Leviathan: Kang Yong Suk’s Maehyang-ri* Photographs
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Abridged and translated from the Korean by Young Min Moon
Note: Maehyang-ri is a small farming village located 80km southwest of Seoul, on two islets. Since the Status of Forces Agreement between South Korea and the U.S. in 1954, the U. S. military has used it as a bombing and firing range and a free test site for weapons. Military aircraft from all over Asia also came to Maehyang-ri to test high-powered weapons. The Kooni range finally closed in 2005, leaving behind profound damages to the residents and the ecosystem.
The Maehyang-ri photographs of Kang Yong Suk reveal how the notion of landscape is inadequate construction as well as a feeble aesthetic conception. As we ask of each image, “Is this a landscape?” we confront a condition in which the constitutive elements of landscape are all but lost. Blasted earth and rocks, bomb casings and targets are motifs clearly outside the ‘normative’ aesthetic categories that we associate with landscape. The ‘landscape’ in Kang’s work embodies the sheer force of violence maximally imposed on nature in the late twentieth century. Contrary to the typical images of trees in conventional landscapes, the existence of large, rusted bomb casings recall the first or last scenes of apocalyptic science fiction films.
This paradox rests on the displacement of what is expected in both nature and landscape: for the former, evolution and difference in natural ecology; for the latter, the ‘natural’ organisms and their ‘arrangements’ in ‘image-reality,’ here replaced by non-organic formations of the earth, punctuated by metallic objects. In the Maehyang-ri photographs, the depicted reality is given as ‘non-landscape,’ for the rhetorical order of landscape, such as horizon line, foreground and background, the atmosphere, ‘rich’ tonalities, etc., have all been dispensed with. Instead we observe the destruction of landscape. Hence, those sensitive to the pragmatic value of language or the context of language usage might find it difficult to refer to these photographs as ‘landscape.’
In a larger sense, such a critique is based on the theoretical presupposition that ‘landscape’ in the modern sense, especially the history of Western landscape photography, is entangled with tourism and middleclass aesthetic taste, European imperialistic territorial expansion, and the American notion of Manifest Destiny. As long as we discuss the act of seeing based on the principle of perspective and the pragmatic representational order of the subject, a critique of ‘landscape’ is inevitable. It is this order that is challenged by Kang Yong Suk’s Maehyang-ri photographs at a fundamental level.
The sense of distance one detects in Kang’s photographs stems from the question, “what kind of place is this?” This question summons the viewer to re-pose the question, “Is this even a place?” The Maehyang-ri photographs demand that we search for the conditions prior to what constitutes a ‘landscape.’
Such conditions could be described from an empirical perspective. As I deeply engage with the photographs, I recognize that visual pleasure, in the most common sense of the term, which is either implicitly or explicitly guaranteed in the act of beholding, is not so readily accessible. That is not because the Maehyang-ri photographs index some tragic or dark realities. Just as war and images increasingly emulate each other, it is now common to find documentary photography that depicts war or similar strife in a mode of dramatic exaggeration, rather than of politically “neutral” observation. In the Maehyang-ri photographs one cannot find the heroic death of someone with extraordinary physical strength, the destruction of place imbued with narrative significance, or, from a completely different angle, the extravagant presentness and the machine aesthetics of modernism inherent in Italian Futurists’ puerile praise of war. Given the visual realities of today, the photographs are like an act of visual betrayal that results in psychological loss.
When I first began looking at the Maehyang-ri photographs, I began with the images that contained no human figures or targets. When the photographs with people emerged after looking at some twenty photographs, I was taken aback by a momentary confusion of scale regarding what is depicted in them, by the fact that they include huge expanses of space. Such a phenomenon of cognitive dissonance occurs, especially for someone who has not experienced the space depicted in the photographs, because the criteria enabling the viewer to ascertain scale are suggested only very vaguely. Because we tend not to possess knowledge of how large certain shell casings are, the discrepancy of scale between our estimation and reality can either be great or insignificant. After all, destruction of physical objects leads to the loss of measurable criteria or visual standards. Kang Yong Suk emphasizes this by emphasizing depth of field, eliminating human figures, placing dramatic elements in the foreground, and relying on the time of the day that casts almost no shadows.
The most surprising result is that the location of the viewer’s body, corresponding to the position of the camera, becomes uncertain. Of course, the photographer has chosen the position of the camera with care; however, in this case it is not exactly ‘here’ or ‘there,’ but more ‘somewhere’ in an unknown place, or to borrow some conceptual artists’ term, a “non-site.” With the exception of few images, the position of the beholder at the center of the viewpoint becomes repeatedly interrupted. Such a disturbed order of perspectival vision disperses our gaze all over the photograph, rather than allowing us to scan the image from foreground to the background. Especially in the case of the photos in which the earth fills the picture entirely, our gaze becomes entangled with the air, and in turn the air mixes with the photographic grain. When the horizon line is located high up in the picture, the difficulty of ‘surveying’ becomes even more pronounced. In this artificial desert, such visual de-centering may be a natural phenomenon.
The aspects of “non-landscape” and “non-site” constitute visually inherent parts of these photographs. It is the dispersion of the gaze and uncertain positionality that place the Maehyang-ri images somewhere beyond reality, despite their exactingly calculated objectivity and realism. These photographs locate Maehyang-ri somewhere between reality and non-reality.
Focusing on Maehyang-ri, the television program Shisa Journal 2580 stated: “The problem lies not just in human casualties. In this village of about 200 families, 29 people have attempted suicide and 26 of these have died over the past 30 years.” Chun Man Gyu became the head of residents committee in response to the urgency of the matter after his father took his own life. “There was no apparent reason for him to have committed suicide, but nevertheless he has. But this was not exclusive to my family. We speculate that the violence of noise caused a psychic disorder, which in turn led to an impulse for suicide.” The bombing noises set up a sharp contrast with the inherent silence of photography, which surpasses the silence of Maehyang-ri in bombing-less weekends.
After all, we must grapple with the peculiar paradoxes found in these photographs. The metaphysical themes they raise of creation and destruction, existence and nothingness, cannot be considered in isolation from the concrete geopolitical realities of South Korea. Although in Maehyang-ri some 180 bombers make sudden appearances and produce over 100 decibels of noise, the historical and geographical specificities of Maehyang-ri become enveloped by the silence of both nature and photography. To regard the Maehyang-ri photographs means to return to the ‘truth’ of contemporary Korean society in such a heavy silence. The question that every photograph instigates - “what does this image index here and now?” - persists in these Maehyang-ri photographs, but the photographs answer only by way of echoes: What is the Korean peninsula? What is the U.S.? A nation? What about division? The joint administrative policy between South Korea and the U.S? Taxation duties to cover national defense? The local residents’ mental disorders? Are these questions even truly relevant to this land of specters?
The photographs certainly reveal Maehyang-ri as a specific place. However, the place as depicted retains almost nothing that will enable one to identify the place as Maehyang-ri. Though it is a specific place, its metonymic indices are only the empty casings and destroyed targets, that is, that which destroyed its place-ness. For bombing is at once a destruction of a physical place as well as place-ness.
Maehyang-ri remains not only almost unknown to the general populace; it is also strange , appearing as a destroyed world in an imagined future, or after a war, or somewhere in Mars. Compared to the common desire to see renowned sites such as Dokdo or Geumgang Mountain, Maehyang-ri is not an object of interest. That is to say, Maehyang-ri exists outside our cognitive map; it is even farther away from our consciousness than some distant locations abroad.. While land is endlessly classified and administered according to economic and military needs, hence becoming an object of ‘knowledge,’ the land in which the bodies of the Maehyang-ri residents are grounded is a world that remains unknown to general population. The latter exists only in the realm of a map of knowledge and science held in the monopoly of technocrats. For the U.S. Air Force pilots, Maehyang-ri would be recognized as a digital sign on the electronic screen, as a precise mathematical and descriptive position that blinks on grid. It retains its value only insofar as it is grasped and destroyed at a threatening speed.
For the people who perform the tedious labor of collecting the shell casings to sell and earn an income, the realm of gravity-defying aviation technology is beyond their comprehension. The reverse would be true as well. The visual realm of the military is already virtual: for F-16s that come from Guam or Okinawa, what is important is not the questions of ‘where is this’ or ‘what is the object,’ but rather the location of the target, whether it is mobile or not. This is another reason why Kang Yong Suk’s photographs appear realistic as well as non-realistic. Maehyang-ri is a kind of heterotopia where two or more completely different spaces coexist. Indeed, it is a perfect example of this. Remnants from complete destruction are strewn about, behind which several people walk to somewhere. What is the relationship between the two? Are they actually in the ‘same’ space?
Maehyang-ri is, administratively, a South Korean territory; practically, that of the U.S.; and virtually, that of North Korea. Maehyang-ri is subject to bombing every night because it is a virtual territory of the enemy. Even though the territory of the enemy is virtual, the bombing itself is real. Then one is obliged to ask, are there some fundamental differences between a virtual target and a real target? The obvious differences would include the fact that, in the former, there are no people or important facilities and no retaliation from the enemy; yet there is no difference in that the land of the virtual target is completely destroyed to become a perfect wasteland.
Photography complicates this game of reality and virtuality. The Maehyang-ri photographs are not all that different from images of actual wars. It is not clear from the photographs whether we are looking at a real war or training. Even if we are aware that the land in the photographs depicts Maehyang-ri, it remains that war is an on-going event in the photographs. The Maehyang-ri photographs depict quasi-war, and insofar as they are photographs, they are a quasi-reality as well. Such double simulation yields ambiguity and intricacy in interpretation of the images.
In the end, the world depicted in the photographs does not belong to any specific site. There are bullet-holed, abandoned trucks and buses by the shoreline, the circular form of shell casings collected to be sold, metal fragments. Indeed, these are strange sights. Such a strange condition constitutes a visual equivalence to the strangeness of a country in a state of armistice. The bombings of Maehyang-ri represent a war in the middle of peace.
Chan-kyong Park is a Seoul-based media artist who has also written extensively on contemporary art in South Korea. Park’s major artworks include Power Passage (2004), Sindoan (2009), and feature length film Anyang Paradise City (2010). Currently he is at work on another feature length film on the life of shaman Kim Keum Hwa.
*This essay originally appeared in Korean in an exhibition catalogue Kang Yong Suk: Views of Maehyangri (Noonbit Press, Seoul, 1999).