Avante-Garde Routes for the Korean Diaspora


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This paper takes as a starting point the 2007 American documentary film Koryo Saram: The Unreliable People, which highlights both the tragedy and perseverance of Kazakhstan’s Korean population. Koryo Saram includes extensive footage of a 1946 documentary film entitled Kolkhoz “Avant-Garde”, produced by Soviet authorities to showcase a thriving Kazakhstani Korean collective farm. Koryo Saram correctly presents this film as raw Stalinist propaganda, but Kolkhoz “Avant-Garde” also bears traces of the inter-war Soviet Avant-Garde, in particular the documentary techniques of Dziga Vertov, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and Sergei Tret’iakov. That is, there is more to Kolkhoz “Avant-Garde” than meets the eye, and the paper argues that it reveals the tragedy not just of Soviet Koreans, but also of what I am calling the Ethnic Avant-Garde: a cross-racial, international grouping of artists who, in the 1920s and early 30s, looked to Moscow for ways of reconciling revolutionary politics, artistic innovation, and ethnic particularism. Turning from the two films, the paper then provides a broader mapping of the Ethnic Avant-Garde, which included, among others, both Korean American and Soviet Korean artists and writers. In short, I am proposing here a new, Soviet-centered model for bridging these two distinct branches of the Korean diaspora.