The 38th parallel is a circle of latitude around the globe. It is also the name of the geographical zone that separates North Korea from South Korea, marking a forbidden area between the two states. For years, enormous tension has existed between North and South Korea, causing the people of the peninsula to live in a permanent state of anxiety. The state of détente might end at any moment, and for this reason, Koreans entertain a utopian belief in a better life – whilst at times feeling that their everyday world is more like a steady decline towards dystopia.
The artist Kelvin Kyungkun Park (b. 1978 in Seoul) uses video installations to engage with the everyday problems, phenomena and clichés of Korean society. He generally portrays people's emotions indirectly – through facial expressions and gestures. His work, Army: 600,000 Portraits, (2016) is concerned with soldiers in mandatory military service, which is still an important part of life in both Korean states. The film shows how a person, when part of a collective, increasingly sheds his or her personality, whilst attempting nonetheless to preserve their individuality. Yet, at the same time, the film also explores the interaction between the individual and collective. Park says, "Without a group, the individual cannot exist." For him, this is not just about the perspective of the man, but about the fundamental social relevance of the idea, both within the family and in the wider context. Every member of Korean society has relatives who are either currently in the army or who have already done their military service. And even after their time in the military, the subject remains an ever-present one. In Korea, a man earns respect only after he has served in the military.
Park's work takes the form of film, video, photography and installations. His video works have been shown at numerous international film festivals, including the Berlin Film Festival, and has been displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This year has seen his nomination for the Korea Artist Prize 2017, which is awarded every year by the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea.
Hyunjin Bek (b. 1972 in Seoul) is another artist whose work is concerned with the everyday problems of the average Korean citizen, which he depicts through drawings and paintings. Bek’s Water Lilies People (2010- 2011) painting series reflects an urban and social view on his environment and fellow Koreans. In his preoccupation with the Korean 'norm', the single person fades ever more into obscurity. The faces of the Korean people are, in Bek's interpretation, exhausted. The artist tells us that this was not his intention at the outset, but what transpired has resulted in bringing a cross section of society, as well as the intersections within it, to the fore. Water Lilies People features large portraits separated in five separate parts that together make up the entirety of the composition. Vibrating colours and dynamic lines strengthen the impression that Park evokes of a bustling, lively city. The title is an allusion to a series of paintings by Monet of his flower garden, which heralded Modernism in art. In making this reference, Bek styles his work on the self-consciousness of modern man, revealing the lack of stability in Korean society and life in an uncertain, imperfect world.
In addition to his works on canvas and paper, Bek performs as a singer, actor and poet, in addition to working as a composer and director. Currently he is working in the arena of performance art. Alongside his nomination for the Korea Artist Prize 2017, his profile has been promoted through exhibitions in several museums and galleries.