Professor Hong Kal, in “Spectacles, Politics and Histories in Korea,” seeks to understand the changing mode of representations of national identity in contemporary Korea. It examines the link between the changes in the political economy and the productions of aesthetic expression in various sites in Korea. By looking at urban visual sites that came in tandem with the changes in state power in Korea since the 1980s, it questions how spectacles in various forms propose new social relations, reshape the idea of the nation, and mark the boundaries of citizenship.

There are several sites including public plazas, memorial grounds and exhibitions that are important to understand the new coordination of governmentality and the underlying cultural transformation of contemporary Korea. For instance, the Cheonggye stream project, arguably the most spectacular and contentious case restored the inner city stream which was buried in concrete to build an overpass express highway in the 1970s. The restoration project can be viewed as an official version of “counter monument” to the earlier mode of nationalist imagining. It encapsulates a desire to redevelop Seoul as a financial business center connected to the global market and indicates a paradigm shift in the trajectory of national development. Yet it also represents a shift in the representation of national identity and a change in the governing mode of the population. The Cheonggye waterfront project was only part of an extensive network of the making of public space today that has participated in the new construction of national narratives. The series of spectacles of destruction, restoration and new construction witnessed in the past ten years could be seen as an indication of how contemporary Korea has reconfigured the national time and space in response to the transformation of political regimes and the global influence of neoliberal forces.

This project is funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Standard Grant.


In the first year of the project, Professor Kal’s research focused on the archival data collection on socio-political significances and implications of the placement of plazas in front of the Seoul City Hall and the royal palace, Kyǒngbok palace, in downtown Seoul. The urban sites are historically charged with the state power and the popular resistance and consumption and its memories of colonialism, modernity, wars, militarism, and popular participation have been exploited by the government as well as corporate leaders. She will continue with these case studies to illustrate the working of aesthetic spectacle governed in particular sets of political and economic circumstances.



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For more information, please contact Professor Hong Kal athongkal@yorku.ca.