Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion @ Hayward Gallery

Kader Attia is ‘one of today’s leading international artists’ and this exhibition is the first major survey of his work ever held in the UK.

Attia was born in 1970 France. His parents were of Algerian origin. He grew up in one of the banlieues or suburbs in north-east Paris, in a multicultural environment where Catholic, Jewish and Muslim religions mixed. Attia has dual nationality and has returned often to the family home in Algeria. In the mid-1990s he worked and travelled in the democratic republic of Congo where he held his first exhibition.

Since then he has gone on to forge a career as an exponent of deeply fashionable ‘post-colonial art’, working across a dazzling array of media to criticise western imperialism, western colonialism, western racism, western cultural appropriation of native lore and art, western control of its immigrant populations, and so on.

‘I try to trigger a political feeling in the viewer. My job is like all of us confronted with reality. What interests me is when a work poses a political question not only from a linguistic point of view, formal, but more from an ethical point of view.’

Political feelings. Political questions. Well, the show as a whole struck me as a sustained attack on western values, history, art and culture. The assault is sustained across six rooms on the ground floor of the Hayward gallery, plus the Heni Project space entered from the gallery lobby.

Transgender sex workers

When I learned that one of his earliest successes was a project to photograph and ‘document’ the lives of a community of Algerian transgender sex workers, and that a slideshow of 160 of these images won him international recognition when displayed at the 50th Venice Biennale, my heart sank.

What could be more crushingly obvious, inevitable and clichéd? Is there any other subject as fashionably outré and yet as well trodden? I immediately thought of:

  • Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde at the Barbican, which featured lesbian, gay and transgender artists and performers
  • diane arbus: in the beginning currently the sister exhibition to Attia, upstairs in the Hayward, which features a ton of male female impersonators and performers from the 1950s and 60s
  • Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers at the Photographers’ Gallery, with hundreds of photos of transgender and cross-dressing people from the past century, notable:
    • the well documented life of Marie-Pierre Pruvot, born a male in Algeria, who became a famous French transsexual entertainer with the stage name of ‘Bambi’
  • The photos taken by Olivia Arthur of the suppressed LGBT+ sexualities in India which featured in the Illuminating India exhibition at the Science Museum
  • Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins at the Barbican, which featured photos by half a dozen photographers of sex workers and transgender people, namely:
    • Daido Moriyama’s photos of prostitutes and transvestites in Tokyo
    • Walter Pfeiffer’s portfolio of photos of his young transsexual friend Carlo Joh, from the Zurich gay scene
    • Casa Susanna, a historic collection of around 400 prints taken during the mid-50s and 60s at a private retreat for transvestites in upstate New York
    • Paz Errázuriz’s project depicting the community of transgender sex-workers working in an underground brothel in Chile
    • Teresa Margolles’s series of enormous colour photos depicting transgender sex workers in Mexico
  • Queer British Art 1861-1967 at Tate Britain which was packed full of transsexuals, transgenders and same-sex desires

Identity and ‘trangressive’ sexuality are the fashionable subject of our age and yet curators and artists conspire to imagine they are still hugely taboo subjects which you have to whisper about and which an artist is oh-so brave to address.

Instead of a boringly predictable subject which has been comprehensively ‘explored’ by every art gallery in London.

This set the tone for my reception of Attia: he and his supporters think he is a grand rebel, an incisive critic of western historical narratives and norms – but all of his critiques seemed to me extremely old and over-familiar and passé.

When I went to the Sensation exhibition of young British Artists in 1997 I was genuinely bowled over by their dazzling new approaches to an amazing new range of subject matters. This guy is retreading ideas and approaches I got bored with decades ago.

Room 1 – modern architecture

Room one is dominated by an awesome projection which covers one entire wall of a camera very slowly moving up the facade of one of the shitty council housing blocks which make up the dreaded banlieues of Paris, the post-war sink estates where Paris sent all its working class and immigrant population to live and which, more or less every summer, erupt in rioting and car burning.

Post-war concrete high-rise council estates are crap. Not a new idea, is it?

Installation view of Shifting Borders by Kader Attia, part of The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Shifting Borders by Kader Attia, part of The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by Linda Nylind

The wall label tells us Attia is drawing attention to the way these blocks were built around principles of surveillance and control similar to those used to subdue colonial populations.

As it happens a) I grew up on the edge of one of Britain’s all-concrete post-war new towns and b) I’ve been reading a lot recently about post-war town planning and architecture in the social histories of David Kynaston:

Although the subject of post-war town planning was fraught with controversy and disagreement I’ve nowhere read anything suggesting that the new estates were designed in order to monitor and control their inhabitants.

Sounds like Attia has swallowed his Michel Foucault whole. (Michel Foucault was a French philosopher, historian of ideas, social theorist, and literary critic whose theories address the relationship between power and knowledge and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions. He died in 1984. Foucault was awesomely fashionable in the early 1980s when I went to university and read half a dozen of his books. It was when I found myself reading an interview from the mid-70s in which Foucault explained how ‘we’ [the radical student movement] could use Maoist concepts to battle against the fascist French police, that I began to realise that Foucault had little or nothing to offer me in the actual political and cultural situation of Thatcherite Britain that I found myself in.)

The mistakes the planners made had nothing whatever to do with surveillance and control. In knocking down the old slums and rehousing people, they decided that, instead of rehousing them on the same locations, they would move them out to clean new locations which had no historic restrictions on design. All the architects were fans of the fashionable Le Corbusier who promoted cities in the sky and also adopted high rise builds as solutions to shortages of space.

It was only as tenants moved into these gleaming and fashionable new blocks that the drawbacks became clear: very often the planners had forgotten to build in shops and facilities, pubs and churches and you centres and the miscellaneous kinds of places where people meet and hang out. Public transport into the city centres was poor and irregular, and they were too far way to walk to.

More importantly it turned out that various elements needed expensive maintenance, especially the lifts without which people couldn’t get to their flats. Getting rubbish out of people’s flats down to collective rubbish collection points didn’t always work and anyway resulted in overflowing bins which bred rats.

Most subtly, it was discovered that traditional communities are self-policing. Where you had an old-fashioned street you had windows on the street and, in any kind of good weather, people sitting out on stoops and steps watching, generally congeries of mums watching their kids playing, or owners of the various small shops in a neighbourhood similarly watching what was going on.

These acted as an informal and highly informed police. If fights broke out, if kids did something dodgy or rude or bullying and so on, there were scores of eyes watching and people could intervene, often mums who knew the mother of the wrong-doer. Thus communities were able to police themselves with little or no intervention from the authorities. This is something I’ve seen described in Somerset Maugham’s novel Lisa of Lambeth, have read about in 2,000 pages of David Kynaston’s histories, and was really emphasised by a recent BBC 4 documentary about Janet Jacobs who wrote the classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) describing how over-intellectual architects and planners, dazzled by the futuristic designs of le Corbusier and other fashionable European architects, were destroying the neighbourhoods of old Manhattan, replacing rundown but friendly and self-policing communities, with windswept high ‘projects’ – just like the French banlieues. Into the projects American planners decanted a lot of their cities’ poorest which tended to include lots of blacks, just as Paris decanted its poorest, which included lots of Algerian immigrants, into its banlieues.

The result? Vast expanses of concrete high rise buildings where ‘community’ has been destroyed, and the public spaces belong to the worst kind of tearaway teenagers who patrol in gangs, peddle drugs, stab rivals and erupt in violence if the police try to intervene.

In everything I’ve read and watched on this subject, no-one has mentioned the idea these wretched estates were built to to monitor and control their inhabitants. A far simpler explanation is that they were the disastrous result of planners and architects falling under the spell of fashionable French and German theorists with sweeping intellectual attitudes: demolish the old, build the shiny gleaming new cities of the future.

This is what went through my mind as I stood in this first room looking at the awesome film of a camera slowly moving up the side of just such a concrete high rise building, next to a model of such a building.

My conclusion was that Attia is deliberately and wilfully ignoring the real motivations and the complex social history of these places, in order to turn them into a cheap and obvious jibe at the police and authorities. The claim that these places were built solely so the authorites could control their inhabitants is 1. factually incorrect 2. a deliberate distortion which allows Attia to quote Foucault and so sound wondrously intellectual and clever and 3. 40 years out of date.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, who is surveilling and controlling the inhabitants of these horrible slums if it isn’t the owners of multinational American corporations, Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon, Instagram, Facebook and twitter to name but a few? But the internet is a bit too up to date for Attia. He is still lost in the 1970s when it was cool and path-breaking to take photos of transgender people (wow) and use new Left Bank ideas to deconstruct notions of power and control (“have you read Foucault, man, he’s just soooo cool”).

Away from the leather-jacketed student politics, I liked some of Attia’s more allusive pieces, such as this piece of minimalism, although I still found it weird that he made it some forty years after minimalism had become well established as a style in America.

Narcissus (2012) by Kader Attia. Concrete block, mirror and wire

Narcissus (2012) by Kader Attia. Concrete block, mirror and wire

Room 2 – joy, fear and humiliation

This is a massive room devoted to scores of big prints of his photos of 1990s Algerian transgender sex workers, capturing ‘moments of elation experienced in the course of an otherwise precarious and difficult existence’.

Attia is obviously yet another artist who subscribes to the view that prostitutes and sex workers are privy to a kind of special knowledge and insight concealed to the rest of us, that photographing hookers reveals a ‘secret world’, that the mere act of photographing them ‘breaks taboos’ and ‘transgresses’ conventional bourgeois values. Really?

La Piste d’Atterrissage (The Landing Strip) by Kader Attia (2000) © the artist

La Piste d’Atterrissage (The Landing Strip) by Kader Attia (2000) © the artist

He says:

I wanted to present the whole picture of their lives, to show that even illegal immigrants working as transgender prostitutes have moments of joy, of happiness, of hope.

‘Even illegal immigrants have moments of joy, of happiness, of hope’. How patronising. How patronising to his subjects to treat them like some kind of remote tribe in New Guinea, instead of people like you or me, and how patronising to us, the viewers, that he feels he has to explain that prostitutes are people who have feelings. Really?

As to the transgender thing, some of us have been totally comfortable with, not to say bored by, the whole idea of cross-dressing and transgender for nearly fifty years. (‘But she never lost her head, even when she was giving head…’)

Like the room criticising soulless concrete housing estates this took me right back to the 1970s.

The opposite wall displays a number of black-and-white press and publicity photos of world famous politicians and popular singers, entitled Field of Emotion. Apparently, this work

explores the ambivalent role that emotion plays in all areas of our lives… Attia asks us to consider how and whether powerful emotions might help heal rather than create conflict.

Emotions play a role in our lives. Hmm. Really. Do you see why I felt I was being patronised?

Anyway, what struck me about the display was how very dated all of the images were. Miles Davis, Fidel Castro, Idi Amin, Edith Piaf, Moshe Dayan, Lenin, Mussolini, Ella Fitzgerald. It looks like the wall of a radical student on the Left Bank circa 1974. “Right on, baby. Have you heard Lou Reed’s new album? And what about Foucault’s new book?” Dated dated dated.

Installation view of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery

Installation view of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery

Room 3 – Chaos + Repair

I liked this big ball made out of fragments of fabric, broken mirrors and wire. Apparently it is an attempt to capture the ambivalence most people feel about aspects of their cultural, political or personal identity. Is that how it makes you feel? Do you feel ambivalent about aspects of your cultural, political or personal identity?

I just liked it as another example of the minimalist thread in his thinking and creating.

Chaos + Repair = Universe, 2014 by Kader Attia. Photo by the author

Chaos + Repair = Universe, 2014 by Kader Attia. Photo by the author

Room 4 – joy, fear and humiliation

Attia is, apparently, critical of

the museological impulse to classify and categorise [because it] is part of a much broader and more problematic system of control. In many of his sculptures and installations, he typically invokes the display methods and subject matter of a typical 19th-century natural history or ethnographic museum… in order to explore the ways in which colonialism continues to shape how western societies represent and engage with non-western cultures.

I profoundly disagree with this on all kinds of levels.

Abandoning all the achievements of science All western science is based on the collection and sorting of data. Medicine is based on a vast array of anatomical, chemical, biochemical and medical information which has been painstakingly collected, sorted and categorised over the last 200 years. Does Attia really think the inhabitants of Algeria would be better off without antibiotics, anaesthetics, innoculations and vaccinations which European scientists devised after years of collecting samples, experimenting and cataloguing? If so, he is an idiot.

Valorising voodoo His work, he says, is looking for a way we can escape from ‘the obsession of the Western modern mind to organise the universe’, which sounds very cool and Foucauldian. “Let’s smash the system, man.”

But just really, really think for a moment what it would be like to live in a world where there was no organising, classifying impulse, where knowledge was not recorded, and collated, in which each generation was born into the same old ignorance and fear. The world of the illiterate wode-painted heath-dwellers who the Romans found in ancient Britain, performing human sacrifices to placate the anger of the gods. Is that the kind of world you’d like to live in, ruled by shamans and witch doctors. Don’t think the transgender prostitutes would last long in that world. Or any woman who defies tribal customs.

Luckily Attia with his irresponsible views and the entire class of dilettantish modern artists to which he belongs, has absolutely no effect whatsoever on politics, economics, medicine, science or technology.

Classifying and categorising A few years ago I went through every room in the British Museum and discovered that the five dark, dusty, wooden-cabinet-lined rooms on the east side of the central courtyard are devoted to showing how everything we know today had its origins in the impulse of all sorts of people, from the Holy Roman Emperor to English parish vicars, to collect all manner of weird and wonderful objects, and to sort and organise their collections.

These rooms look boring but turn out to be full of quirky and highly personal collections of everything from bones and fossils to Roman antiquities, types of rock to the shape of clouds.

All human knowledge is based on the impulse to collect and categorise. The impulse to collect is a fundamental human attribute. Everyone does it. I arrange my books into categories. My daughter puts her photos into different Instagram albums. My son organises his music into different spotify playlists. Who doesn’t ‘curate’ their own content on social media and the web?

Well then, it turns out you are in the grip of the Western world’s sick and dubious ‘museological impulse to classify and categorise’. It turns out you employ ‘problematic system of control’.

Of course some of this classifying and categorising can be used for evil purposes, as the Nazis categorised humans into different races, starting with the distinction between Jews and Aryans, and imperial authorities may well have categorised people into ‘white’ and ‘native’ for all kinds of bureaucratic reasons. And it is very much this tradition of classifying people and in particular the inhabitants of the colonised nations of Africa and Asia which Attia has in mind.

But to say that the impulse to collect and categorise is in itself evil and to devote your work to finding ways ‘to escape this’ impulse is like deciding to abolish language because Hitler used language in his speeches and imperialists used language in their racist laws.

Hypocrisy And, it barely seems worth pointing out that all these works which are devoted to critiquing the wicked Western habit of wanting to organise and classify and categorise are being displayed in an art gallery where… they are being organised and classified and categorised :).

The walls of this exhibition abound in labels precisely dating each piece, carefully explaining the materials they’re made from, categorising them as photographs, sculptures, installations and soon.

The works are divided into rooms each of which has been organised around a central theme or concept.

And there is, of course, a big expensive catalogue of the works on sale in the gallery shop, ‘a fully-illustrated catalogue with an extensive interview between Kader Attia and Ralph Rugoff’, Director, Hayward Gallery, no less.

In other words, this exhibition itself demonstrates the very compulsion to categorise and organise which Attia claims to have devoted a career to trying to deconstruct.

When I was younger and experiencing the first heady rush of reading Foucault and Barthes and Adorno and Benjamin I might have interpreted this as sophisticated irony, or as ‘a playful deconstruction of the normative values which underlie the western historical narrative’, or some such.

Now I’m older and more impatient, I just see it as idiotic hypocrisy.

Technology Is Attia at any point using traditional tribal native-people’s media to create his art with? No. He uses digital photography, digital video, film, light shows and minimalist sculpture. All the hallmarks and media of the most technically advanced, post-industrial, post-modern Western art.

Ethnography But of course Attia isn’t really referring to the impulse to collect and categorise as a whole, whatever he might say. He is speaking much more personally about the West’s history of collecting and categorising the artefacts (and indeed peoples) of the non-Western, ‘developing’ world which he has taken it upon himself to be a post-colonial mouthpiece for.

No prizes then, for guessing that there might well be a room devoted to showing how Western culture has ripped off and appropriated non-western art and artefacts.

As long ago as the 1920s left-wing critics were criticising Picasso for ripping off African tribal masks. This accusation became a standard part of Marxist art criticism in the 1960s and 70s. Now it is entirely accepted, it is the utterly conventional wisdom of our time, that early 20th century artistic Modernism wouldn’t have existed if Picasso and Matisse hadn’t been able to see African and Oceanic tribal masks in the Paris Ethnography Museum. Which exhibition of Picasso and Matisse does not point it out?

Thus the Royal Academy’s exhibition on Matisse and his studio was at pains to prove how up to date and politically correct it was by ‘calling out’ Matisse for his ‘cultural appropriation’ of tribal artifacts, as well as his ‘orientalism’ for painting odalisques.

So – as with Attia’s pieces of minimalism, or his insight that concrete high-rise estates are horrible, or his oh-so-risqué photos of transgender prozzies – what really struck me about his western-modern-art-ripped-off-African-art pieces was how very, very, very old, clichéd and totally acceptable this fact is.

How he presents this is so glaringly obvious I thought it was funny, Here is one of his ‘artworks’ where he has placed a book with a cover illustration of Munch’s notorious painting The Scream next to a ‘Pende sickness mask’. Yes, Kader, I do get it. Munch would never have painted like this if it he hadn’t had sight of the African masks collected by wicked imperialists, and therefore his painting is a wicked wicked piece of cultural appropriation.

Installation view of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Photo by the author

Installation view of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Photo by the author

Naughty, naughty Western artists. Pablo and Henri and Edvard, you must all go and sit on the naughty step. Don’t you know that art must never copy ideas from other cultures. Only Europeans are this wicked. The Chinese, the Japanese, the Indians never copied art, writing or religions from of other people’s cultures. And even if they did, it’s alright, because they aren’t white.

What I found literally impossible to believe was the wall label for this work which explained that:

Several works in this room, including The Scream and Mirrors and Masks point to the still under-acknowledged influence of African art on the trajectory of Western art history.

Still under-acknowledged? By whom? This point of view has been knocking around for ages. I found it in full cry in an art history book from 25 years ago which I reviewed last year.

Do you really think this is news to anyone who regularly attends art galleries or knows anything about modern art? It is one of the clichés, one of the absolute bedrock certainties, of modern art history. Anybody who studies modern art will hear about it.

Room 5 – The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures

The biggest room in the gallery is given over to this massive installation.

Installation view of The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019. Photo by Linda Nylind

The fundamental concept is ‘repair’. As Attia, a self-declared expert on Western and non-Western societies, confidently proclaims:

While Western societies seek to erase marks left by injury or trauma, ‘in traditional societies it’s the opposite: they have ways to fix an injury that also keeps it visible.’

Hence this collection of twenty or so metal warehouse shelf units as well as three vitrines which display hundreds of objects including African masks, vintage photographs, books, newspapers and a series of decorative, functional or devotional objects constructed by soldiers during the First World War.

In among all these objects are mingled busts which Attia commissioned from craftsmen in Carrara, Italy and Senegal, which depict members of an African ethnic group known for body modification including facial scarring – juxtaposed with busts of First World War soldiers with severe facial injuries.

The whole thing, then, is an ‘investigation’ into contrasting Western and non-Western attitudes to scarring and healing, repairing and fixing.

Another part of the display is a slideshow juxtaposing photos of First World War soldiers undergoing early and rudimentary plastic surgery, with African masks showing obvious signs of repair –

an unsettling series of juxtapositions that challenges our conventional ideas about wholeness, injury, beauty and otherness.

Ah. ‘Otherness’. Surprised it’s taken this long to get round to that familiar old shibboleth of cultural studies and critical theory.

The premise is that Western cultures try to cover, repair and occlude physical scars and injuries, whereas non-Western cultures don’t and often wear them with pride.

OK. I’ll buy that.

Room 6 – Shifting Borders

The most recent work in the exhibition is a set of three videos being shown on three big monitors with benches in front of them, and headphones for you to put on so you can listen to the talking heads.

Each of the videos features Attia interviewing mental health professionals, academics and survivors of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea in which more than 600 people, most of them students, were killed.

Installation view of Shifting Borders by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Shifting Borders by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019. Photo by Linda Nylind

In one of the videos a Vietnamese spiritualist describes holding a ceremony for the spirit of an American soldier who had possessed her brother-in-law. In another a professional doctor declares ‘I don’t think a psychiatrist is the only one who can heal.’ In other words:

Through the spoken testimonies that make up the video element of Shifting Borders, Attia addresses different forms of healing and in particular the therapeutic role played by shamanistic and spiritualist practices in non-Western societies.

West bad. Non-West good.

Thoughts

The first impact is the scale and variety of the work, sculptures, photos, installations, videos on display – Attia is covering the whole waterfront of contemporary media.

Next I was struck by how very out of date so much of it seemed – finding 70s housing estates crappy, oh-so-edgy photos of transgender prostitutes, the claim that European modern art ripped off African masks, the claim that traditional non-western ‘healers’ know things Western scientists don’t understand, a wall of political and jazz icons from the 1950s – all of these struck me as old, old, old ideas and images. Non-western medicine might have alternative ways of healing? A new idea? Really?

He wanted a political response and so I have responded to the ideas on show and I find them thin, deliberately misleading, superficial and, although dressed up in fashionable curator-speak, in fact stunningly old and dated.

The one big theme which I did find thought-provoking or interesting was this idea of ‘repair’ which runs through many of the works. Thus in the room of African masks placed next to western books to prove how wicked wicked Europeans ripped off African culture, there was suddenly a big hole in the wall, apparently unconnected to the grim lecturing of the other pieces.

Untitled (2014) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

Untitled (2014) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

I liked this. Like the ball made of fabric and broken mirror, I just found this an arresting artefact, object, thing. Not something you see every day.

I get so bored by hectoring, lecturing, dogmatic, ideological modern art. It’s a refreshing change to come across something which just… is. Which connects with you at some inexplicable level… Which gives you a funny feeling about space, and secrets, and interiors and wrecks and rubble.

It reminded me of some of the works of Anish Kapoor which play with the integrity of the surface of the gallery i.e. disappear into the walls and ceilings.

Something similar could be said of this hypnotic jumble of sheep horns, that it creates an eerie and uncanny sensation in the viewer, a kind of discomforting sensation in your mind as you imagine running your hands over its sharp surfaces.

Schizphrenic Melancholia (2018) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

Schizophrenic Melancholia (2018) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

Unfortunately the wall label then goes on to give a lengthy explanation which does its best to eliminate all of the mystery and surprise from the piece, and convert it into another part of the heavy-handed anti-western lecture.

In this sculptural work, Attia elaborates on the relationship between contemporary Western medicine and traditional healing practices, in particular those that deal with mental illness. Attia’s research in this area – a key subject for the artist – took him to Dakar, Senegal, where he witnessed an ancient healing ceremony called ‘Ndeup’, in which the horns of sacrificial goats and sheep form the centrepiece of a ritual that involves the whole community. According to the Lebu people, by the ceremony’s end these horns would hold all the ‘bad energy’ that had been forced out of the afflicted individual during the ritual.

“Yeah, man, western society has lost its way, it’s like traditional peoples, man, they’re like so much more in touch with nature and their true selves, man. I’ve seen stuff on my trips, man, things you people can’t understand, stuff which defies western medicine, man.” Neil the hippy.

It was only on leaving the gallery that I realised that the enormous poster / hanging / digital print opposite the main entrance is also by Attia.

Rochers Carrés (2008) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

Rochers Carrés (2008) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

It’s a striking composition although, like everything else in the exhibition, it cannot be allowed to simply be: it must immediately be stuffed full of Victorian moralising and curatorial meaning-making.

It has to be categorised and defined and described, to be titled and dated and explained and interpreted, in just the kind of way which Attia has made a career out of saying he is trying to run away from. So:

Kader Attia is interested in boundaries – ‘geographical, cultural, sexual, religious’ – and the way they function as in-between spaces. the son of Algerian immigrants, Attia grew up in Paris but spent his summer holidays in Algiers where he spent hours smoking, fishing and – like the teenagers in this photograph – watching the ships going back and forth between Algeria and Europe.

Rochers Carrés – in English ‘square rocks’ – is one of a series of images that Attia made of this breakwater ‘beach’ in the Algiers neighbourhood of Bab El Oued. In Attia’s words, this beach is ‘the ultimate boundary’ that separates these young people from their dreams of a better life.

Really? Is it really that much of a boundary to youths like Attia who could take a cab to the airport, get on a plane and fly back to their homes in Paris, secure in the heart of the scientific, economic, technological and artistic bosom of the West?

Summary

The world is much more perforated and mixed up and heterogenous and immigrated than Attia’s simplistic binary definitions (West bad, non-West good) allow.

And this big poster is a classic example of the way every single piece in the show has to be dated and defined, contextualised and interpreted, labelled and explained.

If Attia is sincerely trying to ‘escape’ from the European obsession with collecting and categorising, then this exhibition shows his efforts to have been a self-defeating failure.


Related links

Reviews of other Hayward Gallery exhibitions

Lee Bul: Crashing @ Hayward Gallery

This is a major retrospective of the art of the (female) Korean artist Lee Bul, born in 1964 and still going strong, so something of a mid-career snapshot. It brings together over 100 works in the five enormous exhibition rooms of Hayward Gallery, plus some work located outside.

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing showing Monster Pink (left) and Civitas Solis II (in the background) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Oh for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!

As you walk into room one, you immediately realise that much of Lee’s art is big, involving costumes, installations, mannequins and dummies.

You also realise that it is done to a high degree of finish. Everything looks very professional and seamless. It comes as no surprise to learn that much of her recent work is conceived by her but created by a studio of craftspeople and technicians.

I’m always a little envious of my teenage kids. When they come to art exhibitions like this, they roam at will, attracted by whatever is big and brash, rarely bothering with the boring wall labels or grown-up ‘issues’, enjoying things purely for what they look like and how much fun they are. They would certainly find lots to admire here, from the point of view of the spectacular and dramatic.

Monster Pink, pictured above, is accompanied by Monster White both of which look like assemblages of wriggling worms, like some mutant aliens from Dr Who. The same sci-fi vibe attaches to what look like fragments of space suits dangling from the ceiling. On closer examination you can see that these are life-size depictions of the human body in the style of Japanese manga comics, in which both men and women have sleek, perfect bodies, often encased in futuristic body armour.

Lee has produced dismembered versions of these, half a sleek, armoured torso, or combinations of limbs and extremities, moulded into striking but disconcerting fragments of mannequins. Soft pink sacks hang next to sleek machine-tooled silhouettes.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Cyborg WI on the left (photo by the author)

Up the concrete ramp, in room three, there’s what seems to be a model of a futuristic city, held up by thin scaffolding, some kind of hyper-freeway emerging from a tall plastic mountain, complete with a massive neon sign clicking on and off.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… (2005) Photo by the author

Nearby is a big ‘cave’ made of shiny plastic, with a ‘door’ to go in through, a ‘window’ to look out of, and walls decorated with a mosaic of mirror fragments.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (photo by the author)

Best of all, from an excitable teenager’s point of view, are two big transport machines.

Downstairs in long, low room two, is what appears to be a space-age hovercar not unlike the one Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi use to go to the city of Mos Eisley to look for Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Live Forever III (photo by the author)

To my amazement, visitors are actually encouraged to get into this device (once they’ve slipped on some protective plastic bags to go over their shoes). As I was saying to myself the immortal line ‘These are not the droids you’re looking for’, the gallery assistant lowered the roof and sealed me in.

You’re forced to lie quite low in the beautifully upholstered leather chair and watch a TV monitor placed right in front of you. If only I could have flicked the ignition, heard the engine roar, made a secret tunnel door open up and slid down a chute into the nearby River Thames to begin a high-speed boat chase against the baddies who’d just blown up the MI6 building.

Alas, all that actually happens is that the screen hanging in front of your face plays tacky Korean karaoke videos. You’re invited to put on headphones, pick up the handy microphone and join in which I was far too intimidated to do.

Finally, up the Hayward’s heavy concrete stairwell to gallery four where a) the entire floor has been covered in futuristic reflective silver plastic, giving it a Dr Who-TV set appearance, and b) and in which floats one of Lee Bul’s most iconic works, a huge model of a zeppelin made from shiny reflective silver foil.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable - Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo: Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought…

My son, a big fan of manga, animé, graphic novels and sci-fi, would have loved all this, consumed purely as spectacle, as weird and wonderful objects of fantasy and imagination.

However, art is rarely this simple or free. The artists themselves, and certainly their curators and critics, are all too ready to catch the butterfly of fantasy in a net of explanations, drag it back down to earth, and pin it to a board next to all the other specimens in their collection. For example, when you look up the Wikipedia article about Lee, it begins:

Lee’s work questions patriarchal authority and the marginalization of women by revealing ideologies that permeate our cultural and political spheres

firmly dragging Lee’s art into contemporary art discourse with its all-too-familiar obsessions of gender, race, ideology and politics.

The free exhibition handout and the wall labels are where you go for more information about Lee, and they certainly are extremely informative and illuminating. In addition, there are two timelines printed on walls – one telling the history of South Korea since the 1950-53 war to the present, and one describing the development of modern art in Korea from the time of Lee’s birth (1964) to the present day, with a special emphasis on women’s art and issues.

All very interesting, but the more you read, the more you become weighed down by interpretations of art which see it all in terms of ponderous ‘issues’ – of ‘challenges’ and ‘subversions’ and ‘questionings’ – the more it feels like you are sitting through a dreary two-hour-long sociology lecture.

KOREA

The South Korea Lee was born into was ruled by a right-wing dictator who had come to power in a military coup, General Park Chung-hee, who ruled with an iron fist from 1963 to 1979. Park inaugurated a series of five year plans designed to modernise Korean society and the economy at breakneck speed.

But Lee’s parents were left-wing dissidents and, although they weren’t arrested, were subjected to harassment, periodic house searches, banned from government employment and hassled into keeping on the move, never settling long in one place.

Thus Lee’s childhood memories are of often cold and bleak makeshift homes and the oppressiveness of the authorities set against a vista of brave new towns, cities, motorways and buildings built quickly of shoddy cement, destined soon to crumble and become seedy and derelict.

THE FAILURE OF UTOPIAS

Amidst all the other ‘issues’ addressed in the art, it was this latter notion – the failure of utopianism – which interested me most. It seems to me that we are currently living through just such an epoch of failure, the slow-motion failure of the dream of a digital future.

Having worked in four British government departments or agencies on their websites and IT projects for the past eight years I have seen all manner of cock-ups and mismanagement – the collapse of the unified NHS project, the likely failure of the system for Universal Credit which was launched in 2010 and still doesn’t work properly, let alone the regular bank failures like the recent TSB collapse. All this before you consider the sinister implications of the recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica-U.S. Presidential elections debacle.

I have also observed the negative impact of phones and laptops on my own children i.e. they have both become phone addicts. As a result of all this I have very strong, and generally negative, opinions about ‘the Digital Future’.

That’s why I warmed to this aspect of the work of Chinese art superstar, Ai Weiwei, as displayed at the 2015 Royal Academy retrospective of his work. Twitter, Facebook and all the rest of them sell themselves as agents of ‘liberation’ whereas they are, quite obviously in my opinion, implements of a new kind of surveillance society, instruments of turbo-charged consumerism, and the tools of Russian hackers and any number of other unknown forces.

Yet people love them, ignore the scandals, can’t give up their phones or Facebook accounts, and big corporation, banks and governments carry on piling all their services online as if nothing could possibly go wrong with this technology.

With all this in mind I was surprised that there was no mention anywhere of the digital utopia, of digital technology, of phones and screens and big data anywhere in this big exhibition. Instead the utopias Lee Bul is concerned with seemed to me very dated. People wearing futuristic (manga) outfits or living in futuristic cities – this all seemed very Flash Gordon to me, very old tech, a very 1950s and 60s definition of what the future is going to look like.

This feeling that her art is very retro in its vision was crystallised by one of her most iconic works, which was a star feature of the 20th Sydney Biennale in 2016 – the enormous foil zeppelin – Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon.

I’m perfectly aware that the Hindenburg Zeppelin is an enduring symbol of technological hubris and disaster – that it burst into flames and crashed to the ground in 1937. I’ve seen the black and white film footage many times, I’ve even watched the terrible 1975 disaster movie they made about it.

Willing To Be Vulnerable is one of Lee’s most recent works and yet… isn’t it a very old reference to a long-ago event. It would be like discussing the rise of right-wing populism by reference to Adolf Hitler (German Chancellor when the Hindenburg crashed). It’s a plausible reference, sort of, but it’s not very up to date, is it? It’s not where we are now.

And then again, it isn’t even a detailed or accurate model of the Hindenburg. It’s just a big shiny balloon. An awesomely big shiny balloon. My kids would love it. I couldn’t really see it interrogating or questioning anything.

ARCHITECTURE

The grandiose rhetoric of Korean President Park Chung-hee’s regime, and its relative failure to build the utopia it promised, also explain the strong theme of architecture throughout the exhibition.

When you look closer, you realise that the big model of the kind-of super highway emerging from a phallic mountain – Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… – pictured above, is accompanied by a series of paintings and sketches on the walls showing aspects of architecture, visions and fantasies of architecture which come to ruin.

They are subtler, quieter work which would be easy to overlook in the first impact of all the big models and installations. I particularly liked one collage painting which gives an impression of some kind of disaster involving a glass and chrome skyscraper. The idea – urban apocalypse, skyscrapers in ruins – has been done thousands of times – but I admired the layout and design of it, the shape of the main image with its ‘feeler’-like hairs at the left, and the way the small fragment floats freely above it.

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable - Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable – Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

POLITICAL CRITICISM

Again, it’s only if you read the wall labels and exhibition guide quite carefully that you realise there is a thread of political satire running through the show. In room one, in between the more striking cyborgs hanging from the ceiling, are a couple of small mannequin models of President Park, naked, in full anatomical detail (reminiscent in the way they’re less than life size and so somehow feeble and vulnerable, of Ron Mueck’s mannequins of his naked dead dad, back in the 1997 Sensation exhibition).

Next to the ‘bat cave’ installation (Bunker), which I described above, is what at first seems like an enormous ‘rock’, made out of some kind of plastic. It’s titled Thaw and if you look closer you just about see another model of President Park, wearing his trademark dark sunglasses, as if he’s been frozen in ice in some alternative science fiction history, and is only waiting to thaw out and rise again…

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Next to this is a very big installation of a bath. Unusually, you are allowed to walk across the tiled floor which makes up a good part of the installation, towards the bath itself – a big rectangular affair as if in a sauna or maybe in the bath rooms of some kind of collective housing – to discover that it is ringed with what looks like white meringue tips, and that the bath itself is full of black ink.

This is Heaven and Hell and without the exhibition guide there’s no way you’d be able to guess that it commemorates Park Jong-chul, a student protester who was tortured and killed by the South Korean security services in a bathtub in 1987.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Thinking about political art, Peter Kennard’s blistering photomontages flaying political leaders such as Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair come to mind, for example the enormous photomontage of Tony Blair plastered with images of atrocities from the Iraq War which was on display at the recent Age of Terror exhibition at the Imperial war Museum.

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, with a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State, a photomontage by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, and a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

There is nothing that overt or emotional here. Everything is much more controlled, inflected, allusive. Given that Lee Bul is sometimes referred to as a political artist, there’s nothing at all that – for me anyway – packed any kind of real political punch.

WOMEN’S BODIES / DESIRE

With a certain inevitability, what the exhibition probably showcases most consistently is Lee Bul’s identity as a woman artist coming from a society which was extremely repressive, not only of political dissent, but of any form of feminism or gender politics.

The historical timeline tells us that a women’s movement only got going in Korea in the later 1980s and that Lee Bul was an enthusiastic part of it. It tells us that her earliest work went beyond sculpture to explore the possibilities of performance art.

Thus room two contains six screens on which we see some of Lee’s performances – ‘provocative performance works involving her own body’, as the commentary describes them – which she carried out between 1989 and 1996.

In Abortion (1989) she suspended herself from the ceiling of an auditorium for two hours and entertained the audience with lines from poems and pop songs as well as a description of her own abortion, a medical procedure which is still, to this day, apparently, illegal in South Korea.

The Monsters at the start of the show, the wriggly worm creations, turn out to be costumes which Lee wore either writhing around on the ground or walking the streets in order to question received ideas about X and subvert assumptions about Y.

Throughout the exhibition the ‘issue’ of gender and the ‘problematics’ of the female body are reiterated. For example, the timeline of women in Korean society describes ‘the rise of a generation of artists concerned with the representation of the female body‘ who also began ‘subverting the way that women are depicted in the media’.

The guide explains that

at the core of Lee’s recent work is an investigation into landscape, which for the artist includes the intimate landscape of the body

It turns out the her interest in the manga-style cyborgs comes less from a feeling for science fiction tropes or ideas around artificial intelligence and the possibility of improving human bodies by combining them with machine parts (from pacemakers to prosthetic limbs), no, she

is interested in what the figure of the cyborg – a transhuman hybrid of flesh and machine – can tell us about desire, our relationship to technology, and cultural attitudes towards the female body.

Or, as the press release puts it:

Shaped by her experience of growing up in South Korea during a period of political upheaval, much of Lee Bul’s work is concerned with trauma, and the way that idealism or the pursuit of perfection – bodily, political or aesthetic – might lead to failure, or disaster. Questioning women’s place in society, particularly Korean society, she also addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of ‘feminine’ beauty.

Actually, rather like the so-called ‘political’ works (Thaw and Heaven and Hell) I only discovered that Lee was addressing the ways popular culture shapes our idea of femininity or questions cultural attitudes towards the female body by reading the guidebook. It really wasn’t that obvious from just seeing the works themselves. The three or four cyborg fragments hanging from the ceiling are probably, but not very obviously, female. They could belong to any gender, and be about anything.

Later on there are a couple of ‘busts’ made of lurid plastic of human thoraxes encased in cyber-armour but they aren’t very obviously female. The fact that they’re made of garish pink plastic and the design of the manga-style armour is the striking thing about them.

In one or two of the videos, the artist is seen naked or semi-naked, which even I picked up on as probably a reference to the female body, although I’ve never understood how young, nubile women artists stripping off is meant to subvert anything. To me it plays directly to society’s expectation that the most important or interesting thing about nubile young women is their nubile young bodies.

But if you hadn’t been told by the exhibition website, press release, guide and wall labels that her work ‘questions ideas of femininity’ I’m not sure you’d particularly notice.

I was, for example, surprised to learn that the silver zeppelin ‘addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of feminine beauty’. Really?

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Via Negativa II

I haven’t yet mentioned another of the really impressive installations, Via Negativa II (2014) which is a maze made out of metal sheets suspended on stands, a bit like the stands you get at conferences but arranged to create an entrance into a convoluted labyrinth of shiny metal plates.

It’s not a very big maze – only three people are allowed in at a time. The ‘justification’ or ‘idea’ behind it? Well, the walls are covered with a text by an American psychologist, Julian Jaynes, in which he argued that early humans experienced a split consciousness when messages from one hemisphere of the brain to the other were experienced as auditory hallucinations. To make it art, the text is printed in a mirror image of itself i.e you can’t actually read it. You’d need to hold up a mirror to the text to see it printed properly.

I suppose this small metal maze is designed to recreate that sense of mild hallucination that Jaynes describes. At its heart there is certainly a great experience when you find yourself in a cubicle dominated by grids of yellow lights reflected to infinity in parallel mirrors. The other two visitors and I all jostled for the best position to take photos from. Maybe it’s meant to make you think about something, but it’s also just a great tourist photo opportunity.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

This is all great fun, but is it ‘questioning the limits of the human’ or ‘interrogating cultural ideas of the female’? Not really.

The international language of art

In fact, you don’t learn very much about the art or culture or history of Korea from this exhibition nor even – surprisingly – about feminism.

What comes over loud and clear is that this is now the international language of art – the same kind of brash, confident, well-manufactured, high concept work which you also see being produced by (the workshops of) Ai Weiwei, Damien Hirst, and numerous other superstars.

(Hirst sprang to mind as soon as I saw Lee Bul’s Majestic Splendour, a work consisting of rows of decomposing fish with sequins on, from 1997 which, of course, echoes Hirst’s A Thousand Years, a vitrine containing a cow’s decomposing head which he displayed in 1990. Great minds think alike.)

Not long ago I visited the fascinating exhibition of everyday products from North Korea held at the House of Illustration behind King’s Cross station. There I learned about the unique political system, the Cult of the Leader and the special economic policy (Juche) of North Korea. I learned about the importance of opera, theatre and enormous public performance in their culture, about the way the Korean language lends itself to blocky futuristic design, and about their fondness for a much brighter, more acid colour palette than we in the West are used to.

In Lee Bul’s exhibition I don’t think I learned anything at all about South Korea apart from being reminded of the name of its military dictator, and that its repressive military dictatorship was, well, repressive.

For me this exhibition shows that whatever her origins, whatever her personal biography may have been (the difficult childhood, the early anti-establishment and feminist performances), Lee Bul is now – in 2018 – on a par with Ai and Hirst in creating aroma-less, origin-free, international objets d’art for the delectation of equally rootless, cosmopolitan art critics, and for transnational buyers and billionaire investors.

I went to the press launch where the show was introduced by the director of Hayward Gallery – the American Ralph Rugoff – and the show’s curator – the German Stephanie Rosenthal. As they spoke I was struck by how all three of the people behind the microphones were members of an international art élite, a cosmopolitan, transnational art world which seems impossibly glamorous to those of us forced to earn our livings in the country of our birth and unable to jet off to international biennales in Venice and Sydney, to visit art shows at the Met in New York or the Foundation Cartier in Paris or the Mori Gallery in Tokyo or the Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul (all places where Lee has exhibited). Wow. What a glamorous jet-setting life!

Summary

This is a very well-put together overview of the career to date of one of the world’s most successful and distinctive artists. It’s packed with big, bold, funky, cool objects and installations.

If you think art needs to be ‘about’ something, then you will enjoy the way the commentary invokes issues around the female body, around social utopias, about architecture and landscape, about the interface of technology and humans, to explain Lee’s work.

Or, like me, you may come to the conclusion that these issues, ideas and texts may well be important to motivate and inspire the artist, to get her juices flowing – but that most of the works can just be enjoyed in and of themselves, as highly inventive three-dimensional objects – fun, strange, colourful, jokey – without requiring any sort of ‘meaning’ or ‘interpretation’.


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of other Hayward Gallery exhibitions

The Korean War by Max Hastings (1987)

This book

This account of the Korean War (1950-53) is thirty years old this year, and so dates from before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Nevertheless, although there are several shorter accounts on the market, this seems to be the only lengthy, in-depth, narrative history of the Korean War in print – an indication of the general lack of interest in the war, both at the time and since (compare and contrast the number of books which come out every year about WW2 or Vietnam).

Why the neglect? The Korean War lacked the scale of the Second World War, so only a relatively small number of soldiers’ families were involved. Around 100,000 British troops were posted to Korea in total, but the British population was more concerned with its own problems – ongoing food rationing, a general election – or the Soviet threat on the continent of Europe. Who cared whether Korea was partitioned along this line or that line?

a) The war was on the other side of the world and
b) After the dramatic reverses of the first year of the conflict, the latter two years dwindled down to a grinding stalemate, demoralising and inglorious. In the end there was no Allied victory (as in WW2), merely a ceasefire which created a border not very much different from the pre-war line. So it turned out to have been a boring, faraway war which achieved nothing.

Background to the partition of Korea

A newcomer to the subject might ask, Why was Korea partitioned between north and south at the 38th parallel in the first place?

To go back a bit, Japan had interfered in Korea’s affairs since the late 19th century. In 1905 Japan made Korea a protectorate; in 1907 the Japanese took control of Korean domestic affairs and disbanded their army; and in 1910 Japan formally annexed Korea.

In the following decades Japan forced some 100,000 Koreans to join the Imperial Japanese Army, and up to 200,000 Korean women were forced into sexual slavery to service Japanese soldiers in Korea and Japanese-occupied China.

Then in 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria, the huge block of territory between northern China and Russia, and in 1937 attacked the rest of the coastal regions of China (as well as into Indochina, Malaya, Burma and so on). Korea was the earliest conquest of Japan’s Far Eastern empire.

Korea became an armed camp, in which mass executions  and wholesale imprisonment were commonplace, and all dissent forbidden. (p.16)

When the Second World War broke out in Europe, Stalin was careful to remain at peace with Japan. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Japanese did not declare war on Russia or attack in Siberia, which they could easily have done from their base in Manchuria. Stalin, for his part, maintained Russian neutrality even after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941 thus provoking war with America, and Japan and Russia remained at peace right up to the closing days of the war.

In February 1945, at the Yalta conference, Stalin promised Roosevelt and Churchill that he would enter the war against Japan but he delayed till the last minute. (This, among other things, meant that the Japanese government held out the vain hope right into August 1945 that ‘neutral’ Russia would somehow stand up for them and negotiate good surrender terms with the Allies – a delusion.) So Stalin’s Soviet Union only abandoned its policy of neutrality and declared war on Japan on 9 August 1945. A huge Soviet army crossed the border from Siberia into Japanese-occupied Manchuria and swept south.

A glance at the map shows that the southern border of Manchuria is mostly sea, the Sea of Japan to the east and the Yellow Sea to the west of the Korean peninsula, which dangles down from the Chinese mainland like an Asian Scandinavia. So, with the goal of attacking the Japanese wherever they found them, it was natural that the invading Soviet army crossed the Chinese-Korea border (formed by the Yalu river) and headed south into the peninsula, defeating Japanese forces as they went.

‘Suddenly’ the Americans who, according to Hastings hadn’t really considered the strategic significance of Korea, realised they didn’t want Stalin to occupy the entire peninsula create a communist stronghold so close to soon-to-be-defeated Japan. So the Americans requested Stalin to halt his forces and informed him that American forces would invade Korea from the south.

Two American officers were put in charge of figuring out where the dividing line should be between the uneasy allies. Poring over a map, they reached the ‘hasty’ decision that the 38th parallel was a handy dividing line: it more or less divided the country in two, with the capital Seoul, the best agriculture and industry, and most of the population, to the south i.e. in the American sector.

President Roosevelt duly contacted Stalin with the request that he stop his forces at the 38th parallel and, to the Americans’ surprise, Stalin readily agreed. Stalin didn’t want to risk confrontation with the ally he was working so closely with in Europe, and was also very aware of the atom bombs the Americans had just dropped on Japan. Yeah, sure, you can keep half of Korea.

(There is a nice irony here, that the Americans from Roosevelt down were vehement opponents of the European empires, and actively tried to sabotage the return to European imperial rule of Burma, Malaya or Indochina. But quite quickly they found themselves dragged into drawing precisely the kind of arbitrary lines and borders which they had criticised the Europeans for making in Africa and the Middle East. The existence of separate states of North and South Korea and the fates, the life chances and premature deaths of tens of millions of Koreans, were determined by this hurried decision made in the last gasp of the Second World War.)

North and South Korea

So Stalin stopped his troops at the 38th parallel, when he could easily have pressed on and seized the entire peninsula. American forces landed at Incheon on September 8 and liberated southern Korea from their Japanese occupiers. In time both countries put their own regimes in place in their sector, the Soviets basing their government in the northern city of Pyongyang, the Americans in the traditional capital, Seoul, permanently crystallising the distinction between communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea.

While the Russians proceeded with their standard process of step-by-step managing the local communists into government and then picking off the opposition one by one to create a mini Stalinist state, Hastings describes the Americans as making a number of important mistakes in the South.

For a start, the Americans found the native Koreans completely unused to governing their own country. Thus, against their intentions, in the early days they ended up being forced to work closely with the now-defeated Japanese authorities, for the simple reason that the Japs had the experienced men in place to carry on carrying out the function of the state. Only slowly were these replaced by native Koreans, and then the Americans had the devil of a time selecting which of the many groups of clamouring Korean politicians to choose to run things.

As the threat from Soviet communism became more palpable into 1946, the Americans found themselves setting up a government run by the smooth-talking, right-wing émigré Syngman Rhee. Hastings recounts how left-of-centre Korean groups were too quickly marginalised because of the taint of communism and how the Americans, despite their best intentions, found themselves installing Rhee, and then coming to regret the choice of such a corrupt, brutal figure. Rhee ended up being president of South Korea from 1948 to 1960 and was an early example of the kind of brutal, repressive and corrupt right-wing regime which the Americans would find themselves supporting again and again throughout the Cold War.

This had the result of fuelling left-wing and communist agitation against his government, which led to a spiral of repression, and left many Americans feeling ambivalent and uneasy in their support for Rhee. This was epitomised by a reluctance to arm his air force, artillery and infantry with more than a token minimum of equipment, since there was good evidence that arms were mainly used against his own civilian population.

Meanwhile, throughout the late 1940s North Korea kept up a steady stream of propaganda broadcasts to the south, designed to appeal to all Korean patriots, calling for the reunification of the country, as well as predictable calls for the overthrow of Rhee and his unlikeable clique. In the spring of 1950 this rhetoric became steadily more heated and experts in the U.S. State Department warned of the growing threat of some kind of attack by the North on the South. The American government, under President Harry Truman, had its hands full coping with crises in the more obvious cockpit of the Cold War, Europe, beset by a sequence of crises including the Berlin Airlift from June 1948 to May 1949, the communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, and so on.

The Korean War

1. The North invades Thus it came as a complete surprise to the world when Kim Il-Sung’s North Korean army invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950. The United Nations immediately voted it an illegal act and sent forces to stop the advance. These were at first mostly American, but in time came to consist of a coalition including other Western countries and eventually 20 nations from round the world. But before this could be organised, the North Koreans succeeded in storming through the south, pushing the under-equipped demoralised Republic of Korea’s army back until it and its American support were, by September 1950, pinned into a pocket in the south-east of the peninsula, the Pusan area.

2. Landing at Inchon Not only did the Americans reinforce their troops who fought bravely to hold the line at Pusan but General MacArthur, the hero of the Pacific War, who had been ruling post-war Japan as American Vice-Consul, now conceived his last great strategic coup, which was to organise a massive American amphibious landing at Inchon in mid-September 1950, on the coast near Seoul, thus attacking the North Koreans in their rear, and threatening their supply lines.

The Americans broke out of the Pusan pocket and drove north, pushing back the demoralised and exhausted North Koreans, back across the 38th parallel and further north. At this point Hastings’ account dwells on the massive disagreements within the American administration on whether or not the Allies should halt at the parallel or press on to take the entire peninsula. This latter view prevailed and the American, ROK and other UN national forces (British and Commonwealth as well as a large contingent from Turkey) pressed north.

3. China enters the war Allied forces had come within sight of the Yalu river which forms the border between Korea and China when they were horrified to learn that a vast contingent of the People’s Republic of China had crossed the border and was attacking along the line. Briefly, sheer weight of numbers overran Allied positions, creating confusion and panic, and it is chastening to read accounts of Allied troops dropping their guns and equipment and running in panic fear. The Chinese routed the Allies, pushing them relentlessly southwards back towards the 38th parallel.

Hastings excels, in this book as in his later one about the War in the Pacific, at combining at least three levels of analysis:

  • Carefully chosen eye witness accounts (from letters, diaries and reports made at the time along with highlights of the scores of interviews with veterans which he conducts for each book).
  • Detailed descriptions, with maps, of specific battles and the broader military situation.
  • But what I enjoyed most is Hasting’s ability to pull out of this narrow focus to explain in detail the strategic and geopolitical issues behind the war. Thus there is a lot of analysis throughout the book of the conflicting aims and strategies of the Allies, and particularly within the US administration and armed forces. It is riveting to read how war aims a) can be so contradictory and fiercely debated within a set of allies b) change over time according to all sorts of pressures, like domestic opposition, political attacks from opponents, looming elections, threats elsewhere.

4. Shall we bomb China? The largest issue raised by the Chinese victories and our troops’ humiliating defeats was whether to broaden the war to attack China itself i.e. why only fight the Chinese forces inside Korea, why not bomb mainland China, as we did Germany and Japan? 1. The scattered terrain of hilly Korea, lacking main roads and railways, and the methodology of the communists, moving across country, made it difficult to attack enemy formations in Korea. 2. All their supplies were coming from factories in China, and Chinese MiG jets were flying from airfields in China – why not attack those?

The highpoint of this point of view, strongly espoused by senior figures in the US army and air force, was MacArthur’s request that the Allies use the atom bomb against Chinese forces not only in Korea, but against Chinese cities. The army drew up a list of twenty possible targets. Imagine!

Within Truman’s own cabinet there were – as always – hawks and doves, with some supporting broadening the war, others strongly against. In the event, Truman took the cautious line, and posterity has to agree. If both sides, by tacit consent, limited their confrontation to within the peninsula, it was containable and manageable. In February 1950 Russia and China had signed a defensive alliance committing each to go to war if the other party was attacked, so if the UN forces had bombed Chinese cities, would Russia have been forced to come to China’s defense? Would it have triggered World War III? Was it worth taking the risk?

Hastings brings out how US hawks saw the conflict in terms of the global Cold War against communism. The gruesome way Soviet-backed regimes were established across Europe and the victory of Mao Zedong’s communists in China in 1949, gave a very real sense that communism was advancing on all fronts. The North Korean attack fitted right in with that view of the democratic West being under sustained attack, and revelations of the extent of Soviet spies inside the atom bomb programme and throughout the US establishment, go a long way to explaining the mounting hysteria epitomised by the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Unamerican Activities Committee. Truman had to stand up against a great deal of pressure, within the military establishment, from the McCarthyites, from some sections of the media and public opinion, in refusing to widen the war. 60 years later we pay him credit.

Only very slowly, did some parts of the US administration come to realise that China’s motives stemmed at least from simple nationalism as from world communist conspiracies. A captured Chinese soldier is quoted as saying, ‘How would you like your enemies armies, complete with atom bombs, parked just across your 450-mile-long border?’ If the Americans hadn’t pushed on north beyond the parallel, maybe the Chinese wouldn’t have been prompted to invade. Maybe a lot of lives could have been saved.

5. Stalemate Of course, the decision not to widen the war i.e. attack the Chinese mainland – condemned a lot of American, British Commonwealth and UN troops to ongoing slog, battle, injury and death. In December 1950 Lieutenant-General Matthew B. Ridgway took over command of the US Eighth Army and began to turn it around. Retrained, re-equipped and remotivated, his forces held the Chinese and then began to press northwards, retaking Seoul in March 1951, and pressing forward to the parallel.

Throughout this period General MacArthur, in overall command of US forces in the Far East, had given interviews and communicated to representatives of other governments his wish to expand the war, often in direct conflict to the stated aims of the US administration. Eventually, President Truman felt compelled to relieve him of his command on 10 April 1951. This caused a storm of protest within the military, in Congress and among the general public, for whom MacArthur was a great American hero. Truman’s popularity fell to the lowest ever recorded for a US President. And without it being the immediate intention, MacArthur’s sacking sent out a strong message to America’s allies, to China and Russia, that the United States did not intend to attack China, did not even intend to seize the whole Korean peninsula, but would settle for the much more limited aim of returning to the status quo ante.

As spring 1951 turned to summer, the front line advanced and receded around the parallel, slowly settling into a stalemate. A year after the initial invasion, the armies were back more or less where they had started. The North Koreans reluctantly agreed to open ceasefire talks and protracted armistice negotiations began on 10 July 1951 at Kaesong, before moving to the neighbouring village of Panmunjom. Due to the intransigence of the North and the Chinese, these talks dragged on for two long years, while on the ground there was a steady stream of offensives and counter-offensives, none of which really changed the strategic picture, but in which a lot of soldiers died pointlessly on both sides.

The narrative pauses at this point for a series of chapters looking at specific aspects of the war:

  • The war in the air, where the West learned for the first time the limits of air power – something which was to be repeated in Vietnam – and for the first time jet fighter fought jet fighter, Soviet MiGs against US Sabres.
  • The creation more or less from scratch of a U.S. intelligence operation, which featured a number of gung-ho operations behind the lines but precious little usable intelligence. I was tickled to read that the CIA’s Seoul station had 200 officers, but not a single speaker of Korean, an attitude of uninterest in local cultures and languages which the Americans repeated later in Vietnam and the Middle East.
  • The issue of communist prisoners of war, whose numbers had risen to some 130,000 by the end of the war and whose repatriation back to the North became one of the big stumbling blocks of the peace negotiations.

The mounting frustration at having to fight and die in bloody, futile engagements while the diplomats at Panmunjom, just a few miles away, drew the peace negotiations out with unbearable delays, is well depicted in this 1959 movie, Pork Chop Hill. It illustrates the brutality and heavy losses incurred for insignificant hilltops, the effectiveness of Chinese propaganda broadcast to Allied troops by loudspeaker across the front line, and the widespread demoralisation of the American soldiers with many, perhaps most, of them expressing intense doubt about what they were fighting for and whether it was worth it.

Hard not to see foreshadowings of the irresolution and crushing sense of futility which were to bedevil the Vietnam War.

6. Ceasefire Josef Stalin died in March 1953 and Soviet policy went into a shadowy period of uncertainty. Meanwhile, Republican President Eisenhower replaced Democrat President Truman. Part of his campaign had included the pledge to bring the war to an end. These final stages include the unnerving plans made by the new administration to: massively boost South Korean armed forces; bomb China north of the Yalu; deploy the new artillery-fired nuclear weapons the US had developed; and to transport Chinese Nationalist fighters from Formosa to the Chinese mainland to carry out guerrilla operations (p.473). These aims were communicated to the Soviets and Chinese and at last broke the logjam. In April the communist delegates at Panmunjom began to respond to suggestions.

Ironically, the final stumbling block turned out to be the obstinate dictator of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, who was refused by America’s decision to ‘abandon’ his nation and refused to agree to a ceasefire or sign the agreement. The Americans, not for the last time, found themselves struggling to contain a right-wing leader of their own creation, but by immense pressure managed to prevent Rhee actively sabotaging the negotiations. It is rather staggering to learn that they developed a plan for kidnapping Rhee and overthrowing his government if he refused to play ball (plan EVER-READY p.479).

On 27 July 1953 a ceasefire was finally declared and a demilitarised zone (DMZ) created either side of the ceasefire line. Legally, the war has never ended and this, along with the belligerent rhetoric which has continued to pour out of Pyongyang, along with the occasional terrorist atrocity and a trickle of shooting incidents across the DMZ, explains why South Koreans have lived in a state of tension and high alert for the past 64 years.

And now that Kim Il-sung’s son and successor as Great Leader, Kim Jong-il, has developed nuclear weapons and is testing long-range missiles to deliver them, who knows what further trouble this barren peninsula might cause.

Stats

  • 1,319,000 Americans served in Korea, of whom 33,629 were killed and 105,785 wounded
  • The South Korean army lost 415,000 killed and 429,000 wounded
  • The Commonwealth lost 1,263 killed and 4,817 wounded
  • The Americans estimate that 1.5 million Chinese and North Koreans died, but this is an educated guess
  • Wikipedia reports that some 2.5 million Koreans, north and south, were killed or wounded

This huge loss of civilian and military lives is captured in Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War from 2004, a phenomenally violent Korean film directed by Kang Je-gyu, and saturated with blood-spattering special effects.

The lessons of history

The Korean War is interesting for a number of reasons:

  1. as a dramatic and very hard-fought war in and of itself
  2. as the first armed confrontation between two superpowers in the Cold War
  3. as a template for the Vietnam War

It’s the latter which is, at this distance of time, maybe the most resonant. Their convincing win against Japan gave the Americans the sense that overwhelming might on land and sea and in the air guaranteed victory. Korea disabused them of this confidence. In Korea the Americans stumbled upon issues which were to plague them 15 years later in Vietnam:

  • the difficulty of supporting an unpopular native regime
  • the problems of creating a native army to support an unpopular regime, in a corrupt and inefficient society
  • the cost of underestimating an Asian army
  • the difficulty of using air power, no matter how overwhelming, against a peasant army with no identifiable infrastructure – this wasn’t like bombing German or Japanese factories
  • the difficulty of deploying a highly mechanised army in broken country against a lightly armed, highly mobile enemy (p.xvi)

This is an excellent, thorough, well-written and gratifyingly intelligent account of an important war which, paradoxically, makes it clear why it has been so often overlooked by historians in the Allied countries which fought in it, namely America and Britain. It powerfully explains why fighting a pointless war in a faraway country for an ugly regime was so unpopular at the time and has been neglected ever since.

P.S. Japan

Big strategic history like this is full of ironies. I was delighted to learn that the Korean War helped to set Japan on its feet again and kick-started its astonishing post-war economic recovery, helped along by the vast amounts of money poured into the country which served as ‘aircraft carrier, repair base, store depot, commissariat, hospital, headquarters and recreation centre’ for the UN forces in the Far East (p.444). Every cloud has a silver lining.


Credit

The Korean War by Max Hastings was published in 1987 by Michael Joseph. All quotes and references are to the 2010 Pan Macmillan paperback.

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