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Let’s talk about men

Art exhibit explores confusion in male roles as gender power shifts

Korea has seen brisk discussion of feminism and improvement in the status of women over the past decades. In Korea’s patriarchal society, securing women’s rights was a victory and promised a balanced development of society.

For several years, though, men have been complaining about their weakening rights and positions in family and society. The shrinking dominance of males has been ridiculed and satirized on a comedy show that created the so-called “Committee for the Restoration of Male Human Rights.”

In light of this shift in power between the sexes, curator Lee Hye-won, an art professor at Daejin University, decided to ask men what they think of their position in society. This led to the exhibition “A Room of His Own: Masculinities in Korea and the Middle East” at Art Sonje Center in Seoul.
“Men’s World” by Yun Su-yeon. (Art Sonje Center)
“Men’s World” by Yun Su-yeon. (Art Sonje Center)

“Korean society is traditionally patriarchal and strong in masculinity. But at some point, men started to speak out to protect their rights. The absence of the father has been seriously dealt with in the mass media, as well as their shrinking dominance and the roles of men in family and society,” Lee explained.

Her exhibition brings together the works of 25 Korean and foreign artists ― most of them from the Middle East. They talk about men, masculinity and men’s social roles. Although Korea and the Middle East don’t seem to have common ground in the discussion of men due to their geographical distance and cultural gap, they are experiencing surprisingly similar changes in men’s social roles.

Two video works show the pressure, burden and confusion of men in a patriarchal society.

The video work “Men Hula” by Israeli artist Sigalit Landau shows three men spinning a 3-meter-wide Hula-Hoop and struggling not to let it fall. They rely on each other to maintain the speed of the hoop and keep it spinning.

Korean artist Kim Ji-hyun’s video work shows seven men in their 20s who are wearing helmets and looking for a way out of a dimly lit basement. The helmets symbolize men’s genitals as well as bullets, and the scene serves as a metaphor for the confusion and anxiety men feels in modern Korean society amid women’s increasing control over men.

Another multimedia work links snapshots of an obscure alley in Seoul to reveal the secrets of ordinary men. Artist Yun Su-yeon filmed an obscure alley in Jongno-gu for 24 hours since 2012. The film reveals men of different ages visiting a centuries-old Oriental medicine clinic, a red-light district, a love motel and a gay bar in the alley.

“It felt like entering the unknown world of men. You see the pattern in the 24-hour time frame. You see older men visiting the Oriental medicine clinic in the daylight, lovers entering the love motel late at night and exiting early in the morning, and men going to the gay bar in the evening,” said Yun at the press preview for the exhibition last week.

Artist Song Ho-jun presents a satirical interactive media work that features people doing 90-degree bows ― a common sight in the male-dominated society of Korea. The artist said the deep bow is so deeply ingrained in Korean society that people accept it naturally and don’t question where it came from.

“This kind of bowing is not natural. You are not greeting someone naturally, but do it just because others are watching you,” Song said.

Those who bow are subordinating themselves through the patriarchal and military culture of the Japanese colonial era, according to the artist. The 28 people who volunteered to do a 90-degree bow for Song’s project bow to visitors who enter the exhibition hall and greet them with a loud voice that sounds forced rather than welcoming.

The exhibition runs through Jan. 25 at Art Sonje Center in Jongno-gu, Seoul. Admission is 3,000 won. For more information, call (02) 739-8945.

By Lee Woo-young (