Here in American it is Memorial Day Weekend. It is the official start of the summer driving season. BBQ grills are on overdrive, and nearly everyone is gathered around one. In Brooklyn the cyclists are out in droves, and the mood is festive. The skies are blue. And, oh by the way, the weekend is meant to provide an opportunity to memorialize those who have given everything to preserve this country in the many (military) struggles it has been engaged in and to reflect upon their sacrifice.
To extend this memorializing and reflection to another country and another culture is dangerous. To even broach the raw emotions of contemporary politics is more dangerous still (and rude). Well, so be it.
On The Line has been sitting on my shelf for a long while. It is a book that contains fascinating photography and pays honest tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. It also elicits some discomfort and ambivalence. Editor Shin Suejin (whose ideas I’ve touched on at the daily_up) brought together ten Korean photographers to make work in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Korean War. The project was sponsored and supported by the Ministry of National Defense, Republic of Korea. While I see no evidence that any of the artists have been made to change the politics of their work or otherwise compromise their aesthetic, intellectual or political views, this sponsorship creates, in my mind, a whiff of propagandist sentiment (despite, or perhaps because of, Shin’s distinctly stating otherwise). In his introduction to the book, Kim Tae-Young, the Minister of National Defense, declares his hope that the book “will reawaken [Koreans’] sense of national security.” That this sponsorship is outcome oriented ought to be noted.
Shin follows Kim’s introduction with a winding essay. While the bulk of the essay is spent describing the work of the photographers, it begins and ends with meditations on memory, time and geopolitical realities. Two quotes from the introductory paragraph and the closing paragraphs, respectively, encapsulate the intent behind the book (and the exhibit it accompanied):
For the older generations, war is a painful memory, and national defense, a precondition for survival. However, memory is too fragile to stand up to the passing of time. The rapid economic growth, enthusiasm for digital technology, and confrontation between the conservatives and the progressives in which today’s Korean society is based on, have shoved an ongoing war into the deep corners of the past. For today’s younger generations, war is not a tangible reality but an untraceable incident resting deeply in their memory.
What we need now is a psychological map that can show each of us what our war means to us, who we are fighting against, and how we can come out of it victorious and safe. … Today it is the intangible stories that define everything and arouse empathy among people. Sixty years were long enough to change, diversify, and blur our values, but what is still evident is that the Korean War is a prerequisite for defining the identity of South Korea today.
The first paragraph is conventional wisdom, something not always to be trusted. In this case, it is almost certainly correct. The younger generation is less concerned with the implications of a war that is cold on the surface but hot beneath. The older generation is being lost to time, which exacerbates this shift in attitudes.
In On The Line the War and the DMZ become ciphers by which the ten photographers’ perspectives are laid bare and by extension generational attitudes. The oldest of the ten photographers is Joo Myung Duck (born 1940). The youngest photographer of the ten is Back Seung Woo (born 1973). A comparison of their work from the book presents a microcosm of its central argument. There are some differences that are obvious, some that are subtle and some that are nuanced or imperfect.
Joo’s photographs are hazy, low contrast, black and white landscapes of the site of the battle at Dabu-dong and very tight portraits of elderly men who were once the young soldiers who fought there. The landscapes, the scars of war hidden beneath lush new growth, might be the old men’s melting memories or perhaps vague notions communicated through history books. For Joo, either might be the case. He describes being an elementary school student and of his studies continuing on a beach in Busan after having fled there during the war. The war is a living thing to him, but he was not a soldier in it. Memories of the battle which his photographs allude to are not his own. His personal experience of the war mingles with a foreboding of loss in the intense closeness of the portraits of the veterans. It is as though he wants to hold tightly to the men who fought the battle, whose memories are being lost with each passing day into the haze of time.
Back’s photographs are quite different. His color photographs are marked by personal narrative and self-aware perception. Back returned to the base where he spent his military service, which had become both a tourist destination and a training camp. Watching the training, Back was struck by the gameification of the trianing and how it seemed like an unreal image of either itself or of war. The formal compositions refer as much to Back’s perception and personal narrative as much as to the subjects before the camera. It is the image itself and its construction that is central. What is the collective image of the war and how have we constructed it? Is it truth or mirage?
Neither of these photographs are at the extremes of the spectrum of processes employed. Koo Bohnchang’s black and white still life photographs of artifacts from the War Memorial Museum present the most straight forward anthropological documentary approach. Nanda and Won Seoung Won each use digital manipulation and digital collage techniques to create fantastical narrative scenes that mix myth, history and personal narrative from within their own minds more so than observe the physical world. That is not, however, to say that they are not highly observant of the contemporary social landscape.
These four photographers highlight the shift of the war from personal recollection of a closely held past to an academic or mythic past that is being pushed ever further to the margins of consideration. Joo’s work is highly personal. Koo’s work is tightly focused on what physically remains from the past. Nanda, Won and Back have far less a personal connection; their contributions are analytically driven and distant. It is possible that all three would disagree with me on this reading of their work, particularly Back. This is not a judgement or a statement of any kind regarding their patriotism or dedication to their country.
In all, On The Line is a tightly constructed book with a heavy physical presence. It lays out a clearly thought through thesis and then illustrates that thesis to a “T”. While there is subtlety and nuance within the work presented, the overall narrative and theoretical arc of the book is clear and direct. Personal direct connection to a physical and absolute past gives way to a colder, more distant vantage from which the war begins to blend with myth or simply presents fodder for intellectual analysis. The arc, if anything, is too well defined, too well drawn.
On The Line
Director: Shin Suejin
Sponsor: Ministry of National Defense, Republic of Korea
Joo Myung Duck
Kang Woon Gu
Koh Myung Keun
Won Seoung Won
Back Seung Woo
Published by: Kim Jeong Eun (IANNBOOKS)
Designed by: studio, Dwyane Wade
Editorial Assistants: Lee Voram, Song Mi Rae
Translators Korean to English: Kang Young, Song Meeky
Proof Reader: Kim Rebekah
Printed and Bound in Korea by: Munsung
ISBN: 978-89-962954-5-7 936000