I was born and raised in Seoul, the capital of the people’s republic of Korea. Seoul is a major metropolitan city teeming with a population of over ten million. The population in Seoul lives amidst an ever-growing concrete jungle with tall skyscrapers and flashy neon lights. On the surface, everyone seems to be enjoying themselves basking in the rays of metropolitan glitter. What lies beneath, however, is the seldom talked about presence of the cutthroat competition that permeates the culture.
Competition was a major theme that stayed with me while I was a student in Korea. The competitive nature of the school necessitated examinations in subject matters as broad as mathematics, sewing, piano performance and drawing. My society and my training demanded that I excel at all of these tests. After each exam was graded, most students would ask around for each other’s grade to see where they ranked. The majority of my peers believed that scoring high were the only way to gain recognition in society. There was not much evidence to believe otherwise.
When I became a college student, I quickly realized that the competition was not limited within the boundaries of academia. As my friends and I no longer had to wear uniforms or keep our hair a certain way, we started to converse more and more about the way we dressed and presented ourselves. Some of my friends even talked about their desire to look beautiful and perfect through surgery. Although they already looked beautiful to me, the plastic surgeons they had consulted called out imperfections that could be fixed.
Ten of my classmates eventually went on to receive the recommended surgery. After the surgery, they started to visit the dermatologist every week to ensure perfect skin. Their obsession with beauty was not just a consequence of vanity. The underlying belief was that in a competitive society, beauty affords greater opportunities such as getting a good job or finding a good husband.
The excessive pursuit of beauty continued throughout my college years. My friends and I talked about celebrities, fashion, and beauty all the time. I had to be aware of brand names simply to establish a common topic of conversation with my friends. Consumerism was rampant. We longed to have trendy, expensive products. I became very observant. On the street, I noticed people’s appearances — what kinds of clothes, bags, accessories, and shoes they had, and how beautiful they looked. Their belongings symbolized their wealth. I assumed and judged them through their appearances, and as a consequence, I was becoming a superficial person devoted to an artificial notion of beauty.
The desire to achieve beauty was also at the heart of my work as an art student. Just as I had desired perfect and beautiful clothes, I wanted to create perfect and beautiful jewelry. Perfection became the goal, and my process became a means to an end. I started each project with a clear vision of what each piece should look like. Sometimes, the outcome would be slightly different, but not radically. I judged and valued my work based on how closely my making matched the design. I filed, sanded, scored, forged, and polished to the point of perfection. The process was painfully long, and I did not enjoy it. However, I felt that it was a small price to pay to achieve the beauty that I so desired.
-from my thesis book