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Ancient beliefs spirited away in the shift to modernity

Ancient beliefs spirited away in the shift to modernity

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Published : 2013-12-05 19:47
Updated : 2013-12-05 19:47

“Shrine in South Gyeongsang Province,” 2010, by Park Ho-sang. (Ilmin Museum of Art)
Shamanistic practices were considered an aspect of Korea that needed to be stamped out in its shift to industrialization and modernization. In the 1970s, the government-initiated New Year’s campaigns, promoted in newspapers, stressed that people must build their own fortune by working hard, rather than depending too much on shamanistic fortunetelling.

A few practices have survived despite the government’s attempt to break away from old customs, but most of them are remembered through research and photographs such as photographer Park Ho-sang’s snapshot of a neglected shrine in South Gyeongsang Province. These glimpses are on view at the touring exhibition “Animism” in Seoul.

The exhibition, which began in Antwerp, Belgium, in 2010 and toured to Bern, Berlin, New York and China, sheds light on beliefs in spirits and magical objects by indigenous cultures around the world, beliefs that have become neglected in the transition to modernity.

The Korean exhibition, co-organized by German curator Anselm Franke and the Ilmin Museum of Art, displays documents, images, videos and installations examining Korean shamanism, along with works exhibited at previous exhibitions.

“The division between tradition and modernity was made from the notion that tradition has to do with conservative values and modernity with progressive ideas. This division has had bad effects on social conditions. This exhibition is against the division,” said Franke at a press opening of the exhibition on Wednesday. Franke is the artistic director of Extra City Center for Contemporary Art in Antwerp.

A newspaper article from the 1990s tells how the forces of shamanism are still powerful in Korea, the story focusing on the nation’s obsession with visiting fortunetelling establishments and the size of the divination industry.

Greeting the visitors on the first floor is a transparent glass ball containing a shaman’s breath, made by artist Kil Cho-sil in 2009.

The exhibition also displays pieces on many other marginalized cultures and movements around the world, in places where transitions to modernity are being experienced. A video on the third floor of the exhibition hall shows the first attempt by Ecuadorians to protect the country’s lush forests against economic development. Another photograph shows African-Americans demonstrating in Memphis, U.S., holding signs with the words “I Am a Man.”

The exhibition runs until March 2 at the Ilmin Museum of Art in Jongno, Seoul. For more information, call (02) 2020-2063 or visit

By Lee Woo-young (

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