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Mina Cheon: Addressing Dolls

At C. Grimaldis Gallery Through March 29

"99 Miss Kim(s)," detail.

By Kate Noonan | Posted 3/26/2008

Mina Cheon's Addressing Dolls

Through March 29 at C. Grimaldis Gallery

Mina Cheon, a Korean-American artist and Maryland Institute College of Art professor, examines Korean-American political tensions and the Korean national identity through the lens of gender and costume in her current exhibition at C. Grimaldis Gallery. By using women and their social identifiers, Cheon exposes the influence of Western ideals in South Korea, along with dual fears and fetishes regarding North Korea. In addition, she plays with the ideas of multiples and mass production to comment on capitalist economic issues affecting both North and South in two very different ways. In doing so, Cheon reinforces the dichotomy placed upon the two countries through the eyes of the Western outsider, and at the same time comments through the eyes of a citizen.

Her bold and jarring installation "99 Miss Kim(s)" presents a series of 99 identical "femme-bots" that commemorates the Sept. 9 anniversary of Kim Il Sung's rise to power with the establishment of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in 1948. Outfitted in stylized North Korean army uniforms and perched atop kinky patent-leather platform boots, the throng of handmade dolls, whose prototype is displayed separately, are individually encased in clear tubes and mounted against a Communist-red wall. Confronting you as you first step into the gallery, the work plays upon latent American fears of Kim Jong Il's million-man army.

"Kim(s)," which refers to not only North Korea's "Dear Leader" but also the most common Korean surname, gives the impression of a brainwashed and disposable army. At the same time, these impossibly idealized femme-bots address Southern male fantasies regarding Northern women, who are perceived as more authentically Korean than their Westernized Southern counterparts. Yet there is also a level of ridiculousness to the installation. Encased in their plastic packages and displayed on a wall of shelves, "99 Miss Kim(s)" gives the impression of a retail toy store, wherein the Axis of Evil army is reduced to a collection of harmless children's playthings. Here we are clearly addressing dolls, a nonsensical act upon which writer Brian Willems ruminates in the exhibition essay.

Interestingly, Cheon's use of handmade multiples in her installation also calls to mind North Korea's own lack of industry in stark contrast to South Korea's booming economy. Where North Korea's agriculture-based economy has floundered for decades, as an isolated country with little legitimate trade, South Korea has built a healthy economy by openly embracing commerce with the rest of Asia and the West. Mass-produced items--from electronics and cars to toys stamped with "Made in Korea"--flood the American market, bringing a new kind of wealth to prosperous cities such as Seoul, South Korea's capital.

Where "99 Miss Kim(s)" presents women as militarized femme-bots, Cheon's "Dresses for Different Events" series offers a decidedly different use of women as a political tool. Scanned and enlarged images of Cheon's own collection of actual paper-doll garments--ranging from stylized Korean dance dresses to beauty-queen costumes--display the influence of Western ideals in seemingly innocuous products marketed to Korean children in the 1970s. Each dress is assigned a particular function--Dance Dress, Party Dress, Home Dress--which affirmed gender roles and ideals of beauty to the young girls who played with them. These beauty and fashion ideals, in turn, imparted a Westernized view and in fact, served as a gentle form of propaganda. Conversely, in the North, Kim Jong Il's mammoth monuments and self-serving propaganda present a direct political and societal message that dictates, rather than implyies, an accepted school of thought.

Addressing Dolls, the second grouping in series of works conceived after a visit to North Korea, was first exhibited in Seoul, where it was met with controversy. Here, Cheon continues to look at conflict as it exists on not only national and international levels, but more intimately on a personal scale. Further exemplifying the dual Koreas, she uses her Westernized name for the exhibition, Mina Cheon, rather than her Korean name, Cheon Min-Jung. As she is both Korean and American, Cheon is both an insider and an outsider, and like the divided nation of Korea, she maintains two seemingly disparate but inherently unified identities, adding a deeper personal connection to her works, which, particularly in the case of the dress prints, are completely devoid of the artist's hand.

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Tags: Mina Cheon, north korea, south korea, grimaldis gallery

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