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Senior Curator - National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul
From the late 1980s to the mid-90s, Korean contemporary photography underwent a monumental transition in the midst of political, economic and social change within Korea. Two key stimuli -- the 1987 pro-democracy movement and the 1988 Seoul Olympics -- further propelled Korea towards democracy and globalization. International exposure led to cultural exchange and global interest in contemporary Korean Art.
The late 1980s also marked the return of many Korean photographers who had pursued their studies abroad in the US and Europe. These photographers influenced the art scene in Korea with their conceptual and digital approach to photography. Photography's new status as a dominant force within contemporary visual culture was supported by a series of exhibitions, notably The New Wave of Photography at the Walker Hill Art Museum, Seoul (1988) and The Horizon of Korean Photography at the Total Art Museum, Jangheungin (1991).
Bae Bien-U and Min Byung-Hun are two distinguished photographers from this early generation whose unique visions triggered the growth of Korean contemporary photography and inspired the next generations of photographers. Bae and Min explore the theme of nature and are recognised internationally for capturing the essence of the Korean spirit through their contemplative landscape photography. While Bae's pine trees evoke the simple beauty of traditional Korean ink paintings (lot 34), the vaporous forest meticulously rendered in Min's analogue print is a metaphor for a Korean landscape (lot 33).
In the 1990s, Korean museums and art galleries expanded their programming in photography and the number of collectors steadily grew. The new millennium saw photography in Korea continue to evolve as a major art form. While artists explored the medium's potential for interweaving with other forms of art, digital technology changed the perception of photography from mere representation of reality to its re-creation. Lee Myungho photographs a tree separated from its surroundings by an enormous cloth backdrop. The resulting image -- resembling a painting on canvas -- questions the very aspect of photographic representation of reality (lot 37). The link between reality and fiction is further explored by Kim Jongku's steel powder installation (lot 35) and Jung Yeondoo's theatrically staged work (lot 36).
As a divided nation, Korea grappled with conflicting ideologies from militarism and nationalism to democracy and communism. Korea's complex history informed the Korean psyche and shaped modern Korea. Over half a century after the division of Korea, this dichotomy continues to provoke artists to examine it through various outlets. Noh Suntag observes North Korea in a somewhat detached manner. His image of North Korea mirrors the still rigid perception of North Korea within South Korean society (lot 47). Revealing the estranged gaze of the viewer, Lee Jung inserts the propagandistic phrase 'Another Country' into a serene North Korean landscape (lot 45).
Pluralism replaced the battlefield of ideologies in the 1990s, marked by a shifting interest in a microscopic notion of the ordinary lives of individuals. Borne of rapid urbanisation and changing values, the new urban culture continued to inspire photographic expression. While the empty and lonesome face of modern society is disclosed by Kim In-Sook, who places hotel rooms under surveillance (lot 32), Yum Joongho (lot 48) and Kim Sookang (lot 46) search for meanings in the banality of everyday lives and objects. Koo Bohnchang connects his narrative of the human body to issues of repression inherent in Korean culture (lot 40).
The globalised mechanism of producing culture in one place and consuming it elsewhere has fascinated a number of Korean photographers. Lee Sanghyun appropriates elements of Chinese style landscapes from internet computer games and a 17th century Korean tale to create his work (lot 41). Commenting on today's prevailing culture of consumerism, Kim Joon digitally tattoos the body with logos of global brands and symbols of authority (lot 44).
Identity in a multi-cultural society is yet another concern for today's artists. While Bae Chan-Hyo cross-dresses to disguise himself as an English noblewoman (lot 43), Koh Sangwoo examines through a process of colour reversal his personal experience in the US (lot 42). As western culture flooded into Korean society -- causing a culture clash of east and west, of old and new -- many artists turned to photography to express their inner turmoil. Debbie Han approaches the notion of beauty and integrity through her 'hybrid' Venus, whose body is presented as that of a typical Korean woman (lot 39). Juxtaposing miniature foreign landmarks with Korean apartment buildings, Back Seungwoo reveals the kitsch side of Korean culture (lot 38).
N.B. In this introduction and section (lots 32-48), Korean names are given in the standard Korean order, surname first, except when they appear in Western order in publications and citations.
Seoul, Seoul International Photography Festival, 13 December 2008 -- 15 January 2009.