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The nomad, the exile, the in-between : diaspora and identity in Korean modern and contemporary art Choi, Jean Kyung


This dissertation examines how Korean diasporic artists engaged with the concepts of diaspora—the global dispersion of Korean peoples—and identity during the latter half of the 20th century, with particular emphasis on the period between the 1960s and 1980s. Focusing on the works of artists Son Ah Yoo (1949-2002), Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-82), and Nam June Paik (1932-2006), I discuss how the practices of diasporic artists in different locations intertwined with the development of art and art history in post-liberation South Korea. With an emphasis on the specificities of diverse Korean diasporas, I attempt to reveal the complex artistic situations at play within the socio-political conditions of the period. I examine the place of Son, Cha, and Paik in the larger narrative of South Korean art history in order to understand how such expressions of diasporic experience have been incorporated into the popular discourses of “Koreanness” that continue to permeate narratives of Korean art. Emphasizing a rhetoric of tradition, nationalist narratives during the 1970s and 1980s rendered “Koreanness” a prominent thread linking the different movements of the period. In this text, I question the concept of the “Korean Diaspora” and its absolutizing emphasis on ethnicity and cultural identity, expanding our understanding of Korean art. Using the artists’ work, I present a more nuanced depiction of the “Korean Diaspora,” questioning the conventional view of Korean art as defined through the binary of the self against the Other. I address contemporary Korean art practices and discussions of cultural identity in the context of today’s evolving trends of globalization and transnationalism. I conclude that these discussions can prove useful in comprehending the issues that diasporic artists continue to face today.

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