Yong Soon Min, Intrepid Korean-American Artist, Dies at 70

Yong Soon Min, a Korean-American artist whose work explored Asian-American diasporic identity, passed away at her home in Los Angeles on March 12 at the age of 70. The Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, announced her passing on social media the following day. 

Min was born in South Korea in April of 1953, a few months before the Korean War ended with an armistice establishing the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. At the age of seven, she moved to the United States with her mother and brother to rejoin her father, who had emigrated to teach Korean at the US Army Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. 

As a self-proclaimed “Cold War baby,” Min navigated the shifting political climate of post-war Korea. Min grew up not speaking her mother tongue and struggled to relate to her peers who were raised in Korea and labeled her a 1.5-generation Korean. Her diasporic Korean heritage became a central theme in her work, an experience she described to the International Examiner in 1990 as “the notion of being between cultures, of being a hybrid — feeling that you were half-home both as an American and as a Korean.” Min attended the University of California, Berkeley where she earned her BA, MA, and MFA degrees throughout the 1970s. The artist was classmates with artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha at UC Berkeley, where they met while receiving visual art awards at the university’s art museum, now Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

The artist moved to New York City in 1981, where she participated in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program and “cut her political teeth,” as she noted on her website. She honed her focus on activism and began contending with the complexity of being a female Asian-American artist in a primarily White, male-dominated commercial art world. By the early 1990s, Min had become active in New York-based artist collectives, including the Godzilla Asian American Arts Network and the Seoro Korean Cultural Network. Min participated in the group exhibition Across the Pacific: Contemporary Korean and Korean American Art (1993–94) as a direct result of Seoro’s efforts.

One early series, Make Me (1989), comprises four black-and-white portraits that place Min’s self-manipulated face in direct dialogue with cut-outs of racialized phrases attributed to Asian Americans, such as “model minority” and “objectified other.” Another significant work, Defining Moments (1992), includes six self-portraits overlapped with words and numbers representing historical links to her identity. The series makes references to the 1960 student uprising against the corruption of the first president of South Korea, Syngman Rhee; the 1980 Gwangju Uprising in which military troops killed an estimated 600 to over 1,000 Korean citizens; and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots sparked by Rodney King’s murder by White police officers. Through these interventions, the artist used her gendered body as a declarative site to reclaim the colonization and sexual objectification of Koreans and Korean Americans.

Following her move to Los Angeles in the 1990s, Min became a co-founding steering committee member of GYOPO, a nonprofit collective of diasporic Korean art workers. She was instrumental in guiding the organization’s Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee: A Marathon Reading event in 2017 to honor the artist, who was also her friend and colleague, in a five-hour reading of Cha’s magnum opus. At the time of her death, Min was professor emerita at the University of California, Irvine. She participated in many international exhibitions, including the seventh Gwangju Biennale in Korea in 2008 and the 10th Havana Biennial in 2009. Her Defining Moments series is currently on view as part of the exhibition Scratching at the Moon at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Min played an integral role in garnering greater visibility for future generations of Asian-American artists. In the wake of her passing, GYOPO members reflected on her indelible impact. “Yong Soon leaves a lasting and profound legacy on the Asian American community, and her impact will continue to uplift future generations of artists and thinkers,” the organization wrote in a social media post. “Her legacy as an artist and community builder will forever be cherished, and the special relationship many of us in the GYOPO community had with her will live on through our programming, that we will continue organizing in her honor and memory.”

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