Korea Part 2: From Detention Center to Art Space

Korea Part 2: From Detention Center to Art Space

The avant-garde will lead you to prison.

Or to the bowels of the former Korean Defence Security Command (KDSC) in central Seoul. That is if you are a young artist in the vanguard wanting to make bold statements about Korea’s tumultuous past and pop-star present. On a long, rain soaked walk through Seoul in 2010, I ran across this temporary art exhibit occupying the former KDSC, organized by the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA).

Korea cranks out so many visual artists, graphic designers, and animators, I wonder where they go—they can’t all be drawing for Family Guy, can they? Everyone seems to know how to draw well, even my younger ESL students had the basics down. The knock on Korea, and Asia in general, is that there is a lot of imitation, but not innovation. It’s true that art schools in Korea seem to have a cookie-cutter approach to teaching; a walk-by of any of the numerous art schools will show window displays of remarkably executed paintings by students, but all same-same, school to school. I personally, think that is an unfair assessment. Not only does Korea have its own traditional style, it has produced influential modern art practitioners. There is something to be said for learning technique -- you must learn the rules to break them. Koreans know the rules, and some even know how to break them. And when they break them, they go all-in.

So into the hoosegow they go.

The KDSC used this building to detain and torture dissidents, suspected spies, and I imagine a few artists. I don’t have much information about the exhibit, as it was temporary, and in Korean, but the old cells and offices were full of art installations, many commenting on their surroundings and the former oppressive regimes.

Former Korean Defence Security Command (KDSC)

South Korea is an Asian Tiger and a mature, functioning democracy, but it wasn’t always so free. From 1961 to 1987 Korea was essentially under military rule, and civil rights were curtailed. People were frequently kidnapped, tortured, and killed. 1980 saw the Gwangju Uprising, or Massacre if you like, where close to 1000 people were killed by the military and police for protesting martial law. The crackdown was imposed after the military dictator, Park Chung Hee (whose own daughter was recently ousted as Korea’s leader), had been assassinated by his own security chief at a soju party. I highly recommend the film The President’s Last Bang for a fictionalized account. Crazy times. Even now, Koreans are renowned for the their boisterous protests and riot squads, but the stakes aren’t as high as they used to be -- the existential threat from the north notwithstanding. At this exhibit it helped to know a bit about Korea’s fraught history before K-Pop became it’s dominant image.

Some of the art was serious, some cheeky, like the hundreds of day-glo colanders on the roof. I had the feeling that there were a lot of inside jokes, and clever cultural references I wasn’t getting. Out in the back area a building was painted pink, right down to the toilets and fixtures. The exterior evoked a Roman testudo of pink riot shields emblazoned with the word “felice”, Latin for happy.

Straining for an explanation

Think Pink

A riot of pink

The main building had the cold mustiness of abandonment. You could feel something bad had transpired there. Looking at my photos now, I realize they are populated with ghostlike human silhouettes. It was not intentional, but I subconsciously tapped into the vibe. Despite the colorful and sometimes wacky art, it was depressing. The rain didn’t help.

If the halls could talk, they'd probably scream

Though some of the art was full of undergraduate stridency, the painted wooden prisoners were disturbing still. A room of TVs with talking heads spewing boilerplate was reminiscent of Korean Paik Nam June, the father of video art. He being one of those innovators who arrived on the international scene in the early 60s and was involved with the Neo-Dada Fluxus art movement, Yoko Ono was a notable participant. If you’ve seen a sculpture made of TVs, it’s probably his doing.

In 2013 this building would get a make over and become a permanent second branch of the main MMCA.

 Painted Prisoners

Talking Head

Neon Bars

Flower Room


About the Author
John Norton is a raconteur, a flaneur, and a fan of Guy Lafleur. A career expatriate with long stretches in Prague and Seoul. He currently resides in Buffalo, NY with his cat, Chopper.

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