THE CHAIN REACTION OF JEONG MEE YOON’S CONTROVERSY OF COLOR: BLUE GIRL AND PINK BOY
By Youngjun Lee
Artist: Jeong Mee Yoon
It was after democratization took place in the late 1980s, after doubt began to overshadow the realms of sense and meaning, that the authority held by the meanings of all things began to shake in Korean society. Following disputes over things that used to be only natural, a controversy over “color” broke out. Of course even in the 80s, before the democratization, there were controversies of color concerning political ideologies, but it was not until the 90s that such controversy reached as far as to implicate presidential candidates. Ever since, as liquid seeps through the fabric of hygienic bands, the color controversy penetrated into the finest pores of society, causing people to question the colors of others’ clothes or what colors were used to paint buses. It was 1985 when popular singer Cho Young-Nam complained at a discussion at the Seoul Museum of Art that all the cars in Korea were either black or white. Perhaps it could be called a feeble beginning of the color controversy, outside the boundary of politics. Shortly after this event, the city buses of Seoul were painted in purple. The color, which was said to have been designed by a Hong-ik University Professor, was changed after receiving tremendous reproach from annoyed citizens. Even the mighty university professor was helpless before the color controversy raised by the people. What was the reason for this? It is because color itself is political. As it is quite bothersome to explain why it is political, I hope all sensible readers will understand it on their own.
Now, photographer Jeong Mee Yoon engages in a color controversy through her photography. In our society, the controversy of color has expanded to the most microscopic dimensions. It is somewhat frightening to think that someone’s ideology or personality could be judged by the color of his/her fingernails or pulmonary valves. Moreover, Jeong Mee Yoon uses a dichotomy that could either save or kill a man. Perhaps the reason that we are keen about seeing the outcome of the perilous situation, in which a sharp and heavy nippondo (Japanese sword) is placed on a person’s head as if one was about to slice a cherry tomato, is because we are not so interested in the life or death of the person. In any event, Yoon’s color controversy is quite simple in structure, but intricate in connotation, leaving a long lingering aftertaste.
This is how she does it. She divides children’s rooms into two. Blue or bluish items are placed in the boys’ rooms, while pink items are placed in the girls’ rooms. The children are photographed sitting in the middle of the rooms. They are positioned in the center of the room, as if they were responsible for the color of the objects surrounding them – the color of the superego which decides their gender. It is rather excessive for the photographer to place such weight on the innocent children. It is like telling a person driving a Jaguar, “Since your car is a Jaguar, you are also a Jaguar, and therefore you must catch a deer and eat it raw.” It is a tyranny of signs. After all, the car is only a metonymy of the actual jaguar.
What happens if there is a tyranny of signs? Ironically, the true nature of the signs are revealed. Similar to the way a particle accelerator is used to charge corpuscles with tremendous energy, enabling scientists to find the origin of matter through the traces of fragments from the ultra-high-speed crash of the particles, Jeong Mee Yoon confirms the heavy and sticky order of colors and senses with the children through a tyranny of signs that forces the kids into being the main characters of their given surrounding colors. Frankly, the children do not want to know about such facts, but the order has been prepared long before they were born, and even if some enlightened parents buy tanks and swords for their daughters and flowers and hair pins for their sons in an attempt not to raise their children as stereotypes, the children will demonstrate remarkable wisdom of selecting the stereotypical colors predefined by the superego of society on their own as if they were being led by some sort of centripetal force.
However, the photographs of Yoon, which look quite organized and scientific, are in fact very fictional. The classification of Girl-Pink and Boy-Blue was a result of a certain organizing. The reason they are fiction is because the order of senses in the world is not so clearly cut. Even if things used by children can be categorized according to the colors preferred by the genders, there is always a gray zone. There is even a buffer zone between the Northern Limit Line and the Southern Limit Line of the DMZ that splits Korea in two. Thus, I would like to call what Yoon created, a “virtual stereotype.” Actually, what we need to observe in her photographs is the intersecting point between the conceptual setup that clearly divides the objects, and the photographic execution of taking the pictures with the children in the middle of the rooms filled with the objects. At that intersection, the visual order of the colors and the photographic order cross paths. Could Jeong Mee Yoon’s message be that there is such a solid order in the world? If so, she is a silly photographer who goes through the effort of taking all that photographic equipment all the way to America to photograph a kid’s room scattered with all his/her belongings just to tell us again something everyone already knows. If not, what else could there be?
But if one sees only the tight order of objects and dichotomy in Yoon’s photographs, they are missing the whole picture. The intersection is not an area dominated by a single order. All the pink items are not the same pink, and the blue items are not the same blue. All the children’s belongings are slightly different pink. They only look the same because they are placed in the singular and abstract category of “pink.” As we have a habit of always thinking in categories, we tend to classify things simply, such as “pigs are all fat,” “the South Pole is always cold,” etc. Jeong Mee Yoon’s photographs use such habits to acknowledge our worldviews and make us feel comfortable. Yes, children are only children, so where could they possibly go? They can only play in the garden of stereotypes made by adults. But such sense of relief shows small but terrifying differences between its pixels, because nothing in the world is identical. The only things that are the same are abstract categories. No objects or senses filling up those categories are identical. This world is full of differences resisting against order to the extent of horror. Even the pink plastic spoons owned by Emily are not the same pink, though they are all industrial products. They all look different according to where they are placed and from what angle the light hits them. Like an ancient Greek philosopher once said, “you cannot put your hands in the same stream twice,” the same object cannot appear in two different locations at the same time.
In the matrix that is formed between objects, there are holes made by the large and small differences, and though Yerim’s shoes are pink, they are in fact all different colors. Even the left shoe and the right shoe are not the same color. The irony of the pink and blue are deeper than one may think. So saying that boys only like blue and girls only like pink is as dangerous as saying Koreans all look alike from a distance. Nevertheless, we are actually accustomed to such conventionalism. We make gross generalizations such as the Germans are diligent, the English are gentlemen, the French love culture and art, and Arabs all look alike-the kind of generalizations that could get our heads chopped off with a Saif.
Hence, if the artist’s intention is to reconfirm a very simple stereotype, she does not need to undertake such complicated work. She can just ask people what colors they like and announce the resulting statistics according to the categories of gender, occupation, education, dwelling areas, etc. Perhaps the work of Jeong Mee Yoon indicates that color has no meaning? Let us extend the color controversy to food. The significance of color in this case is extremely arbitrary, for instance, just because a food is a certain color does not mean it tastes a certain way or is given a fixed significance. Are red peppers hot, or green peppers hot? According to our stereotypes, the red ones should be hotter. But in reality, from Mexican jalapenos to Indian chilli and Korean Cheongyang peppers, the really hot peppers are light green. Let us look at Coca Cola and jajangmyeon (Chinese noodles). The color of Coke is dark brown, which is not so refreshing. Furthermore, the logo of Coke is red, which is also unrelated to coolness. But that does not mean that the hot and heavy colors of the drink make people sweat in the summer days just at the thought of it. In fact, it is the opposite. How about jajangmyeon? This is also dark brown. It is a dark, sticky and oily food. But no one despises these noodles because of such aspects. On the contrary, jajangmyeon has received everlasting affection from the majority of Korean people. This means that color is not an absolute signifier. Color is an innocent signifier that has entrusted its body to the diverse functions of signification. It is the humans who take those poor colors and frame them with all sorts of nasty connotations. Color itself has no meaning. This is the simple truth that I insist.
Jeong Mee Yoon’s color controversy catches on cold fire. Who gave blue to the boys and pink to the girls? Was it their parents? Was it society? Was it the school? Was it a neighbor? Was it a friend? Or was it the obscure but powerful custom and superego known as the distinction of gender? Will the same colors be given to the children to be born in these children’s rooms in the far future? Will the children in the center of their rooms filled with pink or blue objects act as superegos of the next generation’s children, or deny themselves and mix up the objects, placing themselves in a gray zone of colors? A more fundamental question is must there be a distinction between colors? So what if it is blue and so what if it is pink? After a long struggle that lasted for over 50 years, our society has been barely able to escape from the red complex, except for a small part. Now shouldn’t it overcome the more elaborate and sneaky complex of tying pink and blue to certain genders? Jeong Mee Yoons controversy of color seems to exert that the realms of pink and blue are clearly divided, but for some reason I feel that it is directed towards the more radical question of “what use is it to make divisions between colors?”
< Pink Floyd and Blue Note >
When I was little and first heard of the Pink Floyd, I thought it was a group that did soft and mushy music because of the feeling the world “pink” gave me. After knowing that their lyrics contained wretched expressions about all the wounds and pains in the world, the color pink began to look completely different to me. Actually, pink is a contagious sign, which could give a twang to any word it accompanies. But the Pink Floyd had nothing to do with the color pink. The word “pink” was just a tribute to blues musician Pink Anderson, who was worshiped by Roger Waters and Syd Barrett-early members of the Pink Floyd. Some get confused between the Pink Floyd and the Pink Lady. Fortunately, the two “Pink”s are both musical groups but have nothing else in common, and therefore leave no room for further confusion. It is a good thing that the connotation of the color pink did not penetrate into the music of the Pink Floyd, who made sad and beautiful songs about the contradictions and wounds of the world. That is why we do not easily get tired of their music.
The most famous jazz club in New York City is the Blue Note. The club is very popular with Japanese tourists, to the extent that they call it the mecca of Japanese tourists. The Blue Note is so famous that while there is only one in New York , there are three in Japan-one in Tokyo , one in Osaka and one in Nagoya . When I went to the club, a funky atmosphere of the Japanese tourists had been dominating the place, rather than a pure and cool feeling of blue. I never went back to the Blue Note again. It would perhaps be more honest for the club, which is attracting tourists with the force of blue, to change its name to “Pink Club.” The Blue Note: how irritating!
< Pink Lady Falls into the Blue Ocean >
Japanese girl’s duo Pink Lady, which created a sensation in the early 1980s with its sexy concept in Sexy Music and Kiss in the Dark, could perhaps be seen as a predecessor of Korean singers Lee Hyo-ri and Seo In-young. Now the name only remains as a flower shopping mall, a drama title, the name of a cocktail, and a device for masturbation. The group which has been long forgotten and is hard to find even on the internet, however, has managed to clearly engrave the connotation of “gaudy and vulgar” on the word “pink” through its songs. I recall that the Hee Sisters, Suk Sisters and the Gukbo Sisters, who were active during the same period, could not match the Pink Lady in its “pinkiness.” As I listened to a pirated edition of their music that someone had bought for me for 350 won, I was surprised that music could be so shallow and vulgar. Then I was surprised once more at the fact that more than 20 years later such shallowness and vulgarity could reappear in Korean singers. History repeats itself, and so does pink-once as the color of a Korean traditional shirt, once as a song with a sexy concept, and once as the color of lipstick.
Now pink is no longer the blue ocean. Except for a very limited area of taste, pink does not sell. In the 80s the Pink Lady may have swum in the blue ocean, but in the 21st century they have fallen into the blue ocean and have drifted away to an unknown place.
< The Pink Panther and the Blue Impulse >
I have never seen the Pink Panther. I just thought the title was sort of peculiar. The Pink Panther was a popular series of detective movies which was produced from the 1960s to the 1980s. There were eight series in total. The production gave birth to the famous actor Peter Sellers. In the first movie made in 1963, “Pink Panther” was the nickname for a giant diamond. The story is about a thief known as the Phantom trying to steal this gem. The Pink Panther acts as a mascot, who appears in the beginning and the end of the film, serving as a symbol of the funny happenings in the film. The Pink Panther was later made into a separate TV animation series. It is said that while taking a bubble bath scene, the staff used strong chemicals to make more bubbles, resulting in injuries on the actors’ and actresses’ skin. Robert Wagner, who had to dive into the pool of bubbles, suffered from temporary blindness that lasted for four weeks. However, it is only the title that is imprinted in my head.
Watching the Blue Impulse-flight demonstration squadron of the Japanese Self-Defence Force-flying smoothly with their Japanese-made T4 trainer jets, I feel envy as I wonder when Korea will be able to form a flight demonstration squad with jet fighters made in Korea . The Blue Impulse was first founded on March 4, 1960 at the Hamahatsu Air Force Base with 5 F-86Fs. It made demonstrations at the opening for the Tokyo Olympic games in 1964 and for the Osaka Expo in 1970. Following the introduction of Japan-made T-2 jets, the squad now operates eight T-4s. The name of the squad most likely takes after the US Navy flight demonstration squadron, Blue Angels. To a flight demonstration squadron that engages in beautiful but dangerous acrobatics, blue is an appropriate color to express the perilous fate of the pilots who must perform on the fine line between life and death. Pink just doesn’t seem to go well with death. As I am writing this paper, I suddenly hear on the news that a Blue Angels’ plane crashed, killing its pilot. Blue is the color of bruises.
< The Pink Panther and the Blue Impulse >
In English, the word blue seems to have more negative meanings than positive ones. In Korea , blue is a refreshing and clean image, but in English, blue basically means depression. It also could mean desolation. “Out of the blue” means “all of a sudden without warning,” or perhaps, as a Korean saying goes, “like catching and eating a rice cake in one’s sleep.” The phrase probably came to be because of the absurdity involved in a case where something suddenly falls out of the blue sky. I suppose the custom of boys preferring blue and girls preferring pink came from the phrase, “out of the blue.”
(Youngjun Lee, Ph.D. is a professor in Photograpic Art at Kaywon School of Art & Design in Korea.)