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Making the Past Present

By Andy Urban, PhD candidate in History at the University of Minnesota. IHRC Affiliated Faculty

“Still Present Pasts,� open at the Intermedia Arts gallery and sponsored in part by the University’s Institute for Advanced Study, takes on the problematic legacy of the Korean War. In the United States the Korean War’s legacy for many is that of a “forgotten� war. Although nearly as many American soldiers died during the conflict on the Korean peninsula as they would in the following decades in Vietnam, because of the ambivalent outcome of the war, it largely faded from American memory. For the Korean population, which suffered an enormous toll from the war, it impacted their lives in almost every conceivable manner.

“Still Present Pasts� offers a creative approach to revisiting the Korean War. Combining oral histories with multimedia art installations, the exhibit allows visitors to listen firsthand to individual memories of the war, while also encountering art that addresses the conflict in a more abstract yet no less revealing way. The individuals who offer oral histories as part of the exhibit are predominantly Korean Americans. During the war and in its aftermath, upwards of 100,000 Korean women came to the United States as military brides married to American GIs, while white, Christian parents brought an additional 150,000 Korean adoptees into the country. The oral histories conducted with these women and with the Korean adoptees revolve around the issue of being disconnected from one’s family past, and in the case of those who were adopted, creating a new sense of family. As is often the case, humans who saw their lives disrupted by the war look back on it not in the political terms of the Cold War era that spawned the conflict in the first place, but from the vantage point of those who saw their worlds fractured.

The art deals with the sense of a broken past as well – one installation contains jigsaw puzzle pieces in a child’s room, each representing a facet of the past that needs to be reconnected. Another uses blankets that refugees fleeing battles commonly took with them; the blanket is riddled with holes seemingly representing the gaps in memories and time caused by the war. Many of the exhibit’s histories and conceptual themes could apply directly to those displaced by the Vietnam War as well. Like the Koreans who ended up in the United States, the Hmong, Vietnamese, and Laotians who were forced to leave their homelands found themselves caught up in a type of cycle of human tragedy and movement. US troops came to their country ostensibly to promote democracy, and then a few years later, they founds themselves the subjects of “democratic� debates as to whether they should be allowed to enter America. As this exhibit on the Korean War aptly points out – not everyone forgets so easily such a history.

“Still Present Pasts� is open at Intermedia Arts gallery until June 2, 2007. For information on the exhibit, gallery hours, and directions to the space, see www.intermediaarts.org.


Andy Urban is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Minnesota, and a member of the IHRC Advisory Council. His research focuses on Irish and Chinese domestic servants in the late-nineteenth century United States.
Contact Information: urba0090@umn.edu

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