An Asian feminist resolution; the art of Yun Suknam

by Um Hyuk (art critic)


According to conventional art history, artist's characteristic styles of expression are determined by three considerations: their unique nature as individuals, the geographic area they work in, and their historical era. Gender had been ignored as an influential factor until the 1980's. When the October Group; women artist group (showed their works at Kwanhoon Art Gallery in 1985 in Seoul, Korea), suggested: "The fact that a given artist happens to be a woman rather than a man counts for something; it is more or less significant variable in the creation of a work of art, like being a Korean, being poor, or being born in Asia."


As a result of the the women's movement, many artists became newly aware of what it means to be female: the consciousness of sex discrimination, of the trivialization of women's work, and of being perceived as a sex object did indeed count for something.


The principal artists of feminist art was Yun Suknam, Kim Djinsook and Kim Insoon who confounded the feminist art group in 1985 in Korea. Implementing the movement's epiphany that "the personal is the political." they participated in group consciousness-raising with other women artists, working together to build their art making out of their experience as women or as women in Korea. Yun Suknam, transmitted feminist content via centralized imagery, the incorporation of explicit image, and her choice of such gender-indentified subject as "motherhood" and "sisterhood." Yun Suknam, was late forty when she consciously began to mind her female experience for the content of her art.


Yun Suknam's art refuses easy classification. Simultaneously sensual and conceptual, Suknam's feminist art resides somewhere between the confrontaional sexuality and the cool, media-wise work of the latest western feminist vanguard (Kruger, Holzer, Levine et al.) Her work demands yet another redefinition of the elusive term "feminist art."


Yun Suknam's works since 1970 revealed an oeuvre that, in its successes and its failures, makes plan the fact that feminism is not a single, one-dimensional philosophy or ideology, but, rather, an evolutionary--and revolutionary--organism at its germinal stage. When it succeeds, Suknam's work is remarkably free of didacticism as it imagines a vast middle ground linking the strategic positions of essentialism and deconstructionism, thereby deflating any semblance of a polarity distancing the two points of view--the first positing the existence of an "essential," timeless female essence; the other stressing the language and socialization roots of gender identify. When her work fails, it still recounts a fascinating diary of Suknam's direct confrontation with the practical dilemmas of engaging feminism in art, demonstrating that feminism is a process, more than it is a program.


Her accumulation of images and object... convincing in their respective original context, are seen, next to one another, to be dramatically different. the media-related implication is that object and people are made what they are--or made what they seem to us to be--by the representational style in which we are accustomed to experiencing image of them. Freed from the the constraints of the male presence or voice, these women are also free to construct their lives anew. That the images themselves originate from male-controlled cultures is no more paradoxical than the western deconstructionists' (Kruger, Holzer, et al.) usage of the male voice in order to deconstruct it.


Suknam thus seeks solutions to women's situation both without--in critiquing representation used to enforce women's limited options--and from within--via women's collective assertion of full person hood. Shunning the distanced, theoretical feel of deconstructionist work while drawing or carving on its ideas, Suknam's most recent works constitute an exuberant documentation of women's transcendence, throughout her/history, of patriarchal strictures and expectation--optimistic, energizing images of women through the ages "living beyond their means."