|This combination of photos shows a number of artists worldwide participating in a protest against Japan's removal of a statue of a girl symbolizing Korean victims of Japan's wartime sex slavery. The artists are adopting the pose of the statue to draw attention to an action that many are calling on infringement on freedom of speech. Courtesy of Yoshiko Shimada|
By Bahk Eun-ji
A person sits in a chair, with another empty chair beside them. The person sits staring straight ahead, fists clenched.
This is an imitation of a statue of a girl, which symbolizes the Korean victims of Japan's wartime sex slavery.
Over the past few days, a growing number of artists and civic activists around the world are uploading photos of themselves adopting the pose on social media. The pictures are being uploaded in protest after the entire exhibition where the statue was on display was removed from the Aichi Triennale International Contemporary Art Festival in Japan last week following opposition from far-right groups in Japan.
Such opposition has come amid escalating diplomatic tension between the two countries after Japan placed trade restrictions on Korea in apparent protest of Korea's Supreme Court rulings called for Japanese companies to compensate surviving South Korean victims of wartime forced labor. Wartime forced labor and sex slavery have been two key historical disputes issues between the two countries.
Calling the display removal an act of censorship and a violation of freedom of expression, the artists are posting the photos saying "I am the statue of the girl."
The movement was started by Monica Mayer, a veteran Mexican feminist artist participating in the exhibition.
When Mayer received news about the removal of the girl statue from the exhibition, she sent a photo of herself posing like the statue in protest of the censorship to Japanese artist Yoshiko Shimada who has been staging protests over the issue and making artwork about sex slavery since 1992.
Shimada then uploaded the photo on Facebook and asked her friends to send photos of themselves in the pose of the statue to show their solidarity.
"That's how the movement started," Shimada said in an email interview with The Korea Times.
"The purpose of this project is to make this censorship visible and create solidarity of women against sexual violence internationally," she said.
Rosaria Iazzetta, an Italian sculptor who also uploaded photos of women posing as the statue on Instagram after being inspired by Shimada, called the Aichi Triennale committee's decision a censorship of art.
"Let's call it being a statue of 'non-freedom of expression.' The comfort women existed, and can't be deleted from history," Iazzetta wrote in her post.
Iazzetta, who introduced herself as an artist as well as an anti-militarist, said the statue is an important symbol not only for Koreans but also for women all over the world, because it also represents women's suffering during wartime.
"In a sense of taking care of artists, we should also take care of past to make sure the patriarchy do not come back and grow with war, and teach the new generation the responsibility through the past," Iazzetta said in an interview with The Korea Times.
The foreign artists' movement encouraged activist groups in Korea as well. A student activist group, Gwanghee, has been leading the statue photo movement on social media, with participants posting hashtags such as #japanesecensorship, #comfortwomen, #statueofpeace and #freedom of speech.
"One of our goals of this movement is to let many people worldwide know and remember what happened in the past and what is happening today," said Lee Soo-min, a senior of Chonnam National University and a member of Gwanghee.
The statue, first set up in front of the former Japanese embassy in central Seoul in 2011, has become a symbol of not only the former sex slaves but also wartime atrocities suffered by Koreans during Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule of the peninsula and Koreans' demand for Japan to recognize and apologize for its past wrongdoings.
The organizing committee of the Ahichi exhibition said it would shut down the sections displaying the statue, claiming they had received a security threat.
After the withdrawal, Korea's culture ministry expressed deep regret about the infringement on freedom of expression, but said it had no plans to stage an official protest against the Japanese government or the art fair committee.