A Korean-American artist’s Search for his family’s past

A Korean-American artist’s Search for his family’s past

Carl Little

ROCKLAND, ME — For more than a decade, Korean-American artist Young Sun Han has been exploring sometimes painful, sometimes revelatory aspects of his family’s narrative and Korean history more generally. The exhibition Passages from a Memoir + Tourist in the Dark at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art highlights parts of his journey of discovery and healing. 

The opening wall is a shrine to Young Sun’s grandfather, who was born in North Korea, escaped to South Korea, and eventually made his way to the United States. Passages from his memoir, painted on the wall and surrounded by seven color photographs, tell the story of the artist’s search and his partial rescue of a piece of his family’s past. 

“Mapping Manguri” (2019) is a double-exposed archival inkjet print that features a map of the sprawling cemetery-park in the Mangu-dong neighborhood of Seoul, where some of Young Sun’s ancestors are buried, and a photograph of the mountainous landscape. The artist attempted to find his great-grandparents’ headstones among the graves scattered across the countryside but was unable to. The image fills in as a memorial. 

The text narrates Young Sun’s grandfather’s account of life in Busan, at the southern tip of South Korea, after his family had fled the north in the early 1950s. He stayed with Young Sun’s parents and aunts and uncles in the city for about three years, during which he witnessed ships full of refugees capsize and sink. The transcript starts ominously: “Our 3 year refugee life has begun. On a cold winter day in December many people fell into the water.” Such accounts echo the present, as refugees in different parts of the world continue to die at sea. 

Installation view of Young Sun Han: Passages from a Memoir + Tourist in the Dark at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, Rockland, Maine

In another section is a sampling of digital contact sheets of photographs Young Sun took while visiting South Korea in 2018. His diaristic approach involved photographing everything he encountered: famous South Korean artists and activists, the gravestones of poets buried at Manguri cemetery, cityscapes of Seoul, Charlie Park, who translated his grandfather’s memoir, and military relics from the Korean War. The contact sheets are more than a scrapbook; the chosen images speak to Young Sun’s journey of what he calls “longing and loss.” 

Pamphlets and brochures affixed to the wall promote the DMZ, the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea, as a tourist destination. In a 2013 interview Young Sun expressed interest in one day doing a residency in the DMZ. “Long-term living would be an interesting challenge,” he said, “because of my outsider status as a ‘kyopo’ (foreign-born Korean) and as a queer person, although attitudes are changing.” While brief, his visit to the DMZ in 2018 provided him with a deeper appreciation of this border-barrier that cuts the country in half. 

Young Sun devotes another part of the show to highlighting the movement that seeks to uncover the atrocities that took place on Jeju Island from 1948 to 1954. In that time, government forces killed 30,000 residents and burned down 70 percent of all the island villages. Young Sun, who visited the island in 2018 to attend a peace symposium on the 70th anniversary of the massacre, touches on that dark history with artworks that include text and photography. In “Jeju Naval Base (Erasure)” (2019), he used sandpaper to rub out part of a photographic view of the military site’s ramparts. More than simply acquiescing to the decree that no one is allowed to photograph the site, the act of erasing part of the photograph reflects the government’s attempt to cover up the history of violence on the island. 

The accompanying text cites Hong Chun-ho, who survived the massacre by hiding in a cave for more than 40 days. “People were killed without reason,” she says. “Anyone could lose their life — whether or not it was a baby, disabled, pregnant, or elderly, there was no exception. They killed anyone that came into sight.” This brutal testimony contrasts with comments Young Sun found on Tripadvisor from visitors to the Jeju 4.3 Peace Park, which opened in 2008: “Sad and fascinating,” “Powerful memorial and museum,” “Must see,” “Not bad, free to visit,” “Let the truth be told.”

Installation view of Young Sun Han: Passages from a Memoir + Tourist in the Dark at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, Rockland, Maine

The show culminates in the impressive “Damaged Gamuts” (2019). Here, Young Sun attempts to achieve an understanding of all the different histories he has been studying — a synthesis of stories about North and South Korea and the experience of learning about them. Through a layering of imagery, he underscores the contradictions of the past and present, and how they fit into a complex continuum. 

Composed of various materials, including fiberglass, aluminum, silk, and wood, the wall hanging incorporates Google map and internet images of North Korea, photos from one of Young Sun’s trips to South Korea, and enlarged black and white photos of a student martyr. At 94 by 94 by 9 inches, the work is stunning on the white wall, seemingly animated as the different elements overlap and collide. 

Young Sun hopes that one day the two Koreas will be reunited. In a video tour of his CMCA installation, he voices this desire while speaking about a photograph of Jeju Ahn, daughter of Christine Ahn, the president of Women Cross DMZ, a peace-keeping organization in South Korea. The young girl was named after Jeju Island, to honor the memory of those lost. Young Sun included the photo in the show as a symbol of hope, a way to “change the narrative” in the country of his family and ancestors. Until that happens, he will remain haunted. 

Courtesy: hyperallergic

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