Satirical Art Exhibition Gets Canceled for Mocking the Korean President
By Tong Tung Yeng
Within mere hours into its opening at the National Assembly Building in Seoul on January 9, the group exhibition “Goodbye in Seoul” was pulled by the National Assembly Secretariat for featuring artworks that criticize the newly elected president Yoon Suk-yeol and first lady Kim Keon-hee.
Featuring around 80 artworks by 30 artists in the second-floor lobby of the National Assembly Building, “Goodbye in Seoul” had intended to call out politicians who use their authority to disregard the autonomy of publics, media, and alternative voices. In particular, one painting by an unnamed artist depicts a colossal nude of Yoon wielding a broadsword, his bare torso covering Kim’s as they peer warily over their shoulders. Their figures tower over a cityscape, shrouded in mist and set against an ominously dark sky caused by a solar eclipse.
Another digital illustration by artist Jeon Jong-won, titled Decision to Embezzle, features Yoon, Kim, and Taoist guru Lee Byung-Chul, and parodies the 2022 Korean film Decision to Leave. Just last year, Yoon issued a controversial pardon to former president Lee Myung-Bak, freeing him after only two years into a 17-year prison sentence for embezzlement in 2020.
The National Assembly Secretariat withdrew the permission for “Goodbye in Seoul” to exhibit, issuing three notices to the organizers on Sunday evening requesting a “voluntary removal” of the artworks. According to the Secretariat, “Goodbye in Seoul” had violated the bylaws on the use of National Assembly Building for an event “deemed as potentially violating individual rights, public morals, and social ethics, including those slandering specific individuals and groups”.
Originally scheduled to run for five days starting January 9, the show was jointly organized by the Seoul branch of the Federation of Artistic and Cultural Organization of Korea (FAC) and the Goodbye Exhibition Organizing Committee, with input from two independent lawmakers and 10 members of the oppositional party, Democratic Party of Korea (DPK).
In response to the show’s abrupt cancellation, the artists and 12 legislative sponsors held a press conference at the National Assembly’s press center the same morning. They decried the decision as a shameful one intended to “forcibly break the will of artists who use satire to scathingly criticize those in power.”
The chief spokesperson of the ruling People Power Party (PPP), Yang Geum-hee, directly condemned the DPK’s involvement in the exhibition, calling the show a means for them “to destroy the spirit of the constitution by disobeying the presidential election by hiding behind freedom of expression.”
The exhibition comes in the wake of South Korea’s controversial 2022 presidential election between PPP’s Yoon Suk-yeol and DPK’s Lee Jae-myung, with the former edging out the latter by a narrow margin for the presidential seat.
The decision of whether “Goodbye in Seoul” should continue remains on hold until after the National Assembly’s special investigation into the Itaewon crowd-crush tragedy in October 2022.
Tong Tung Yeng is ArtAsiaPacific’s editorial intern.