Anders Corr: An art coup for Korea-Japan relations

Curators Kyoko Sato and Kate Shin at Waterfall Mansion, in New York City, on Sept. 9.

-- Photo by Quyn Duong.

The South Korean pop jazz singer Ruby Choi crooned over a band and dozens of  Korean art installations, including a framed tree by famed  photographer Myoung Ho Lee (Tree…#2, 2012).

Hundreds of young South Korean and Japanese art lovers flowed up and down the stairs of Waterfall Mansion, on Manhattan's Upper East Side, at a massive celebration of the 70th anniversary of the independence of Korea. The event, named “Re:Kontemporary Exhibition, Fermented Souls,” was sponsored by the  South Korean electronics company LG and can be seen by appointment until Nov. 15. At the opening on Sept. 9, Gaonnuri plated Korean hors d’oeuvres and KGC poured Korean Red Ginseng Tea.

What made the event truly remarkable, though, was the Korean owner and curator, Kate Shin. She included a Japanese curator, Kyoko Sato, and Japanese art pieces on every floor of her mansion for the show.

Why would a South Korean curator court controversy by including Japanese art at a celebration of Korean independence? Ms. Shin explained that she did so in the spirit of cultural diplomacy and to improve still-strained relations between  South Korea and Japan.

“Emotions are the most effective and direct way to mitigate what the system and history produced to create the conflict and tension between Japan and Korea,” said Ms. Shin. “Artistic collaboration heals and mitigates this very invisible but real tension.” Ms. Shin believes that art heals historical wounds more effectively than politics.

“When you address it by law, structure, or regulation, you are forced to do it but it is not natural,” she said. “But with art you can change people’s perception overnight because it interacts with you emotionally.”

On the fifth floor of the mansion, AIKO's “It’s Over!” (mixed media on canvas, 2011) hangs over the South Korean muralist Yoonhyup’s “Above the Clouds” (acrylic, 2015). Ms.  Sato found the Japanese artist, and Ms. Shin chose the placement.

“Kyoko was freaking out,” said Ms. Shin, because the Japanese art blocked part of the Korean art. “But I told her it works,” said Ms. Shin. AIKO and Yoonhyup are both street artists, a no-hold-barred art form in which artists often cover and change each other’s works.

Ms. Shin sees her generation moving beyond the war. “A lot of young people didn’t even experience this horrible history, it is only their grandparents or parents,” said Ms. Shin. “Conflict is only a perception now – we [are having this art show] to change perception very softly, very naturally, over time.”

In the photo above, Japanese curator Kyoko Sato stands with South Korean gallerist Kate Shin at the Waterfall Mansion. In the background is  South Korean artist Osang Gwon’s “Ki & Blue” (ink jet print on aluminum, 2015), which showed in Japan’s Okinawa Contemporary Art Center this year. Ms. Sato and Ms. Shin opened their show, with 38 South Korean and Japanese artists, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Korean independence, and to improve still-strained relations between Japan and  South Korea on the 50th anniversary of normalized relations.

According to Ms. Shin, her show is just a small gesture towards peace. “It showcases what other countries can do who had such a conflict.” She wants to take the show global. “I’m starting here, but I want it to be in cities worldwide.”

Ms. Shin may just succeed, and spectacularly so. Okamura Yoshifumi, ambassador to the United Nations from Japan, attended the show. South Korea’s Minister of Culture, Jongdeok Kim, sent a letter of support from Seoul. “[T]his exhibition is especially meaningful because not only Korean artists, but also Japanese artists will be spotlighted here,” he wrote. “This is in honor of the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Seoul and Tokyo.”

The young South Koreans and Japanese at the party, however, didn’t seem to care too much about the high-level international attention grabbed by the show. Much more interesting was Tavalon Tea’s new cocktail, the sakeTEAni, served to tipplers on the mansion’s fourth floor. The sakeTEAni is a fitting and delicious mixture of Ozeki Japanese Sake and Korean Plum Tea. The revelers, that night, tossed away conflict like they tossed back sakeTEAnis – with youthful enthusiasm.

Anders Corr, Ph.D., founded Corr Analytics in 2013. Corr Analytics provides international political analysis to media, financial and non-profit organizations.