Gyu-chan Jeon - travelling journalist seeking to elevate himself in a different context
Gyu-chan Jeon is a professor at the Korean National University of Arts; School of Film, Television and Multimedia. There he reads courses on media, communication and culture studies. During the Autumn semester he will be participating in the work of UT’s Institute of Social Studies. We sat down with the professor to discuss his research and stay in Tartu.
What brings you to Tartu?
That is a tough question. I think the answer lies in my quest to to alienate myself from South Korea and to find a totally different context. I first considered going somewhere else in Asia, like Thailand or Vietnam. Tartu appeared on my radar last year when I visited Estonia. I really came to like the country. It seemed nice, safe, and relatively cheap. Tartu is a perfectly suitable place to elevate myself through a very different context, to understand a new location, and to think of new ways of conducting my studies.
What are your expectations for your time in Estonia?
I was very busy in Korea. Besides my teaching job and research work, I also led a quite big social activist organization. I came here using my sabbatical year, which we have every 7th year at K-ARTS. Disengaged from the busy life of Seoul, I want to take a rest. But, at the same time, I want to regenerate different ideas and gain new thoughts so that I can sustain another six years as a teacher and journalist. I wish to walk, read, think, experience and write here. I would like to to meet and talk with people with different minds and ideas. I am particularly interested in the younger students, people with progressive ideas for social advancements.
How have you enjoyed Tartu so-far?
My wife and I are really enjoying it. The size of the city is manageable and we can experience it by walking around. I like that you have four distinct seasons here.
Although Tartu is small, there is a vast diversity here. It is perfect for my research interests. Tourists would only come to see the centre and the romantic looking buildings. As a travelling journalist, I see Tartu as the expression of complexity that the Estonian society has. When I walk around, I turn my attention to various aspects: the contrasts of the rich and poor, the elitist centre and the popular country side, the westernising elements and reminders of the Soviet influence, and so on.
Tell me about your research interests. What kind of a scientist are you?
I do not call myself a scientist. I hesitate to use the word “science.” I rather call myself a journalist. I am not a specialist, an expert. I want to know more about the commonality and universality of the state of things. My research topics are quite various. I am interested in cultural politics over space, historiography and historical memory, and media & democracy.
I see the importance of journalism and media as a public, common site of culture politics. How do people struggle over the production and usage of media culture in their daily lives? Secondly, history. How do we write histories? How do we remember some things while forget or suppress other aspects from the past? Thirdly, I am interested in geography of cities - the way the state and capital control public space and the people living in the urban setting.
What are you working on currently?
When I came here, I thought about continuing with my research on the memory of the Vietnam war. There is an element that has been neglected in South Korea's participation in the Vietnam war. When we talk about war we always think about it from the side of governments and military, but forget the effect it has on women, their lives and their body. Wars tend to mobilise women's sexuality as a resource. Specifically, I have been conducting journalistic investigation on how Korean women were to “serve” the warring patriarchal state during Korea's participation in the Vietnam war.
Clearly, Tartu is not a suitable place to follow this topic. Instead, I am now thinking more about Estonia. Usually I distance myself from mainstream thinking and try to detect problems, uncover the oppressed and neglected side of society. That, I believe, is the way to know, understand, and experience the other place. We must be open-minded to all the histories, to get a more balanced understanding. I want to visit the other sides of Estonia and the Baltic states.
That’s how I became aware of the Nazi concentration camps in Estonia. I was not aware of this before. I was ignorant, so I must know more. I have written a paper on the establishment of the concentration camps, as there is not much discussion about the matter in the usual history overviews. I then wrote another essay on the question of ‘why did Estonians accept or welcome the Nazis when they invaded the country?’ Finally, in connection to the issues of nationalism, national identity and national culture, I am curious about the rebirth of neo-rightist ideals in Estonia. What does that signify to the future of Estonia? All these investigations, I am doing as my own learning and understanding sessions.
You mentioned your interest in national memory. What about South Korea and the memories of Japanese invasion and north-south division?
20th and 21st centuries are the time of memory politics. It is the same in the Korean society. Korea indeed has been a very closed, undemocratic society. The anti-communism associated with the long military regime did not allow different ideas, alternative discourses and progressive ideologies to flourish. There has only been the state's dominant narrative and the winners’ memories. Things have been changing in the past 20 years. We are now cultivating alternative memories by writing the histories of minorities, women and progressive sectors. Korea is now undergoing a very severe struggle over the memories and historiographies of the past – I would even call it a “war on memory.”
While it is true that the relationship between North and South Korea is currently in a critical situation, I would advise never to reduce Korean issues solely to this axis. When I meet people abroad, usually the first questions are related to north-south relations. This only helps to mystify Korea, unaware of the actual complexity. This is the same if people easily link Estonia with the other Baltic states, while ignoring the Northern (i.e. the wish to be a Nordic country) or East-West (re-positioning after the collapse of the Soviet Union) dimension. You also need to see, for instnace, the serious neoliberalism, generation gap, and suicide issues of Korea. Even Korea and Estonia are interconnected through the global capitalist system and US world management strategy. We should keep these complexities in our mind if we really want to understand the other.
Surprisingly, your upcoming lecture will be on a very different topic. What can one expect to learn there?
When I was invited to speak at the Orientalism seminar, I was wondering what I should be speaking about. I decided not to focus on Korean media culture or history, which I am more familiar with. Instead, I chose the topic on arts, which I am interested only as an amateur. So the lecture is titled "The Japanese Ukiyo-e and the European Impressionism, but the Korean Poongsokwha?”
The “Poongsokwha” are 18th century Korean paintings of secular landscapes. I will discuss their relation to the Japanese Ukiyo-e paintings. There is a well known connection between the Ukiyo-e and 19th century French Impressionism. I try to add the Korean element and show how it can be related with the other two. My argument is that the art of Poonsokwha, like Ukiyo-e and French impressionism, is an expression of modern common sensibility to go out and record the transforming urban secular happenings. This is only my hypothesis.
What is the next step after Tartu?
Next semester, after my time in Tartu, I will be moving to Tallinn to join the Asia studies programme in Tallinn University. There I will be focusing more on the trans-Asiatic issues. I will be looking into the Korean diaspora in Estonia. I want to see how “we” come here, “their” nationalized territory in what historical contextuality. I will also explore the popularity of K-pop and K-media in Estonia. I am more interested how the young Estonians see, enjoy and make usage of the outside.
But, to be honest, after staying in Tartu for two months, I would rather prefer to stay in this city instead. I must come back soon.
Written by Mart Veliste, 11.10.17
Gyu-chan Jeon's public lecture "The Japanese Ukiyo-e and the European Impressionism, but the Korean Poongsokwha (風俗畵)? will be held on Wednesday, 11.10, 18.15 at the University mainbuilding (Ülikooli 18), room 228.