Back Seung-woo's "KPB-E1-#02" 2012-03" / Courtesy of MMCA and the artist
Photographer documents transition of old military facility to modern art museum
By Kwon Mee-yoo
Following years of anticipation, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA) is just 20 days away from unveiling its Seoul branch.
It remains to be seen whether the 245 billion won ($231 million) institution will give the city the true, flagship art museum it never had. At least, it seems they got the building right, adding an aesthetic piece of contemporary architecture to a city that badly needs more of them.
The museum, built on the site of a colonial era military venue in Sogyeok-dong, central Seoul, is an attempt at marrying cutting-edge architecture with tradition.
The ultra-modern main hall, designed by Mihn Hyun-jun, blends convincingly with the old Defense Security Command building dating back to the 1930s and another public building constructed in the later part of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).
The construction of the MMCA Seoul branch is undoubtedly a significant development for the art community and photo artists Back Seung-woo and Noh Sun-tag and audio expert Yangachi were asked to document the process.
Back's "KPB-C5-#01" 2013-04"
Their works will be displayed as part of the new museum's inaugural exhibition.
His photos prove that Back observed the process from a neutral viewpoint rather than an emotional one.
"Probably I am the person who visited the site most often, except for the construction workers," Back said in an interview with The Korea Times.
"It was a process of photographing something that will be soon gone. The place I took photos today might be broken up tomorrow."
Back majored in photography at ChungAng University and later studied Fine Art and Theory at Middlesex University in London. His works have been targeted by collectors across the world, including James Bonds film producer Michael Wilson.
Back has a talent for producing stunning images, but his photos of the museum's building process are notably understated. He has just finished selecting 89 photos to be displayed at the exhibition, although he took more than 90,000 images of the museum's construction process since it started in 2009.
Back's "KPB-C4-#02" 2010-11"
"Photography is often a violent medium that can be used for manipulation. Everyone can take a photo in this age, but only a few realizes the power and danger photos can have," Back said.
"Honestly, I don't see the importance of trying to be dramatic any more. It's not about technique; it's more about recognizing the stories that are there."
Back said his photos could be compared to old artifacts excavated on the site during the construction process as they are both products and evidence of times gone by. He is always aware of how his photographs acquire their specific meaning in the context of time and space.
"My photos will be displayed at the same site they were taken, only that the site has been changed irrevocably," he said.
"An interesting element of photography is that it's impossible to take a picture of something that didn't exist. But at the same time, a photograph's relevance as an extension of reality is precarious and short-lived."
Back's interest in architecture made him focus more on the project. He recalled his earliest memories of taking photos of the former Defense Security Command, when he was overwhelmed by the old building's presence.
"It felt like in a torture chamber. I even got sick after taking photos of it. But as the construction process went on, such negative feelings faded away," he said.
He visited the construction site at least once a week during the construction. "I visited the site almost every day early on and when the construction got on the rails, I came here often, especially on the days of special weather," Back said.
"This site once was a military place, but the museum will be a place where artists and visitors come and go freely. The purpose has changed. I think photography has to convey this context in different ways."
As an artist living in Seoul, Back has high hopes for the MMCA's Seoul branch to become an artistic symbol of the capital.
"Museums are landmarks of the cities and travelers to Seoul will come to this museum for sure. I believe the MMCA will have quality exhibits living up to the expectations," Back said.
For more information about the new museum, visit www.mmca.go.kr.