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Korea: Learning about the Country Through Its Art

Koreanist and art historian Elena Khokhlova on contemporary painting
05.23.2022
Korea: Learning about the Country Through Its Art

Learning about other countries always presupposes studying their history and culture. Elena Khokhlova, PhD in Art History and Koreanist, believes that art gives people a good sense of how people lived in a particular era. It brightly illustrates the phenomena that took place in the country and in the society in different time periods. That is why painting is the main source of information for Elena Khokhlova.

Хохлова_0T.jpg Elena Khokhlova
PhD in Art History, Koreanist, interpreter, Associate Professor of the HSE School of Asian Studies

Elena Khokhlova graduated from the Higher College of Korean Studies at the Far Eastern State University. Later she obtained a Master’s degree in Art History at the Hongik University in Seoul. The expert has lived in the Republic of Korea for several years.

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Today, Elena Khokhlova teaches History of Korean Art at the School of Asian Studies of the Higher School of Economics (HSE). She is almost the only Russian expert with a degree who studies Korean art on a professional level.

In her interview with the Global Women Media news agency, the expert expressed her vision of the most interesting features of Korean culture, explained the peculiarities of Korean contemporary art, and shared the story of her professional path.

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– Why did you decide to devote your life and profession to studying Korea with its culture and art?

– Frankly speaking, I initially got into my profession not so much because of my passion for it but rather for practical reasons. I lived and studied in the Far Eastern Federal District of Russia where the borders with China, Japan, and Korea are very close. That territorial closeness to other countries determined the career choice of many local schoolchildren and applicants who wanted to study those foreign languages. At that time, cooperation with the Eastern counties was already considered to be very promising. Most of my peers went to university and chose the most popular languages: Chinese and Japanese. I followed in the footsteps of my elder sister and chose Korean studies.

My sincere interest probably appeared when I started my first internship. Throughout our university studies, we explored Korea’s literature, history, and a little bit of economics and politics. However, I knew almost nothing about the visual arts.

When I went to a Korean art museum for the first time, a whole new world opened up in front of me. It was so different from what we are used to seeing.

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Since school years, children in Russia are brought up based on European culture. We are all familiar with Western literature, painting, and architecture and know much less about Eastern art. As for Korea, traditional painting of that country is almost unknown to people in Russia. At the same time, it is completely different from the works of European and Russian authors. For instance, a Korean artist could depict a flower with just a few strokes of ink. In Russia, we would probably call such an artwork a sketch. However, in Korea, it could quite possibly turn out to be a masterpiece.

The Koreans put quite different meanings and values into their artworks. My interest originated from the fact that they were incomprehensible to me. I enjoy discovering new things, explaining them to myself, and then sharing them with others. I strive to push the boundaries of my knowledge and, when finding interesting information, I immediately think about how I can use it to enrich my lectures.

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I don’t pursue the goal to make my students fall in love with Korea after my lectures. However, I want them to continue to discover not only Korea but also themselves and the world around them through art.

When we learn something new and broaden our horizons, we start looking even at familiar things differently. The more we know, the more we can understand and analyse.

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– What do you find the most interesting in Korean art?

– For me, painting is the most interesting thing in Korean art. In my opinion, in any culture, painting is the most illustrative and informative source making it possible to learn about how people of a certain epoch lived, what they were interested in, and what values and goals they had.

An artwork may be beautiful or ugly but it always has a context. That’s why, during my lectures, I try to refrain from subjective evaluation of artworks. I try to explain to the students not the beauty of the piece of art but its message and context of what was happening in the country and in the world at the time when the artwork was created. I believe, every viewer decides for him- or herself what feelings and emotions a painting causes in him or her.

I consider painting and any other artwork as a result of the human thought. For me, that’s the best source of information.

I’ve been going in for painting for a long time to understand the different eras of Korea. Today, I am also incredibly inspired by Korean ancient ceramics, which I can’t explain to myself yet. I am very interested in the artifacts that archaeologists have found in burials and tombs. These art objects usually don’t belong to high quality techniques and are not characterized by well-elaborated details. However, I am fascinated by the idea that those are the products made by ancient people who lived in the 5th-6th centuries. That’s why the halls with ceramics are my first destination when I visit Korean museums.

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– How would you describe Korean contemporary art? What makes it unique?

– When talking about Korean contemporary art, we should understand how it was born and how it evolved. That requires delving into the history, which can hardly be covered by just one interview.

In brief, it is important to mention that, before the 12th century, Korea was a closed country and the whole world called it the Hermit Kingdom. All that time, Korean culture developed in its own way. Therefore, it was very different from Western culture. The country opened itself to the world and started to explore other cultures only in the late 19th century. Western art started penetrating into Korean culture, and, as a result, the first work by a Korean author performed in the Western European tradition appeared in 1915.

In the first half of the 20th century, Korean artists began to discover all the trends that had been developing in European painting for centuries. They started painting using oil colours and mastering new techniques and topics.

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Korea gained its independence in 1945. By 1953, after the end of the Korean War, two states (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea) were formed. We can speak of the beginning of the development of South Korean contemporary art starting with that very moment.

At that time, the main official exhibition halls in the country displayed mainly portrait paintings depicting beautiful girls in rich surroundings. However, there were artists who rejected such subjects. After the war, in which a huge number of people had died and the country had been destroyed, the artists wanted to speak out through their works. That is how the so-called ‘Informel movement’ appeared. The artists covered large canvases with aggressive brushstrokes just as European artists did. It was difficult to call that movement avant-garde on a global scale. However, it became a creative school for Korean art, a ‘teaching material’ that prepared Korean artists for a more independent way of creativity.

By the end of the 1960s, artists began to reflect on how to go beyond imitation and express national peculiarities in contemporary art. At that time, the country’s leader Park Chung-hee was pursuing a policy of rapid national development. He understood that he needed to make his country strong not only economically but also culturally. The President of South Korea supported handicrafts and the revival of traditional Korean art. Following that trend, contemporary artists also delved into the search for new forms.

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The trend of modern Dansaekhwa painting appeared at the intersection of Korean traditional aesthetics and Western techniques. To this day, it remains a definite national brand.

Dansaekhwa literally means ‘one-colour painting’. The artworks produced in this style are monochrome abstractions and the process of creating them resembles meditation.

During the 1980s, Koreans actively struggled for their rights through demonstrations and uprisings. Minjung Misul Art also known as ‘art of the people emerged simultaneously with those social trends as a movement in the field of art. The artists openly criticised the government and the culture imposed by the West. Interestingly, they not only reflected the concerns of the people in their art but also proposed solutions.

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The next phase of the development of contemporary art in Korea took place in the 1990s. Importantly, until that time, the country had a ‘no-exit regime’. Citizens had to obtain a special permission to travel abroad. After the restrictions on leaving the country were lifted, Korean artists started travelling to the West to get education there. That brought many topics, genres, and media into Korea’s art: video art, installations, etc.

Since the 2000s, Korea has become a full-fledged player in the world of contemporary art. Today, Korean artists actively participate in international biennales, festivals, exhibitions, and fairs.

South Korean art is embedded in the context of the global cultural agenda. In their works, Korean artists express primarily topics that concern them. However, many of these issues are also close people living in Russia and other countries. For example, Korean artists pay a lot of attention to stereotypes, globalization, ecology, and consumer ethics. That proves once again the fact: no matter how different we are, we all live on the same planet.

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– You lived in Seoul for several years during your studies. What was the most challenging and the most interesting for you in immersing yourself in Korea’s culture?

– I can hardly say that I had serious difficulty in immersing myself in Korea’s culture. I prepared myself well for moving to that country.

I went for an internship in the Republic of Korea when I was a third-year student. Already at that time, I spoke Korean and was quite familiar with the country’s cultural peculiarities. There weren’t many foreigners in the town where I studied. That’s why the Koreans paid a lot of attention to us.

Later, when I moved to Korea to live there for a long time, I already spoke the language quite well. I already had the experience of interacting with its people. That’s why I don’t remember feeling uncomfortable in a new environment.

I believe that difficulties that people face when immersing themselves in a new culture are often caused by their lack of understanding of the new realities. Even if we are not familiar with the traditions of a country we go to, we must understand that people may live differently there.

Korea’s culture attracts and delights me with its careful attitude to elders. Koreans have great respect for those who are older than them in age and higher than them in position.

– Which of your most professional projects do you consider to be the most important ones today?

– My work related to education is of great importance for me. I see my social mission and responsibility in that activity and get a lot of satisfaction from it. In my teaching activities, I approach myself critically. I understand that students come to my lectures expecting to receive knowledge that will be presented to them at a certain level.

To meet the demands of the audience and the quality standards of modern education, I am constantly improving myself. I devote most of my time outside the classroom to making the hours I spend with students as efficient and information-rich as possible.

Moreover, exhibition activities are of particular importance to me as well. I am professionally engaged in the study of Korean painting. That’s why I am interested in taking part in international exhibition projects in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

The ‘Orientalia Rossica: Russian Orientalism in the 21st Century’ Russian national web-portal (www.orientaliarossica.com) is another important project I have been involved in over the past year. It was created at the Faculty of World Economics and World Politics at the Higher School of Economics with the participation of other Russian universities. We present the palette of Russian Orientalism and bring together professionals and connoisseurs of the East on one platform.

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– What would you wish people of the world?

– May beauty save the world!

Viktoria Gusakova, Global Women Media news agency

Translated by Nikolay Gavrilov


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