Reciprocity Over Unilateralism: Introduction to Issue 27

Reciprocity Over Unilateralism: Introduction to Issue 27

Jae Hwan Lim

Issue 27 of FIELD | A Journal of Socially-Engaged Art Criticism focuses on socially-engaged art practices in contemporary South Korea from the late 1980s to present. The five papers in the Issue discuss the dynamics of creating socially participatory and engaging art outside institutions and the complexities of presenting works created through human relations at galleries and museums. This issue serves as an introspective guide for ethical socially engaged artists and researchers to imagine the past, present, and future of their roles. As the editor of Issue 27, I extend an invitation to develop a reciprocal art field over artistic unilateralism.

Minjung to Simin and Neoliberal South Korean Art/Culture

Since the people-led minjung (민중 people) democratization movements in the 1980s, the South Korean political field has burgeoned citizen participation and engagement. From 1993 to 2008, South Korea’s three administrations were called Civilian Government (문민 정부 munmin jeongbu), People’s Government (국민의 정부 gungminui jeongbu), and Participatory Government (참여 정부 chamyeo jeongbu). With the political and cultural paradigm shift from minjung to simin (시민 citizen) in the 1990s, these governments all emphasized the role of simin in society and supported numerous policies designed to encourage social welfare, regional cultures, and public gatherings.[1] With the Korean public yearning for social equity in the late twentieth century, Kim Dae-Jung, who later led the People’s Government (1998–2003) and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000, shared his confidence in the Korean democratic culture. In response to Singaporean authoritarian leader Lee Kuan Yew’s disputation that “Culture is Destiny,”[2] Kim’s 1994 Foreign Affairs article, “Is Culture Destiny? The Myth of Asia’s Anti-Democratic Values,” states:

Asia has a rich heritage of democracy-oriented philosophies and traditions. Asia has already made great strides toward democratization and possesses the necessary conditions to develop democracy even beyond the level of the West.[3]

Kim’s support of Asia’s collective resistance against inequity resonates with many social movements in modern and contemporary Korea, from the colonized public’s March 1 Independence Movement in 1919 against Imperial Japan[4] to the women-led #MeToo Movement in 2018 against sexual violence.[5] While there has been scholarly research exploring post-1980s Korean history of citizen-led activisms, social movements, and cultural policies, the discourse on Korean socially engaged art outside institutions has rarely been introduced through academic journal articles. Thus, the issue diagnoses and analyzes the contemporary states and destiny of Korean socially engaged art and culture.

In Memory Construction and the Politics of Time in Neoliberal South Korea (2022), historian Namhee Lee observes that recently democratized countries in Latin America, Asia, and Southern and Eastern Europe have embraced free market democracy. According to Lee, South Korean society has adopted structural and institutional neoliberalism since 1997, which has reconstituted the public’s mode of social being and becoming. Despite South Korea’s governmental support for local communities’ socially engaging cultures, the neoliberalism of global society has long permeated and jeopardized the contemporary Korean art field, forming its chrononormativity, defined as an expectation that people follow the same cultural timelines and trendy norms.[6] On top of the Frieze art fair’s 2023 relocation from Hong Kong to Seoul, many international galleries featuring social practice artists, such as Tang Contemporary Art representing Ai Weiwei and Gladstone representing Thomas Hirschhorn, joined Seoul’s bourgeois and luxurious districts for new art collectors.[7] The Korean art field has also expanded its chrononormativity by showing artists’ works globally and inviting non-Korean curators to Korean art spaces.

For the 2024 60th Venice Biennale’s Korean Pavillon, artist Koo Jeong A presents an interactive installation featuring 17 distinct smells of people’s olfactory memories in Korea, which include a North Korean defector’s recollection of their hometown and first time to South Korean cities. As Vogue states, Koo has collaborated with a Korean beauty brand, Nonfiction, so the public can purchase the scent distilled from 16 “unwearable odor memories” combined in a 3.3 oz perfume/commodity for $186, which instantiates the Biennale’s tendency to commercialize artworks.[8] Furthermore, French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud, who coined relational aesthetics in the 1990s, chiefly curates the 2024 Gwangju Biennale in South Korea.[9] There are a number of guiding contradictory goals inherent to organizing this international art exhibition. For one, while less than a dozen of 73 artists in the Biennale are of Korean descent, Bourriaud adopts the concept of pansori. This Korean music genre began in the 17th Century and connotes “the sound of the public place” and “the voice of the common people,” which rehashes Bourriaud’s concept of “conviviality” in relational aesthetics.[10] Bourriaud’s slapdash appropriation of Korean history and culture resonates with art historian Noah Horowitz’s criticism:

Bourriaud presents a superficially simple account of earlier precedents and likewise fails to come to grips with their consequences for today’s artists…The “micro-utopias” that Bourriaud so highly applauds are at times difficult to parcel from the power-to-the-individual[11]

Second, as a curator who has insisted that “any stance that is directly critical of society is futile,”[12] Bourriaud continues to aestheticize networks of humans, animals, nature, and technology by showcasing artworks inside galleries in Gwangju. The city has a history of democratization through its citizens’ 1980s bloodshed struggles against military dictator Chun Doo-hwan’s authoritarianism, and the Gwangju Biennale states it inherits the city’s cultural heritage to heal the traumatic history of the May 1980 uprising through aesthetic means. As the aestheticization and institutionalization of art ceaselessly iterate in contemporary South Korea, I contend the country has been facing what German art critic Boris Groys argues on art activism: the dichotomy between “artistic aestheticization” and “art as political design,” which the issue’s five papers widely examine through multifaceted instances.[13]

Sewol Ferry victims and protestors walk towards Danwon High School in Ansan with yellow handheld windmills, April 16, 2019. Photo by Jae Hwan Lim.

The binary has expanded regardless of the South Korean administrations’ support for people’s social participation. Their policies did not entirely resolve the country’s sociopolitical and cultural-economic issues, not to mention the subsequent neoliberal, authoritarian, ostensibly liberal, and conservative governments’ deterioration of democracy and inclusivity in Korea. For more pragmatic social changes, the Korean public relentlessly struggles to change dangerous working milieus, gender inequities, discriminative laws on queer beings, policies for people with disabilities, environmental contaminations, and much more. Artists and cultural producers’ collaborative engagement and art activism with marginalized communities in such struggles have been salient to mediate and substantively solve innumerable conflicts.

Many artists protested with struggling citizens on the streets, created artistic/cultural gestures, and often interfered in administrative negotiations with regional/governmental/corporate delegates for people’s social safety nets. In Beyond the Sovereign Self (2023), art historian Grant H. Kester also accentuates art’s capacity to mobilize forms of critical and prefigurative insight in the process of political and social transformation.[14] However, Korea’s growing emphasis on aestheticizing human relations, institutional presentations, and art sales drives its art scene towards capitalistic and typified avant-garde autonomy, often causing ethical issues during artists’ social engagements with underrepresented people.

Issue 27 Outlines

Issue 27 includes five writings by scholars, researchers, curators, writers, artists, and activists on collective art activisms, social engagements in art, ethics in participatory practice, queer expressions, and the pitfalls of institutional fetishization. Hong Kal’s examination of the Korean artist collective Dispatch Art (파견 미술 pagyeon misul) underlines the artists’ cultural roles in four struggling sites impacted by neoliberalism that prioritizes economic capital over humans: The 2009 Yongsan disaster; the 2011 Hanjin Heavy Industries labor strike; the 2016–17 occupation of the Gwanghwamun Square; and the 2018 commemoration for a late young worker Kim Yong-kyun. Kal elaborates that the Dispatch Art artists inherited the legacy of reciprocity from the 1980s minjung movement’s cultural producers.

Jason Waite explores the Seoul-based artist collective Listen to the City’s (리슨투더시티) feminist insurgent planning methodology in conducting their project “No One Left Behind” (2018). Waite underscores the collective’s cooperation with people with disabilities, in order to develop resources for inclusive disaster management. Vicki Kwon shifts the direction to artists siren eun young jung (정은영) and collaborators Dalo Hyunjoo Kim (김현주) and Kwanghee Cho’s (조광희) practices that shed light on female sex workers and the US soldiers in the vicinity of the US military camps in South Korea. Kwon delineates the artists’ encounters with ethical issues while working with local communities and how they collaborated with the residents of respective camp towns in Dongducheon and Ppaeppeol.

Minji Chun extends the theme of state violence over gendered beings through three artworks critiquing South Korea’s anti-queer military milieu and related legislations, made by three openly gay artists: Nahwan Jeon (전나환), KyungMook Kim (김경묵), and Jeram Yunghun Kang (제람 강영훈). Korea’s forcible and rigid military services violently repudiate their queer identities, yet Chun’s writing illuminates Jeon, Kim, and Kang’s voices through their badge designs, virtual reality film, and installations. Lastly, my contribution scrutinizes the perils of fetishizing communication through museum presentations of socially engaged art by three Korean artist collectives: Listen to the City (리슨투더시티), Mixrice (믹스라이스), and Okin Collective (옥인콜렉티브). Through anthropologist William Pietz’s notion of fetish and fetishism, I elucidate the risks of institutionalizing human interactions inside art galleries.

In culmination, these five articles advocate for nonviolent resistance through art and culture. In a 2022 interview, “Photography in the Space of Death,” anthropologist Alejandro M. Flores-Aguilar points out that transdisciplinary practitioners should build long-term ethical relationships with local actors, not as objects of study but as active subjects who produce knowledge and transform social realities. In addition, sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos analyzes, “[Mahatma] Gandhi’s nonviolent struggle (ahimsa) is based on the ideology of noncooperation, boycott, disobedience, and the knowledge of and truthfulness to self (satya).”[15] The authors’ contributions exemplify contemporary Korean artists’ critique of social issues and cooperation with underrepresented communities, which are reminiscent of Gandhi’s ahimsa and satya. This issue works to highlight and prevent international art field’s incessant enticements for the institutional presentation of socially engaged art and aestheticization of human relations, which may easily overshadow artists’ and scholars’ sincere engagement and relationship with collaborators.

Artists’ and scholars’ ethical, reciprocal, and nonviolent practices through dialogic art and research can serve crucial prefigurative roles in social changes while preventing amorality and abuse of power. This issue adopts the scholarly frameworks of Korean history, art activism theories, socially engaged art criticism, feminism, queer studies, disability studies, and anthropology. There are still uncountable complex conundrums on Korean socially engaged art that scholars must unravel, such as how to term “socially engaged art” in the Korean context, if past struggles like the minjung art movement should be associated with contemporary Korean engaged art, and what is the boundary/definition of “Korean” socially engaged art. As the discourse of non-institutional social engagement in Korean art has yet to be thoroughly discussed academically, this issue of FIELD Journal hopes to spur further analysis, criticisms, theories, and practices of Korean socially engaging art through a diverse lens.

Jae Hwan Lim is a politically driven artist-activist and historian focusing on human rights and the struggles for democracy in the Korean Peninsula. Researching history and current issues in the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Lim creates socially engaged/dialogic art and writings critiquing violence, discrimination, and inequity in society and politics. Lim is co-founder and director of Humans of North Korea (HNK), an organization that advocates for North Korean defectors’ resettlement and Korea peace, and an editorial collective member of FIELD | A Journal of Socially-Engaged Art Criticism. His articles have been published in the Journal of Korean and Asian Arts and Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas – Brill, and he has presented at the Association for Asian Studies, among other platforms. He is a doctoral student in the Art History, Theory, and Criticism Program with a concentration in Art Practice at the University of California, San Diego.


[1] Presidents Kim Young-sam of the Civilian Government (1993–1998), Kim Dae-jung of the People’s Government (1998–2003), and Roh Moo-hyun of the Participatory Government (2003–2008) all confronted authoritarian regimes and shared their solidarity with the struggling public during the 1980s minjung movement. However, Kim Young-sam’s catchphrase to “globalize” Korea led to the establishment of the Korean Pavillion at the Venice Biennale and the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea in 1995. Similarly, in 1993, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (currently MMCA) hosted the 1993 Whitney Biennial in Gwacheon through artist Nam June Paik’s personal network with the Whitney Museum’s director David A. Ross. Despite the internationalization of the Korean art scene, it is crucial to recognize the history of the 1995 Anti-Gwangu Biennale organized by artists protesting the Western-centric cultural platform in Gwangju that disregarded the city’s locality while supporting the narrative of the minjung movement. Gwangju Biennale Foundation. “다큐멘터리 Documentary film | 광주비엔날레, 30년의 시선 Gwangju Biennale, 30 Years of Prespective | 전체 영상 공개.” April 20, 2024. Video,

[2] Fareed Zakaria and Lee Kuan Yew, “Culture Is Destiny: A Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew,” Foreign Affairs 73, no. 2 (April 1994): 109–26,

[3] Kim Dae Jung, “Is Culture Destiny? The Myth of Asia’s Anti-Democratic Values,” Foreign Affairs 73, no. 6 (December 1994): 189–94,

[4] “Koreans Protest Japanese Control in the ‘March 1st Movement,’ 1919,” Global Nonviolent Action Database (blog), n.d.,

[5] Laura Bicker, “#MeToo Movement Takes Hold in South Korea,” BBC News, March 25, 2018,

[6] Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Duke University Press, 2010).

[7] Andrew Russeth, “Inside South Korea’s Art-Mad Capital,” The New York Times, January 5, 2023,

[8] Park Yuna, “Korean art gets spotlight at Venice Biennale 2024,” The Korea Herald, April 18, 2024,, Lisa Wong Macabasco, “Korea’s Smells and Stories Come into Focus at This Year’s Venice Biennale,” Vogue, April 29, 2024,

[9] News Editor, “Nicolas Bourriaud Appointed Artistic Director Of 15th Gwangju Biennale,” BIENNIAL FOUNDATION (blog), May 14, 2023,


[11] Noah Horowitz, Art of the Deal: Contemporary Art in a Global Financial Market (Princeton University Press, 2011).

[12] Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Les presses du réel, 2002).

[13] Boris Groys, “On Art Activism,” e-Flux Journal, no. 56 (June 2014),

[14] Grant H. Kester, Beyond the Sovereign Self: Aesthetic Autonomy from the Avant-Garde to Socially Engaged Art (Duke University Press, 2023)

[15] Despite Boaventura de Sousa Santos’s inspiring quotes here, I acknowledge the 2023 accusation of his inappropriate sexual conduct against students. Emily Dixon, “Portuguese university apologises after sexual misconduct claims,” Times Higher Education, March 14, 2024,, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, The End of the Cognitive Empire: The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South (Duke University Press, 2018, 6).