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Dokdo: a Korean artist’s heart in the East SeaJeon Jong-cheol’s passion for disputed territory inspires monumental art project and shines light on less-than-neighborly dispute
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승인 2013.08.13  16:45:32
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▲ The disputed Dokdo islets, known as Takeshima in Japan. Photo courtesy Jeon Jong-cheol

Dokdo, the disputed territory in the East Sea claimed by both Korea and Japan, arouses an intensity of feeling in Koreans that can only be described in one way: Passion.

Passion is precisely what installation artist Jeon Jong-cheol exudes. As we talk about his latest project, a floating installation in the East Sea, his attachment to nation is both bewildering and impressive. When asked what Dokdo represents, he responds:

“Our history.”

The Seogwipo-based artist, currently with a residency at the Lee Jung Seop Creative Art Studio, says his years abroad in Germany, where he studied for five years, only served to confirm his sense of self.

“Koreanness is inherent within me. It has never changed.”

▲ Artist Jeon Jong-cheol who has a residency at the Lee Jung-seop Studio in Seogwipo City.Photo courtesy Jeon Jong-cheol

Jeon arrived in the erstwhile divided nation in 1990 to study art at Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Stuttgart. He says Germany allowed his art to grow in directions free from the dictates of artistic convention. The Berlin Wall was being torn down before his eyes and he knew destiny was calling him.

“I was in Germany at the time of unification and I remember people telling me the same would happen to Korea. It really inspired me,” he said.

Jeon was also touched by the lengths Germany had gone to to atone for its crimes under the Nazi regime. Again drawing parallels with his own Korean identity, he saw Germany educate its people and engage with its neighbors. Jeon laments it is an approach not yet seen in Japan, Germany’s World War II ally and colonizer of Korea.

“In Japan they teach history as they want to, not as it is. They have not followed the reconciliation path, so it is important to go the silent path, rather than being overt,” he said.

The seed had been sown back in 1990, but it would be more than a decade before Jeon’s art began to sprout the spirit of his patriotism.

▲ 4 million stainless steel balls will float in the East Sea. Photo courtesy Jeon Jong-cheol

The catalyst finally came in 2005, when Shimane Prefecture, Japan, declared Feb. 22 “Takeshima Day.” Reiterating the Japanese government’s claim of ownership over Dokdo - or Takeshima in Japanese - Koreans up and down the peninsula were outraged.

While the streets of Seoul raged with protest, Jeon began incubating ideas. He felt that the correct way to respond would be through an act of creation and imagination.

Symbolizing hope, clarity, positivity and an ideal world, light has always been a motif of Jeon’s work, and it became central to his Dokdo plans, an installation titled "The Lights of Dokdo."

As those plans are laid out before us, their scale take the breath away. 4 million stainless steel spheres floating on 800 by 1000 meters of sea. The Dokdo islets themselves are encompassed as each sphere reflects light across the ocean, as beacons of truth.

“That is not a scale model, those are the Dokdo islets themselves,” says Jeon, pointing to the installation graphics after sensing seeing my disbelief. The stainless steel not only reflects, he says, but its duality also “captures light.”

▲ A graphic image of the installation showing the 4 million balls floating around the islet's coast. Photo courtesy Jeon Jong-cheol

“The light in the work symbolizes endless energy and is the light of reality. The stainless steel represents the Korean people’s heart,” said Jeon.

Embodying yin and yang, or “eum-yang” in Korean, and the natural interdependence of “ki,” the spherical shapes float around Dokdo as a protective shield of light.

Each of the 4 million balls that encircle the islets reflect up into the skies, in a symbolic message to the world. Jeon is not concerned about the Japanese reaction to such a monumental feat.

“If they react in a belligerent way, there might be an international backlash. That could be positive for Korea,” Jeon said.

The project is still at the “master plan” stage, with final funds being sought. To bring this closer, Jeon, along with Artists for Dokdo Love, a non-profit organization under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is to hold an awareness event on Jeju Island on Aug. 21.

▲ The balls will reflect an image of Dokdo up into the skies in the spirit of truth, says Jeon. Photo courtesy Jeon Jong-cheol

“We will open on Jeju, but it will then go nationwide and we are planning to spread it out internationally, eventually,” said Jeon.

The artist welcomes foreigners to the event as it is an opportunity for them to gain a deeper understanding of the issue, he said. Sponsored by the Northeast Asian History Foundation, the event will feature a variety of artists musicians, and poets.

Jeon believes, “The Dokdo problem must be resolved culturally” and the concert and installation are a means to this. His work in many ways embodies the “silent diplomacy” urged by former foreign minister Gong Moryung. Jeon was in agreement, of sorts.

“Picasso’s Guernica was not intended to be an anti-war symbol, but that is what it became. Art is a cultural and intellectual mode of diplomacy; it can be politics, but in its purity it is art.” he said.

The Dokdo Love Concert will be at the Jeju Stone Park on Tuesday, Aug. 20, at 7 p.m. while the Dokdo Love Program extends over Aug. 20-21, including a seminar and tour.

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