The Logic of Pity in an Era of Armistice: Hein-Kuhn Oh and Area Park
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Translated from the Korean by Young Min Moon
The Korean War ended in an armistice, and so the two sides are still officially at war. Small-scale, local warfare is not a distant possibility but rather is an ongoing reality, as evidenced by the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the Cheonan battleship in 2010. Full-scale conflict, potentially triggering a Third World War, is an ever-present danger.
Hence, for Koreans, war is located in the realms of history and memory as much as it persists in present reality and the unconscious. If the controversy surrounding the sex slavery of the “comfort women” during the Second World War is a trauma of the past, in the present era, it is compulsory military service that agitates the minds of today’s generation. “Netizens” have exposed attempts by celebrities, politicians, and CEOs to use money and power to seek exemptions from military service for themselves or their sons. Legal exemption from military service, bestowed upon condition of winning a medal at the 2012 London Olympics, helped push the national soccer team to victory over Japan. Conscientious objectors, who refuse to participate in military service based on religious or personal beliefs, are forced to waste years of their youth in prison. Driven by a wave of renewed conservatism, an attempt is gaining traction to restore an old system, whereby additional points are awarded to men with complete military service profiles at entrance exams for positions in public or corporate offices. Groups representing women and the physically disabled are pushing back against these efforts. Military service, in other words, is at the center of Korean social and political life.
Given the intense controversies that compulsory military service generates across the borders of gender and class, its specter haunts a broad swath of people. Reportedly, the most common nightmare among Korean men who have fulfilled military duty involves them returning to the army. The Korean pop singer Psy did, in fact, go to the army twice because he did not complete the number of required days. Interestingly, Psy has said he no longer has the nightmare of returning to the army after being discharged the second time. Are there any ways for Korean male adults to stop having this nightmare other than actually returning to the army? The photographs of Hein-kuhn Oh, from his series Middlemen, offer a clue in this regard.
Oh is a photographer whose work portrays various social “namings” of Korean women through a number of photographic series, including Ajumma (middle-aged women), Girl’s Act, and Cosmetic Girls (see http://www.heinkuhnoh.com/). His photographs reveal his female subjects endlessly resituating their status as they shift back and forth across the line between social norms and deviation through idiosyncratic postures, facial expressions, cosmetic skills, and the manipulation of fashion and accessories. The women’s efforts to strike a balance between collective and individual identity is cast in high resolution and deliberate compositions. Through the process of deconstruction of the social types of South Korean women, what his photographic work ultimately renders precarious are the appellations themselves, which persistently enable the disciplining of the individual body.
In the series Middlemen, Oh displaces men’s usual status vis-à-vis the camera by putting them in the position of being looked at. However, he does not accomplish this by following feminist painters’ portrayal of men in nude poses traditionally reserved for women, or by appropriating the transvestism with which some men perform exaggerated notions of normative female sexuality. The men depicted in Oh’s photographs appear rather “straight.” In this series, Oh aims his camera directly at soldiers, the supposedly incontestable representatives of masculinity. In fact Middlemen may be the first Korean photographic art project depicting Korean soldiers. Just as images of prepubescent girls in school uniforms may appear seductive or provocative, these young men in military uniforms invariably look awkward and vulnerable. No hipster can possibly manage to look cool when actually wearing a military uniform. Such awkwardness is a sensibility that is spatially and temporally removed from contemporary taste.
Yet what draws my attention in Middlemen are the hands of the soldiers. The hands that carry out violence, handle weapons, and perform salutes take on expressive meanings in stark contrast to those of the soldiers’ faces. Whether clenched in a fist, wearing gloves, or hidden beneath crossed arms, the soldiers’ hands disclose those parts of the body that resist cooptation, even after undergoing the military’s regimens of submission, docility, and compromise. Unlike the soldiers’ faces, which express an unmistakable look of tension, the hands seem to be free of anxiety, or unarmed, as it were.
The hands function in an analogous way to what Alison Landsberg refers to as “prosthetic memory.” Prosthetic memory refers to the capacity of a prosthesis to retain the memory of its function as an artificial supplement to a former body. When transferred to another person’s body, Landsberg says, the prosthesis is able to move the body or induce empathy. Prosthetic memory can belong to the prosthesis’ wearer in the past, its new wearer, or the wearer’s onlooker. The idea that memory can be preserved and relayed, via prosthesis, implies that memory is retained and transmitted not so much by the wearer but by the prosthesis itself.
With memories retained in the soldiers’ hands, the hands then function as prostheses, activating a kind of “sense memory.” These sense memories suggest events and traumatic episodes operating in the realm of the repressed, outside shared history or consciously remembered memories. Such images do not conjure up the past; rather, they activate affect in the present. Through the analogy of prosthetic memory, the viewer can seek healing through visual sharing of that which cannot be transcribed in language.
In this regard, the soldiers’ hands in the photographs function as metaphor. Indeed, Oh’s photographs carry out the transmission of trauma to the viewers, whether these viewers be men who fulfilled military service, men who were exempted, women, or the physically disabled. Men traumatized by nightmares of the military can potentially find an escape from their trauma through affective experience and the sharing thereof through the photographs. It may also be possible for repression of memories about war and the military to dissipate by raising the degree of affect and summoning the energy to confront the nightmare.
While most young men would avoid military service if they could find a way to do so, there is also a group of young men who cannot join the army even if they wanted. Area Park has photographed youthful North Korean defectors, who are forever stigmatized with the label of a “person without a complete military service profile.” In these photographs, the young North Korean defectors are shown in the rapidly evolving urban environment of Seoul. On the flip side of this situation, Park’s other work, A Boy Standing Still, (2006), depicts a South Korean boy famous as an anti-communist hero. The boy was allegedly killed for his outspoken hatred of communists. The young protagonist, depicted as a heroic monument, was a fixture in every South Korean elementary school playground in the 1970s and 1980s. Several decades later, a debate surged around the veracity of the incident, causing the boy monuments to become abandoned. Thus defectors from North Korea roam the city as though they are the specter of the monument.
Since his early twenties, Area Park has been documenting scenes of pro-democracy struggles, indexical sites of national division and the Cold War, and the increasingly pervasive effects of neoliberalism with its supple process of labor exploitation. In particular, the series Boys in the City provides a narrative about male adolescents growing up in the vicinity of Seoul, a megalopolis among whose most salient icons are large apartment complexes and a Lotte World theme park. In this regard, it would be plausible to say Park situates his subjects as “average boys” on their way to becoming Middlemen. The North Korean defectors, by contrast, are awkwardly frozen, located somewhere in between these urban boys and Middlemen — or perhaps outside their trajectory. It is safe to say that the North Korean boys, deprived of the rite of passage to become Middlemen, will face difficulties settling down as civilians in South Korean society.
Given this cruel reality, whatever happened to the three seconds lost, or retained by the defected North Korean youths — the three seconds that embody the cultural gap that exist among those moving about, South Koreans, and those standing still, defected North Koreans? To recuperate the brief moments, we must bounce far out into the orbit, away from the pull of gravity. For instance, satellite photographs of the Korean peninsula provide a rather dramatic time lapse of youths in North and South Korea. Needless to say, the time difference is not so much visual but rather tactile and multi-sensorial. Even though they escaped the pitch-dark North to cross the border towards the glistening lights in the South, the prospects of these struggling young men certainly seem overburdened, if not tragic. Though it will manifest differently, the same could be said for the young generation in the South who must pledge their youth to the military. In this way, the photographic medium triggers sensations of pain and induces us to share the suffering. Distance in the photographic medium — whether measured in three seconds or in the distance between Earth and the satellite — produces such thoughts and empathy. The distance of photography also makes it seem that it will be a long while before the war, division, and the Cold War are excised from our bodies and brought to an end. In the sense that photography generates empathy, self-understanding, and changes in consciousness, it is evidently and sufficiently political. In the age of armistice in Korea, such is the way the mutual politics of pity operates through photographic media.
Jee-sook Beck is an author, critic, and curator based in Seoul. She was a co-curator of 2006 Gwangju Biennale and the founding director of ARKO Museum, Seoul. Beck is currently Artistic Director at Atelier Hermes, Seoul, and also Artistic Director of the 4th Anyang Public Art Project, 2013.