Men drafted to life of ambivalence
By Joon Soh
Military service, mandatory or otherwise, is an experience shared by most men in South Korea. Some look back on their time in the military with fondness, while others would rather erase those years from their memory altogether.
Photographer Oh Hein-kuhn decides to tackle this delicate but complex subject matter in his latest solo exhibition at the Artsonje Center in Seoul. The show, titled “Middlemen,” is a series of photographs from the past several years of enlisted soldiers serving in the different branches of the Korean military.
One will find no patriotic overtones in Oh’s take on military life. Rather, there is a strange sense of neutrality to most of the works, which may leave viewers wondering about the artist’s intentions.
For Oh, who has been exhibiting for 20 years, photography seems to be a means to examine social groups and prejudices in Korean society. In previous exhibitions, the 49-year-old artist has turned his lens on such subjects as “ajumma” (middle-aged women), female high school students and the Itaewon district.
Whatever their subject matter, Oh’s photographs are usually filled with ambivalence and uneasiness towards their subjects. And his latest series at Artsonje Center doesn’t deviate from this artistic strategy.
The 37 large color photographs depict soldiers standing alone, in pairs or in groups. The young men are presented mostly at the center of the frame, in a matter-of-fact manner. They are almost always photographed from head to toe, standing upright like statues or soldiers at half-attention.
The settings of the photographs are clearly military, but they also have a banal, generic quality to them. The locations include barracks, ship decks, training camps, and beaches, but they could be from anywhere in Korea.
Formally, the photographs are beautiful and meticulous. The lighting in the pictures is strong, and the details are crisp and defined to the point of seeming artificial.
However, the sense of artifice is so great that it is hard to take much pleasure in the photographs’ technical beauty. Many of the soldiers pose in a stiff and unnatural manner, and their uniforms are just as unnaturally clean. Most make direct eye contact with the viewer, but their gazes are blank and give no hint to their inner thoughts.
The show’s press release states that Oh’s photographs “present the notion of an unstable male state of mind, evidenced by the conflict between individuals and collectives.” It is debatable whether these ambivalent artworks can carry such a clear social message.
On the other hand, there is definitely tension between the pristine formal elements of Oh’s pictures and their content. And the artist uses this tension quite adeptly in many of the photographs on display.
“Middlemen” will run until June 17 at the Artsonje Center. Tickets to the exhibition are 3,000 won. Oh will give a talk on his work at the gallery on June 2. For more information, go to www.artsonje.org.
Joon Soh is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.