South Korea Week: Park Youngsook: Mad Women’s Project
“Flowers are a symbol of women, a normative cultural manifestation.
Disseminator of joy. However…
I am uncomfortable with this culture that compares flowers to women.
I want to completely overthrow these longstanding narratives.”
– from Park Youngsook artist statement
What were your aspirations as a child?
I assume most young Korean women in the 60’s and 70’s envisioned the life of a “good wife, wise mother”.
What does the saying, “good wife, wise mother” mean?
The saying refers to a wife who is faithful to her husband and is a mother who is capable of educating her children and housekeeping for her family. The work of a “good wife, wise mother” is by no means easy; it is undoubtedly an important and invaluable role for a family unit as well as the greater society. However, I am skeptical of how much societal pressure has gone into imbuing this narrow perspective on women’s livelihood and their vision of what a good life should be.
This saying is indicative of the inequality created between men and women, as the focus of the discriminatory belief lies on biological differences rather than in accepting a world in which men and women should have a fair chance at aspiring for a life that isn’t just tied to familial and bodily duties. An example of this can be seen in the history of Korean art, where many female artists have been excluded from being part of the art community. Nonetheless, an influx of ambitious female artists in the 2000s actively pursued the field and worked diligently to change the status quo. This change is believed to have been ignited by the pioneering will and free creative spirit of women artists in the past.
In light of this incredibly important societal and cultural topic, it is my honor to introduce photographer Park Youngsook Korea’s first-generation female artist.
“If we see the late 1980’s as a true beginning of feminist art movement in Korea, Park Young Sook, who has been active since she had presented the various portraits of contemporary Korean women at the commemorative exhibition for ‘International Women’s Year’ held in 1975, is a representative figure as Korean feminist photographer. In 1966, she held first solo exhibition which was rare for a woman photographer. After 4 solo exhibitions including until 1982, she started the career as true feminist artist, participating in at Geurim Madang Min in 1988. Since then, she took part in exhibition (1992) as a member of Women’s Art Society and also in other important exhibitions in the History of Korean feminist art such as <Woman, the difference and the power> (1994). She has been constantly raising her voice as feminist artist.
The Korean feminist art with 30-year history has experimented diverse perspectives for women’s liberation. From Essentialist perspectives, it found the reason of the oppression and alienation structure of Korean women in the power structure based on Confucian patriarchy.
Korean feminist art also points out oppression and inequality toward women who are restrained in the name of a mother, a wife and a daughter. Based on the theoretical foundation of post-structuralism and post-modernism, the Korean women’s image and to define a new one, by questioning the physical, cultural, social identity of Korean women in many different aspects. In this process, the European feminine writings of famous figures such as Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva have landed in Korea: they are then followed by post-colonialist feminism of Gayatri Spivak or Trihn T. Min ha representing the third -world women. Feminist artists realized that the men-centered perspective is deeply rooted in the tradition and aesthetic sensibility in the world of art, thus they emphasized the atypical, unfixed nature of gender identity to deconstruct the representative structure. For the feminist art founded on the premise of the criticism of existing system, art and critic, theory and practice are inextricably linked. On this itinerary of history of Korean feminism, the presence of Park Young Sook is significant.
In Korean art of 1990’s, the representation of female body entered in a new change momentum. Feminist artists chose to create a new type of visual representation about women, not depending on masculine standards but by women as the subject who gazes her own body. The body the exposed was hurt, torn, humble and ugly.series (1998) of Park Young Sook show a middle- aged woman’s body, sagging skin and ruined body line, with no background. Is this body, having the belly skin with obvious traces of scar, disease and childbirth, really ugly? Park Young Sook is asking. Since feminism questions the representation of women, it deconstructs the conventionally defined relation between signifier and signified. Park Young Sook displays the fat, rough, bumpy, dark, hurt and wrinkled body instead of slim, smooth, soft, bright and well balanced female body. However, the displayed body seems to be vivid and confident.
Park Youngsook launched the Mad Women Project, and presented and series. “Mad” can mean also liberation from the repressive gaze on oneself cast by society and family. This work is inspired from a shock to have seen in person the confined women in a mental hospital, women who got insane by the unbearable outer repression,or women defined as insane by others. She could not make a documentary about those victims of repression structure, so she produced it as stage dphotography.
‘These women, who yielded themselves up to madness because they could not live any more as a same person but could only survive with insanity, are making unnatural, theatrical gestures and facial expressions in the frame made by Park Young Sook, as if they are playing a monologue on empty stage.”-– from Mad Women, Witch, Goddess by Lee Phil (Art historian, Art Critic)
Park Youngsook (b.1941) is a first-generation Korean female photographer who has played a major role in Korean contemporary photography and the feminist movement. Park creates provocative portraits that strongly emphasize femininity, which has been historically and socially suppressed and considered a taboo topic. The woman’s body is placed at the forefront of her work, raising the issues of social oppression, absurdity, and unbalanced sexual power structure against women’s body and consciousness.
Park Young-sook is best known for Mad Women (1999), a work that subverts the notions of a woman who deviated from social norms and one who has been bound by the patriarchal social structure. Her depiction of a woman’s ‘body’ is also a product of her practical efforts as a feminist to spread awareness on women’s gender roles and gender identity. Based on this series, Park has further developed works such as 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2003 , 2003, 2004, to name a few. These all encompass gender issues that were socially unaccepted at the time, and show gender roles of Asian women from various cultural angles.
Born in Cheonan, South Korea in 1941, Park graduated from Sookmyung Women’s University with a degree in history and a photo design degree at the Graduate School of Industry. In commemoration of the ‘International Women’s Year’ established by the UN in 1975, she was invited to the <Equality, Development, Peace> exhibition hosted by the ‘Women’s Coalition’ and drew attention to her work featuring various realities and social issues of women. When she entered university in 1981, she established her identity as a feminist. In 1992, she joined the Women’s Art Research Association, a feminist group in the Minjung Art Department, and took the lead in the feminist movement.
She has held exhibitions at leading domestic and foreign art galleries such as Seoul Museum of Art, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Gyeonggi Museum of Art, Gwangju Museum of Art, and Hanmi Museum of Photography. She also participated in the 2002 Gwangju Biennale <Pause, 止, PAUSE>. She opened Trunk Gallery, Korea’s first photo-specific gallery in 2006 and operated it until 2019. In 2016, she held a large-scale solo exhibition at Arario Gallery Cheonan. Her works are in the collections of a number of institutions, including the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul Museum of Art, Hanmi Museum of Photography, Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art, Sungkok Museum of Art, National Human Rights Commission, Ewha Womans University, and Sookmyung Women’s University.
Follow Park Younsook’s gallery on Instagram: @arariogallery
“We, women, have suppressed ourselves.
A culture, institution, and ethic have forced us to modify our identities. This is our ‘good girl complex’. But there is a whisper coming from women’s deep inside; it says, “This is not me”.
My heart breaks.
My body cries out in pain
Old thought are uprooted.
At last, we can discard our ‘good-girl complex’ for ‘madness’.
People call us ‘Mad Women’.
Only then do we realize that we had been seized by wrong thoughts.
We are liberated.”
–From Artist statement: Mad Women Project-Mad Women, 1999 by Park Youngsook
“The everyday space occupied by women, that daily living space by its virtue is considered ordinary. But that everyday space is far from being ordinary.
For women, certain parts of their daily life are tedious, terrifying and horrible.
They feel that their daily life is oppressing, exploiting, and isolating. It is not certain what is the very thing that makes them feel this way; nevertheless, they feel it instinctively.
There are times when they want to reject, avoid, and ignore that very situation. And they did.
No, for too long they have endured; for too long they have tolerated; for too long they have forgiven.
But one day….
She could not endure anymore and attempted an escape.
Just for an instant, faraway, in the abyss…
And she chooses space and time that belongs only to her.
That chosen space and time is the “Space and Time of Mad Women.” That and time is transformed into “image space,” barring anyone space
There she feels warm, soft, snug, and secluded.
She is immersed in the situation.
She has absolutely no desire to wake up.
There numerous layers of memories are stacked up and numerous stories entangled.
The memories and stories are at once sad and beautiful.
There she stays for a brief…no, for a long moment.
Why are you doing this? What are you doing? Are you crazy? You are mad,
aren’t you? Everyone is at a loss.
Yes. She is crying silently, bearing deep in her heart the layers of
memories and entangled stories. As she strikes down at the fish on the cutting board, as she sits on the bed next to window with dripping sunlight, as she gazes at herself in the mirror, as she waters the plants, as she drenches herself with water in the shower, for a moment the women are locked in that situation. IT IS COMFORTING.
an instant a moment that situation
Spurred by that space and time, the woman becomes one with That Space. That Time. Unknowingly.
I snatch away all those things that lead to madness. Because the women who went mad about the situation is “I” and “We”…. At that instant, the numerous layers of memories stacked in that space and time, the layers of stories, the very “stories of the memories” are staring back at us now.”
–From Artist Statement: Mad Women Project-Imprisoned Body, Wandering Spirit, 2002 by Park Youngsook
Women’s values, our values
Photography and women are at the centerpiece of photographer Young-sook Park’s work.
If the objective of photography is to find new ways of observing by using fragmented segments of the world, Park uses her feminist viewpoints to portray her visual perspectives of what’s around her.
The two main areas that Park explores focus on women as symbolic figures of desire or vulnerability.
However, Park conveys femininity and womanhood through the female gaze, in a male-dominated world.
This is her process of discovering and finding empathy around the collective contemplations and connections around feminism.
Young-sook Park’s Mad Women’s project is detailed exploration of various aspects around feminism and feminist photography. These are images of women who have lost their minds because they could not endure the oppressive nature of a patriarchal society. Women portrayed in the series are hugging a pillow as if they’re holding a baby, tightly gripping two toothpastes and brushing their teeth with might, or leaving children unattended in places with dangerous objects.
However, Park did not consider these women in her photographs as mere subjects. Her feminist colleagues, the models in the photo, did not simply put on an act as if they were being directed for a staged concept, but rather, the models actively interpreted Park’s vision and became collaborators of her work. Park paid attention to the process of depicting crazy, mad women. In a patriarchal society that has suppressed women’s ego and desires, Park’s work is an insight into the reality of women who become liberated only and eventually, through losing their minds.
Using descriptives such as crazy or psychotic to describe a woman is a socially-created, derogatory labeling that incites fear around those who deviate from the norms of the patriarchal society. Thus, the models in Park’s work do not succumb to the social construction of a crazy, deranged woman. The artist imbues a new identity for the women as being progressive, independent and challenging of a male-dominant society.”
-from “They were there too: The women who made the history of Korean contemporary art,” by Seulbi Lee, art critic
Confined body, wandering minds hows the images of these women in their everyday space, before they got completely insane, in a light lunacy.
While they are “cutting down a mackerel on the cutting board, sitting by the bed near a birght window, looking at herself in the mirror, taking a shower in the bathroom”, they stop their action to look absent-mindedly at somewhere outside the frame. Kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and veranda are the most comfortable and familiar, everyday spacers for them.The situation where a woman loses her mind in a familiar, personal space, arouses mysterious anxiety, overlapping with the images of insane women confined in a mental hospital.”–from “Mad Women, Witch, Goddess” by Lee Phil (Art historian, Art Critic)
Sunjoo Lee is a mixed media photographer based in Seoul, South Korea.
Lee’s extraordinary artistic sensibility that was once portrayed through her voice is now visible through the works portrayed through her camera lens. Her photography focuses on a unique lyrical journey into her personal life. She explores her past, present, and future world in a temporal and spatial perspective.
She received a BA in Music from Ewha Women University, a second BA in Photography from Chung-Ang University(Academy credit bank system), and an MFA in Plastic Art & Photography from Chung-Ang University Graduate School of Photography in Seoul, Korea. In 2019, she was awarded into the 11th cohort for the prestigious artist residency program at the Youngeun Museum of Contemporary Art. Through this residency, she’s currently working on her upcoming series.
Lee’s acclaimed works have been exhibited widely throughout the years in South Korea. Most recently, she had her solo exhibition at the Youngeun Museum of Contemporary art, Gwangju Korea. She’s also showcased at Gallery Now, Gallery Gong, Gallery Guha, and more in Seoul, South Korea. Her works are permanently displayed at the Haslla Arts Museum (Gangneung, Korea), and YoungWol Y. Park (Youngwol, Korea).
Her work at large, incorporates everyday objects and subjects to make visual sense of the complexities of human emotions and feelings derived from the intangible, such as music. Her photographic inspiration stems from her experiences of living and travelling abroad. She extracts the memories and various emotions born out of the human connections she’s made during that time of being in foreign spaces.
Building on this conceptual narrative, her work has landed her multiple recognitions, from the 2019 Critical Mass as a top 200 Finalist (USA) to the 1st Place Richards’ Family Trust Award during the 25th juried show at the Griffin Museum of Photography (Winchester, USA). In Korea, she was received the Dong Gang International Photo Festival’s Now and New Exhibition award.
Follow Sunjoo Lee on Instagram: @sunjooleephotography
Thank you to Sejin Paik for her excellent translation
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