This was the headline of an article featuring interviews with Korean secondary school students serving in the Youth Assembly. When I read the article some time ago, I was reminded of a conversation I had with my mother two years ago. We were having coffee at a café when the subject of the Candlelight Demonstrations (a nationwide movement to oust President Park Geun-hye from office in 2016 and 2017)2) came up in conversation. My mother asked me if I went to “those sort of things” too. Taken aback by the implication of those words, I replied to her, “Of course I go to those places too, mom. But not every week.” My mother looked at me with a mixture of compassion and pity in her eyes. She smiled bitterly. “Do you think [your actions] will change the world?”
I am one of the older members of the “millennial” generation in Korea—those born between 1980 and 1994. We learned modern history edited according to the political leanings of whoever was in power at the time. Our tiger parents drilled us through the fervently competitive education system to ensure we entered the top universities and lived more comfortable lives than theirs, but we cannot ever hope to achieve the same level of economic success as their generation with the Korean economy in constant depression and with the real estate market plagued with speculative investments. While we are adept with technology as either “digital natives” or “users” and receive the benefit of higher education, we are also moving out of our familial homes later than preceding generations.
The generation before mine, the generation of my youngest aunts and uncles, is called the 386 Generation3) or the Democratization Generation. Before that is the Baby Boomers, my parents’ generation, who spent their adolescent years during the two military dictatorships. Their parents’ generation, the Silent Generation, acquiesced to their given fate. Each generation’s knowledge of modern history was shaped by the political aims of those in power, which is why although I was raised by my parents, their view of the Candlelight Demonstrations differs from mine. Of the legacy each generation leaves behind for the next, some things are meant to be forgotten and relearned. As Korea is an ethnically homogeneous nation, issues like class conflict and racism are relatively obscure. However, there clearly are disagreements between the generations, mainly surrounding the blatant lack of understanding on gender issues and acceptance of multiracial families. Korean millennials are now in the process of exposing such issues and bringing about change.
Flags is an exhibition I have built through the process of observing, interacting with, and studying my family, neighbors, and others in and around my life: separate generations of a seemingly homogeneous Korean society. The exhibition begins with the imagery of “flags” hoisted by many individuals and groups during the Candlelight Demonstrations of 2016 and the responses that followed thereafter. The groups represented by the flags during the protests of 2016 and 2017 went beyond the scope of the usual protesters, largely comprised of universities, labor unions, and political parties. Such new flags included the flag of the Green Party, which advocates for environmental movements, the rainbow flag of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as countless flags of other civil organizations. Other protesters engaged in a playful jest using flags by parodying existing organizations. Flags for the Korean Confederation of Cat Unions, Rhino Beetle Research Association, Aquarium Sans Frontiers, and the Federation of Korean Dog Owners were raised. These flags served as “floating signifiants” (@jangpoongyeon, the Rhino Beetle Research Association's Twitter account), whose bearers participated in and contributed to the protests in the context of their respective interests. The flags they hoisted proclaimed their identity, beliefs, and orientation and signified the bearers' social coordinates.
Meanwhile, the supporters of President Park hoisted the national flags of Korea and America while the National Assembly voted to impeach President Park. As the majority of these "Taegeukgi (South Korean Flag) Protesters" are in their 60s or older, they ignited a generational conflict amidst the political divide between the left and the right. While progressives in social, political, and cultural arenas discussed how to erase discord and to learn from the past, the elderly felt threatened by the possibility that their legacy was about to be erased. In their panic, they aligned their own lives with the fate of President Park Geun-hye. Waved in protest of the dictatorship in the 1980s by true patriots, the South Korean flag now belonged to the so-called patriotic parties that fondly remember the very same dictatorship. Parents attending the Taegukgi Protests find themselves juxtaposed against their children in the Candlelight Protests. I too worried that my parents' phones may be filled with fake news. The generational gap between parents and their children became as wide as the number of years between them.
Even after the Constitutional Court upheld the impeachment, the flags did not disappear from the streets and squares. Many more protests continued to ensue, including the feminists' protests fueled by the viral spread of the Me Too Movement, protests for and against the Yemeni asylum-seekers on Jeju Island, Christian protests against gay pride parades, and the protests by small business owners calling for a solution on the minimum wage issue. The outdated perspectives toward such issues revealed themselves through these protests, prompting a call to address the conflicts through governmental policies made through humanitarian perspectives. Many continue their fight to bring about change.
The rage demonstrated by some of the protesters exemplifies the dangers of repressed trauma, anger, and religious zeal—a danger that doesn’t distinguish between generations. Some feminist groups have defined men as the enemy. Christians who believe homosexuality is a sin have written letters in their own blood in protest of the gay pride parades. Members of the Taegukgi Protest designed a combination of the Korean and American flags to wave about while they demand the release of now former President Park from jail; they argue for the “eradication” of the so-called "North Korea advocates" whom they have framed according to their whim.
We now live in an era of protests. The flags used in these protests are turning the plaza into a stage of heated debates and explosive changes in Korea. This exhibition enlists the participation of artists who each have a flag (orientation) to illustrate the on-site feeling of the protests or their personal stance. The artists present intuitive, visual devices that represent the flags hoisted by many individuals and groups in their effort to secure democracy in Korea (not unlike the "pussy hats" in front of the White House) to represent the beliefs of certain communities, to protest massive power and gender issues, and to affirm the existence of alternative cultures. The artists' “flags” serve as slogans for individuals or groups to call out awareness on such multi-layered issues. By collecting the works of individuals who raise their voice for various issues, this exhibition affirms the ways in which we lack as a society and gives hope for the future. Whether the flags physically exist or not and regardless of the direction in which they are headed, each of them certainly possesses the power to draw the winds of change.