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Utopia / Blow Up, Seung Woo Back

Cover of Utopia / Blow Up by Seung Woo Back

Seung Woo Back’s Utopia / Blow Up comprises his two related series of the same names. I purchased this book on a trip in 2009 and it remains one of my favorites. It is interesting not only for the images themselves, but also the conceptual framework girding them and the physical container they exist in. Each reinforces the others.

The physical book is 36 pages, oversized and printed full color with metallic embossed details on newsprint in an edition of 1000. There is a 3 page insert with essays in both English and Korean by Hye Young Shin and Pyong-Jong Park. Jeong Eun Kim edited the book, and Yeoun Joo Park designed it. U/BU was published in 2009 in collaboration with IANNBOOKS.

Utopia is Back’s fictionalized North Korea; by exaggerating, adding to and dividing the infrastructure in existing images he plays with the notion of an idealized society’s physical structure. His is not a glossy antiseptic ideal. The color palate is muted (exacerbated by the newsprint), the forms verge on the grotesque and unlikely, lighting can be garish and the skies become acidic. If this is what North Korea’s infrastructure might look like if it fulfilled the rhetoric and claims of its propaganda, it would still be a sad place. The streets remain empty. The scale remains crushingly anti-human.

If one reads the book from the opposite direction, Blow Up presents telling details extracted from otherwise anodyne negatives Back created on a month long stay in 2001 as a journalist in North Korea. Accepting the regime’s destruction of his “interesting” or “good” negatives, Back turns to the smallest of details in his remaining negatives to subtly lay bare the lie presented to outsiders. With an obvious nod to Antonioni, Back is looking to find truths that are hidden in plain sight and to question what is presented in an image. The photographs might be a kind of spying, a notion suggested by the military imagery which bind the two projects at the newspaper’s center point.

Alternately, in these images of war material and heavy bombing we can see a dividing line. If one has started reading from left to right, e.g. with Utopia, at this point we move from what might have been to what is

In both projects, Back is exploring the line between reality and fiction in the photographic image. By creating unreal images out of real images, he makes the real more apparent.