Two roads to art: No one’s panderer
For an artist, sometimes the creative process is inspired by curiosity, wonderment, awe of their subjects or surroundings. Other times it is fueled by reactions to love, life, pleasure, pain, culture or society.
This month, Groove Korea examines the journeys of two expat visual artists with very different approaches: one an optimist who finds inspiration in observing and embracing the world around him, the other a critic of society who practices no restraint in confronting the issues relevant to himself and his peers.
Wherever the artists find their muse, two characteristics propel both of their creative quests — questioning and perseverance.
No one’s panderer
As an eight-year expat, American artist Zach Eichelberger has deeply considered the ups and downs of love, lust and life working as a foreigner in Korea — difficult work situations, xenophobia, sexism, disappointment. When he puts his criticisms on paper, he uses black charcoal or a few dark Conté crayons, and none of them are rose-colored.
On the issue of hagwon, Korean after-school academies, his piece “Johnny English Teacher” portrays a teacher stabbed in the back, betrayed by his school, left out to dry in a foreign country with little to no assistance.
“Johnny English Teacher” just scratches the surface of his current series. “I see a lot of foreign artists — and foreign art groups in particular — creating works essentially pandering to Korean vanity. It’s as though they expect to win favor with Koreans by incorporating a little Korean-ness into their work,” he said.
His recent charcoal on paper, “Be the Ingrates!” mocks the Korean World Cup 2010 motto “Be the Reds!” and challenges what he calls “anti-Americanism, SK style” — the revived mad cow disease scare, widely accused of being protectionist-fueled, which was propelled by rampant protests in 2008 following a reverse on Korea’s 2003 ban of U.S. beef imports.
Another work focuses on the English Spectrum debacle that occurred about six years ago. Its critics said the infamous party in Hongdae that started it portrayed the Korean women in attendance as easy targets for foreign men on the prowl. While inaccurate, the accusation was so controversial that it spawned the group Anti-English Spectrum, which has been known to stalk foreigners and propagate an anti-foreigner agenda.
“The message is clearly not ‘We care so much for the sanctity of our Korean women that we cannot allow this to happen,’” Eichelberger said. “It is much more, ‘We only care about the sanctity of Korean women when foreign men are involved with them.’
“In response to this I drew a big picture with a Korean girl with her legs spread with the words English Spectrum running between with arrows to designate the space. As it turns out, the spectrum of English Spectrum was only about the length of the space between those dancer’s legs and the website that was briskly stormed by netizens and ultimately shut down.”
While Eichelberger’s works are controversial — and no doubt offensive to some — they nonetheless invoke thought and conversation on topics most expats are aware of.
“When I first began work on this series, I simply wanted to address my experience of living in South Korea. A lot of that experience has to do with being a minority here, being an English teacher, and being American,” he said. “I’m unaware of any concerted, critical response to the more offensive forms of South Korean xenophobia and nationalism, such as the ‘Fucking USA’ song, English Spectrum-Gate, the beef protests, or the horrendous situations in which foreign teachers and migrant workers often find themselves where their visa is controlled by their employer.”
Most recent of these issues is the May 28 broadcast that aired on Korean news station MBC titled “The shocking reality about relationships with foreigners” (see our feature in this month’s Insight section) which depicts expat men as predators upon Korean women, later stealing from them, abandoning them after impregnation or infecting them with HIV. Though expats across the country have voiced their angry reactions to the video, which they call offensively inaccurate, Eichelberger says the complaints may fall on deaf ears until Koreans themselves learn how to self-critique.
“This kind of programming has far too great an influence on a public that isn’t accustomed to self-critique … There is a collective voice of hostility in South Korea that is stimulated by the media and consumed by a public that is either too uninterested or unable to critique itself,” Eichelberger said. “The MBC ‘report’ is the English Spectrum-Gate/Hongdae debacle all over again. Unless it is shown for what it is, it will simply continue, and its continuation has the potential of leading to a powder keg of hostility based on misunderstanding.”
However, in this void of conversation, he says, is where art can step in: “This is something that art is actually good at doing: creating communication where there is an absence of verbal dialogue. And you can’t create that kind of communication by painting niceties or kissing ass or playing into the vanity of a people, some of whom condemn the very people that saved their country and continue to protect it.”
Eichelberger also heads the Seoul Art Collective, which he says is the first organization of both Korean and expat artists to mount professional exhibitions in Seoul. He studies Art Program Management by correspondence at the University of Denver and teaches university-level English in Korea.
Eichelberger said he knew that art would be a driving force in his life from a young age. “I looked around at all the stuff and thought this is what I’d like to do because there’s a bunch of naked ladies everywhere,” he joked.
He refuses to associate himself with one particular artistic style: “Pursuing a style is also a waste of time. Style is just what you arrive at after investigating what you want to do.”
Eichelberger says he will continue working on the present series until he feels it’s completed. He contributed his work “Spinners” to the Global Myeongdong Art Festival at the Myeongdong Gallery which opened June 13. He also says he has made a proposal to another gallery for an exhibition titled “Blow Your Brains Out, Then Eat Them,” which includes his current work.
“I’m not sure it will ever see the light of day, but I’m trying for it,” he said.