A Forgotten War
Upon entering ‘A Soldier’s Tale’ at Asia House, an exhibition documenting the experience of British soldiers who fought in the Korean War, you are greeted by Jiho Won’s towering ‘Construction for Deconstruction’. The sculpture is reminiscent of the bamboo scaffolding seen on construction sites throughout East Asia.
This association with traditional scaffolding hints at the Republic of Korea’s rapid growth since the ceasefire in 1953; although bamboo looks flimsy, it is surprisingly strong, light and versatile. This is a testament to the strength of the Korean people in overcoming apparent fragility to build a strong nation today.
The Korean War is often known as the ‘Forgotten War’, as many feel that the scope of the conflict has been overlooked and the suffering forgotten. Yet the Korean War claimed over 1.2 million lives and the conflict has never been resolved.
The Korean peninsula was divided by allied forces at the end of the Second World War. The separate sides set up contrasting systems of government and division soon escalated into conflict. Hostilities came to a head in June 1950 and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) sent out a plea to the United Nations. Within months, twenty member states answered the Republic of Korea’s call for assistance. The second largest force was sent from the United Kingdom; of the 56,000 British combatants, 1,000 lost their lives.
Speaking at Asia House on Monday South Korean MP the Rt. Hon. Choung Byong-Gug, whose own school meals were funded by foreign aid, said that ‘A Soldier’s Tale’ was a “pledge” to the British veterans “to never forget what you contributed to us”.
Exhibition Curator, Stephanie Seungmin Kim, insists that ‘A Soldier’s Tale’ “is not a manifesto of political views or ideological endorsements”. Instead the exhibition should be seen as a documentation of memories and a setting down of emotions, a reflection of people and places, of lives lived and lost and the fading past.
The Korean War ended with a ceasefire in 1953 and peace has so far proved elusive. ‘A Soldier’s Tale’ commemorates the 60th anniversary of the ceasefire. The exhibition focuses on the experiences of soldiers who fought in the Gloucestershire Battalion of the 29th Infantry Brigade. Artists, both Korean and from elsewhere, met and worked with these veterans to create the unique and poignant works on display.
The exhibition begins with a section titled ‘Soldier’s Universe’. A major theme of ‘A Soldier’s Tale’ is the process of forgetting; with many of the veterans approaching their 80’s and 90’s, living memories of the conflict are gradual fading away. Anna Paik’s touching portrait of David Kambler OBE, ‘Portrait of an Old Soldier with Baekdoo Mountain’, is a poignant expression of the tragedy of forgetting. With no family and declining health, there is a danger that David’s story, like so many others, could rapidly be lost.
The Gloucestershire Battalion of the 29th Infantry Brigade are revered for the heroism they displayed at the Battle of Imjin River in April 1951. During this bitter fight four Battalions, three British and one Belgian, held their ground for three days against a numerically superior opposing force.
Lieutenant General Van Fleet of the United States Army reported that the Gloucestershire Battalion fought “until the last gallant soldier… was overpowered”. Despite eventually being overcome, the three days gained by these efforts thwarted an attempt from the opposing side to recapture the city of Seoul.
Inspired by the Battle of Imjin River, Leenam Lee’s beautiful ‘Park Yeon Waterfall’ is a moving ink painting played out on three consecutive LED screens. The work evokes traditional images of a peaceful past and the flowing of time. Complete with falling spray and an audio of flowing water, Lee’s piece represents “water still running through a divided land”.
When leaving the ‘Soldier’s Universe’ you will pass the riot of red chrysanthemums that is Jeong Hwa Choi’s ‘Winter Garden’. Whereas white chrysanthemums are symbolic of grief and mourning in East Asia, red chrysanthemums are given as gifts and represent affection. The ‘Winter Garden’ then can be seen as a token of gratitude presented to the veterans who fought at the Battle of Imjin River.
‘500 – Returned’, Suknam Yun ‘s installation of 750 small wooden figures, is scattered throughout a dark gallery. With each figure given a unique face, those who fought and fell at the Battle of Imjin River are given individual identities, rather than just numbers on a list of casualties. This forest of faces is a reminder of the millions of forgotten lives claimed by the Korean War.
‘The Enduring War’
The final part of the exhibition, ‘The Enduring War’, refers to the long stagnation and recent escalation of tensions between North and South Korea. Although the Korean War ended in a ceasefire, peace has eluded the peninsula for the last sixty years and its’ people continue to live in the shadow of conflict.
Leenam Lee’s surreal ‘Cartoon Folding Screen’ is a video sequence played out in the form of a traditional screen painting. The sequence begins with conventional, quiet landscapes, yet the tranquillity is gradually disrupted by surreal images of bombs, cartoons and tortured city-scapes that erupt from peaceful mountain sides.
This surreal world can be seen to reflect the reality of Korea’s recent history. The sequence ends with falling snow that covers the madness of the transformed landscapes and returns the screens to the quiet paradise of a traditional ink painting. This can be understood to represent the fragile yet enduring hope that divided Korea will one day see a return to peace.
‘A Soldier’s Tale’ brings to light many issues surrounding the situation in Korea today, from past conflict and loss to regeneration and remembering. Although ‘A Soldier’s Tale’ does say things about Korea’s past and uncertain future, it is primarily an exhibition about individuals; the British soldiers who fought in Korea, the people of the Republic of Korea who rebuilt their country from the ashes of war and the people who still suffer from the conflict today. ‘A Soldier’s Tale’ documents these personal experiences. In the words of one veteran, experiences “in a distant land, where I hope we did some good”.
Images courtesy of Asia House