On "Korean Female" Or, the Odiousness and Offensiveness of Mixing the Street Fashion Aesthetic with the Fantasy of Korean High Fashion Advertising

It is an understatement to say that Koreans are obsessively concerned with their nation's image outside of its borders, especially as the White West sees them. The recent tempest-in-a-teapot freakout over Korea's image centers around the alleged insult to Korean women in an ad/art piece for a Dior bag, in this picture. The Korea Herald, with the bombastic title "Dior sparks outrage over photo for 'demeaning Korean women'" and The Korea Times explaining that "Christian Dior apologizes for defamatory ad photo." The most complete story of three i found in English (here's a long list of news articles on it from a Naver search in Korean) is one from the Jakarta Morning post, and is obviously the more complete version of the Korea herald story, which is a bad copy of it. "Culture critic" Jae-geun Ha is quoted and referred to in the KH story incompletely and the JMP really displays the stupidity of the criticism aimed at the image. 

The entire image, uncropped. [ Source ] 

The entire image, uncropped. [Source

Apparently, "culture critic" Ha Jae-geun (apparently, a prominent blogger and both the "culture critic" and the source of the "outrage" that is "online commenters" since no other sources were cited in the story):

The contrasting image of the Korean woman with Dior’s signature bag in the dark alley implies that she sells herself in bars to possess the luxury good, wrote culture critic Ha Jae-keun on the growing public criticism over the luxury house.

This "culture critic" is obviously a complete and utter, blithering idiot. However, he is cited quite often in both the Korea Herald and the Korea Times. In any case,  here's what people should know about reading cultural texts. One has to read a given cultural text, whether it is a popular song, an advertisement, or a film, in a context, i.e. in terms of all of the things that surround the text, that are material factors in its creation. In order to read levels of subtext, which is the realm in which this entire brouhaha is taking place, one has to look very, very carefully at that text. And in the case of an advertisement operating on the level of art, one has to get into the semiotics of the thing. 

So let's get right into it:

Kristeva defines intertextuality on the basis of two axes: a horizontal one connecting the author and reader of a text and a vertical one connecting the text to other texts.[8] As we become aware of the relationship of one text to another, the influence of different social contexts on the production of these texts comes into focus. The literary word is seen “as a dialogue among several writings: that of the writer, the addressee …and the contemporary or earlier cultural context.”[9] The concept of intertextuality, according to Kristeva, questions the originality of a text, with its layers and echoes of accumulated cultural and literary knowledge, which endlessly build on and influence one another. We, as readers—and certainly as editors—produce the meaning of a text we read as part of an ongoing dialogue with it (and its author) according to its context and subtext, and with other texts to which we have been exposed. [10] [SOURCE]

SO, let's be true thinkers, cultural critics, as it were, and engage in the text, where "the influence of different social contexts on the production [of the text]" come together for easy analysis, if you break it down. And sure, there are myriad ways to read a text, but given that there is a finite range of options in which to reasonably contextualiaze the elements of a given text, we can work towards a reasonable interpretation, given a base set of cultural assumptions/facts and the guiding principle of interests and common sense. 

First, let's do a bit of basic research to establish a basic fact of this matter, which helps us establish an important piece of context. Using the took of korean, as well as Korean tools (such as the Naver search engine), it is easy to locate this picture in known social and geographic space. So, starting with the most specific and unique search item -- in this case, the 놀이터룸소주방 or "Playground Hostess Bar-style Karaoke Bar", which is, to my knowledge not a chain nor any place I ever heard of -- it took all of 20 seconds and a single attempt to locate this street. Given the same signs (the crooked, yellow tarot/fortune teller's sign, Han's, and the room salon in question) showing up in the Naver Maps shot, along with the yellow sidewalk paint markings and general shape of the sidewalk, it seems like the right place. There are a lot of signs in the Maps shot not in the offending ad shot, but they were taken at completely different angles and times of day (hence, the inflatable signs, which are usually the ones that hawk for prostitution and heavy drinking establishments and partially constitute the the array of offensive signs not extant in the daytime shot of Jungang-ro (Main Street) in the sleepy city of Gwangju). But parts of the shot lead me to suspect that the image was heavily photoshopped, especially since the Jakarta Post called it a "composite photograph," which it obviously is.

Here's where a bit of context (and close textual reading/just paying goddamn attention) comes in handy. As does doing the due diligence on stuff before writing about it. In any case, after a call to the 놀이터룸소주방) and speaaking with the manager, I confirmed a few things: 1) They exist, and 2) do so on that street in a neighborhood called Hwang-geum-dong, which is downtown Gwangju. 3) This is the center of entertainment and nightlife in Gwangju. And most importantly in this analysis, 4) trash bags are indeed never in view unless in the dead of night or the very early morning, which you can see in the Naver Maps image. 

The location: Gwangju, Korea. 광주광역시 동구 중앙로160번길 25-1 

The location: Gwangju, Korea. 광주광역시 동구 중앙로160번길 25-1 

Gwangju ain't a big town. It's korea's 6th-largest city, with around 1.47 million in population, which doesn't tell you much. But if one knows Korea, there's Seoul (the center of all true civilization and light)  and then there's outside of Seoul (otherwise known as the jibang or the countryside/sticks as an American equivalent, and the place where things are backwards/uninternational/unenlightened/rustic/Korean). It says a lot that this street is shinae (downtown), as the manager emphasized on the phone. The image is quite telling in that regard. And also, it's good to note that this is what many smaller streets, even in Seoul's more popular city centers, looked like this decades ago. Surely, it is not lost on attentive Korean viewers that this is shot likely outside of Seoul, in the jibang. That in itself sends the message that this is Old Korea, Rustic Korea. This is most certainly not "Gangnam Style."  It is crucial to note that one reason all sorts of people, interests, and media stories got behind that representation of Korea is because of how it shows a desired/desireable image of Korea, despite its biting socially satirical subtextual messages, of a rich society filled with shiny, plastic women, European sports cars, skyscrapers, subways, and people engaged in heavily classed activities such as yoga, Pilates, and retirees engaged in domestic tourism. The background of the offending Dior picture that is the subject of our present concern is the antithesis of the Gangnam style. It shows Korea at its most country bumpkin, its most embarrassedly antiquate, and its most reprobrately rustic. That's one thing to consider when thinking about the set of obvious contrasts the picture was constructing for the viewer. 

Semiotically speaking, the picture was dealing in several sets of dualities. The first and most obvious was one set up by the huge and obvious separation between the background and foreground. We have to remember that the image was produced in Gwangju, a city that lies a good deal down the peninsula -- about three hours by normal bus or train -- and defined a pretty large and conscious choice to shoot there and not any brightly lit and busy place in any of many bustling locations in Seoul. If the goal was, as suggested by the "culture critic" Ha, simply to show a place filled with places (known only to Koreans or non-Koreans familiar with not just the Korean language, but the culture) of prostitution, then why not shoot a background in any Gangnam Station back alley or in Non-Hyeon-dong, which are two areas filled with colorful signs, streets littered with room salon/hostess girl bar ad cards, and the neon signage to match? One could make the argument that this would inevitably get too crowded with extraneous people and what the photographer wanted was an background devoid of people, which would explain the choice to get out of the capital city. However, given that the image was a heavily photoshopped composite image anyway, one wonders whether extraneous people in the frame would have been been enough of a problem to warrant shooting up a street all the way down in Gwangju. Had the artist shot at a similar time in the morning as he did in Gwangju -- at say, 6 in the morning or thereabouts -- the scene would have been similarly devoid of people, save a few inevitable stragglers. No, I think the photographer was setting up the background as not merely sordid, but rustic as the main sort of contrast to the pretty and shiny, fancily dressed girl holding an expensive Dior bag. Of course, in the small, urban Korean downtown context, sordid and downtown go together (as do populated and entertaining and lively in the first place).

The background is jibang-style distilled into an image. So, in terms of jibang photographic background, we get an interplay between Seoul or sophisticate in the foreground, as marked by her bag (of course), her (by Korean standards) somewhat risqué dress, and equally risqué, surely 10cm/5-inch heels. She's not a normal, everyday woman. She's sartorially and semiotically marked as socially unusual in her obvious, Korean sexuality. An American woman might away with such a dress at a summer deck cocktail party, but Koreans generally 1) do not have decks, and 2) do not have cocktail parties. And 3), yes, in Korea, it is still quite a thing in polite society to show one's shoulders or any bare chest, even without cleavage -- this dress did both. On aa few levels, the background of jibang was the socially opposite of 1) young women (of which there are almost none to be found because of population and other demographic shifts), and 2) attractive, sophisticated young women (which might actually be the basis of a feeling this woman doesn't logically belong here except as one of the few young women who might be down there to do sex work. Still, I don't think that was part of any purposeful subtextual readings intended to be going on in this image (and after all, we are largely talking about intent in this little scandal) that would override the more obvious jibang-sophisticate contrast obviously being set up here. Any-girl-like-this-in-the-jibang-must-be-a-prostitute doesn't strike me as an intended subtextual message here. Still, it might be an unintended subtextual cue-from-social fact at play. I surmise that's the source of a lot of the social consternation, not to mention fear and loathing, directed at this image and artist. 

We also have to talk about the Korean language itself here, in a common-sense way. First of all, the signage in question in the Dior image is in Korean. Logically speaking (and there is precious little of that in this little tempest-in-a-teapot), no one outside of Korea could conceibvably read any of the signage in the image, and even if a non-Korean speaker could, would still have to possess some specfic cultural knowledge to even know what the linguistic marker of the "room" is, as a normal karoke place is generally marked as  diferent from a room karaoke place in Korean society. The only people getting some sordid subtext from semiotically sexual signs as evidenced from  actual sexual signage would be literate Koreans (of which there are many, since Korean literacy rates are amongst the highest in the world) or Hangul-reading non-Koreans (of which there are still very, very few)

(this next couple sections were originally written by me here)

What I think was really at play here, more than any real, intended subtextual assertions about the sexual mores of the "Korean woman" was an collective, yet individuated anger-as-projection of guilt/shame at a reality Koreans know exists in the figurative background of all that is bright and shiny in Korean culture, which mirrors the fact of the informal or "shadow economy" that still is a big, embarrassing part of the Korean success story even today, in a society in which about 4% of the GDP comes from sex work, more than fishing, mining, and agriculture combined. One might be tempted to say that it ain't just farmers using hoes, but that would, of course, be in very poor taste. 

Image by Michael Hurt. Yongsan red light district, 2006. 

Image by Michael Hurt. Yongsan red light district, 2006. 

Korean culture was that certain key socio-historical frames of thinking were responsible for the extremely warm welcome he was given in a country where most everyday folks and fashion civilians had barely even heard of him. Korea in the modern era and for a good several centuries before it has always been afected by colonial or neo-colonial relationships with vastly more powerful sponsor states. This was true for China, which was never a conqueror or a sovereign over ancient Korea (Joseon), but a suzerain. The first great articulator (and architect) of modern Korean history, Shin Chae-ho, called this relationship (and the lackeyesque attitude/identity it engendered) sa-dae-ju-ui, a four character Chinese term that means "deference to the greater power") "Korea" had enjoyed a mostly beneficial suzerainty relationship with "China" for a huge stretch of historical time by the time imperial Japan formally annexed Korea in 1910 andofficially ended Korea's political independence and forced Korea into a traditional, exploitative colonial  relationship that would last until the Japanese empire's resource needs clashed with that of the United States, causing the ill-fated political decision to "brush back" the US with the attack on Pearl Harbor, which launched a war that would end with the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the end of the Japanese military empire, and suddenly thrust a newly liberated South Korea into the controlling hands of its former vanqquisher's vanquisher. To allow sadaejuui to make sense of all of this, as the greater power changed from China to Japan to the United States, the language of power changed from Chinese to Japanese to English. The race of the Powerful Ones changed, as did the ideologies which justifieda and rationalized their cultural power, and the common sense ways of making sense of the world also changed, from the pure Han Chinese ideal that overlapped quite well with Korean notions of ethnicity and aesthetics, to one that privileged the pure, Sun God Ameterasu-descended, pure Yamato race of Japan, to that of the American notion that "White is Right", since the fact that the racial hierarchy of their new occupiers mattered in how things got done and who got to do them was not lost on Koreans. The fact that few blacks were officers were black and almost all blacks were enlisted men was not lost on Koreans, and even Korean prostitutes knew not to cross the racial lines dictated by their clientele; you either took black guys or white soldiers, not both. Add to this the powerful messages sent by Hollywood films and American television, magazines, and popular music and it makes for quite a heady Cocktail of Western Power. 

And yes, Koreans had to imbibe that special cocktail of geopolitical-cultural power, to drink that special flavor of the neo-colonial Kool-Aid. And it was within that general historiopsychological frame of sadaejuui that Korean national deveopment took place, with the concrete assistance and support of the USA (and former colonizer Japan, many Koreans like to conveniently forget), while that development process founf internal validation through external markers. Symbolic GDP levels of 10,000 or 20,000 per capita GDP were important psychological moments for Korea, as were the 1988 Olympics, which was both an impetus and a symbol for Korea becoming modern, or at least, being seen that way. This sadaejuui pattern of thinking backgrounded everything Koreans did on their own, internally, with validation of these efforts coming from the outside, most importantly, the White West, and even more importantly, the USA. So, as the "global" has become more than just a pipe dream and a reality for a Korea with not just a highly developed infrastructure in heavy industry, factory production, and ideologies of anti-Communism that have served the Republic well, but which now has a highly developed popular culture infrastructure in music, film, food, and fashion, there is now a discernible "global fetish" that undergirds and validates Korean cultural projects. The recent "Premium Korea" ad from the CJ group is a perfect case with which to illustrate how sadajuui has evolved into a "global fetish" (a brilliant concept articulated by scholar Kim Hyunjung) that both undergirds and validates all commercial and cultural endeavors in Korea, as well as the Korean national project itself. 

Basically, Korea is a nation so concerned with its national image that the sight of trash pile in the frame of the Dior image is going to start blood boiling -- this is a common reaction to showing too much of Korea's gritty underbelly as opposed to the bright and shiny PR KOREA that CJ likes to package into neat, little plastic facades that flatter the Korean ego. This is why Seoul city made the Avengers production team and Marvel Studios promise to show the city in a positive light, meaning an image of advanced industrial success in metal and glass structures, superhighways filled with shiny, late-model cars, and other nice things™. In the end, the real violation here was that of mixing in the aesthetic of true grit into the literal picture, more than any intended slight about the tendency of Korean to prostitute themselves for designer bags. That connection was mostly the projection of another perceived slight that originates in a deeper, darker place in the Korean psyche, down in the DNA of Korean modern identity itself, down in the depths where sadaejuui still lurks, where Korea's partially unfulfilled will to racial purity expressed as national power and concrete markers such as the GDP and how many Prada (or Dior) bags one can spy on the street. And showing designer bags juxtaposed with trash bags does make the sensitive Korean viewer wonder if the semiotic suggestion might not be that the women are somehow akin to that trash themselves, but I think this to be too literal of a reading. It's just that the trash in the background reminds the viewer of the inconvenient truth of Korean modern development, making the image an artistic representation of how the true grit and dirty moral compromises of development backgrounded the bright and shiny present, how the ability to buy a Dior bag today was very well partially created by the exploitation of female bodies and labor (and yes, that did include sex work), how the shadow economy is intricately bound up (quietly) with the formal one -- which all results in "Korean Woman" standing as a metonym for the contradictions  of Korean society itself. This socially uncomfortable, quietly aggressive assertion of this true work of art masquerading as an unassuming advertisement is responsible for the present, fundamental misreading of the work's meaning and is why the overly-simplistic reading of "it's demeaning Korean women" becomes the easy one, especially given the great deal of potential for polysemic play inherent to such a multilayered and deceptively simple artistic work. 

In short and put simply, people are just reading it wrong and they're rightly picking up on the bat-to-the-knees subtextual roughness of the picture's very palpable social critique. But the work is not simply saying that "Korean women are hoeing for bags" but rather, that all of Korean society has prostituted itself, implied as what we see in the foreground of our reality comes into sharp relief only against the barely hidden piles of dirt and the bags of moral garbage that defines the Gritty Real that undergirds Korean life. 

As the first street fashion photographer and blogger in Korea  (shooting what people were wearing, and blogging it since Fall, 2006) and active street photographer since August, 2002, I've been caught up in the attempt to convey through images what it means to be Korean. I have been caught up with issues of identity, the notion of Koreanness, and the meaning of it all since 2002, and very much obsessed with the natio of conveying the Real in Korean culture, which inevitably means the need to express the True Grit of Korean life not just in terms of subject matter, but also an aesthetic of the Real. However, since the Korean sadaejuuii complex is by definition allergic to this aesthetic, it should be little surprise to see a ludicrously high sensitivity to perceived national slights, especially as it occurs in the contested (and contestable) realm of visual representation. I'll just ease into explication by way of starting with History and development.

Now, we come to the point of looking at the short history of Street Photography in South Korea, where the few photographers shooting "street" busied themselves with documenting a post-war, development-era society living in conditions of relative poverty and undergoing massive, rapid social change. 

Choi Min-shik, based in Busan, took some of the most iconic and outright critical images of the era, depicting abject poverty and social destitution in a hard-hitting way that outright stings eve to this day This image, converted into full-motion form, defined a major photographic, visual touchstone in the opening long dolly through the International Market in the film of the same name (in Korean as 국제시장), also known in English as Ode to My Father. This film was a tour-de-force as an extremely rose-tinted exercise in reconstructing nostalgic popular memory through  and on film. This is one of the most important, historically seminal images in Korean history.  

How the Other Half Lives  , Korean-style, by Choi Min Shik. A critical gaze worthy of that of Jacob Riis. 

How the Other Half Lives, Korean-style, by Choi Min Shik. A critical gaze worthy of that of Jacob Riis. 

This shot, taken by Jeong Beom-tae, demonstrates, all in a single image, the conflicted and complex emotions that come with living in close quarters to a new, neo-colonial master. 

This is one of the most iconic images of development-era Korea, and was a staple in Korean history textbooks. It is definitely one off the best-know street/documentary photography images in the Korean mind. 

LIM Eun-Shik, "Gu-jik" ("Seeking employment").

LIM Eun-Shik, "Gu-jik" ("Seeking employment").