My childhood was filled with mock battles, computer games and half finished model making. I clearly remember several of the unfinished models: a WWII era US aircraft carrier, an FA-18 fighter jet, Kennedy’s PT-104 (a story that fascinated me) and an F-14 Tomcat. As a entered my teens, the first President Bush went to war with Iraq; it was an easy (and brief) transition from half-heartedly collecting baseball cards to half-heartedly collecting cards depicting the materiel of war. With all of that conditioning, it is a wonder that I never joined the military.
One might justify all of this as a benign means of engaging with history or learning engineering or strategy skills. Or, one might cynically suggest that our society, indeed most societies, are militaristic at their core and mold their youngest citizens accordingly. The Secret Machines, their album “Now Here is Nowhere” playing in the background while I was looking at the book, sang: “The road leads where it’s led.” When we make childhood into a simulacra of war, what life journey are we suggesting for individuals and what future for society at large?
In my conversation with Corners, Hyojoon Jo noted that the life of a soldier is a familiar one for Korean men. Kim GyooSik’s photographs in Pla-Wars suggest that this familiarity is not only from their mandatory military service but also from the conditioning that has been promulgated throughout their development. Kim’s deceptively simple photographs of uncut molded model pieces explore, in soft gray tones, the transition from “play” to “war.”
(A tangent: One might also consider that “Pla-Wars” might be a play on words. The pairing could also be read “PLA” wars: both a reminder of Chinese support of the North 60 years ago and as a nod to contemporary geo-politics and possible future conflict.)
The slim book is split into two chapters: “Armory” and “Infantry.” Armory comprises what one would expect: the weapons of war. Plane fuselages, missiles, and rocket launchers, still within their molded frames, are photographed tightly before a soft gray background. The fuselage in “Nighthawk” is a seductive study of dark angles. Devoid of its military referents, it is pure geometry. (The photographic print of this image in the exhibit was a beautiful object.) Infantry comprises soldiers in pieces, un-constructed not torn apart. Grunts, their body-less heads row upon row, emote through faces distorted by grimaces and war cries. In a new theater of conflict, Rommel and MacArthur, in dark, glitter infused plastic follow one another. Rommel, wrapped in a great coat, looks up and forward. MacArthur looks pensive, his face slightly squashed and his head bare. His iconic hat is off to his right, and an amputated arm gestures his return.
Kim’s photographs are equal parts playful and deadly serious. They’re clever and calculated. The book, the subject of this review, is more exhibit catalog than photo book. Its extremely simple design and good reproductions make it worth the eighth of an inch it takes up on the shelf. It remains a catalog, but one that could stand on its own without its exhibit. I would love to see these photographs in a more lavishly produced book, but for the moment will enjoy them in this slim volume.
Essay: “Bang Bang, You’re Dead” by Keum Hyun Han
Essay: “Pleasure of Reproduction” by Seung Hyeon Hong
Published in conjunction with the exhibition “pla-wars” held at Trunk Gallery from October 29 to November 24, 2009.