October 21, 2011 / 8:34 AM / 7 years ago

Performance art meets social protest in South Korea

SEOUL (Reuters) - A lone woman, dressed as a silver-colored alien, stood near South Korea’s Foreign Ministry on Friday, holding up near life-size styrofoam models of President Lee Myung-bak and other prominent politicians — each sporting a large tongue.

A pedestrian (R) looks at artist Yang Eun-joo, 32, holding a solo protest denouncing the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement talks in central Seoul October 21, 2011. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak

The protest against alleged backroom deals and secret communications with the United States over a free trade pact is just the latest protest by “One-man demonstation.com”, a group staging colorful solo protests along teeming Seoul streets.

“It is another extension of artistic expression. We are trying to create a combination of demonstrations and performances and of course to use the power of the web as much as we can,” said Lim Ok-sang, a 61-year old artist who is one of the still tiny group’s founders.

Protests are far from unusual in South Korea, a nation where strong workers unions and student movements have staged often violent rallies. At times, protesters have thrown Molotov cocktails and even taken their own lives.

But Lim and his colleagues realized that recent protests had attracted scant attention from the Korean mainstream media and little empathy from bystanders, with both groups jaded by decades of noisy, abusive picketing.

They want to change that — and it’s not just their own causes they’ll stand up for.

Anyone who has an issue they want to see taken to the streets, but no time, can call on the one-man protesters to take care of it by leaving their opinions on Twitter or Facebook.

One recent protest featured an artist performing a wobbly handstand to express how hard life would be with a minimum hourly wage of 4,320 won ($3.80). Another, in support of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests, featured a man in front of the Seoul stock exchange holding a new U.S. dollar with a hole where George Washington’s face should be.

Analysts said the group could provide fresh energy for the country’s protest movement, whose activities are losing clout.

“The country needs to change the paradigm of protests with violence and abusive language. This group has refined messages, not threats,” said Park Hyo-chong, a professor at Seoul National University.

Since one-person protests don’t require government approval, many people have taken to the streets, ranging from people evicted from their apartments to a movie star protesting fewer movie screens for domestic films.

But such protests lack a powerful statement and only waste energy, said Lee Chang-hyun, a communications professor at Kookmin University in Seoul and another group member.

“We can play a role as a hub and build up a nationwide portal to make (solo protest) communal,” he added.

The group meets several times a week to select causes for their performances. They hope their solo protests, supported by the Internet, will lead to wider awareness about issues ranging from nuclear power to dog meat, a traditional Korean food.

Eventually they hope to build an online map of solo protests across the nation and hire more people.

“People are just looking at us first and then start taking pictures with us,” said group member and artist Yang Eun-joo, 32. “I can see this becoming another type of street culture.”

Additional reporting by Shon Bo-ryun; Editing by Elaine Lies

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