Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The people, the Republic of Korea, and pictures - What's in an exhibition ?

These days, photo exhibitions in Seoul have a knack for turning into political statements : recently, we've seen an utterly conservative presentation of Korean War* in Seoul, and now here is a very progressive exhibition about Korea's most recent history (2008-2010). To me, both exhibitions were worth visiting because each one featured interesting pictures, and because together they told a hell of a lot about nowadays rift in Korean national politics.

One could almost mention asymmetric warfare, with a conservative version in Cheonggyecheon based on words and a "top-down" approach, and a progressive version at the Press Center based on images and a "bottom-up" approach.

In Cheonggyecheon, there was a sharp contrast between non-controversial archives and strong political statements, and some comments from the conservative think tank were so extreme or off-key that they made the whole exhibition sound as biased as North Korean propaganda, or as suspicious as Japanese revisionist textbooks (precisely the "models" those ultra-conservatives like to denounce).

No such contrast at the Press Center, where pictures spoke for themselves, their titles simply completing them, sometimes with dark humor (see below). Here, History is in the making : professional and amateur photographers tell the story of the most delicate moments in LEE Myung-bak's presidency. So it rather felt like watching the news from the opposition's point of view : mass demonstrations / candlelight vigils, ROH Moo-hyun's funerals, Ssangyong strike, the four-river project, the MBC / PD Diary controversy, and even the destruction of Sungnyemun... . Here too, the camera is not lying, but the focus is clearly on one side of the coin.

This exhibition is organized by the National Union of Media Workers (NUMW) under a resolutely "grassroots" angle : the people of Korea is telling the story, exposing what's wrong in the country, taking the camera almost as an act of resistance, and shooting, even if images can hurt. The title could tell it all if it were translated into English as "People, shoot the Republic of Korea"... but no translation is provided, and such a confusion around "shooting pictures / shooting bullets" would be impossible in Korean. A fair translation of "국민, 대한민국을 찍다" could be "People, take a picture of the Republic of Korea", or maybe "Take a picture of the people and Republic of Korea". Nothing dramatic... at that level at least (this is by no means the portrait of a civil war, but there are more than a few fights and tragedies).

Regardless of the political message, a few pictures were really great. Special mention to two photographers who stood out from the crowd :
- Lee Myeong-Ik for his artistic note : an amazing choregraphy on the roof of Ssangyong factory (also : a quasi Georges de La Tour corner picture of a demonstrator probably writing a sign with the light of his candle).
- Park Jung-sik (Hankyoreh) for his humor : an adjuma asleep in front of a TV broadcasting a speech of LEE Myung-bak. The title ? "국민과의 대화" or "Dialog with citizens"....

"국민, 대한민국을 찍다"
("People, take a picture of the Republic of Korea" - 20100416-20100421)
Press Center 1F, 25 Taepyeongno-1-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul, ROK

This exhibition runs only until April 21st so be quick. And if you're tired of politics (frankly, I kind of am), wait until April 27th and a very promising photo exhibition of the streets of Seoul at the Seoul Museum of History, from my favorite Seoul photographer : KIM Gi-chan.


Seoul Village 2010

* see "Korean War : a photo exhibition at Cheonggyecheon"

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UPDATED 20100520

link to the KIM Gi-chan exhibition, definitely a must.

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