the Concept of Domesticity featured in Korean Contemporary Art

The connection of social categories such as space and labour combined with the meaning and value of the works of art have been emphasised in contemporary art fields. In this context, the category of space and labour was expressed naturally by the intersection of “Domesticity” in artworks. Domesticity is prevalent throughout society, and the contemporary art field has been trying to foster a collective consciousness from their audiences and artists, through the commonality of domesticity, which may be sympathised with or challenged. In this article, SuperGlue examines the concept of domesticity in Korean contemporary art.

So how has domesticity been revealed in the art field? To address this question, we must consider gender issues within society. When the theme of domesticity is undertaken in the field of art, it does not consist solely of exhibitions that represent labour and space characteristics, but often deals with the issues of sex. In other words, the concept of domesticity in the world we live in has many stereotypes, which are founded upon sexual standards. From the far past to the present, we have looked at domesticity in a highly dichotomous way, dividing it into the space and the tasks of women and men. In this context, many artworks have criticised these phenomena, and moreover, these artworks have the intention to break away from the typical conventional division of masculinity and femininity that is formed concerning place and labour.

So, for this reason, this article will discuss how modern domesticity has been formed, and how, more broadly, it is connected to gender factors. With this is mind, the article will focus on contemporary, feminist, Korean artists have been challenged to criticise and change the existing social structure which has oppressed women in the pretext of domesticity, and in turn is directly connected to our concept of what makes society? Firstly, let’s examine the detailed context of how this notion of modern domesticity was formed. In the spatial aspect, people can notice the enormous impact of this space on their lives by separating the interior and exterior spaces of the house. These features can be observed in Vito Acconci’s work.

Vito Acconci, Instant House, 1980
Vito Acconci, Instant House, 1980. Courtesy of Acconci Studio.

Through his work Instant House, he reveals the space of the house as a paradoxical space where people reside, but also escape from. Domesticity has been formed not only by the people who are in the space, that is to say, the residents, but also by various other people. In their book, Our House; In the Representation of the Domestic Space in Modern Culture, Gerry Smyth and Joe Croft classify domesticity in a more detailed way and explain the characteristics of space. They posit that these spaces are artificial shelters created by people, and that they have been expressed regarding the identity of the builder, owner or occupier, as well as the culture of the society in which it was built. In other words, the mobility of these spaces is determined by various elements, from individual to collective, in a particular society.

In this context, one of the principal criteria for creating the boundary of this domestic space and labour was the gender standard. In fact, considering domesticity as a family unit, it is supposed to be a self-reflective characteristic, constructed by consensus of each family member. However, even if each family members divide their house space and housework by their own standards, the characteristics of domesticity have shown to tend towards a social flow. It is not merely a space determined by the members of the family but is determined by each social hegemony. This can be seen by looking at how spaces such as dining-rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, and libraries are depicted in the artworks of each age. If we look at which genders are mainly described in each domestic space and labour, we can see what gender-specific boundaries existed in that period.

Now, let’s look at how this spatial and labour domesticity emerged in contemporary art, problematizing the gender roles within it. The background of spatial and labour domesticity that emerged in Korean art is very closely related to the emergence of Korean feminist art. The aspect of feminism in Korean modern and contemporary art began to appear after the mid-1980s. The emergence of feminist art in Korean society is closely related to the introduction of Christianity. In short, Catholicism and Christianity began to be introduced into Korean society in the 1880s, and from 1910 onward, women in the society of a system of patriarchy began to receive an education. Schools for women had begun to emerge, and in such schools, women were given opportunities for artistic education. Yet until the mid-1980s, there was no rigid feminist art. In other words, although women presented some artworks, they did not contradict the hegemonic gender discrimination of Korean society, instead existing within the scope of a male-centred patriarchal social system.

There are Korean artists who have exposed these social conflicts in their works by connecting them with the concepts of dwelling, domesticity, and feminism. Kim Sooja is a representative writer who posed a problem from this hegemonic point of view and her masterpiece, Bottari, presents this hegemonic problem. The global understanding of Bottari is that it displays a means of possession of hometown space, and is focused on the theme of the nomadic life. However, I would like to look at this work in the background of Korean society rather than emphasizing the nomadic life of this work from a global perspective.

Korea was a country in which the war continued until the 1950 truce negotiation. In this social background, Koreans lived as refugees, and one of the most significant things in the lives of these refugees is Bottari. It would be easy to understand if you think of the bag as a carrier; Koreans who had to live in the war for a long time wrapped all their necessities in Bottari. From the perspective of the domestic space, it was the ‘Instant Home’ of people who did not have their own home at that time. It is an item that can represent their spatiality. This kind of domestic spatial symbolic bag is also a representative space for women regarding gender. It reveals the universal tension between perpetual displacement and the desire to preserve an element of familiarity.

The fabric used in Kim Sooja’s works is a symbol of traditional crops representing the labour force, domesticity, and responsiveness of Korean women. From this point of view, it is the work that reveals traditional femininity. Usually, this bag is a big piece of fabric, used to carry. In addition, one big fabric was bound and changed into a fixed form, and it was used. For this reason, the significance of this Bottari was expressed by identifying with the image of Korean women. Bottari works as an object representing how women have been under social pressure and ‘tied up’ in Korean society. It is a feature of pointing out the unique marginal context of women in contemporary art history. Kim Sooja questioned the prevalent concept of domesticity through the capturing traditional labour of women in the family.

On the other hand, there is an artist who challenged the role of women in society with a more direct artistic expression. The labour given to women was all the work of the family. Pounding grain and laundry, are expressed as the domestic work of women. The existence of a woman was simply revealed as a very submissive being waiting for a man to do domestic work at home. Korean women were not free from pregnancy because it was defined in the standard of domestic labour and some artists disputed this problem in their artworks. Lee Bull is a representative artist who criticises such a part nakedly. In 1998, she criticised through her performance ‘Abortion’ how the right of women is being suppressed.

Lee Bul, Abortion, 1989, Performance, Gwangju Biennale.

She produced the extreme situation in which she can hang herself on the ceiling in one theatre. Based on her experience of abortion, she criticised the mainstream at the time. The artist hangs herself upside down and tells the audience about her abortion experience. Through these performances, she criticised the fact that it has become a naturally required labour to bear a child in Korean society, without any consideration of the pain of pregnancy and abortion. Lee Bull also expresses that many Korean women who cannot perform pregnancy suffer and face social punishment and negative gaze.

Through the above artworks, we can see how the hegemonic model of domestic labour that suppresses women in Korean society has been criticized by artists. The typical domestic model of labour in Korean is labour as a ‘mother’. In Korean society, the concept of motherhood has been emphasised as an important role more than women’s personal lives. Many Korean contemporary artists have highlighted the desire of Korean women who want to maintain their identity as a person.

What makes a society? Korean contemporary artists attempt to address this by moving toward a better society, showing how art reflects society and how artists try to change the shape of society into more diverse forms.

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