Han Sungpil: Travels in Hyperreality

© Han Sungpil ‘Light of Magritte’ [detail] 2009 from the series ‘Façades’

Copies, simulations, illusions… they disrupt the ontological hierarchy.


Plato was dismissive of art and had little time for the observations of experience. For him, every object has a perfect form that remains beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. The world of experience is little more than the flickering of shadows, degraded copies of a true perfection beyond the limits of the human senses. Painting and sculpture, as representations of things experienced, were doubly degraded, simply copies of copies. For Walter Benjamin, the myriad images generated by mechanical reproduction lacked the aura possessed by a unique original work created by the hand of an artist. But, in the age of the digital, there is no original (save, perhaps, a string of ones and zeroes) and all copies are identical, each as much an original as its sibling clones. No matter how many times the code is copied, it remains unchanged.

Digital media are also protean. A digital photograph may begin as the capturing of light reflected from a subject, but the ones and zeros can be manipulated with precision, imperceptibly and with relative ease. It is not that photographs, and later films, were never manipulated in the past – think of all those fin-de-siecle spirit and faerie photos – but now such reshaping of reality is possible on a scale and with a seamlessness that swamps awareness and confounds detection.

This disavowal of the original by the copy, and the synthesis of the real and the virtual, characterise our brave new digital world. We experience a state of hyperreality in which copies exist without originals, becoming normalised within an expanded perception of the world as a hybrid of the actual and the imaginable. While this can be entertaining on a superficial level, it masks a darker blurring of the line between evidence and belief.

It is in this liminal space at the threshold of real and fake that the Korean artist Han Sungpil makes his photographs. He is fascinated by the way large buildings can now be wrapped in images of themselves while they are under construction or in process of renovation. What seems like a simple aesthetic device employed to maintain the urban landscape feeds the growing ambiguity that clouds the division between what is physically present and what is simulation. His later work documents with beguiling persuasiveness trompe l’oeil murals of urban whimsy and the replica landmarks that nestle like cuckoos in the most unlikely cultural habitats.

Pablo Picasso famously declared that “Art is a lie that makes us realise truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.” In a world in which art and reality bleed into each other like a watercolour left out in the rain, what is the role of art in hyperreality, and what are the truths that art might give us to understand? As Picasso goes on to say, with characteristic perspicacity: “The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”

Alasdair Foster

© Han Sungpil ‘Le Roi Soleil’ 2008 from the series ‘Façades’


Alasdair: When did you begin making photographs?

Sungpil: In 1991, I went to university to study German. But I found language to be an ambiguous and abstract way of describing objects. In contrast, I felt photography to be a powerful and meticulous visual language that can describe an object clearly. Indeed, I considered photography to be the most advanced contemporary medium and form of conceptual sculpture because of the way, simply using a camera, one can divide space and freeze time. I switched my major from German to photography.

© Han Sungpil ‘Holy Light’ 2006 from the series ‘Façades’

I first became aware of your work through your images of wrapped facades. How did this project begin?

In the winter of 2004, I was in London. I was confounded by the spectacle of the St Paul’s Cathedral covered by scaffolding on which was displayed a life-size illustration – an exact replica – of the blueprint of the cathedral designed by the architect Sir Christopher Wren [left]. At that moment, the separation between reality and simulation collapsed for me. Depending on where I stood, as my perspective shifted, the building would alternate between reality and hyperreal simulacrum. The life-size painting of the cathedral masked the original, but also stood in for it. It was surreal!

My project, ‘Facade’ grew from this. It explores the fluid shifts between a reality and the ideal. The photographs examine the translation of human desire in the idealised images that cloak shabby realities not to our liking.

What is it that attracted you to this subject?

In contemporary photography, there has been heated debate between pictorialism and ‘straight’ representation, and in art between abstraction, expressionism, and hyper-realism. Yet in the digital era, the boundaries between painting and photography have blurred, with both forms hybridising and becoming, at times, indistinguishable.

What do you seek to express through these images of wrapped facades?

My question is this: what does such photography embody? Reality or the ideal? The body of work that I produced after seeing St Paul’s Cathedral examines the ambivalent role photography has in representation. I hope that these images stimulate conceptual questions about what it is, ultimately, that we see.

© Han Sungpil ‘Metamorphosis’ 2011 from the series ‘Façades’

In many cases, the illustration on the façade is manipulated to create a surreal effect. It may appear that my photograph of 39 Avenue George V, Paris, has been digitally manipulated. It appears as if the building is slowly melting in the sun. But this is in fact a temporary covering installed by the French artist Pierre Delavie. In order to heighten the illusion, I shot the image in early morning light that harmonised with the painted façade.

An even more intense effect was achieved in Brussels with a façade that was covering the exterior of the new Magritte Museum before it opened. The building appears ‘drawn back’ like a pair of curtains revealing Magritte’s famous painting from ‘The Empire of Lights’. The illusion is heighted further by the way my photograph merges the street lamps in front of the building with those in the painting [above right].

© Han Sungpil ‘Secret Tale’ 2009 from the series ‘Façades’

Your series on trompe l’oeil murals involves a similar visual ‘re-surfacing’, but many seem to suggest a whole new alternative reality…

Yes, these painted murals go further than the wrapped buildings. The facades wrapped around architecture under construction or during renovation maintained a clear relation to the structure they temporarily obscured; a relationship often anchored in the collective memory of what lay behind the screen. But these elaborate trompe l’oeil murals create a wholly new, often impossible reality. For example, in my photograph of the Place Edouard-Adam, Montpellier, France, everything, with the exception of one of the trees, is an illusion. The scene portrays a curious combination of the architecture of Haussmann’s renovation of Paris and the older style of building that had preceded it. Compared to what we know about Montpellier, the juxtaposition looks bizarre. I wanted to capture that magical quality, so I photographed at dusk when there was a mixture of natural and artificial light. The real tree and the painted ones become part of the same whole. Even so, there is something about the perspective that is not quite right… I think this adds to the uncanny effect.

© Han Sungpil ‘Duplication’ 2010 from the series ‘Façades’

What do you think these images say about contemporary urban aspiration?

What I think the wrapped facades and the trompe l’oeil murals share is the way they point to the volatile relationship between reality and idealism: the instability of desire in our contemporary urban spaces. Copies, simulations, illusions… they disrupt the ontological hierarchy. It is something I try to amplify by carefully selecting the angle of view and ambient lighting to further blur the difference between what is real and what is fake.

© Han Sungpil ‘Swimming in the Sky’ 2009 from the series ‘Façades’

This was particularly effective in the image of the Parisian building that appears to be full of water. The wall is not flat, but consists of a series of angled panels. The trompe l’oeil painting uses this panelled structure to add verisimilitude to the illusion of windows opening onto an underwater scene. I chose a time of day when the shadows and lighting matched the painting, and the sky harmonised with the colour of the painted water.

What ideas or feelings are you seeking to express in these images?

These murals do not shroud or substitute for a real place but create a completely new fantasy world which neither exists nor will exist. For a person in the street, the painted scene is easily recognised as a mural. But when it is photographed and the angle and lighting are just right, the boundary between reality and virtuality is blurred and the image captures a kind of hyperreality.

[Left] © Han Sungpil ‘Cinema Cannes’ 2013 from the series ‘Façades’
[Right] © Han Sungpil ‘Fly High in the Blue Sky’ 2012 from the series ‘Façades’

While I was on the island of Jeju in South Korea I photographed a large water tank painted with a bird flying across a clouded sky. It has a kind of poetic illusion suggesting that the bird wants to escape from the tiny square of sky in which it appears trapped. I tried to match the painted skyline with the trees behind the tank to emphasis this magical impression. Yet, in doing so – in making the impossible seem visually compelling – I want to draw attention to the layers of replication and simulation involved in such an aesthetic intervention.

How do audiences respond to these images?

To begin with they are amused by the blending of reality and illusion. I think they enjoy that. But as they begin to understand that this is not a digitally manipulated photograph, people have told me that they begin to reconsider our ways of seeing, our growing preoccupation with illusion and what it means to say something is ‘real’.

In the final series I would like to explore, you compare the Eiffel Tower in Paris with various replicas located in East Asia.

Travelling in Asian countries, I encountered Eiffel Towers, Statues of Liberty, Dutch Windmills, Ancient Greek temples… It is as uncanny as it is kitsch. In 2006, I had an opportunity to live in Paris for six months and then again for a whole year in 2008. I thought a lot about the Eiffel Tower: as an icon, an index, and a symbol. It seemed that the tower – and similar Western icons that are copied and erected, incongruously, in other parts of the world – were being transformed into universal consumer brands. This raised a whole lot of questions for me about globalisation and postcolonial dominance… and more specifically, about the curious relationship between the medium of photography and the concept of originality.

Can a photograph be an original? What is the original of a photographed object? Are replicas of the Eiffel Tower in Paris still originals as and of themselves or merely fakes? Are photographs of the Parisian Eiffel Tower more original than those of the replicas in Asia? Or are all simply representations of a present object?

In this project, I present photographs of replica Eiffel Towers shot in various Asian countries juxtaposed with images of their prototype in Paris. By doing so, I wanted to compare the structures and their settings. Yet, while each diptych draws a clear distinction between the original and the replica, the two images seem perversely to confirm it as the same object. Real and fake, original and copy, blur into hyperreality.

How did these ideas develop in your work?

When I began shooting ‘Façade’, I photographed buildings where those facades were already installed. I thought then of the photographic medium as an interpretation of that space as it presented itself to my camera. But then I started to create facades of my own and install them in spaces as a kind of intervention. Now I was actively intervening in each space rather than simply interpret it. It is something I have been doing since 2009.

What is it you want to achieve doing this?

We are living a society in which the delineation between reality and illusion has become increasingly blurred. Through plastic surgery or cosplay, for example, people try to become the characters of cinema and video games – fictions. At the same time, the sensory worlds created through the technologies of virtual reality are becoming more and more ‘convincing’ perceptually. I think my interventions remind viewers that there is a difference – an important one. They pose philosophical questions for the audience about the paradoxical state of contemporary life where the real and simulated – the true and the fake – co-exist experientially.

© Han Sungpil ‘The Eiffel TowerS’ Paris, France – Shenzhen, China 2008 / 2006

Biographical Notes

Han Sungpil was born in Seoul in 1972. He has a BFA from Chung-Ang University, Korea (1999) and an MA from Kingston University, UK (2004), subsequently undertaking sixteen artist residencies internationally. He has presented over thirty solo exhibitions in Argentina, Australia, Colombia, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Russia, Slovakia, Spain, and the UK. His work has also featured in over one hundred group exhibitions and twenty-three public art installations worldwide.

His photographs are held in many public and private collections including the National Museum of Fine Arts (Buenos Aires, Argentina), Museo de Bellas Artes (Salta, Argentina), Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts (Yamanashi, Japan), Seoul Museum of Art (Korea), The Museum of Photography (Seoul, Korea), the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Art (Moscow, Russia), the Museum of Fine Arts (Santa Fe, USA). Han Sungpil’s published work includes five monographs: ‘Façade’ (Foil, Tokyo 2011), ‘Polar Heir’ (Taekwang, Seoul 2015), ‘Innocence’ (Yeoncheon 2016), ‘Fantasmagoría’ (Museum of Photography, Seoul 2016), and ‘Intervention’ (Hatje Cantz, Germany 2017). He lives and works between Seoul, Republic of Korea and Calgary, Canada.

Photo [detail]: © Kim Choung Hyun

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.