Art as Counter-Memory: Contemporary Lens-based Art in East Asia

Art as Counter-Memory: Contemporary Lens-based Art in East Asia
Nayun Jang


Over the past seven decades since the end of the Asia-Pacific War (1941-1945), the question of historical memory has been prominent and contentious in East Asia. Disagreements over wartime memory have disrupted international relations and even sparked violence, leaving a significant impact on each East Asian country’s national psyche. Focusing on these controversial memories of the war and its aftermath, this thesis discusses contemporary lens-based artwork in Korea, Japan and China to show how second or third post-war generations of artists draw attention to and work with historical events that have been downplayed, repressed, or forgotten, thus creating counter-hegemonic memories. The thesis’s central premises are that nations are established based on what people jointly remember or forget, and that, in East Asia, official memories of its troubled past have been formed with the intention of reinforcing each nation’s cultural and political orthodoxies, thus allowing particular narratives to be deliberately forgotten.

By focusing on the ‘postmemory’ generation, namely those who do not have first-hand experience of the events that they depict, the thesis explores how these artists demonstrate their attempts to connect to the distant source of memory by establishing their own representational strategies. As the postmemory generation whose recollections of original events are necessarily mediated through imaginative creation, these artists’ unique aesthetic is different from official modes of using photography and film as historical documents, which often bring about a selective visualisation of the past. Examples of artworks that create counter-hegemonic memory include Kang Yong Suk’s photographic series depicting a forgotten rural village in South Korea – that was used as a U.S. military test site for new weapons and as a bombing and firing range for over 50 years – in an uncomfortably calm and detached manner; Ishiuchi Miyako’s photographic series tracing the impact of the U.S. military occupation on the daily lives of local residents in military camp towns in Japan; and Zhang Dali’s archival project that meticulously traces photographic materials censored under Mao’s rule, criticising the state’s manipulation of memory using photography in printed media.

The thesis suggests that their artworks, which represent the rethinking of the traumas and memories of the region’s entangled past, potentially provide a renewed viewpoint towards the region’s reconciliation, enabling the three countries to respond to the subsequent efforts to develop a new Pan-East Asian discourse. This is because these artworks emphasise the importance of the bottom-up struggle of ‘unforgetting’: a call to problematise what has been deliberately neglected in the process of collective remembering. The thesis argues that the quest for unforgetting is a key to solving collisions among disparate national narratives, which originate from conflicting viewpoints of the same historic events. It is because unforgetting is not a process of erasing uncomfortable accounts of the past, but restoring what has been excluded in the formation of a unified viewpoint towards it, thus letting heterogeneous memories coexist in society. The thesis therefore makes an interdisciplinary contribution not only to the studies of contemporary lens-based art but also to memory studies and East Asian studies. Furthermore, it presents the first ever attempt to compile scattered materials in the three countries, such as individual photobooks and exhibition catalogues, of the artists who draw attention to what hegemonic narratives of memory have neglected. By doing so, it attempts to respond to the growing interest in the topic of memory in the three countries’ art scenes, as well as in the field of humanities and social sciences.


Nayun Jang

PhD defended at

The Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London




East Asia
South Korea


Art and Culture
War / Peace