The Gwangju Uprising and its 40-year Global History: A Visual and Cultural Approach


Thursday, October 29, 2020, 6:00pm to 7:30pm


Online Event (Zoom)

Kim Koo Forum (Roundtable)

Forty years after the people’s uprising and state massacre took place in Gwangju during the spring month of May 1980, what is now widely known as “5.18” remains a contested history. Just these past years, we have seen new facts about the tragedy unearthed, new testimonies made on public record, and old fabrications and fallacies resurfacing in news feeds. In light of the increasing pertinence of people’s rise against social injustices across the globe today, this panel seeks to revisit the structure and semantics of platforms through which the newsreels, photographs, paintings, songs, and revolutionary affect of Gwangju have been documented and transmitted across geographic and temporal boundaries. This history of transmission, as much as the history of representation, is important particularly because the political potential of Gwangju lies not only in the actual event of coalition formation (“absolute community”) in the face of a state massacre, but also in the power of that historical fact as it traveled beyond the initial ten days in Gwangju. If the 20th-anniversary edited volume Contentious Kwangju reassessed the uprising in light of the institution of South Korean democracy in 1987 and the national politics of commemoration in the 1990s, this roundtable expands on the transnational and global aspects of 5.18 and its legacy. With the goal of situating 5.18 within the transnational history of revolution, the presentations highlight the interdisciplinary aspects of social movements and historicization of their potential impact on future revolutions.

Short-circuiting Seoul, Reaching Afar to Germany, Japan, and the US: The Photographs of Gwangju in 1980

Sohl Lee, Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary East Asian Art, Department of Art, Stony Brook University

While the access to the truth of the Gwangju Uprising was limited for most citizens of South Korea, those living in Germany, Japan, and the US could view photographic images and documentary footage from Gwangju almost immediately after the uprising and its resultant massacre. The extent of transnational pathway through which the images of Gwangju travelled is testament to the transnational nature of South Korean pro-democracy movement, a significant aspect too often overlooked. What does the examination of media platforms that carried the message of Gwangju reveal today about the sociocultural significance of the event in the global scale--and the subsequent struggles against dictatorship and for citizenry rights that unfolded in 1980s South Korea? How did the spaces of anti-authoritarian state pro-democracy movement emerge by bypassing the state apparatus? What was the role of overseas Korean populations? Each set of stakeholders outside the peninsula forged distinct relationships with the event and its aftermath, and this diversity compels a reconsideration of the global significance of 5.18.

Sohl Lee specializes in modern and contemporary art and visual culture of East Asia, and her interdisciplinary research interests include aesthetics of politics, activist art, vernacular modernism, postcolonial theory, historiography, and curatorial practice. Her book manuscript tentatively titled “Reimagining Democracy: Minjung Art and the Cultural Movement in South Korea” has received a major publication subvention grant from the Korean Arts Management Service of the Ministry of Culture, South Korea. Her English publications have appeared in Art Journal, Yishu, Journal of Korean Studies, Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, and InVisible Culture, and she has curated exhibitions in both the U.S. and South Korea.

“March for the Beloved” and the Making of a Counter-Republic in South Korea

Susan Hwang, Assistant Professor, Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Indiana University Bloomington

In 1982, a group of writers and musicians gathered in Gwangju to clandestinely perform “March for the Beloved” (Im ŭl wihan haengjin-gok), a song created to honor the “soul marriage” of two activists who had died in the Kwangju Uprising two years prior. Over the following decades, the song emerged as a central piece in South Korea’s repertoire of resistance, resurfacing in March 2017 during months of sustained popular demonstrations that led to the impeachment of Park Geun-hye. And beyond South Korea, the song would become a call to action in various other parts of Asia, including Hong Kong, China, Japan, Malaysia, and Thailand. This paper examines the role that the Gwangju Uprising played in the process of South Korea’s democratization, and argues that “March for the Beloved” was instrumental in transforming the victims of state violence into martyrs and the subalterns of an unlawful republic into political subjects of a morally righteous counter-republic. This paper analyzes the people-oriented cultural practices behind the birth of the song, as well as the performative elements in the making of the song into an anthem of the counter-state. In conclusion, the paper discusses the ongoing controversy over the song as an occasion to think about the reification of Gwangju and the perpetual struggle over its signification in South Korea’s contemporary moment.

Susan Hwang is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Korean Literature and Cultural Studies in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Indiana University. Her scholarship engages with the cultural practices of resistance in South Korea, as well as theories of translation and world literature. She is currently working on her book manuscript entitled “Uncaged Songs: Culture and Politics of Protest Music in South Korea." It is a cultural history of South Korea’s song movement that charts how songs became a powerful component of the struggle for democracy in South Korea during two of the nation’s darkest decades—the 1970s and the 1980s.

Smoke Signals: Framing the Gwangju Uprising in North Korea

Douglas Gabriel, Postdoctoral Fellow, Institute of Korean Studies, George Washington University

From May 18, 1980, news of the Gwangju Uprising dominated the North Korean media. Finally, it seemed, South Korean students had taken up Kim Il-sung’s call to “thoroughly defend the interests of the workers and peasants, go deeply among the masses of workers and peasants and fight in close unity with them.” In turn, North Korean cultural producers—including painters, illustrators, filmmakers and documentarians—began mythologizing the event through representational reconstructions. On the surface, these works asserted a correspondence between the actions of the protestors at Gwangju and the vision of reunification sponsored by the North Korean state. Images of South Korean youth activists functioned chiefly as a means of bolstering government policies by framing the southern half of the peninsula as an illegitimate puppet state of the United States. In the process, however, visual artists employed peculiar compositional framing devices aimed at keeping viewers at bay, often presenting the unruly figurative content of their works as dream images detached from the immediate circumstances of North Korean audiences who, it was implied, had no reason to revolt against their own government. Perhaps paradoxically, North Korean artists’ representations of the uprising had the effect of acknowledging and modeling ways of acting politically that exceeded the ideological lens through which they otherwise viewed the world.

Douglas Gabriel is a 2020-21 Korea Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at GW. Douglas received his Ph.D. in art history from Northwestern University in 2019. His current book project, Over the Mountain: Realism Towards Reunification in Cold War Korea, 1980–1994, examines connections between the visual art of the minjung democratization movement in South Korea and the work of state-sponsored artists in North Korea. Previously, he was the 2019-20 Soon Young Kim Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University. Douglas’s research on North and South Korean art and architecture has appeared in the Journal of Korean Studies and Hyŏndae misulsa yŏngu [The Korean Journal of Contemporary Art History]. His work has been supported by the Fulbright Program, the Harvard Korea Institute, and the Northeast Asia Council of the Association of Asian Studies. 

Moderated by Paul Chang, Associate Professor of Sociology, Harvard University

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