Art Exhibit Stirs Controversy Among Korean Americans

By Peter Schurmann, New America Media
Tuesday August 28, 2007

The Korean king kneels, hands clasped in a gesture of submission. Above him looms the Japanese empress, at the head of an armada and clad in full samurai armor with sword outstretched. His armies defeated and his lands occupied, the king swears his country’s eternal loyalty to the Japanese throne. 

No, this is not a screenplay for some epic Korean drama, though it has all the elements. The scene comes from a 14th-century scroll depicting Japan’s legendary 6th-century conquest of Korea’s Silla Dynasty. 

Part of the exhibit “Telling Tales” at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, the scroll has stirred controversy within the Korean community. It has also highlighted challenges the museum faces in drawing the line between art and history. 

The exhibit, which continues until Oct. 21, is tellingly situated between the museum’s Japan and Korea sections. One enters the museum, named for chief benefactor and prominent Korean American Chong Moon Lee, and ascends to the second floor. Passing through a display of Japan’s artistic, religious, and military past, the visitor reaches the scroll in question, delicately placed between Japanese guns and Korean ceramics. 

Not long after the exhibit opened in April, a series of editorials appeared in the Korean-language Korea Daily calling on its readers to protest the display. Koreans responded by sending in hundreds of letters to the museum, including one from the Korean consulate. 

Young Kee Ju, editor of the Korea Daily, says that the exhibit is “problematic” because it “distorts the history of Korea’s relationship with Japan.” Although the painting is a piece of art, he says its antiquity lends its contents historical weight, particularly for viewers unaware of Korea’s past. 

For this reason, his paper called on the scroll to be removed, a move the museum viewed as tantamount to censorship. Instead, the museum provided additional information, clarifying the historical context surrounding the scroll’s fictional contents, which Ju found to be an appropriate resolution. 

The dispute highlights the ongoing frustration of many Koreans who feel that Japan’s perspective of Asia remains the dominant one in the West. 

Recently, a novel by Japanese author Yoko Kawashima Watkins was pulled from American classrooms following a wave of protests from Korean Americans who argued that the book conveyed a negative portrayal of Koreans under Japanese occupation. Issues of censorship arose, pitting artistic expression against historical representation. 

These concerns are once again playing out through the Asian Art Museum’s exhibit. 

At nearly 20 feet in length, the scroll is impressive. It depicts the legendary 6th-century Japanese Empress Jingu who, following the death of her husband, realizes the promise made by the island nation’s protector deity Hachiman by claiming Korea as part of a greater Japan. 

Though myth, the tale formed a launching point for a version of Japanese history taught in classrooms well into the modern era. It has also played a central role in justifying two separate invasions of Korea, the first in the sixteenth century, and again in the twentieth, when Japan succeeded in colonizing the peninsula for over three decades. Japanese rule was justified as the fulfillment of ancient claims over Korea, as depicted in the scroll. 

Not all Koreans, however, view the exhibit as historical. Taesoo Jeong, editor-in-chief of the Korea Times in San Francisco, emphasizes the scroll’s artistic value over its historical accuracy. Though he acknowledges the scroll’s potential in conveying a “false” impression of Korean history, he nevertheless defends its inclusion in the exhibit. 

“It is ridiculous to put a work of art on trial,” Jeong wrote in a recent editorial. Artists in Korea routinely malign Japan, he says, adding that Koreans should be more reflective of their own attitudes before attacking this or any other piece of art. 

The museum’s chief curator and organizer of the “Telling Tales” exhibit, Forrest McGill, says this particular painting was selected for its narrative qualities as an example of how Japan, and Asia in general, used art to depict stories. “The exhibit was not meant to be historical,” explains McGill, who says that the emphasis was on the painting’s elements of narrative animation, a theme intended to complement two other exhibits currently on display. 

A quick glance at visitors’ comments, however, confirms Korean fears that what the museum intends may not be what viewers take away. One, from a Korean mother, complains that her child will gain a false view of Korean history as a result of the exhibit. Another reads, “History is not just what happened, but is also what people say happened.”