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Open Access Publications from the University of California


Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review is a peer-reviewed, quarterly online journal that offers its readers up-to-date research findings, emerging trends, and cutting-edge perspectives concerning East Asian history and culture from scholars in both English-speaking and Asian language-speaking academic communities.

Articles | Diasporic Art and Korean Identity

Introduction to "Diasporic Art and Korean Identity"

This special issue of Cross-Currents—“Diasporic Art and Korean Identity”—is the fruit of a two-day conference on “Korean Diaspora and the Arts” held at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in May 2017. The contributors explore new delineations of the political, social, cultural, and emotional landscapes inhabited by Koreans living in diaspora. Korean diasporic artists investigate the meaning of “Koreanness” through their paintings, political cartoons, theater, film, documentary, photographs, and multimedia art. This special issue on Korean diasporic art presents creative expressions of a shared history of trauma, suffering, or displacement, affectively reconstructed or nostalgically reimagined, produced in China, Cuba, Japan, Kazakhstan, South Korea, and the United States. The contributors demonstrate how artists are particularly able to captivate audiences and innovate ways of articulating the multiple aspects of the everyday condition of diasporic existence in situ. In this sense, art possesses the potential to lead us beyond dichotomies. In particular, Korean diasporic artists’ experiences and expressions pose questions about the North and South Korean states’ efforts to manage and understand cultural belonging that have, in turn, worked to homogenize Korean identity.

The Forgotten Childhoods of Korea: Ounie Lecomte's "A Brand New Life" (2009) and So Yong Kim's "Treeless Mountain" (2009)

This article analyzes two films from 2009 that are not only striking in their use of children as protagonists but also noteworthy in returning to the once-popular subject of abandoned children: So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain and Ounie Lecomte’s A Brand New Life. The significance of these two works lies in their similar narratives of abandonment and journeying but also in the comparable backgrounds of the filmmakers as Westerners with Korean origins. Both filmmakers left Korea as children. Both films were created as mementos of the filmmakers’ Korean roots and childhoods in Korea. This article’s analysis of the films is twofold. First, a textual reading reveals child perspectives and their matching visuals as playing crucial roles in understating—or even concealing—the gravity of the issues of abandonment and adoption embodied in the narratives. Second, the author discusses the “accented context” of the films and their filmmakers, borrowing from Hamid Naficy’s theory of “accented cinema” (2001). The geographic and thematic return to Korea and the Korean family by these Western-Korean filmmakers brings forth questions beyond the narratives, of what constitutes a Korean film and a Korean experience. Keywords: Korean film, Korean cinema, diaspora, accented cinema, Ounie Lecomte, So Yong Kim, children, abandonment, adoption

Performing in the “Cultural Borderlands”: Gender, Trauma, and Performance Practices of a North Korean Women’s Musical Troupe in South Korea

North Korean women encounter traumatic experiences escaping from North Korea. Upon arriving in South Korea, despite being officially welcomed as co-ethnics, many North Korean migrants find that their hopes for a better life are not realized. On the one hand, women arriving from the North are ethnic Koreans and speak the same language as South Koreans. On the other hand, they are in a territory whose culture and society are entirely foreign to them. Against this background, women from North Korea experience considerable trauma in South Korea as they struggle to negotiate new identities as gendered, liminal subjects in a cultural borderland. This article discusses a dance performance by an all-female performing arts troupe, P’yŏngyang Minsok Yesultan, to answer the following questions: How does the performance articulate traumatic and gendered migration experiences? To what extent might performance restore agency for North Korean trauma subjects? By closely engaging with North Korean women’s migration experiences and their performance practices in South Korea, the author shows that performance practices represent potentially empowering, affective sites that may open a space for restoration of North Korean women’s agency. Keywords: North Korean migrants, South Korea, gender, trauma, performativity, affect, performing arts

The Diasporic Intimacy and Transindividuality of Artists Himan Sŏk (1914-2003) and Jun Ch’ae (1926- )

This article examines diaspora in the context of intimacy in order to focus on individual conditions of art-making, taking into account global conceptions of diaspora that have appealed to celebratory, emancipatory, pessimistic, or desirous formulations about diaspora and art. Through a discussion of paintings by Himan Sŏk, a Chinese Korean (Chosŏnjok), and Jun Ch’ae, a Japanese Korean (Zainichi), the author proposes that diasporic art can be analyzed in terms of the transpersonal relations that surround the intimate vicinity of the artwork in three ways. First, these works of art are neither structured from above nor resistant from below. Second, they express an idea of doubleness bound at once to a larger organizing collective and to the individual experience. These artists imbue their paintings with ethnos and nation and the personal and intimate, and a comparison of their works reveals social relations that form around the objects and evolve as art is produced, exhibited, written about, and discussed. Third, transpersonal relations surrounding the artists and artwork underscore a two-tiered idea of who transindividuals are to others and to themselves, a concept of identity that is especially pertinent to diasporic artists who are postcolonial subjects, as it allows for differing “selves” according to context-specific settings. The transindividual is, thus, shown to be a critical concept of integration in understanding identity. Keywords: Chosŏnjok, Zainichi, diaspora, art, intimacy, transindividuality