Yatoo and the politics of nature: What ecological thinking discloses of contemporary South Korean art | Intellect Skip to content
Volume 3, Issue 3
  • ISSN: 2051-7041
  • E-ISSN: 2051-705X



Artist collective Yatoo was founded in 1981 on the dry riverbed of Kŭm River near Gongju, South Korea. Yatoo, which means ‘to throw oneself to the wilderness,’ is still active today, but despite the group’s longevity their temporary sculptures and performances outdoors and in natural environments have yet to receive a substantial scholarly attention. This lack of discursive recognition is connected to the challenges posed by the operation of what I call the ‘politics of nature’ in postcolonial Korea – or how discussions of nature in contemporary Korean art often consider ‘nature’ as performing the ‘nation’ or even ‘Eastern metaphysics’, conflating different levels and types of signifiers. Seeing nature as a concept that has been constantly reformulated in its fraught relationship with (neo-)colonial history, this paper situates Yatoo within South Korean art’s historical occupation of nature: namely, the histories of the late 1960s and 70s experimental art in outdoor spaces, the 1970s and 80s politicized ideas of ‘vibrant site (hyŏnjang)’ and ‘residing in wilderness (cheya)’, and monochrome painting called tansaekhwa in the 1970s and its connection with the rhetoric of naturalism (chayŏnjuŭi). The shifts that occurred in Yatoo’s direction during the 1980s and more recently are therefore important because they reflect the contradictions found in the various paradigms and topologies of nature and ecology operating in Korean art. As this case study of Yatoo ultimately reveals, an art historical analysis of art’s relationship with the natural environment (as a physical entity sometimes bound by site-specificity) and discourses of nature (as representation) necessitates an awareness of multiple scales (local and national as much as elemental and universal) and historical (dis)continuities.


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