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The Cultural Complexities of a Symbol Raise Questions About Equal Treatment on Campus

An installation piece in the SAIC BFA Show piqued controversy when the artist, Jae Hwan Lim, replaced a Buddhist swastika with an open letter.

By Featured, SAIC

The open letter outside Jae Hwan Lim’s BFA show project, “Koreaoke.” The letter was hung where a large vinyl Buddhist symbol had initially been displayed. (Photograph by Juan Carlos Herrera)


Amidst the chatter and cell phone camera clicks at this year’s annual BFA show, a small crowd gathered around a sign outside Jae Hwan Lim’s installation. On the white wall outside his piece, “Koreaoke,” hung a large letter addressed to the “Gallerygoer,” and the steady conversational buzz surrounding it evoked the kind of interest that most artists only dream of. Lim, however, wasn’t there to hear any of it.

Lim had chosen to forego the opening of the BFA show at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) — which was a big deal, as the show marked the culmination of four years of hard work, a celebration of what 2017’s graduating class had accomplished. Lim wasn’t in a celebratory mood, though. The few days preceding the March 11 opening had been painful.

As his letter explained, Lim had been “persuaded to voluntarily remove” a large Buddhist symbol from his installation “in deference with some in the SAIC community who thought it resembled a Nazi Swastika.” The letter went on to detail the differences between his symbol and the Nazi version, concluding that “the integrity of [his] installation is now compromised by my decision to acquiesce to the consensus opinion.”

“They did still give me an option to leave it up, or take it down, or replace it with an alternative symbol,” Lim said, referring to the committee that met with him to discuss the potential problems with his installation. Lim spent some time thinking it over, but ultimately chose to take it down. “I felt like I had to take it down. I am a Diversity Action Group committee member and the founder and leader of the Humans in North Korea group, and I felt like I had a lot of responsibility as a human rights advocate and as a student leader at the school.”

“Koreaoke” had originally been about Park Geun-hye, who became president of South Korea in 2013 and was recently impeached; and her father Park Chung-hee, who was the dictator of the country between 1963 and 1979. Lim is Korean, and he wanted to bring attention to the regime’s brutality and media censorship, and their involvement of shamanism culture in political decision-making. The vinyl symbol for Buddhism that was originally posted as part of the installation is ubiquitous in Korea and Asia at large. Lim said it was a critical part of his piece.

The upright swastika, left, is one of the symbols for Buddhism. It rose in importance around the 3rd century BCE, representing eternity in ancient Tibet. The symbol is still ubiquitous in Korea and other East Asian countries, where it can be seen outside temples, shrines, and places of worship. By the early 20th century, the symbol had come to represent good luck and success, and it was adopted by Adolf Hitler to represent the Nazi Party in 1920. The image on the right shows the swastika as it is depicted on the flag of the Third Reich. The symbol has come to be associated in the Western world with anti-Semitism and white supremacy.

He had an inkling that putting the symbol up might be controversial, though. He was careful to include the image in his installation proposal, and to explain its meaning. The proposal was accepted — of 50 installation submissions, Lim’s was one of eight that was selected for display — without any questions about the symbol.

“The administrators went over the proposal and did not say anything about it; didn’t ask me for an interview. I called them over the phone and they didn’t mention anything about the symbol,” Lim said. He ordered the vinyl printout of the symbol and put it up with a friend. “I was happy at the time, because everything looked great,” he said.

That feeling lasted for roughly two hours. Then he started to hear from the site managers.

According to Lim, SAIC senior Jerico Domingo reported the symbol because they were worried that their gallery partner, who is Jewish, might feel triggered by the symbol’s resemblance to the Nazi swastika.

Domingo, who is Filipinx-American, said they recognized the symbol as Buddhist, but that they were worried about it anyway.

“My partner’s Jewish grandparents would attend the BFA show, and I did not want them to feel unsafe,” Domingo said. “Due to the current sociopolitical climate and prevalence of anti-Semitic hate crimes, I just wanted to inform Jae that his piece could most definitely be taken the wrong way.”

When Lim initially decided to remove the symbol from his display, he followed up with a text message to Domingo. “I wanted to thank you for sharing your concern on the Buddhist Swastika symbol with others today,” the text read. He added that he’d apologized to Domingo’s gallery partner, and that while he had known that the image had the potential to be misinterpreted, he figured that since the proposal had been accepted without question, it would be okay to install it.

At that point, Lim said, he was at peace with his decision to take the symbol down.

Then on Friday, March 3, Lim was asked to meet with a committee called Art School Considerations (ASC), whose purpose is to review work for capstone exhibitions that either “put the institution or the student at risk,” as Undergraduate Dean Tiffany Holmes explained it.

The meeting was made up of Patrick Spence, dean of campus life; exhibit curator Serena Washington; Steven Plaxco, director of exhibition operations; Troy Klyber, an Art Institute lawyer; Debbie Martin, dean of student life; and Holmes. Lim noted that the entire committee appeared to be white.

“There was no representative from the Diversity Action Group, or Multicultural Affairs, or any student representatives,” Lim said.

Still, Lim said he was initially appreciative of the tone of the group and the process of the conversation. At the meeting, according to Holmes’ notes, committee members discussed the possibility that the Buddhist symbol may be misread by some audiences.

Holmes’ notes went on: “We attempted to have a teaching moment so that Jae could consider the various options for moving his piece forward into its final exhibition form.” They also offered to pay for new vinyl or the existing if Lim decided to take the symbol down or replace it.

As he continued to reflect on the meeting, though, Lim began to feel angrier. “They created that meeting because they wanted to create a safe environment, but one piece in the BFA show includes the n-word on a carpet, and one has the word ‘cock’ in huge letters on a t-shirt,” Lim said. Holmes told F Newsmagazine that the piece with the n-word on it also led to a meeting with the committee.

“That symbol is a symbol of Buddhism. It is just literally out everywhere in Korea. The symbol itself, which represents usually the Buddhist culture, is on every Buddhist shrine all over Asia. Since that is part of the Asian culture and Asian religion, I thought it was critical for me to share that as part of my art,” Lim said.

The hours that followed the meeting on March 3 were particularly charged for Lim. He’d told the committee that he wanted to give some more thought to his next steps, but that he’d take the symbol down for the time being. Walking out of the meeting, though, Lim said he overheard a committee member — Plaxco — say, “Jeez.”

Plaxco told F Newsmagazine that he didn’t say anything after the meeting. “In fact, Jae left the meeting a few minutes before I did, I was still seated,” Plaxco said in an email.

Lim said he and Plaxco spoke after the meeting in the gallery space. He described the encounter as hostile, noting that Plaxco didn’t seem to want Lim to be reimbursed for any new vinyl that would be necessary to make a new image. “He started to argue that the gallery wasn’t in charge of my mistake, and he was very aggressive,” Lim said. “Something about his body language … he was waving his hands at me.”

Plaxco said that while he and Lim talked in the gallery after the meeting, he didn’t frame the situation as a result of any mistake on Lim’s  part. The ASC had agreed to reimburse Lim for any vinyl he might choose to remove, but artistic materials are not provided by the school to any of the students in the BFA show.

“I told him that no, we could not finance student artwork for any BFA shows, and that to do so would be unfair to all the other students in the show, but that he was free to use the reimbursement from the original vinyl towards any other treatment,” Plaxco said.

He added, “As for my behavior, I’m sorry that Jae perceived my demeanor with him as aggressive; I would characterize my behavior during the entire exchange as helpful, accommodating, and sympathetic, and of course polite but firm in regards to the reimbursement issue for the new graphic element.”

Lim went back to his house and filed an aggression report.

Later, a friend of Lim’s alerted him to a conversation on Facebook started by an SAIC student. The post read, “It would really be a shame if someone wrote weak on the massive vinyl swastika that someone installed in the BFA show … right beside combo space 27”

Beneath the post — which seemed like a vandalism threat — comments were streaming in: “R U … KIDDING MEEEE”; “what in the actual fuck”; “bro i’ll fuckin rip it down if he doesn’t.”

Domingo commented on the thread early on: “I talked to him and he’s probs going to take it down today. My group partner’s parents and grandparents, who are Jewish, are going to the show and it would be MESSY.” They followed up several times. One comment said, “It’s not the actual ‘swastika’ it’s a gammadian cross that originated in India and I think the point was to shed light on the history but I was like… yo ummm that thing is literally across from a Jewish student’s piece so like YIKES.”

Finally, after a lot of back and forth, the original user posted:

I mean, it’s the only part of the piece that’s not the actual installation space and is separated from the rest of the piece by a curtain. Like in that way it’s deprived of any context and is literally just a massive swastika on the wall. It’s the only part of the piece that viewers are forced to look at in the context of all the surrounding work and seems like a really self-serving way of drawing people into your space. I’m over it.

By the time Lim saw it, that comment had been liked 21 times.

Lim took screenshots of all the Facebook comments and forwarded them to Holmes. He CC-ed Aram Han Sifuentes, who is the faculty advisor for the Humans of Korea group; Larry Lee, a mentor and professor; Spence; Martin; and a number of other professors, advocates, and mentors.

In his 475-word email, Lim wrote that he was “sincerely feeling racially discriminated [against] and ignored.” He explained that his disappointment stemmed from what he felt was unfair treatment towards Asian and Asian-American students.

“I am going through a severe mental struggle and I am trying to approach any Asian faculty and staff to seek sympathy and support on my stance,” Lim wrote.

This wasn’t an exaggeration. Lim sought advice from anyone who would speak to him. He went to the Diversity and Inclusion team, to professors of Asian Studies (and professors with Asian backgrounds), and to the Wellness Center.

“At first I didn’t want to make it a bigger issue, but now I understand that I have to work a lot to advocate for human rights on campus,” Lim said. “I want this conversation to be much bigger. I want to clarify what’s diversity and what’s inclusive while not discriminating against other cultures — especially Asian cultures.”

Han Sifuentes, who lectures in the Fiber and Materials Studies and Liberal Arts Departments at SAIC, wasn’t able to go to any of the meetings, but she said she did feel that the conversation tended to prioritize one marginalized community over another.

“I took this very personally because, being Buddhist, I feel like a part of my culture can’t be expressed because it might be misread. It’s not just about Jae; it’s about my cultural identity,” Han Sifuentes said.

Fred Holland, a faculty member to whom Lim reached out, said that his reaction to the whole situation was “mixed.”

“I am more alarmed at the fact that when all was said and done he didn’t use [the symbol]. Self-censorship is as dangerous as authoritarian censorship,” Holland said. Holland, who is Jewish, felt that other Jews would have been able to differentiate between Lim’s symbol and the swastika. “A small footnote under the symbol should have been enough to suffice.”

After the Facebook comments were posted, Lim requested that an email be sent to the student body discussing the online incident and identifying it as racially discriminatory. The administration said that that wasn’t possible.

“Ordinarily, if a student says something mean about another student on Facebook, we probably wouldn’t investigate it,” Holmes said. “Facebook is a public, choice-based entity.”

Since one of the Facebook comments about Lim’s piece threatened vandalism, it was treated as a conduct issue. Holmes said that the students who had contributed to the thread had been asked to meet with Spence regarding the incident.

The student who initially put up the Facebook post did not respond to repeated attempts by F Newsmagazine to contact him.

“I don’t want the community to think that the school is policing Facebook,” Holmes said. “But I will say that this incident has really made me think about other colleges that have something called an ‘honor code’ — something in our handbook that is really talking about things like plagiarism and not threatening artwork or bodies online.”

Following the Facebook incident, Holmes offered to hold another meeting with Lim. This time, Holmes, Martin, Spence, Lim, Stephanie Lin from the Wellness Center, and John Pack of campus security were present. According to Holmes’ notes, Pack agreed to install an additional wireless security camera on Lim’s piece to “help him feel more confident about security and the state of his work.”

When the show finally opened, Lim’s open letter posted on the wall in place of the Buddhist symbol had a big impact. Several viewers emailed him or members of the administration to express support for Lim and dismay about what was construed as censorship.

Doug Kaplan, an MFA student in sound, was among the people who reached out to Lim.

“It’s just ridiculous,” Kaplan said. “There are tons of artists that are engaging in the same subject material. They tell him to show cultural sensitivity, but when they say that to him, they’re not showing cultural sensitivity to him. They are showing cultural sensitivity to the people who back the institution.”

Kaplan added that he is Jewish and that he didn’t think the symbol “was offensive in any way.”

Holmes emphasized that Lim was not the only student asked to meet with the ASC. She said the problem was not that Lim had created work that could have been offensive, but that the school hadn’t provided enough capstone undergraduate classes — classes where students can show seminal work in an academic setting for critique.

“I think if we had a do-over, it would be great if Jae had presented this piece in a class with 14 other students and a faculty member, because I think this question would have come up, and a conversation would have been had in class about it,” Holmes said. “I think that Jae, in hearing and processing that kind of dialogue in class, would have been far better than processing it a week before the BFA show opened.” She added that SAIC will be changing its undergraduate curriculum so all students who show at an event like the BFA show will need to be in a capstone class with a capstone advisor.

But for Lim and others, the issue stretches beyond this single body of work. About 32 percent of all the undergraduate students at SAIC are international — the bulk of whom come from East Asian countries.

Last year, F Newsmagazine published an opinion piece by a Korean student, Megan Cho, who had reported a Facebook group with anti-Asian posts to SAIC’s campus life, and was told that “the school was not responsibility for the unaffiliated Facebook page. That was it.”

One of the comments excerpted in the article, posted anonymously, said:

Annoyed with the Koreans that go to the school that create shitty last minute projects and waste time during crit. Annoyed with snobby fobs. Koreans talking shit about people in Korean when the person is 3 feet away. Koreans sticking their nose in shit it doesn’t belong in. Gossiping Koreans fanning around mommy and daddy’s money. Fucking Koreans

There are several other excerpts like this (with accompanying screenshots), and Cho went on to quote several Asian and Asian-American students who described stereotypes and insensitive treatment they encountered from both students and faculty.

Most of the students F Newsmagazine contacted about any anti-Asian sentiment on campus didn’t want to share their names publicly. “It sucks, but you can’t say anything about it because it just gets worse,” a painting and drawing BFA student in her senior year said. She added, “I was in a class last year where a student said that all the Asian kids in the class were lazy. In front of the whole class. I don’t think the professor did anything about it, or if he did, I never heard about it.”

Faculty members from SAIC’s Diversity and Inclusion team declined to comment.

“Anything can be offensive to anyone,” Lim said. “It depends on your background; your cultural history. That was why I was understanding and compromised to take it down. Now I feel like I gave up too much or stepped back too much unnecessarily.”

Domingo, who initially reported their concerns about Lim’s work, said, “I think that 100 percent of Asian-American students are treated unfairly. I have experienced in my own classes where English speaking teachers would demand their Asian students stop talking in their native languages in fear that they would be gossiping, and other students assuming all Asian students are wealthy.”

Sophie Lucido Johnson is the editorial advisor for F, and has written for The Guardian, VICE, Jezebel, The Nation, and others. She makes a ton of pie.
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3 Responses to The Cultural Complexities of a Symbol Raise Questions About Equal Treatment on Campus

  1. Duff Norris says:

    It really sucks that the teachable moment wasn’t around the actual meaning of the symbol and it’s co-opting by the nazis. As I see it, the school has invited a student from a particular place to attend school and then four years later asked them to leave behind their symbolism and cultural touchstones when they make their seminal work. How does that make sense? The fact is, it was not a swastika.

    We, as a community, could have learned something about Korean culture and history, and it could have possibly began a great dialogue between Korean and Jewish folks (among others), but it seems none of the possible positive effect were considered. Instead we have a student who is left holding the bag and who is dissatisfied with his culminating moment, mostly due to lack of appropriate support or dialogue from the school, and an administration that decided to retreat into fear rather than push to find new territory and support a student forging that path.

    That’s a real shame and I believe there was a more bold and nuanced route forward that would have demonstrated much more courage on the part of the administration as well as from the student body. A call to engage and understand before (not necessarily in lieu of) passing judgement or condemning; this is the great invitation of art. Without first understanding, how do we come to any fruitful conversation or have any genuine exchange? And if we’re unwilling to do this cultural competency work, then I would ask, what business do we have inviting them here to participate in an education steeped in cultural and symbolic language?
    My heart goes out to Lim.

    • Not Ai Weiwei says:

      Your lamentation displays so much of the sensitivity, understanding and love of learning that SAIC and the student body were not able to afford their student. They failed him, and as evidenced by the infuriating accounts in the latter part of the article, so many of their Asian American and Asian national students.

      I hope very much this piece places sufficient pressure on SAIC to not only allow Mr. Lim a chance to show his piece in another show of comparable standing but also address the campus’ widespread anti-Asian racism.

  2. Not Ai Weiwei says:

    The School of the Art Institute of Chicago is privileging the Eurocentric view, and so the gammadian cross, originating in India over 11k years ago, is suddenly no longer a religious symbol, but only a Nazi Swaztika, which has a historical life less than 100 years. There are two valid definitions, but the school is only accepting the one defined by white civilizations.

    Hypocritically, SAIC did not remove another piece with the n-word in it. The n-word possesses but one meaning, and it’s entirely reprehensible. The gammadian cross and Nazi Swastika possess separate meanings and, notably, are only similar in appearance, not identical—they are two entirely separate things afterall!—and yet SAIC chose to view the symbols as equivalent as opposed to visually similar and totally separate and chose the meaning that does not align with the the artist’s chosen symbol, the gammadian.

    My first encounter with this symbol’s complex meaning was when I first knew nothing of it. It was 17 years ago during the millennium in Tokyo. I noticed what I thought were Nazi Swaztikas decorating the eaves of the temples and elsewhere. Most foreigners, especially non-Asian ones, will arrive at much the same assumption. However, the world shouldn’t be changed to accommodate our ignorance.

    As someone in the article mentioned, just provide a footnote next to the piece so that the uninformed will become informed. (What is art when you take away its capacity to inform.) In doing so, you’ll also, over time, however slowly, reclaim the symbol for what it was, something antithetical to all the hate it embodies in recent history.

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