Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Art History


Mona Hadler

Committee Members

Siona Wilson

Kevin Murphy

Kyunghee Pyun

Subject Categories

Asian Art and Architecture | Contemporary Art | Korean Studies | Other Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Performance Studies | Photography | Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies | Theory and Criticism | Visual Studies | Women's Studies


Global art, Art in Politics and Social Change, Theory of the Avant-garde, South Korean post-war art, South Korean Happenings, South Korean Conceptual art, South Korean Nature Art, South Korean Fluxus, Protest art


My dissertation examines South Korean performance and conceptual art from 1961 to 1993 during the Cold War military dictatorship, and focuses on the dynamics of socio-political tension between the military dictatorship and the opposition of political dissidents comprised mostly of artists, students, and intellectuals, who defined themselves as “avant-garde artists.” Censored and suppressed by both the authoritarian government and the complacent art establishment, these art movements were omitted from conventional South Korean art history, and oftentimes dismissed as derivatives of Western art. My dissertation offers a critical revision of these activities by framing them instead as forms of radical dissent. It argues the Western notion of the avant-garde and its various post-World War II manifestations—such as Happenings, Fluxus, Conceptualism, and Environmental art—were appropriated and re-purposed by South Korean artists’ collectives to mask their socio-political resistance and to evade imprisonment and torture under repressive military regimes. I contend that the various strains of Western avant-garde art, due to their perceived exoticism and artistic aura, functioned as a protective device against censorship and persecution for the artists who took critical stances against the authoritarian governments and the compliant modernist establishment during this period.

Paralleling artistic currents in other countries such as Japan, Latin America, and the United States from the 1960s to the 1980s, these South Korean artists expanded their critique beyond the core of the art world itself to make forays into broader cultural and political arenas, by utilizing diverse forms of art with coded critical messages. This alternative model of art-as-covert-political-agency undermines the dominant center/periphery paradigm in global art history.

My analysis of these South Korean case studies demonstrates how these artists expanded the global discourse on the avant-garde by resurrecting it after its alleged death in the West. This re-purposed and resurrected avant-garde as subterfuge, which I term the “zombie-avant-garde,” proved useful for the South Korean artists to further their own social and political ends. By examining the dialectic, push-pull relationship of the South Korean artists vis-à-vis the Western avant-gardes, this study provides a renewed and nuanced interpretation of this phenomenon, contributing to an alternative understanding of non-Western art historical trajectories in multiple directions. It also augments South Korean renditions of the avant-garde, which I define as the “meta-avant-garde,” and adds to scholarship on political and activist art under totalitarian regimes by bringing in Eastern philosophical frameworks for meta-critique.

This work is embargoed and will be available for download on Monday, September 30, 2024

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