Encounters With the Trans-Glocal
[2005, published in Battle of Visions: Critical Art of Korea, exhib. cat., Kunsthalle Darmstadt,
Min Joong art is most usefully seen not only as a nationalist movement, seeking to unify a divided nation, but also as an anti-imperialist movement, seeking to––if not overthrow––at least contest the imposition of an imperial “foreign culture.” That at least, has always been part of its stated aim, but I’m hesitant with the terminology of both “foreign” and “culture,” since––even in the twenty years since Min Joong’s appearance––it would now be insufficient to talk about “the imposition of American culture onto Korea.” To use a variant of an old term, it is the academic/military/postindustrial/electronic/corporate complex, operating across national boundaries and bigger than any one nation or group of nations, or even superpower, that imposes a global mimicry of culture.
That is quite a mouthful, and I want to begin digesting it by addressing my title’s conflation into the intentionally unwieldly “glocal” of the supposedly oppositional “global” and “local.” The latter are increasingly indivisible; as they infiltrate one another, one cannot be spoken about without its supposed nemesis. Furthermore, it is increasingly necessary to speak of the two together, as a single entity of simultaneously convergent and divergent forces. There is no pure locality that is untouched by the global; and there is no global that is not dependent upon and scavenging the local.
A familiar critique of globalization is that it doubly destroys “place”: first, by shrinking the distance between “places,” so that a TV or internet viewer in Frankfurt, say, can watch “live” and in real-time what is happening in Seoul, or in any place else on the globe; second, by homogenizing space––the local kafe klatsch replaced by the corporate Starbucks––so that each “place” loses its particularity and becomes indistinguishable from any other. And yet, glocalization also re-inserts the particular, repackaging the foreign with a veneer of familiarity, so that McDonald’s in India, for example, lures consumers with Maharajah Macs made of mutton. The “new” hybrid product re-invents the consumer, re-investing them with a renewed sense of locality, of “place.” By reinscribing the local with a renewed sense of belonging, one could even say that McDonalds creates customer loyalty and fills the coffers of the multinational by rekindling desire for the national. Ironically, the corporate-invented product creates an experience of authenticity for the glocalized individual, providing a semblance of agency. (The art biennale, with its vaunted internationalism and attempts to distinguish itself from other biennales by emphasizing its local particularity, is not dissimilar from this corporate model.)
However, it would be too easy to suggest that the corporate product acts as a unidirectional force, a simple case of imperial imposition upon the unwary native; there is an equally active, if not equally powerful counter-process of indigenization, the hybridity that Homi Bhabha has theorized, whereby the consumer perverts the product from its original intention. Arjun Appadurai writes that, in Asia, such an imposition is “filled with ironies and resistances, sometimes camouflaged as passivity and a bottomless appetite … for all things Western.” I have written elsewhere about the use of English signage in Korea and the possibilities for its re-interpretation, that “[l]anguages are jumbled, not to reveal meaning to the outsider, but as encryptions of style and affiliation for the insider, less for the benefit of tourists than for Koreans themselves.”
Let me briefly digress with a different example of the glocal, with a convergence of two discursive moments. The first was at a recent panel in (my locality of) Los Angeles at “The Play Between,” an exhibition of five Korean artists’ drawings and paintings. The exhibition curator, Lee Kwan Hoon had posited in his catalogue essay that one of the attractions of drawing as a medium was that it returned to a more Korean mode of working––the linearity of drawing invoking the traditions of calligraphic brush painting––in response to the period of Westernizing modernization and its artistic counterparts of formalism and new media.
Min Joong artists began from a similar stance of reconnecting to the past as part of a critique of Westernization, but had sought a collective, more social and socialist solution; whereas twenty or so years later, the artists in The Play Between celebrate the individual, a position that is perhaps more in keeping with the current primacy of the commercial art sector. Rather than a politics of authenticity, which both groups of artists––the collectivist and the individualist––have claimed in different forms, we need to view cultural practices as having multiple genealogies, with unboundaried influences and precursors. Min Joong came into being within a national debate between the efficacies of tradition versus modernization, both of which are predicated on the assumption that the two can be separated. What we name as traditions are, in fact, continuously re-invented as ideological practices even if their methodologies and products remain ostensibly similar (and “tradition’s” insistence on similarity, self-generation and continuity is also ideological).