This week, we welcome Gana Art Gallery (Seoul) to take over the PHOTOFAIRS feed, providing an intriguing understanding into Korean artist Seung Woo Back’s work. Gana Art Gallery featured at the fifth edition of our Shanghai Fair, presenting Back’s vibrant series ‘Utopia’ as part of our Staged Public Program in an eye-catching welcome display for our audience.
GA: Seung Woo Back (b. 1973) relates contemporary photography to ‘shooting a gun underwater’ - a great challenge. He explains this as an artist working in an era of excess images and increasing technology. Photography has an inherent ‘instant’ quality, one which is known to display the truth or reality of its subject, therefore, Back aims to dispute this in his work with image manipulation and reconstruction. He takes the method of ‘collecting’ images rather than ‘capturing’, to unveil the subtle boundary between fiction and nonfiction, and the seen and unseen.
Back explores this boundary through the language of photography, focusing on a series of delicate miniature cityscapes of North Korea, mocking a movie set. Additionally, he endlessly experiments with the boundaries of photography, transforming high-resolution photographs by adding new collected photographs to stimulate an individual’s memory.
The work ‘Utopia’ is obscure and depicts an ‘imaginary utopia’ which does not exist in reality. There are clues that indicate that this is North Korea, yet the distortion of shapes and colors makes the overall image utterly unrealistic. The oppressive and domineering dystopia of North Korea is paradoxically presented as an ideal ‘utopian’ world. ‘Utopia’ uses found objects such as the propaganda postcards or posters made in North Korea from the outset. Seung Woo Back makes a more insistent transformation by utilizing computer technology to distort forms in the original images and to remove and reapply colors to generate unrealistic images.
What is clear here is Back’s paradoxical intention to convert a dystopia into a utopia.
‘Utopia’ embodies the artist’s resolution to inquire into the subject matter of North Korea and the theme of the diversity in authorial involvement. Back found the collected photographs for ‘Utopia’ in a politically disoriented collectible shop in Japan where Bae Yong Joon (as a figure representing South Korea) and Kim Il Sung (as a figure representing North Korea) are equally regarded as typical images to depict both countries. Back’s use of images from the store reaffirms his belief that North Korea is, to Back, not a political subject but a neutral one that corresponds to his personal interests and artistic intentions. With respect to the experiment on the diverse modes of authorial intervention that can be applied to photography, ‘Utopia’ boasts the strongest intensity in terms of transformation and distortion among the entire works of Back.
Back makes an indirect reference to Russian Constructivism in his work, characterized by the vertical composition of architectural elements - he does this by exaggerating the height of certain parts of a building or by reiterating identical sections, so as to create a new building. The extreme contrast in color, obtained through the use of monochrome and primary colors, is symbolic of the unrealistic reality of dystopian North Korea and simultaneously quotes the propaganda color schemes used in seditious posters, whose purpose is to conceal such reality. What is clear here is Back’s paradoxical intention to convert a dystopia into a utopia.