Witnessing & Remembering Trauma in Northeast Asia in the Visual Age

Witnessing & Remembering Trauma in Northeast Asia in the Visual Age

The Living Past in the Present and the Future

This post is based on an article published in the Asian Studies Review. The full article can be read here and is currently available open-access to all readers.

In the last decade, scholarly discussions of the past and present in Northeast Asia have focused on historical incidents, memory, responsibility, apology and reconciliation. Historians and anthropologists have been most prominent in these discussions, which have gradually expanded to include comparative, interdisciplinary and transnational perspectives. This has enhanced our understanding that the impact of disasters on people’s lives are closely tied to global culture and politics. The growth of civil society in Northeast Asia has helped expand these discussions to the general public, which has often resulted in the establishment of collaborative networks among citizens. The increase in cultural interactions within the region is especially evident in the inter-regional consumption and coproduction of popular culture such as Japanese manga and anime and Korean TV dramas and pop music.

However, the historical, economic and cultural connections within Northeast Asia are far deeper and more complicated than the mainstream media’s selective and often celebratory representation shows. The precariousness of the socioeconomic conditions being experienced by people in the region is closely related to the shared modern history of these countries. Political responsibility for specific disasters is often shared by more than one nation, as the civilian victims of the Korean War and the Vietnam War demonstrate: the US, South Korea and North Korea are mainly responsible for the colossal loss of human life that has yet to be fully explained. In this sense, the past lives in the present and the future. It evokes and will continue to evoke the traumas that reshape the identity and subjectivity of people.

By recognising the emergence of socially engaged movements as a significant development in the field of visual culture, essays in this Special Issue explores historical, social and environmental catastrophes and traumas in Japan, Korea and Vietnam during ‘the visual age’. It engages with the individual and collective efforts by artists and citizens to witness, identify and remember historical and ongoing violence and injustice through visual means.

This issue’s first goal is to explore the context in which art-makers are positioned, and to discuss how their memory and post-memory of disasters shape their works. Second, it seeks to identify the potential and limits of visual art to witness and remember physical and psychological trauma caused by disaster. The third goal is to explore ethical concerns surrounding the visual representation of disasters and victims. And lastly, it seeks to understand how these artworks are grounded in the shared history of Northeast Asia.

The first of these articles, by Hong Kal, examines paintings of the Korean War by artists who are post-generational (i.e., those born during or after the war). In doing so she focuses on three artists – Suh Yongsun, Kang Yo-bae and Jeon Seung-il – who visualise mass killings of unknown civilians at the hands of the state before and during the Korean War. These artists have produced paintings of traumatic events from their personal, familial, communal and collective memories. Their images of wrongful deaths testify to past atrocities. The visual testimonies not only reveal known wrongdoings but bring them into the present and open up a space for viewers to participate in acts of witnessing. The process of visually mediated witnessing is crucial for justice to be realised, especially when victims did not survive to tell their stories. The paintings engage in ethical witnessing, which involves asking what was done to victims and why. In the portrayals of wrongful deaths expressed in critical, imaginative and affective modes, the paintings further suggest that the meaning of truth needs to be expanded so that it is seen as one aspect of truthfulness. This can overcome a constraint faced by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Korea (2005–2010), the official investigatory body that left many questions and tasks unaddressed.

The second article, by Vicki Seong-yeon Kwon, addresses the urgency of deconstructing the official history of war in South Korea. She explains how the collective memory of the Vietnam War as a ‘heroic war’ in the national fight against communism, and war veterans’ contribution to the South Korean economy, has been challenged since 1999, when war crimes committed by Korean soldiers were problematised by journalists, activists and artists. The Korean troops’ atrocities, including civilian massacres, sexual violence and the burning of households, were revealed through photographic evidence and interviews with survivors. Kwon considers this shifting moment of historical memory of the Vietnam War by examining video works and a statue that were created as acts of apology. In her detailed analysis of the process of artmaking as well as the audience’s responses, however, Kwon criticises how the artworks run the risk of undermining the position of the victims – and, more specifically, rape victims. Kwon argues that even if the intentions of apologies for past wrongs are innocuous, they cannot be fully recognised as apologies when they fail to meet the victims’ demands and consider their social circumstances.

The third, by Sara Osenton, examines how war veterans represented themselves to reconstruct their identity in postwar Japan. Osenton examines comic strips and visual images that appeared in the monthly magazine Disabled Veterans Monthly Gazette (Nisshō Gekkan) to see how veterans expressed acceptance and disavowal of their wounded bodies. Established by the Japanese Disabled Veterans Association, the magazine aimed to create a collective community to support maimed veterans in readjusting to society. However, as Osenton’s analysis of the comic strips and photographic images of the veterans demonstrates, society’s marginalisation of the veterans devalued them: their disabled bodies challenged the state’s promotion of Japan’s economic and social recovery that was strongly associated with healthy and productive bodies. The comic strips in particular show that the evidence of the war inscribed in the veterans’ maimed bodies became a contested site of ‘recovery’ and that veterans’ semi-autobiographical narrative of their lives in these images raised the question of human dignity in commemorating the war.

The trauma of war, especially the memory of the atomic bombing of Japan, cannot be separated from the current-day experience of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Although initiated by a tsunami, the Fukushima disaster has continued to affect many people due to the government’s questionable handling of disaster relief and its policy on nuclear technology. The fourth, by Tomoe Otsuki, explores how Japan’s future has been depicted or represented in post-3/11 art and literature via the deployment of the figure of the child. Her analysis focuses on the statue called The Sun Child created by Yanobe Kenji in 2012, and the novel The Emissary written by Tawada Yoko in 2014. Both Yanobe and Tawada respond to the Fukushima nuclear disaster by using the figure of the child as a means of imagining and representing a future Japan in the aftermath of environmental crisis. By paying close attention to starkly different kinds of futurity represented in the two texts, Otsuki argues that The Sun Child reiterates the developmentalist ideology of futurity, whereas The Emissary provides an alternative futurity and new ways of living in the era of Anthropocene.

The fifth article, by Jooyeon Rhee, considers the potential of film to witness historical disasters by examining the silenced history of Korean residents in Japan, who were repatriated to their ‘homeland’ (i.e., North Korea). The stories of the approximately 94,000 Korean returnees to North Korea between 1959 and 1984 are largely unknown due to the tightly controlled information about their lives in North Korea and the complex geopolitical relationships between South Korea, North Korea and Japan. The repatriates’ and their families’ experiences of painful separation and multiple displacements are a historical disaster born out of Japanese colonialism and the Cold War. While it is still extremely challenging to self-represent their experience of displacement and separation, Yang Yonghi’s autobiographical films Dear Pyongyang (2006), Sona, the Other Myself (2009) and Our Homeland (2012) visualise their silenced suffering. In a poignant handling of space, object and sound that articulates North Koreans’ affective reaction to ‘homeland’, Yang thus makes two important contributions to our understanding of this historical disaster: her films highlight the ambiguity of ‘homeland’ for the repatriates, while also functioning as a cinematic testimony to the silenced suffering of the repatriates and their families.

With its close attention to the legacy of colonialism and imperialism in postcolonial and postwar Northeast Asia, this issue is a collaborative attempt by scholars of visual arts, cultural history and literature to explore the symbolic and materialistic meanings and effects of visual art and media in addressing urgent issues in the lives of many people in the region. These articles provide refreshing insights into the complexity of witnessing and remembering historical and environmental disasters through their critical engagement with traditional and modern visual media. The concise and succinct provision of the context of each subject and critical readings of visual works and media in this collection will be welcomed by students and scholars working in the fields of Asian history, visual art and culture, and memory studies. It will also appeal to scholars of media studies whose primary interests lie in historical memory, state violence, trauma, reconciliation and socially engaged art.

Hong Kal teaches visual art and culture of East Asia. She has written about expositions and museums in relation to the formation of national identity. Her current research focuses on trauma art, socially engaged art, and artistic intervention in urban development in Korea. Her research was supported by Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at Stanford University (2003-2005), Advanced Research Grant from Korea Foundation (2007-2008) and SSHRC Standard Grant (2010-2013). She is the author of Aesthetic Constructions of Korean Nationalism: Spectacle, Politics and History (Routledge, 2011) and published articles in journals of Comparative Studies in Society and History, Inter Asia Cultural Studies, Korean Studies, and The Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus.

Jooyeon Rhee is Associate Professor of Asian Studies and Comparative Literature specialising in modern Korean literature and culture. Her main research deals with Korean popular literature with particular emphasis on transnational literary exchanges and interactions. Her first book, The Novel in Transition: Gender and Literature in Early Colonial Korea (Cornell University Press, 2019), investigates the transnational feature of modern Korean novels at the intersections of nation and gender.

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