Contemporary Creative Photography
by Chris Raney
"The ten photographers in this exhibition were all born after 1950 and came into their own during the 1980s. The exhibition presents the work of contemporary Korean photographers who distinguished themselves from the preceding generation of Korean photographers by looking at photography as art." — Wendy Watriss "This may be seen as a first and modest step for Korean photography, which does not yet have the international audience of Korean art and music. FotoFest 2000 is one of the first occasions in modern history, however, in which a group of contemporary Korean photographers will exhibit their work in the international art scene." — Bohnchang Koo
A sense of loss, grief for the fallen and trepidation over the future are the concurrent themes running through the work of this new generation of Korean photographers.
The work of two photographers in particular reflect the emptiness of death and the loss of loved ones. In Bohnchang Koo's series, Goodbye to Paradise, the photographer's installation consists of insect specimen boxes; but instead of squadrons of butterflies and legions of beetles, we see only their images, not the critters themselves. These images, printed on emulsion-coated rice paper, snipped out and stuck on pins suddenly takes on all the poignancy of a reliquary of the dead.
In Sangil Lee's graveyard photographs remembering the government's massacre of protesters in Kwangju in 1980, we find ourselves standing before the grave of a young woman looking at us from her own photograph. Dressed in bridal regalia, she casts a serene and mournful presence as her photograph now leans against her own gravestone. In another print, a young man's framed photo is encrusted with frost and streaked with dampness as his image fades from sight, if not from his family's memory.
Not all of the work is as mournful as these two artists, as can be seen in Gabchul Lee's series entitled Han, a Korean expression reflecting "deep ancestral longing and sorrow." In arguably the most memorable and certainly the most often reproduced image throughout FotoFest, a lone monk stands with his back to the viewer atop an out-cropping of rocks from which a foaming stream pours forth. As a work of subtlety and reverence, this image is phenomenally simple in staging, yet magnificent in its impact.
Bienu Bae's photographs of Korean pine forests present subtlety in the form of fine art. Lest the reader imagine this series to be little more than a classically traditional study of trees, it should be understood that Korean pine forests are as twisted and gnome-ridden as anything out of Tolkien or the Black Forest. The viewer is left to speculate what generations of Korean children would have imagined could be standing behind those trees.
Alone among the photographers in this show, Seokjung Kim has adopted a post-modern strategy to comment on Korean society. In his work, humanity has been encapsulated in transparent boxes that at their most expansive represent small tableau and at their most confining contain only naked individuals. Five stony-faced women in traditional garb fill one of Kim's large Plexiglas boxes. But even in the photographer's vivid Cibachrome print the women appear as little more than mannequins lending a human form to their quaint and ancient costumes.
The final images of Kim's work were installed at FotoFest headquarters on Vine Street. Nudes in boxes suddenly become modern objets d'art as they are placed in a boulevard crosswalk; installed in a snazzy home where they adorn the living spaces; even stacked outdoors as lawn art. Kim continues his symbolism with a man and woman seated at a restaurant table with two boxed nudes positioned behind them like potted plants or aquarium curios. But the real cynicism occurs when we see, with no subtlety at all, that the diners themselves are confined within their own larger box. Kim is suggesting, and no doubt most of his colleagues in this show would probably agree with his suggestion, that even affluence is no guarantee of escaping the greater cage that Korean society is creating for itself.
Chris Raney is an HCP member and president of the Houston Photographic Society.