Blood and Tears: Portrayals of Gwangju’s Democratic Struggle
Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York
September 6 through October 21, 2022
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, October 2022
On May 18, 1980, some 600 students came together to protest the loss of academic freedom at Chonnam National University in the southern city of Gwangju. Likely, the authoritarian regime under the auspices of Chun Doo-Hwan, the brigadier general who had declared military rule, was a central figure of the protest as well. During the course of events, which ended with a strong military strike against the city on May 27, 2022, at least hundreds of people were killed; according to the government, 200 people died in the conflict. But protesters claimed a much higher number of dead—some 2000. Now, more than 40 years later, the Shiva Gallery at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice has put up a deeply moving show, a memorial really, to the violence directed at those demonstrators struggling for a democratic government. The show, which consists of 19 artists, was curated by Thalia Vrachopoulos and Soojung Hyun. Works shown include paintings and woodcuts, as well as a strong performance by New York-based artist Hayoon Jay Lee. It is a difficult thing to maintain the memory of these tragic events, especially when the memory being maintained is occurring in a country where the events did not take place. But “Blood and Tears” does a fine job of illustrating the Gwangju struggle, in images that embrace the suffering of the demonstrators.
One of the strongest parts of the show was Lee’s performance, in which she had put two altar-like constructions, distanced some 25 feet from each other. A mat was laid on the floor between them. Lee carried a bunch of flowers, handing them out randomly to gallery spectators. After moving throughout the gallery, she repeated the request, “Please remember.” While Lee did not participate in the demonstrations, she beautifully evoked the mourning that was inevitably linked to the hundreds, or thousands, dead. In Lee’s performance, an action more than a object, she resurrects the struggle in what can be described as a combination of shamanic ritual and Buddhist observance. Perhaps the deepest way of understanding the uprising occurs on a spiritual level, in which the violence of the moment is translated into something of greater consequence. This may be the only real way of handling the memory of those who lost their lives in the fight.
Hong Song-dam is represented by a powerful black-and-white woodcut, in which two protesters occupy a flat-bed truck, surrounded by a ring of other protesters, some of them waving rifles. The atmosphere is one of near frenzy, and the intensity of the black and white tones invest the scene with dramatic power. It is difficult to imagine the violence of a fully justifiable rebellion, occurring two generations ago and so far away, but this woodcut does justice to the anger of the people struggling against a reactionary government. Hong’s direct representation of anger is clear, making the scene nearly anarchic in its disorganized rage. Lee Sangho’s drawing of, on the left, a row of soldiers partially on their knees and firing at a group of demonstrators on the right demonstrates in no uncertain terms the violence the conflict resulted in. Several of the protesters are falling, and although no blood can be seen, it seems evident that they have been hit by bullets. Violence is terrifying in real life, but its visual representation is distanced a bit by the fact it is an image, not the real thing. But Lee’s performance and the flatwork mentioned here keep the memory of the encounter alive, in ways that transform the aggression into something to be remembered in grief.. “Blood and Tears” successfully recreates, in artistic terms, a confrontation that had major repercussions, good ones, supporting a democratic culture. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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