O Yun
"General Green Pea"
In this 1985 colored woodcut (35 x 26 cm) by O Yun (1946-1986), Chon Pong-jun, nicknamed "General Green Pea" because of his small stature, is portrayed as a dancing beanstalk. Chon was the leader of the Tonghak peasant forces, which according to leftist-nationalist interpretations, in 1894 sought to eradicate the hierarchical Confucian system in favor of a Utopian vision of freedom and equality. The use of the green pea as an icon for minjung protest serves as a fine example of the invention of tradition (in Eric Hobsbawm's understanding): Sin Tong-yop was probably the first to use this term in his epic poem The Kum River (1967), which depicts the Tonghak Uprising not merely as a peasant uprising, but as an anti-imperialist revolutionary battle, the direct historical antecedent of the April Revolution of 1960 that led to Syngman Rhee's resignation and the country's short-lived democratic Chang Myon government. Later Kim Chi-ha published a poem entitled "Green Pea Blossom" in an allusion to Chon Pong-jun in his famous Yellow Earth volume. O Yun was strongly influenced by Kim's work and adopted his motif in several woodcuts depicting the blooming green pea. Today, as Sin, Kim, and O have themselves become somewhat legendary, the green pea has also become an obligatory pattern in leftist literature and in Minjung art. Suddenly we have a tradition of minjung protest, with visual icons that seem to hark back to the late 19th century, even though they were only invented less than two decades ago.

Our People's Art Institute
"The Kabo Peasants' War"
As this huge (260 x 700 cm) pictorial banner depicting the Kabo Peasants' War, a 1989 group work by Our People's Art Institute (Kyore Misul Yon'guso), demonstrates, the works of the second-generation Minjung artists are more distinct and more radical in their political message. Works like this pictorial banner from Chonju, which is one piece of a series of thirty banners on the "National Liberation Movement," have adopted many stylistic devices of Socialist Realism. The commemoration of pre-modern and contemporary revolutionary events in a monumental style of painting, combining heroic grandeur of design with costume and portraiture historical accuracy, that is, history painting, became the favorite genre among the second-generation Minjung artists. While some of these monumental works depict only one historical event at a time, such as one battle, others play with collage effects by patching together several incidents in modern Korean history and combining them under a certain theme or catch-phrase, like "Drive out Westerners, drive out Barbarians!" (with Chon Pong-jun here serving as a historical tree of resistance). The targets in these paintings are usually as explicit as the actions, which are being depicted. Typical of this genre, and not different from its conservative model, minjung history is represented here in an idealized, heroized form.
Chon Mi-yong
"New Colonies and Monopoly Capitalism"
The 1990s have been a decade of mixed messages, diverse in techniques, styles, media, and subject matter. Even a born internationalist like Nam June Paik, the father of video art, seems to have rediscovered his Korean roots (as he donned the garb of a Korean shaman in July 1990 in his first ever performance on Korean soil). Some of the basic features of Minjung Art have also changed. Paik's performance seems as discordant with his life work as his video sculptures are with Minjung Art. Nevertheless, this is the reality today. For example, Chon Mi-yong's (b. 1968) installation of fluorescent light bulbs of 1991, included in the 1994 Minjung art exhibit in the Korean National Museum of Contemporary Art recalls Jasper Johns's Stars and Stripes series and subsequent paintings and Pop Art installations by Donald Lipski and others. In contrast to Jasper Johns's works, whose revolutionary invention was formal—integrating figurative subject matter with abstract handling of paint—Chon's work is decidedly political. While Johns and Lipski adopted the flag as an object for its strong metaphoric value and then set its pure visual qualities against it to see what could be evoked, Chon relies on the flag's conventional symbolic value. The title of her work is as obvious as the homogeneity of its icons: miniature flags of Latin American and Asian nations, including South Korea's, are attached to each of Chon's "stars." The artist's political message is loud and clear, but without any use of nativist icons or rhetoric. The work is so far removed from the Minjung art of the 1980s, so bound to the sign language of North American postwar modernism, one wonders what the curators of the 1994 exhibit had in mind when they included it.

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