I was born in 1961 in Hyehwa-dong, a neighborhood in Seoul. My parents were born in 1920 during the Japanese colonial rule, got married and saw the country’s liberation together. After their first daughter (my oldest sister) was born, the Korean War broke out. They had two more daughters during the war. My parents, however, lost two daughters. Oddly enough, I was born after my eldest sister died, and I happen to have the same birthday as her. When I was born in 1961, the Eighth United States Army (EUSA) was dominating Korea. I recently learned of a person called “The Father of Korean Modernization” in a recent web search. I searched on Wikipedia and found out that this person is General James Van Fleet, who served as the second Commander of the EUSA. One of the most striking memories I have from childhood is seeing women and children queue for food and other supplies in front of the EUSA building. I think these women were probably the so-called mije ajumma, who sold these EUSA goods on the black market. At the time, people who were able to afford American goods on the black market were considered economically and culturally ‘advanced.’ Another memory that I have from my childhood is going out to the streets, instead of going to school, to wave the Korean flag and cheer on the Tiger Division and the White Horse Division, deploying to Vietnam. In the 1970s, I was a feisty teenager, full of vigor. I became curious about women, after flipping through the Playboy, Penthouse and Club magazines, supplied by the US. army. My fantasies about the West grew as I watched the American TV series Bonanza, Combat, The Green Hornet, The Wild Wild West, and I mimicked the superficiality of the petite bourgeoisie by listening to pop songs on pirate label LP records. During my high school years, multiple English teachers tutored me so that I could do well on the college admissions exam. Once I was in college, I was seized by the bias that I had to be able to read English textbooks in order to be part of an elite, and I took part in the Gwangju Uprising and student movements to pretend being an intellectual. In the 1980s, when I used to watched the College Song Festival on TV and Madame Aema (the first erotic film in Korea), I found myself torn by fantasies of America and feelings of love and hatred towards Korea. Right around then, a multimillion-dollar loan fraud, involving Chang Young-Ja (often dubbed the “curb money queen” then), rocked the country and drove many Korean companies to bankruptcy. My father’s business also went broke, and my family ended up immigrating to the United States.
Apart from casino capitalism explored in my site-specific installation Venetian Rhapsody, the Korean Pavilion introduces a universal stand-in for Koreans, “Mr. K,” and addresses the issues of labor and wage imbalance through Lee Wan’s works. Some 130 years ago, Karl Marx proclaimed in the Communist Manifesto (1884): “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” In his book Capital, Volume I, Marx defined the imbalance discussed by Lee Wan as “the alienation of labour-power,” which emerges in the course of increasing surplus value through the extension of work hours. If we were to consider the production process simply from the perspective of labor, workers would not comprehend the means of production as capital but instead as a means to support their production. But when the production process is considered in terms of value expansion, a means of production immediately shifts and becomes a means of drawing in the labor force. This is so because the worker no longer utilizes the means of production, but rather, the means of production uses the worker. As such, the distortion that is bound to occur between dead labor and living labor, or value and value creation in other words, is characteristic of capitalistic production. If one fails to distinguish between medieval colonialism, 19th century imperialism and 20th century capitalism, and addresses the issue of labor and means of production simply by connecting them through a causal relationship, then the economist J.B. Say’s law of markets must be addressed as well. We all know that the issue of the alienation of labor emerged in Asia during the formation of a global market after World War II. As the market became global, Hong Kong was established as the trading hub to regularize Asia’s cheap labor as a means of production. This trend also finally reached Korea in the 1970s in the form of the Five-Year Plans for industrial development, launched by the former president and dictator of Korea, Park Chung-hee. I remember these programs being taught and promoted, when I was in middle school. “Korea-US cooperation” was the phrase often used with confidence by many industries then. But in fact, the US was building plants in Korea and supplied the orders, while Korea only functioned similarly to an OEM by providing cheap labor. I think the issue of wage-labor imbalance in Korea that took shape then is continuing to this day. To address the seriousness of this problem in the 1970s, some students participated in workers’ rights activist movements. Among them was Jeon Tae-il, who committed suicide by burning himself to death in a protest against poor working conditions in Korea. An interesting point to note is that Korea’s bonded goods industry had its beginnings then, when people started to siphon defective goods from the factories, instead of discarding them. “Nice” products (knockoff Nikes) were sold in Itaewon, Ichon-dong and shops by Ewha Women’s University. A growing number of women wanted to buy American bonded merchandise. They were probably the earlier versions of today’s petites bourgeoises, obsessing over luxury goods. This facet of Asia’s industrialization is often called the “simulacrum industry” in the world, and recently, Korea has been gaining a ‘reputation’ as the country that manufactures the ‘best quality’ counterfeit goods.
To me, the 1980s in Korea is remembered as the era when protests for democracy and feelings of love and hatred toward the United States coexisted in the nation. In the 1990s, Korea opened its doors to foreign cultures, and Western culture was quickly adopted by those who studied abroad or the generation that dreamed of the American paradise. It was also during the 90s that America’s neoliberalist economic policies quickly gained momentum in Korea, after the country was hit hard by the Asian financial crisis. Neoliberalist economics already had a long history in the United States. Beginning with Milton Friedman’s new monetarism, the Chicago school of economics developed Keynesian economics and argued for neoliberalist economics, and this movement reached its peak in the 1980s, along with the Reagan administration in the US and Thatcherism in Great Britain. Susan Strange noted later, in the 1990s, that the problems of neoliberalist economics and the global era were predicated on what she terms “casino capitalism.” As the international finance market evolved due to globalization and technological innovation, casino capitalism became more evident. Casino capitalism also firmly established itself in the global art world through international art events, such as the Venice Biennale.