An intimate and beautiful reveal of women through time by Oh Myung Hee
Award-winning artist Oh Myung Hee is a graduate of Sejong University and an Honorary Professor of the College of Art & Design at Suwon University, South Korea. She has exhibited extensively, including a solo exhibition at London’s Saatchi Gallery, at Osaka’s Kaze Gallery, the Galerie Bhak (Bhak Young-Duk) in Seoul, in Paris at the Espace Miromesnil, and now in Venice for Personal Structures 2022.
When I first met artist Oh Myung Hee in person at Palazzo Mora during the opening of Personal Structures, I was immediately fascinated by her elegance. She was sitting on a bench in the middle of the room wearing a beautiful powder colour tailleur with small black points, coordinated with a distinct hat and a fine pearl neckless. The curators, Eva and Tatiana, who had arranged Mrs Oh’s presentation in one of the main rooms of Palazzo Mora’s first floor, introduced me to her.
She looked at me, smiling also with her eyes, shining at the same time. Her gaze was pure and it was possible to catch the excitement she was feeling of being in Venice. Thanks to the help of a translator, we exchanged some thoughts about the exhibition and the gratefulness for this opportunity to collaborate and present her work, The days were snowy but warm. She was so delicate and gentle, yet also very determined and proud to explain how the exhibited artworks create interesting dialogues and reflections on different topics.
Oh Myung Hee
During our conversation, one of the first details that came up was the title of the exhibition “The days were snowy but warm” ー a title that sounds very poetic, a little melancholic and at the same time somewhat hopeful. This title encompasses a set of paintings that not only depict some pictures from an old photo album that belonged to her father-in-law but through these spectators can also imagine the several delicate petals in mother pearl that decorate the large canvas as snowflakes. These details, however, are not only decorative but carry implicit meaning: they hold different messages and ideas that connect all the other elements of the exhibition.
The artist uses both traditional techniques and materials with a fresh approach that combines different new mediums to enrich the dialogue of her body of works, which compare past and present, East and West, woman and man, freedom and injustice.
'The days were snowy but warm' by Oh Myung Hee
For instance, lacquer and mother-of-pearl were traditionally applied in Korea to objects used in exclusive spaces for women. In Mrs Oh’s installation, this material shaped in delicate blossoms creates a frame for three enlarged old family pictures. In the centre, a big family poses for the 60th birthday of the grandfather who sits in the front row accompanied by two women, his wife and the second wife, a concubine, who are also represented alone on the side of the big picture. The women's eyes catch your attention and make you go deeper into the painting, carrying the spectator to the patriarchal Korean society of those times.
The artist wanted to bring to light the memories of these women who suffered for hundreds of years in a male-centred community that placed limitations and erased all justice from the lives of many women. In this context, the flowers represent the femininity, strength, solidarity and determination of women who, throughout centuries, forged their own paths and pursued the achievement of fundamental rights and independence for women.
A tale of three
The rest of the room is filled with three big paintings that represent photographs decorated with mother-of-pearl, ink and oil. These paintings, which hang under a beautiful decorated alfresco ceiling, show three different historical moments, three women, and three lives that apparently are very different but influence and represent women universally.
Oh Myung Hee Installation | Photo credits: Federico Vespignani
In the first painting, Mrs Oh presents Na Hye-seok, a representative Korean modern woman who led an independent life with intelligence and talent. She was ahead of her time, too innovative, which brought her to a tragic ending. She was definitely a forerunner who had a great influence on other women living in modern times, knowingly and unknowingly, as a talented novelist and painter, a wife and a mother, a singular woman.
In the centre, a gentle and strong old woman captures our attention. She is wearing traditional Korean clothes, representing most of the Korean mothers who have sacrificed their lives for their families.
On the other side, another woman appears on the scene, whose presence raises some questions and curiosity. The photo does not portray the woman's frontal pose, like the other two, whose frames are regular and frontal, showing the entire figures of the sitting women. Instead, the close-up of her smile from a side and the gesture of her arm suggest dynamics and freedom, a different point of view that shows an independent woman. Here she is, Marylin Monroe, with her unique blond shortcut hair, staring with admiration at thousands of USA military men.
'The days were snowy but warm' by Oh Myung Hee | Photo credits: Federico Vespignani
In 1954, she was visiting Japan during her honeymoon with the famous baseball player Joe Di Maggio, and she was asked to go to Korea to perform and boost the morale of the soldiers right after the end of the Korean War. Against her husband’s will, she went, and it was one of the crucial moments of her personal development. It was February, and it was very cold, and she stated:
“There were seventeen thousand soldiers in front of me yelling at the top of their lungs. I stood there smiling at them. It had started snowing, but I felt warm as if I were standing in the bright sun. I’ve always been frightened by a large audience but standing in the snowfall facing these shouting soldiers, I felt no fear for the first time. I only felt happy. I felt at home.”
Mrs Oh Myung Hee took this moment as her inspiration and titled it in reference to Marylin Monroe’s experience, which shocked Korean women but also triggered something in their minds to pursue their own dreams and become who they want to be.
In the installation at Palazzo Mora, the American movie star represents the symbol of pop culture but also of the future, the place to move forward while looking back to the past, represented by the mother who symbolizes devotion and conservative values, juxtaposed to the first female artist of Western paintings who appears as an avant-garde feminist fighting head-on against social norms.
Photo credits: Matteo Losurdo
These three women are gathered under a blossom tree that symbolizes the temporality and historicity that cross spontaneously through the individuality and the community, the Western and the Eastern, bringing the message that even though we face pain, conflict and innumerable difficulties, spring comes around again, and just like flowers blooms, so does hope and warmth.
On the occasion of La Biennale di Venezia Cinema where the preview of the biopic film Blonde about Marilyn Monroe's life will be screened, we kindly invite everyone to see the exhibition The Days were Snowy but Warm featuring the work by artist Oh Myung Hee and curated by Metamorphosis Art Projects.
You can visit Oh Myung Hee's installations at Palazzo Mora until the 27th of November or discover her work by exploring the virtual tours online, as well as find out more about her works by listening to her recent interview with Artribune below.
written by Sara Danieli