Byun Gil-hyun(Curator), "Beyond Discrimination and Indifference", 2016



Beyond Discrimination and Indifference


For the photographer, Kim Insook, photography is a process of finding her sense of identity. That process concerns us. In Korea, many people ask her why she does not live in Japan.

Kim's grandfather moved from Jeju-do, Korea to Osaka, Japan, where he remained; and Kim Insook, whose mother is Japanese and who graduated from a Korean school in Osaka, was third-generation Korean-Japanese. The Japanese discriminate against Chosunese people in Japan. Although Chosunese people live in a foreign land because of Japan's annexation of Korea, people tend to have short memories, and today's Japanese people go as far as to demonstrate against the Chosunese who live in their country, while hating and discriminating against them. Yearning for her grandparents' homeland, Kim Insook acquired South Korean citizenship, attended graduate school in the Republic of Korea and currently lives in Seoul with her husband, who was also a Japanese national of Korean descent. Kim's choice to become a South Korean citizen and decision to move to South Korea were entirely hers to make, and her new life in the Republic of Korea, comparable to an immigration experience, was likely quite challenging.

Letters to you (2004) is Kim's first official work of the time she was beginning her new life in South Korea as a graduate student at Hansung University in Seoul. It encapsulates Kim's perspective as a young outsider who is just beginning her new life in South Korea. It consists of actual letters in the format of love letters to someone the artist had missed since her Korean school years, and are like a diary of Kim's daily life in her adolescence. This piece encompasses how the artist was pained by the reality of being treated as an outsider in both South Korea and Japan despite having longed for South Korea, her ancestors' homeland, like one would yearn for a missed lover, through the sensibilities of a young girl. Although Kim voluntarily elected to live in South Korea, she was treated as a marginal person by Koreans, just as the Japanese had done to her. The problem was discrimination in Japan and indifference in South Korea. Kim must have been heartbroken in the cold city of Seoul, full of anonymous people, the moment she realized that, although she had longed for the Republic of Korea as one would yearn for a separated loved one, the land of her ancestors had no interest in her. Kim Insook documented her such thoughts and feelings through letters and photography.

However, when I first met her at an alternative space in the Hongik University neighborhood, she did not show any signs of sadness. Her image was that of a good and polite woman. Beneath Kim's soft and feminine appearance, the artist's intense will in her art-making served as her driving force for living in the tough city of Seoul. Kim's magnum opus, created by that force, is sweet Hours (2001~2014). This piece includes candid moments of students studying and learning at Kim's own alma mater of Kita Osaka Korean School or, as the students call it, "our school." The Korean School students in their learning environment appear to be purity itself. No ideologies exist here. The reason the photographer, Kim Insook has been annually capturing images of these students for such a prolonged the period of time is because the students are very precious. Kim would like to preserve their state. Kim's sweet hours are perhaps, ironically, sad hours. This is because the time a student spends at the Korean School becomes, in hindsight, relatively obscure when the student is faced with cold reality at the time of graduation. It was when Kim's solo exhibition, "sweet Hours" was being held at the Gwangju Museum of Art in 2008. An elderly couple visited Gwangju all the way from Osaka just for this exhibit. They traveled from Osaka to Busan by ship, and then from Busan to Gwangju by bus. They said it was their first time on the Korean peninsula since they traveled on boat from Busan to Osaka before the end of World War II. They said they felt as if they were dreaming that an image of their child was being exhibited in South Korea. They were the parents of Hee-sa, who appeared in one of the exhibited photographs. They were very familiar with the dark history of the Korean-Japanese, who were abandoned by the Republic of Korea after the establishment of official diplomatic amity between South Korea and Japan. Unfortunately, I did not have the pleasure of meeting them. I would have liked to treat them to a meal. However, luckily, I was able to meet Hee-sa, who retained a semblance to her childhood self as a university student, a few years after that in Seoul. She appeared to be a very pure and sweet young lady, just like in the photograph. The message of artistic resistance against the discrimination and prejudice these pure and beautiful young people are likely to encounter was sweet Hours.

SAIESO: between Two Koreas and Japan (2008~2014) are photographs of ZAINICHI(Koreans in Japan) people in their living rooms or bedrooms. The ZAINICHI(Koreans in Japan) people, appearing affluent and full of confidence as they sit on straw mats in their homes while dressed in suits, are externally indistinguishable from Japanese people. We can only tell they are Korean-Japanese through certain cultural objects, such as traditional Korean clothing, accessories or Korean-style folding screens, which allow one to discern that these people's backgrounds include the Chosun Dynasty, before the two Koreas were divided. It is nearing a century since their grandfathers first came to Japan, and the photographer, Kim Insook has encapsulated in these photographs her and other third and fourth generation ZAINICHI(Koreans in Japan) people's marginalized ways of life. As the subtitle of this series clearly suggests, the question of whether the Korean-Japanese people's choice of citizenship is North Korea, South Korea or Japan is becoming insignificant through the passage of time, and in the face of everyday life. Basically, these works primarily consist of impressions of Korean-Japanese people, who are at the borders of North Korea, South Korea and Japan; but, beyond that, the images also tacitly tip viewers off about how such intervals and differences exist only in their minds.

There have been many historic incidents in the past century; including Japan's rule of Korea, the division of the Koreas, the Korean War, Seungman Rhee's dictatorship and resignation as president, the April 19th Revolution, May 16th Military Revolt, amity treaty between South Korea and Japan, military dictatorship and fabrication of Korean-Japanese spies, etc.; and ZAINICHI(Koreans in Japan) have been in a situation similar to that of international refugees, since they could not be recognized either in South Korea or Japan. The noted pro-Korean Japanese art critic Chiba Shigeo has once said while discussing Kim Insook's art that the attention Koreans give to ZAINICHI(Koreans in Japan) is either "indifference" or "extreme interest." The indication of "indifference," is one that is embarrassing and shameful for Koreans, and also accurate. "Extreme interest" is an arrogant indication meaning that ZAINICHI(Koreans in Japan) are ready to become assimilated into Japanese society, and it would be unnecessary to rehash any issue that is a hot potato for both South Korea and Japan. Although inconvenient, both of these points are to be taken seriously by Koreans. However, only half of Chiba Shigeo's points are correct. The Korean people display nothing but complete indifference to Korean-Japanese people. I have never seen a single Korean who shows extreme interest in ZAINICHI(Koreans in Japan). I have heard of many good Koreans who dig wells in Africa, build schools in Nepal, plant trees in Mongolia, treat patients through volunteerism in Southeast Asia and take care of homeless cats and dogs, but I have never heard of a Korean who demonstrates they care about ZAINICHI(Koreans in Japan) or Korean schools in Japan. Whether a Korean school in Japan falls victim to direct harm and violence at the hands of Japan's extreme right, or the Korean schools become excluded from Japan's public school system, or the Korean schools disappear, Koreans have only looked upon ZAINICHI(Koreans in Japan) as foreigners in a faraway land. Why is this so? It is because of ignorance. Koreans lack a proper education in modern history, and they lack knowledge of the true state of things.

Kim Insook's Letters to you, sweet hours and SAIESO: between two Koreas and Japan series are works pursuing Kim's identity, and the first known artworks announcing, in South Korea, the existence of ZAINICHI(Koreans in Japan) and their Korean schools. Kim Insook presents her subjects plainly. She converses with her subjects, and becomes their friend, sister and daughter to reveal the photographed without any pretense.

Now, Kim Insook has become a Korean ajumma, or "auntie," already and energetically lives a productive life with her charming husband in a rooftop apartment on a narrow market street in Seoul.


Text by Byun Gilhyun Curator, Gwangju Museum of Art


1)"Chosunese" here refers to refugees of the collapsed Chosun Dynasty and their descendants, who have no citizenship, not Japanese, North Korean or South Korean. There are still many Chosunese people in Japan, who dream of a unified Korea and have not chosen any citizenship. When Japanese people refer to them as Chosunese while discriminating against them, they are of course using the word to disdainfully ridicule the people for belonging to a defeated dynasty.

2) Kim Insook's husband, Kim Myungkwon's grandparents, too were from Jeju-do and immigrated to Osaka. The pair of immigrant couples' grandchildren met, dated and married each other.


Courtesy of Gwangju Museum of Art (photo by KIM Yongtae)


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