During one of the tensest moments in Korea – Japan relations, and extraordinary gallery and a controversial exhibition in New York have gathered the support and attendance of the Minister of Culture of the Republic of Korea, the Ambassador of the Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations and the Under-secretary General of the United Nations. An international cure based upon the love for the arts.
It could seem odd, but the responsibility of this friendly encounter between the grand peninsula and the archipelago of the rising sun does not fall on some institution or the social responsibility of some corporation’s agenda, but on the generous disposition of a single woman: Kate Shin. Dynamic and prolific entrepreneur Ms. Shin founded the Kate Shin Gallery in 2014 at the spectacular Waterfall Mansion, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, as a pioneer combination of art and lifestyle. Throughout the seven levels of the Waterfall Mansion (because in fact it hosts the biggest private waterfall in New York City) Kate Shin resolved to curate an exhibition celebrating the 70 anniversary of the independence of Korea, inviting avant-garde famous Korean artists like Lee Jae Hyo, recipient of the Great Award of the Osaka Tiennial (Japan) for his oversized organic spheres modeled out of symmetrically sanded logs that we could enjoy at the gallery, or Jae Yong Kim, who exhibited his jolly ceramic donut collections in Korea and Japan and extensively in the best galleries of the United States.
However a newer and more ambitious goal arose, because the commemoration of Korea’s independence coincides with the 50th anniversary of the normalized diplomatic relations with Japan. The recent and public disaffections between these close Nations revealed themselves as the right moment to unite wills and make a difference.
Kyoko Sato immediately joined the project as special curator for Japanese art and top notch Japanese artists were added in every floor, such as Mariko Mori who recently exhibited at the Japan Society of New York and the Louis Vuitton Espce of Tokyo with translucid sculptures of soft curvy lines like “Little Birds” where two essentialized pigeons gird and complete each other in a way the artist calls: “a song of peace and a gift of love”, or the post-minimalist sculptor Miya Ando, who after inaugurating the 9/11 Memorial in London spent two years producing praying flag based paintings that auctioned for the Tibetan Nun Project in full.
The consummation of the feat came the day of the inauguration when hundreds of guests streamed to the Waterfall Mansion where Koreans and Japanese guests were no less than abundant. There we could socialize with personalities such as Eugene Jenneman, Director of the Dennos Museum in Michigan, Anders Corr, political analyst and frequent commentator on Bloomberg TV, or the executives of Art takes Manhattan who have opened an international call for artists for the next New York Art Week.
The night was opened by the unmistakable jazz of Ruby Choi, complemented by canapés with no shortage of kimchi and maki-sushi washed down by what ended up being one of the starts of the night: the saketeani, a delicate mixture of Ozeki Japanese sake and Korean plum tea. The soiree went by among diplomats and Wall Street investor bankers in different ephemeral groups, amusing chatter and roaming around driven by the next corridor and the ever surprising artworks that populate the mansion.
If Kissinger defined diplomacy in his monumental Diplomacy as the art of restraining power, and no diplomat is unaware of it, cultural diplomacy must be its linchpin. Because it is well known that the emotions and mutual understanding of different peoples restrain the selfishness of their rulers. Kate Shin told it to us openly: “When you address these disaffections by law, structure, or regulation, you are forced to do it but it is not natural, but with art you can change people’s perception overnight because it interacts with you emotionally.”
We could just attest that these emotions are already present beforehand, like a vase waiting to be filled up. It’s as if the art would give in so far as the spectator is endowed to receive. We had the pleasure of meeting an elderly couple of young and emphatic loquacity. The wife talked to us directly in Korean as if we understood while the husband sometimes translated and other times just replied back to her in Korean so we didn’t get too much. One thing was clear, they were very happy about this initiative of doing more on the reconciliation of Korea and Japan. She was born in Seoul but grew up in Tokyo until the end of the War. Her grandparents already spoke Japanese, and many things happened –she said– but time goes by and you have to forget to live in peace. It seems they had been playing to guess the nationality of the artworks for a while and they were right sometimes. “You can tell” she bragged, but they seemed more satisfied in mistaking the autonomous mechanisms of Ujoo Limheenyoung for a Japanese artwork than telling us about the game itself.
The truth is that both nations have shared values derived, for example as Dr. Luis Simón (Research Professor at the Institute for European Studies at the Free University of Brussels specialized in geopolitics and strategic studies,) told us, from the fact that Japan and Korea are bounded by the common interest of preserving the regional balance of power. But their harmony goes beyond that. The exhibition radiates the presence of shared aesthetical values: the subtlety, the natural simplicity and refinement of Jong Rye Cha’s sculptures, the long landscape solitudes of Jae Sam Lee, the stylized idealization in “Lady Butterfly” by AIKO, or the crystallized fumes of Miya Ando. The vocation for dynamic action and avant-garde technology in the autonomous mechanisms of Ujoo Limheenyoung, the provocative animations of Hye Rim Lee, or the algorithmic sophistications of Minha Yang in brilliant works such as “Running Woman” mounted in a mosaic of 64 LG’s flagship phones with its blazing Ultra HD screens.
The exhibition distills patience through artworks carefully elaborated that also and often times move without abruptness, harmoniously, with the serenity with which good deeds consolidate, with the confidence of one who does without hurry and leaves nothing to be done. It’s just what time does to wine, or Korean kimchi, o Japanese miso paste. At the end of the day both are democratic and pacific nations, natural allies that share what matters the most. In the words of Dr. Anders Corr (founder of Corr Analytics): “Both Korea and Japan are economically advanced democracies with close ties to the United States and international system. China is now threatening Japan in the East China Sea, and South Korea through China's ally, North Korea. So it would make sense for Japan and Korea to set historical animosities aside and focus on future shared goals for Asia of peace, democracy, human rights and stability.”
“Fermented Souls” is the title of the exhibition and it has already achieved great success. Jongdeok Kim: Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism of the Republic of Korea after his visit expressed his gratitude and support in official letterhead while the UN Foundation in the person of Peter Yeo (President of the Better World Campaign and Vice president of the UN Foundation) has shown its satisfaction for being able to support an initiative that defends “the ideals set forth in the UN Charter to establish a world in which people everywhere practice tolerance and peace with one another in order to ‘save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.’”
Kate Shin’s initiative to defend peace and goodwill has been joined by grater forces so this noble effort could go beyond its closing date in November and launch a world tour just to come back triumphant to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Upper East Side of the island of Manhattan.