Last month at Art Amalgamated in Chelsea, NY, curator Jieun Seo and gallery director Gary Krimershmoys debuted K-Surrogates, a group exhibition featuring work by contemporary South Korean women artists (Hye Rim Lee, Mari Kim, and Jihee Kim) that explores the politics of body image and aesthetics as it applies to Asian women, especially in Korea.
Artlyst sat down with Jieun Seo to discuss key themes in the show and her experiences in South Korean society that helped inspire the exhibition’s conception.
Artlyst: Plastic surgery, especially in American society, has been a very stigmatized procedure that most patients keep secret. Is the process similarly stigmatized in South Korea even though there’s a rapid increase of plastic surgery’s popularity there? How have societal perceptions of the procedure changed over the years in S. Korea, or how have they not changed?
Jieun Seo: A decade ago, plastic surgery was stigmatized as much in South Korea as it was in the U.S. however, things have changed over time. It’s not seen as taboo anymore. Recently, it has become so common to see celebrities openly talk about their surgery experience on the air in S. Korea.
Plastic surgery is an acceptable practice in order to construct ideal beauty in Korea. In our show, K-Surrogates, Hye Rim Lee is one of the artists whose work directly reflects and questions this social change.
As technology has developed and living standards of S. Koreans has become greatly improved, plastic surgery is getting available to more and more people. Getting work done is now seen as a kind of luxury indulgence. In other words, beauty becomes a mass-produced commodity that can be easily purchased. Even I have heard that these days many of Korean schoolgirls want to get plastic surgery as graduation gifts. I think this is an excellent example which shows how the surgery is being socially accepted in Korea and now broadly in Asia.
Artlyst: Many of the current day most-unhealthy attitudes of female beauty come from American media. If you add that with propagandic technology and the rise of social media, these memes and attitudes tend to spread even faster than before. How do you think artists can change this hegemony over the female body image that mainstream America media seems to hold?
Jieun Seo: I don’t think artists can directly change the hegemony that has been deeply embedded in our culture. In fact, that would not be their intent. Instead, by addressing and questioning issues confronting us, they explore and investigate the social pressures behind the hegemony and the pervasive desire to follow the idealized and perfected.
“Lookism” has dominated contemporary South Korean society even more so than in American society. In general, Koreans are conscious much more of how they look and behave than Americans. It is a kind of Asian culture, I guess. Thus, most of Koreans tend to follow social standards. They want to look as good as others. In this context, K-Pop stars (Idols), especially girl groups such as Girl’s Generation, and Korean celebrities, who have undergone surgical procedure in multiple levels, have played a critical role to shape the idealized concept of beauty—big eyes with double lids, high noses, a small face with a V-shaped chin and slim bodyline—of which the Korean younger generation is incredibly saturated. Utilizing these idealized images in Korean and Asian society, obviously influenced by Western beauty, three female artists in K-Surrogates draw our attention to this social phenomenon in contemporary Korean society and make us rethink our attitude that has absorbed such promoted images either consciously or subconsciously.
Artlyst: How do you feel this exhibition would be received in Korea? Do you think there would be a significant difference in how Korean viewers respond to the work in comparison to American audiences?
Jieun Seo: Compared to American audiences who might view the exhibition in an outsider’s perspective, Korean viewers may have a stronger response to K-Surrogates. Some of my Korean friends who actually attended the opening reception told me that they sympathized with the theme of the show and interestingly enough read the cultural codes embedded in each work.
In general, however, I don’t think there would be a dramatic difference between two audience groups since the artists in the show cleverly combined universal issues and specific social phenomenon in multiple layers. I expect that each viewer regardless of their nationality would find the artists’ commentary that is related to what he/she witnesses in contemporary society.
K-Surrogates is on view at Art Amalgamated gallery (317 Tenth Avenue – Chelsea, NY) through November 9th.
Interview: Lizanne Merrill Image: Elliot Goldstein