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K.NOTe no.22

Sunkwan Kwon

K.NOTe no.22

Sunkwan Kwon

Publisher Total Museum Press Pyungchang 32gil 10, Jongno-gu, Seoul Korea (03004) Tel. 82-2-379-7037 Director Jooneui Noh Editor in Chief Nathalie Boseul Shin, Yoon Jeong Koh Cordinator Hyosup Jung, Taeseong Yi Intern Minseo Park, Eunyoung Park Designer Hein Sohn Sponsor Arts Council Korea Date of Publication 2017. 4 Š Author and artist The reproduction of the contents of this magazine in whole or in part without written permission if prohibited.


K.NOTe #22 Living Absence and Death in Photography Lee Seon-yeong Art Critic Sunkwan Kwon’s submission to Lies of Lies: On Photography, an exhibition featuring the work of 18 leading Korean photographers, was a single large 180 x 225 cm photograph titled The Valley of Darkness (2013). Part of Kwon’s Unfinished Dialectical Theater series, it shows a sign connected with South Korea’s modern history. Yet the viewer feels confused; what should he or she be looking for in this ordinary hillside, which seems like the wake left behind a boat, absent of any traces? To be sure, there may be something interesting to see in a well-photographed thicket, but this work is characterized by a kind of blandness, a lack of emphasis anywhere in the thicket. Are we supposed to admire the leaves, then – each of them exquisitely reproduced in the highdensity, two-gigabyte photograph? From a distance, it simply looks like a thick, rolling green surface. This is supposed to be the setting for events out of history? To ordinary eyes, numbed as they are by exposure to dazzling spectacle, it simply looks like a photograph with nothing to see. But to the viewer with a bit of art history knowledge, it will confirm how abstract art and representationalism fall within the same ranks. Viewers will be all the more dispirited to learn from the photograph’s information that the scene is connected to the civilian massacre at the village of Nogeun-ri, a tragedy of modern history that occurred decades ago. Aren’t historical scenes supposed to be somehow dramatic? Isn’t history about passionate meaning, something different from cold and meaningless daily life? Such is the muteness of a historical setting where some 300 innocent fleeing civilians are believed to have been massacred and buried in secret 58

by U.S. forces fending off an invasion by the People’s Army during the Korean War. Around 20 victims of the incident survive today; will the truth of what happened come to light before they pass on? Legislators, and those who present themselves as guardians of the law, in fact overstep that law. The nature of power is to regard even astonishing violence as though it were some kind of natural agency. As Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida said, law and violence do not exist in opposition. The Nogeun-ri incident is not a case of individual violence that happened incidentally; it was violence by the state. It is power that is invisible yet everywhere, like the flesh and blood of those bodies permeating the earth and trees. In the more than two decades since he started in photography, Sunkwan Kwon has been capturing the shapes and forms wrought by power. That power exists on both a large and small scale; it is dominant and resistant, oppressive and productive. The very choice of a single photograph as a form for dealing with a narrative subject such as history serves to add the riddle of photography on top of the riddle of history. To conclude a historical narrative within a single photograph comes across as a riddle, since it is not some decisive scene from an incident in process. The “historical� scene captured in this one photograph shows confidence in the power of the lens, yet it conversely shows that the photograph, traditionally regarded as a definitive means of proof, is actually a very weak medium. As Roland Barthes said in Camera Lucida, the photograph does not tell us what it is showing. A photograph has no depth; it merely indicates what was. A generous photographer might have planted a bit of a hint, a clue, or presented several scenes together to fit the axis of the story he wanted to tell and make it easy to understand or imagine. This is also a difference in how painting and photography, as media of spatial suspension, address narrative in comparison with films or fiction. To understand a fragment of space that has been momentarily sliced, there must be a context. Depending on that context, the fragments may appear as fact or fiction. The absence and death present in The Valley of Darkness are not simply characteristics of history, 59

> THE VALLEY OF DARKNESS Digital C-print 180×225cm 2013 Preface; Unfinished dialectical theater series



but of photography as well. Such vague scenes speak to a lack of transparency in photography and history alike. As if to give lie to the “theater” in the title, the moments when we are pulled close to the subject are less like a floodlit stage than a darkly looming tent. While viewers of shorter stature may not be able to detect it in detail, the leaves spread out against the sky – filled with the air of some indeterminate time in history – and seem to highlight the lacelike surface. The scene assigns us the job of peeling back as many layers as the strata of time under which the incident lies buried. Viewed as possessing the primary function of facts and their representation, photography and history subside into a darkness before enlightenment. Yet the darkness in Kwon’s work actually enables another form of seeing and reading. The photograph is dark, and the inclusion of glass makes it seem almost like a mirror. As the viewer’s fumbling gaze adjusts to the dark surface, his or her shadow obscures the reflected light, and details slowly begin to emerge. Thanks to his or her own moving shadow, the viewer begins to partially see. The bottom left shows the place where 300 people are said to lie buried, yet no meaningful signs can be detected anywhere in the frame. It is a frustrating format to adopt for an illuminating theme such as uncovering the truth of history. There are none of the accessible visuals expected of a historical narrative that one hopes will be quickly understood and widely shared. It appears like nothing so much as fragments combined – much like the methods of historians, who are obliged to fit a puzzle together from scant remaining evidence. Perhaps with someone’s permission, with someone’s instruction to look, one might have found a symbol in the grass roots and their past and future way of life in this wild thicket, which is not even in bloom. In Sunkwan Kwon’s photograph, however, the center is scattered, and the center offered by symbolism likewise eludes us. As with art, reading history solely in terms of symbolism merely gives us the same lessons every time. An illustration of this is the dialectical narrative of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, which is contained in the title of Kwon’s series. Hayden White’s Historical 62

Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, which focuses on the historical discourse of the “age of history” in the 19th century, notes how simple faith in the objectivity of history is replaced with the grammar or style adopted by the historian. According to that book, Hegel’s dialectical approach, with its excessive symbolism and formal system, disregards the particularity of incidents, classifying them all into countless classes, genera, and species. Modern artists similarly reject a philosophical tendency that, to quote Robbe-Grillet, harbors a desire to trap the world within some comprehensive system. Barthes likened the unbearable expansionism of all power systems to a frying pan: any thinking that speaks of the truth with too powerful a consistency is like sizzling oil, and whatever we might place inside it will simply come out as a potato chip. Michael Ryan’s Marxism and Deconstruction likens the dialectical approach to modern deconstructionism. Deconstruction emphasizes difference in opposition to ideological thinking that seeks to aggregate. In deconstructionism, history is not (dialectical) synthesis, but difference; as Derrida said, difference is historical and history differential. With difference, he speaks not of some ultimate definition or decision, but a delay through difference (différance). The scrub and weeds in Sunkwan Kwon’s work come across as a tapestry of differential traces. The traces here are not existent, but simulacra of the existing (Derrida). Traces have no position. Roaming phantoms cross over boundaries. Forcing us to rely on an uncertain time axis to view and read their broad frame, Kwon’s photographs express the method by which history and fact are understood. Though exceedingly superficial, the scene also operates at a meta level. The work from this exhibition can be compared to other works by Kwon capturing important historical incidents, which provided a key turning point in his photographic career. In 2007, Sunkwan Kwon was selected to receive funding as a photographer from the May 18 Memorial Foundation. His assigned task was to capture the history of the Gwangju Democratization 63

> AN ANGRY MAN SEIZING BY THE OLD MAN’S NECK Archival Pigment Print, 150×189cm 2007 Configurated in Accumulative Space series


Movement of May 1980 – yet his method was quite different from the sort of “hot topic” suggested by the Gwangju May. To take the pictures, he enlisted around 200 participants from the movement, blocking highway lanes governed already by a cold daily routine bearing no connection to the heat of history. Among these works, Angry Man Grabs Old Man by the Collar (2007) could at first glance be a scene of two people quarreling after a traffic accident, but their pose is likely to trigger déjà vu for any Gwangju resident who experienced or remembers May 18. Such similarities are planted everywhere in the photograph; Kwon has said he “wanted to see fragments suddenly approaching from the place where I’m standing.” Staged to appear like something out of real life, the photograph was borrowed from the historical record. By reminding us that the portrait captured by the first photographer and the image shown by the first journalist were doctored or made in service to state ideology, he calls into question the transparency of the photographic medium. As with history, the photographic subject does not patently exist. It is composed, and whatever is composed can be deconstructed. In his photography, Kwon renders the moments when a seemingly solid reality collapses at its very foundation. While the Nogeun-ri incident may harbor stunning facts and truths, what can one photographer do when decades have passed and a dominant system exists that would like to cover it up? The dark photograph – one scene selected out of countless possibilities – speaks to how a key historical incident slipped into oblivion without any actions having been taken in response. Kwon shows the unseen. While it is true that he simply photographed what was there, the result does not open anything up, but hangs down like a black curtain. Tearing away that curtain is the job of the viewer, who must rely on his or her own dark shadow to confront the parts and carry them on with his or her own endless interpretation. The viewer is to write a different text, as though on a green blackboard where traces of erasure remain. This is the approach of an artist who has photographs produced without consuming them. Without the 65

> A WOMAN SITTING ON THE FOUNTAIN Archival Pigment Print 150×189cm 2007 Configurated in Accumulative Space series



> A WOMAN RAISING HER HAND TO SKY AND SINGING Archival Pigment Print 150×189cm 2007 Configurated in Accumulative Space series


> A MAN POSING INFRONT OF THE MOTORCYCLE Archival Pigment Print 150×189cm 2007 Configurated in Accumulative Space series


addition of any busy mechanisms, Kwon’s works elicit interaction from the viewer. Quoting Wallace Stevens, the artist refers to the indeterminacy of a hillside thicket, which would seem to come out the same way in any photograph taken of it, as “description without place.” This way of speaking to the viewer with a photograph of a historical site might similarly be called narrative without actors or incident. As a “message without a code” (Barthes), the photograph resists pressure to reduce the historical incident one encounters through it to any one meaning. History carries as many holes as photography. History, photography, and history and photography together are not continuous but discrete. One might considers the Sewol ferry sinking, which recently claimed the lives of a similar number of innocent citizens to the Nogeun-ri incident: even after an entire nation watched the boat slowly sink with its still-living passengers on board, some of the facts have yet to be uncovered. If one’s intent is to try to use a single photograph, decades after the fact, to recall an act of violence perpetrated by the system unbeknownst to anyone, it would be all but impossible. But it is from just this kind of impossibility that art begins. Barthes, who rejected the codified gaze, said in his Camera Lucida that the reading of a public photograph was always effectively a personal reading. According to Barthes, history refers to a time when we were not yet born, yet is only constructed when we look upon it. He also felt that historical photography should not simply be reduced to the general sense of a tangled skein of conflict and oppression. The realistic photography of Sunkwan Kwon, which is effectively identified with a mechanical gaze, cuts through the melodramatic emotion that riddles so many works focusing on Korea’s tumultuous modern history. Bearing the title Unfinished Dialectal Theater, the series establishes a distance from the trend of understanding the dialectical approach as a closed system. In his criticism of the simple realists who regarded photography as an emanation of past reality rather than a copy of reality, Barthes stressed that while photograph has the power to verify, its method of proof applies not 70

toward the object but in connection with time. If the dialectical approach is one that controls the corruptible and transforms the denial of death into the power of labor, he held, then photography is non-dialectical. Closed to time, the codified photograph becomes a mere object of consumption, whatever it happens to capture. Such is the typical method by which a society emasculates and domesticates photography. Barthes, who wrote a beautiful essay about photography and is one of the most familiar philosophers to photographers, saw an inherent relationship between photography and death. In this, he offers a reference point for the work of Sunkwan Kwon, which focuses on death as incident. Barthes described death as the essence of photography, seeing a return of the deceased as present in all photographs. He noted a relationship between photography and a death crisis that began historically in the late 19th century. Barthes held the modern era to be a listless era of death, and it seems to be no coincidence that both history and photography arose around the same time. Emerging in the same period as the disappearance of ceremony, photography as a phenomenon coincided with the infiltration into modern society of a nonsymbolic death stripped of religion and ritual. Obviously, some differences exist between photography and history. According to Barthes, history is a kind of opinion written to an empirical prescription, a purely intellectual story that brings about a collapse in mythic time; photography, in contrast, is a sure but ephemeral witness. What Sunkwan Kwon’s “description without place” speaks to is the catastrophe of death that underlies all photography. Inherent to this is the ineluctable sign of death – one that encompasses the very future of the viewer here and now.


> A MAN GRABBING A FALLEN MAN’S HAND Archival Pigment Print 150×189cm 2007 Configurated in Accumulative Space series



> A MAN LOOKING FOR AN ESCAPED MAN Archival Pigment Print 150×189cm 2007 Configurated in Accumulative Space series



> GESTURES OF NEIGHBORHOOD PATROL Digital C-print 150×300cm 2008-2009 A Practice of Behavior 2009 series



A WOMAN FALLING DOWN ON THE GRASSLAND Archival Pigment Print 150×189cm 2007 Configurated in Accumulative Space series



> A MAN STANDING ON THE APARTMENT BALCONY, LOOKING OUT SIDE, AND A WOMAN WATCHING THE MAN WITHOUT A WORD Digital C-print 180×225cm 2007 Purifying the behavior in voluptuous structure series



Sunkwan Kwon Sunkwan Kwon graduated from the photography department of Sangmyung University and completed an art expert program in the fine arts department of the Korea National University of Arts College of Visual Arts. He has described objects and subjects as not existing independently in themselves, but as only possessing active meaning within the inertia of forces connecting at various layers and the composition as an overall image. Through this various works, he emphasizes the various inverted values that result as the external environment surrounding us – our society, our culture, and the detailed mechanisms of history – interact with the core of objectified existence. By substituting this question with other questions or reconfiguring it in different contexts, he seeks to undermine the foundation of “value” possessed by fact as a compoasitional order. Kwon was awarded the 2007 Artist of Tomorrow prize by Sungkok Art Museum. In 2013, he held the solo exhibition Unfinished Dialectical Theater at the Kyung Hee University Art Museum. He has also participated in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including A Practice of Behavior (Sungkok Art Museum, Seoul 2009) and Isolated from the Territory (Art Space Pool, Seoul, 2006). His works have been added to the collections of numerous public institutions, including the Seoul Museum of Art, the Gyeonggi Museum of Art, Sungkok Art Museum, the May 18 Memorial Foundation, the Daegu Art Museum, the Art Bank at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, KT&G, and Arario Gallery.

Lee Seon-yeong Lee Seon-yeong (b. 1965) began her criticism career in 1994, when she was selected in the art criticism category of a spring literary contest held by the Chosun Ilbo newspaper. She has served on the editing staff for Art and Discourse (1996–2006) and as chief editor for the Korean Journal of Art Criticism. Honors received include the 1st Kim Bok-jin Art Award for theory (2006), the Korean Association of Art Critics Prize for theory (2009), and an AICA Prize for Young Critics (2014).

Sunkwan Kwon

#22_SunKwan Kwon  

May 5, 2017

#22_SunKwan Kwon  

May 5, 2017