 [15:28]

Editor’s note: The author, Lee Choong-yeol, is a feminist artist.


One needs to take stairs down to a basement in order to view this exhibition. At the entrance, detailed descriptions of the exhibition are written on a wall. Yet, the intention of the exhibition is revealed on the white stairway wall in all white capital letters – “HIDDEN WORKERS” – which can only be seen from the side when walking down. Hye-jin Park, the curator for this exhibition, seems to want to shout out that women’s labor has been thoroughly degraded by patriarchy and capitalism, while visually exposing the reality that our society has concealed that fact.


▲ The main image of HIDDEN WORKERS, a contemporary art cxhibition ⓒCoreana Museum of Art


A visitor would be fortunate to see such a great exhibition whose critical intent would inspire any artist working on an art project. I have been thinking deeply on how to absorb this inspiration in order to deliver information about the exhibition and decided to focus my article on the exhibition itself since writings describing each work in the exhibition have been widely distributed via news media.


I will discuss three meanings of Coreana’s contemporary art exhibition HIDDEN WORKERS from my vantage point as an educator and an artist advocating feminism. First, this exhibition can help eliminate the misunderstanding that contemporary art isolates audiences because it is too difficult to understand. Second, this exhibition illustrates the fact that contemporary feminist art, once considered the realm of only middle-class elite women, now comprises a diversity of voices. Finally, this exhibition includes a program that reveals what the role of a ‘museum of art’ should be.


A Viewer-Friendly Contemporary Art Exhibition that Everyone Can Empathize with


Many people claim not to know how to appreciate contemporary art and feel it is just too complicated to comprehend. When people see a classical painting or a sculpture, they instinctively have a feeling or emotion that these are either beautiful, well-done, or great. Contemporary art, on the other hand, requires the viewer to think. It is more than understandable that people find it even more difficult to appreciate contemporary art when living in a South Korean environment where they not only identify themselves as belonging to a particular group and performing the roles prescribed to that group rather than as individuals, but also are more used to vertical rather than horizontal relationships or ones of solidarity. Moreover, works of conceptual art have had a tendency to isolate audiences by focusing on an issue that does not seem directly connected to our everyday lives and projects that sometimes delved into language and philosophy that required related knowledge.


In contrast, HIDDEN WORKERS appeals to audiences by dealing with the issue of labor, an experience that almost all people in a capitalist society can relate to. Art, which has been isolated from our lives, here deals directly with ‘the reality of life’. This exhibition also interconnects with a wide spectrum of audience experiences because it closely examines the distinctive characteristics that ‘women’s labor’ has in contrast to many other types of labor. The exhibition does not attempt to find any sort of conclusion through direct representation, but concentrates on works about women’s labor that express the voices of artists from many generations and diverse cultures through multifaceted perspectives and different media. Thanks to these efforts, audiences have the opportunity to encounter and interpret the works freely based on their own experiences.


▲ Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Hartford Wash: Washing/Tracks/Maintenance, Outside ⓒCoreana Museum of Art


Unlike traditional art, contemporary art does not place importance on visual spectacle. While the sense of excitement that art produced in the past is now provided by mass media and the entertainment industry, contemporary art has played a role in creating meaning and exposing a hegemonic ideology that hides truths. In South Korean society, where every corner of life pursues sensationalism based on neoliberal competition logic, even art seems a way in which people can gain fame: a ‘famous’ artist can run a ‘huge scale’ project either self-financed or through connections to powerful people; or an artist can imitate his/her own earlier work to create a branding effect so that, as with a piece of merchandising based on a cartoon, everyone will know at a glance that they were responsible for a certain work..


In this male-dominated society, we are still mostly exposed to art that has not been liberated from the Western hegemonic point of view of art as being ‘skill-oriented’ and thus biased toward men who are more likely to hand down these skills to men than women. This is clearly discernible in how even though art colleges have more female students, the number of male faculty members is muc higher, and in the art industry, the majority of positions of power are occupied by men. In addition, because male-dominated culture overvalues materiality, scale, and form and does not try to escape from the hegemonic standards of ‘beauty,’ there is a tendency in the world of Korean art to disregard the importance of pursuing different values, exploring alternative types of beauty, and following a process-oriented project.


Therefore, feminist art which deals with gender issues or tries to express feminist perspectives through the language of art has usually been a secondary source or subject that an artist consumes at a certain point in his/her career trajectory; a work straightforwardly reflecting a male gaze that is argued to be meaningful because it was created by women; a hastily organized and one-dimensional project based on a current social issue; or an exhibition relegated to a non-prime distant location,  of a short duration, or lacking publicity, and thus a pity not to have been shared with more people.


However, HIDDEN WORKERS is a well-made, reliably planned exhibition and has been well marketed for an ample period of time. Moreover, it is meaningful that this exhibition has succeeded in achieving professionalism and popular appeal through factors such as its being directly explained to visitors by the curator who designed the exhibition, not a docent who merely gathered exhibition information.


▲ Im Yoon-Kyung, Continual Time ⓒCoreana Museum of Art


The Western History of Feminist Art and a National Trend of ‘Feminist Art’


Even though I first encountered feminist art more than ten years ago, I think that ‘feminist art’ still seems to be largely unknown in Korean society. Furthermore, feminist art is not considered important even by art schools whose students are mostly women.


Feminist art actively started in the United States in the 1970s after Linda Nochlin posed the catalytic question “Why have there been no great women artists?” Because the movement began from the critical minds of white/middle-class/elite women, the feminist art movement in Western society was criticized in its early stage for its inability to contextualize the points of view of different minorities. However, it has developed by conducting experiments that deepened the criticisms of patriarchal power systems and expressed diverse voices in various ways. As ‘feminist identity’ has continuously changed, feminist art has also transformed.


Unlike Western feminist art which was initiated by elite women, ‘feminist art’ in Korea started from the 1980s ‘public art’ movement that showed the lives of women workers from its inception. But after the 1990s, feminist art in Korea was discontinued when the next generation could not sustain it. While Western feminist art has kept alive until today by spontaneously connecting to contemporary art that attempts to break down the boundary between everyday lives and art, the Korean national situation has been different. Since ‘public art’ was oppressed by dictatorships and could not flexibly change, only ‘sophisticated’ types of art that ignored everyday lives survived and became established as art in a culture of luxury just for the few. Feminist art in Korea, which dealt with the lives of women, lost its footing.


‘Feminist art’ projects have been attempted but were not properly documented and in some cases were even ignored or degraded by the ‘art industry.’ In this sense, HIDDEN WORKERS is more welcomed because it shows the trajectory of feminist art and displays both professionalism and popular appeal. By centering on women’s lives and work in full measure, this exhibition is different from previous exhibitions that lingered at the level of gender violence issues satisfying the public’s interests in feminism after the femicide case at Gangnam Station on May 19, 2016. This exhibition also reveals the connecting point between Western feminist art and Korean feminist art by showing contemporary projects that have been done since the 1970s.


▲ Liliana Angulo, Utopic Negro ⓒCoreana Museum of Art


The Ideal Role of an Art Museum


There seem to be three types of visitors to art exhibitions in Korea: art students, couples going on a date, and a few art lovers or investors. Other people do not go to an exhibition unless an acquaintance exhibits in one. People believe that art is not directly related to their lives. The public education system, which focuses only on the university entrance exam, minimizes art, a subject that would allow the integration of modern branches of study. This diminishes the opportunity for non-art major students to encounter and experience art. Furthermore, as contemporary art plays a role in cracking the solid wall of a dominant ideology established to oppress individuals, it is of no surprise that Korean society, where the market rules, does not welcome contemporary art.


Most exhibitions advertised through mass media present ‘famous’ works from the past or ‘encounters between science and art’ that create interest by their technical effects. In large population centers, the majority of art galleries function mainly for the art trade. In this respect, the educational role of the ‘art museum’ is crucial to the cultivation of art as ‘culture’ and not ‘a product.’


The program ‘Talk with a Curator & Artist’ led by the curator and a participating artist is therefore very meaningful for this particular exhibition. In this sense, HIDDEN WORKERS gives full consideration to the importance of education in a similar way that the ‘Seminar Associated with the Exhibition’–with its lecture by a specialist in the field and theme of the exhibition—assists as a tool to advance understanding of the exhibition’s subject even further. 


In the ‘Seminar Associated with the Exhibition’ on May 19, a conversation between the lecturer, who recognized her limitation as an elite woman, and a woman in her twenties from the audience, who is more at risk of gender violence, was very significant. Although this conversation occurred during the Q&A session, instead of answering typical follow-up questions, the lecturer was willing to listen to stories by other generations of the public. One audience member suggested that the lecturer use the term ‘illegal recording’ instead of ‘peeping.’ The lecturer answered that the term ‘illegal recording’ does not express the immoral and secretive desire that compels people to perform that kind of action and mentioned that she does not prefer to use the politically correct ‘language of the enemy’; yet the lecturer stated that she would use the phrase “peeping (illegal recording)”. To me, this episode revealed the purpose of HIDDEN WORKERS: to have a conversation that exposes differences in experiences based on social status, and differences in the degree of people’s ability to psychologically distance themselves and become aware of diverse perspectives.


▲ Jo Hye-jeong & Im Sook-hyun, The Era of Emotions-the Aesthetics of Relationships in Service Labor ⓒCoreana Museum of Art


The Space Where Women’s Life and Art Meet


In Korea, one can ‘major’ in ‘art’ by getting a private education, training for the university entrance examination, and passing a particular type of test; but even when accepted to a university an art student should pay more to obtain a university’s curriculum. However, in the current socio-cultural atmosphere with its lack of awareness of the social value of art in favor of materialistic projects, it is impossible for one who does not have access to financial resources to sustain a living solely through creative activities. In this environment, there are many cases of people who can continue to generate ‘art projects’ being unable to have a ‘critical consciousness’ about capitalism. This is why workers, the nation’s public, find it difficult to empathize with the subjects or interests of an art project. Moreover, because ‘art’ sees the world from a patriarchal male point of view, many women artists experience confusion and difficulty attempting to ‘see as women.’


Within this reality, I had greater expectations when I heard about an art exhibition that dealt with the issue of women’s work. I felt a certain humility as a mere artist evaluating these works when the museum already offered ample material distributed to the media, but I wanted to discuss the background and meaning of the exhibition based on my opinion. I believe that HIDDEN WORKERS will function as a catalyst to expand the debate on how to see ‘art’ through women’s perspectives. I hope more people will attend this exhibition in the next two weeks. Instead of a one-time entertainment event at an exhibition hall, I also hope that many people will take this opportunity to encounter great works which can relate to their life concerns as they go back to their own reality.


Published: June 3, 2018

Translated by Jieun Lee

*Original article: https://ildaro.com/8219


◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).

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