Growing up I was taught that
“the individual must sacrifice for the state”
In its many instances globally, the impact of colonialism on the colonised has been profound and long-lasting. Driven by the economic imperative to extend the colonisers’ access to land, labour and resources, it was all too often effected with considerable physical and psychosocial violence. While the colonisers may seek to justify their intervention through notions of modernisation, internationalisation, even ‘democratisation’ and, of course, religious mission, the damage has been enduring. Such events do not just impact those directly involved but resonate through the social and cultural fabric of the community across time and generations, manifesting as historical trauma.
For much of the long Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), the Korean peninsula was at peace, punctuated by violent insurgence from Japan in the late sixteenth century and by the Manchu invasion in the early seventeenth century, which subsequently established Korea as a tributary state of the Qing Dynasty and a further two centuries of peace. During this extensive period considerable advances were made in printing and ceramics, in medicine and agriculture, in astronomy and meteorological, and in cartography and calendar making. In the later period of the dynasty, Korea became more isolationist while the wider region became less stable. Following a conflict between the neighbouring powers, Korea became a protectorate of Japan in 1904, moving to full annexation in 1910. The Japanese occupation was brutal. The Korean language and culture were harshly suppressed, and many valuable artefacts were taken out of the country. Following the Japanese surrender at the end of the Second Word War, the peninsula was divided at the thirty-eighth parallel, with the north under Russian control and the south under the Americans. In 1950, South Korea was invaded by the North, leading to the three-year Korean War. Since the armistice, the South has pursued a vigorous economically driven policy in the American tradition, which for much of the rest of the century was achieved by a US-sanctioned political authoritarianism.
Many of these events remain within living memory or within a single generational remove. For all its economic development and material modernisation, many Koreans continue to feel the impact of colonial rule. What and how they feel it depends in part on their age and personal experience of the country’s turbulent twentieth-century history. Experiences that have by no means erased all trace of a deeply embedded sense of Korean tradition.
It is against this historical and psychological background that the artist Suk Kuhn Oh creates his work. As part of Generation X, he sits between those who lived through Japanese occupation and the Korean War, and the Millennials born into the materialism of contemporary Korea. His critique of the impact of colonialism in Korea draws ironically upon the postcards and propaganda of the past to create satirical imagery that carries beneath its surface the enduring disquiet of historical trauma.
While your photographs adopt different approaches, they all seem to address an underlying concern with a loss of cultural identity. Why is this important for you?
Perhaps, to be more precise, they explore the hybridisation of cultural identity over the arc of Korean history. Our life and cultural history are refracted in a modernity imposed from outside by rigid education, ideology, and politics. I think it is important to understand who and what we truly are, and to overcome this alien form of modernism.
You have said that “Korean society was fossilised by national traumas”. What do you mean by this?
It could be said that Korean politics is still McCarthyist. As soon as one talks about the workers, or the politics of the left, one is accused of being a Red, a Communist. It is not only an attitude held by an older generation who lived through the Korean War, but by a new generation of young conservatives who are adopting the attitudes of their elders. We remain a nation divided by ideology, repeating the same cycles.
Tell me about your series called ‘The Manners of Korea’.
It is a series that takes on different meanings depending on who is looking. For an uninformed Westerner, I think the images may simply appear familiar, like anthropological studies. But for those who understand Korea and east Asia, this is clearly a black comedy. It is a criticism of the racism that manufactures a false identity for the ‘other’ to empower the imperialist. That false identity is an act of reflexive judgment, the colonist reconstructs our identity by defining our image in their prejudicial terms. You can see this in both the images and the texts used on old postcards produced by the colonists.
Original material from ‘A Forbidden Land: Voyages to the Corea’ (1880) by Ernest Oppert incorporated into ‘The Manners of Korea’
[Left] © Suk Kuhn Oh ‘The Faces of Korea #1’ 2016; [Centre] © Suk Kuhn Oh ‘Post Cards from Joseon’ – ‘You construct your identity by defining our image’ [postcard detail verso] 2012 from the project ‘The Manners of Korea’; [Right] © Suk Kuhn Oh ‘The Faces of Korea #2’ 2016
I have collected an archive of these materials from antique stores in Korea and overseas, which I display with my own faux-anthropological photographs, mixing the colonial images and texts with the satire. In the example below [right], I erased the original image on the front of the postcard and replaced it with the statement: “You construct your identity by defining our image”. This is not written in Korean, but in an English-language font that mimics the appearance east-Asian characters. It reads top to bottom, right to left.
[Left] © Suk Kuhn Oh ‘Portefaix de Séoul’ [porter from Seoul] 2012 from the series ‘The Manners of Korea’
[Right] © Suk Kuhn Oh ‘Post Cards from Joseon’ – ‘You construct your identity by defining our image’ [recto] 2012 from the project ‘The Manners of Korea’. The original image has been erased and the statement set in English-language letters formed to mimic East-Asian characters (reading top to bottom, right to left: “You construct your identity by defining our image.”)
You have said that the patronising views of imperialistic invaders still lurk in Korea. Can you explain what you mean by this?
Of the photographs we have of Korea’s history, the great majority were made by others: by the imperial Japanese during the colonial era and by the US military during the Korean War. There is a lack of self-produced visual information from those times, which makes it difficult to see ourselves and our traditions clearly. Our country’s traditions were distorted to construct the identity of other cultures, not our own. Japan and the other colonising powers depicted Koreans as uncivilised, feminine, and unsanitary. Or, they created artificial hierarchies defining, for example, Caucasian Koreans as naturally upper class. Later, during the Park Chung-hee dictatorship, the trope of tradition was used to underwrite nationalism. I think they’re all in much the same vein, defining our image to maintain their power. Today, the images of tradition have been modernised, politicised, and commercialised. They are a hotch-potch of various elements of dubious origin. You can see it in latter-day Korean ‘historical’ dramas and in the popularity of the Hanbok Shops that rent traditional Korean costumes in the country’s major tourist areas.
[Left] © Suk Kuhn Oh ‘From the Sea to Youth, Chapter 2 – 103’ c1965 / 2010
[Upper Right] © Suk Kuhn Oh ‘From the Sea to Youth, Chapter 3 – 01’ 1996 / 2011
[Lower Right] © Suk Kuhn Oh ‘From the Sea to Youth, Chapter 1 – 23’ 2009
In your series ‘From the Sea to the Youth’ you compare photographs of three generations of young Koreans: that of your father’s generation, that of your own, and contemporary teenagers. What is it you wish to bring out in these comparisons?
Korea’s educational framework was established during the Japanese colonial era, reflecting its militarism. After the wars education has become even more monstrous with the addition of Korean collective trauma: nationalism, anti-communism, Confucianism… Growing up I was taught that “the individual must sacrifice for the state”. From the Park Chung-hee era to the present Koreans at school and at formal occasions make a pledge of allegiance. When I was at school we said: “I strongly pledge, in front of the proud Korean flag, allegiance to my fatherland, to devote my body and soul to the eternal glory of the race.” The wording has changed slightly since 2007, but the emphasis on loyal allegiance remains.
So, what kind of people does the Korean education system make? Why do they continue to repeat the same things across generations? What have we experienced? I think these are some of the questions raised by this series.
[Upper Left] © Suk Kuhn Oh ‘From the Sea to Youth, Chapter 3 – 18’ 1996 / 2011
[Lower Left] © Suk Kuhn Oh ‘From the Sea to Youth, Chapter 1 – 30’ 2009
[Right] © Suk Kuhn Oh ‘From the Sea to Youth, Chapter 2 – 106’ c1965 / 2011
The title of this series is borrowed from the Korean poet and historian Choe Nam-seon, a social Darwinist who believed that Korea must eventually rule the world. But he was writing at the beginning of the Japanese annexation of Korea. I am interested why you chose this title?
I wanted to emphasise an irony. It is at the moment of crisis, when Korea becomes a Japanese colony, that the youth of the country are instructed to reject the traditions of the pre-modern Joseon era [1392–1910] to carry the future of the country with the same rationale as the imperial colonists. The poem argues that in order to achieve this, teenage desires must be suppressed, controlled, and standardised. After the Korean War, this imperative was extended to include whole families. We were told we must fight for prosperity and the revival of the nation. I think this is the reason why Korea’s international sports stars are so popular at home.
[Left] © Suk Kuhn Oh ‘From the Sea to Youth, Chapter 2 – 114’ c1965 / 2011
[Upper Right] © Suk Kuhn Oh ‘From the Sea to Youth, Chapter 3 – 08’ 1996 / 2010
[Lower Right] © Suk Kuhn Oh ‘From the Sea to Youth, Chapter 1 – 51’ 2011
Has this ‘modernist’ view of young people – that they should be regulated into a united and uniform workforce – changed across those generations: from the Japanese model of imperial society and the US occupation through the economic recovery following the Korean War to the hyper consumerism of Neoliberal market forces?
Militaristic education, hierarchical order, and a rigid class system were further strengthened during the Pacific War. Even after liberation, the U.S. military government maintained the same system and the people who had worked in the Japanese colonial administration now worked for the US one. The Korean War began before this could be corrected. Even after the ceasefire, those same people held the positions of political power and the United States stood by or supported it to suit their own advantage.
In recent years, moral correctness has been emphasised in South Korea, for example in the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye on charges of corruption. Yet, at the same time, more and more people are pursuing rapid and unearned wealth through property speculation. I think the militaristic education system established under Japanese imperialism continues to play a large role here.
Even so, the long period of the Joseon era and the subsequent Japanese colonial era have both left a deep and lasting legacy that cannot just be wiped away. As a result different generations, depending on the context in which they grew up, have differing sensibilities. And this makes it difficult to find national harmony.
The work for which you are perhaps best known outside Korea is ‘The Text Book (Chulsoo & Younghee)’. First, what is the textbook – in its original form and in the way you have recreated it?
The characters in this series are based on Korean textbooks that were full of didactic images meant to educate young people socially and morally. They featured two archetypical children: a boy called Chulsoo, and a girl called Younghee. Everything was perfect, everyone behaved as they were supposed to, everyone conformed. My ‘Text Book’ shows the other side of the coin: the personal recollections of people of my generation, which stand in stark contrast to those nationalistic fictions. It is a historical book that brings together shared memories of childhood that still affect many of us.
Who are the performers and why do they wear masks?
Originally, the concept was that each performer would, themselves, re-enact a personal memory from childhood. But not all the people who shared their memories were able to participate for one reason or another, so the roles had to be performed by others. While I was thinking about how to represent Korean boys and girls in this project, I remembered a children’s television show made in the 1980s in which the roles of children were played by adults wearing large head-masks. The large size made the proportions of the figure appear more childlike. So, I combined this way of working with the characters Chulsoo and Younghee from the text books.
I was broke at the time, so I printed some flyers offering my services taking family photographs. Once I had some money put by, I found a company that produces doll masks for major Korean broadcasting stations. They had been creating these masks since the 1980s. I showed them the design for the heads of Chulsoo and Younghee and they built them. The masks were just like the puppet heads I had seen on television as a child. The masks covered the whole head and left the performer in total darkness. The facial expressions of Chulsoo and Younghee were intentionally ambiguous so that they could be read differently depending on the circumstances: surprise, pain, orgasm…
[Right] © Suk Kuhn Oh ‘The Text Book (Chulsoo & Younghee) Prologue Page’ 2006
[Left] © Suk Kuhn Oh ‘The Text Book (Chulsoo & Younghee) p191 (Tear Gas)’ 2007
The locations you depict are very different from those in the original school books.
The things shown in original textbooks are idealised. The landscapes look like something from a fairy-tale: beautiful nature, blue skies and streams, animals, fish, and insects living together in harmony. In stark contrast, the environments my friends and I experienced were full of barbed wire and military facilities, tidal-flat landfill and chemical factories, sewerage and smells, rust and oil slicks, and bark scattered while transporting shipments of imported timber.
Against this background, we could find ourselves suddenly engulfed in the tear gas used by the military dictatorship against the demonstrators calling for greater democracy. The gas was traumatic, overtaking all our senses. Yet, no adult explained what was going on or how to escape from it.
Each image represents an individual’s personal memory. I tried to find a location similar to the scene described by the interviewee and searched flea markets for appropriate costumes.
[Right] © Suk Kuhn Oh ‘The Text Book (Chulsoo & Younghee) p151’ 2007
[Left] © Suk Kuhn Oh ‘The Text Book (Chulsoo & Younghee) p31’ 2006
Aside from the wider political context, there is also a sense of an uncomfortable sexual awakening.
In the elementary-school books, Chulsoo and Younghee play together in the fields, they collect insects, plant flowers, and take classes together, but there was never any hint of human sexuality. It was socially sinful for boys and girls, or teenagers, to feel sexual desire. We often felt confused by our emotions. Because we did not understand what we felt, we felt ashamed. ‘The Text Book’ is the story of a generation who had to find out about life for themselves if they were not always to live with guilt.
How was this work received in Korea?
It served as an opportunity to address supressed feelings and discuss the educational problems in Korean society. And for me, it was an opportunity to grow as an artist. The series received a lot of positive feedback, not only in the art world but also socially. Although the images are set in the context of the 1980s, it is a story that touches on the experience of a broad range of generations in Korea. I think it is because the work shows the way that Korean educational ideology has sought to control desires and engendered guilt, and how, from the Japanese colonial era to the millennium, those in power have used education for political ends.
What have you learned about yourself while making these images?
I was a timid child. Photography has been a kind of training. It has helped me to understand the flow of events so that I can make my own decisions. Though there have been regrets and uncertainties, photography has become a means of expressing my feelings and ideas honestly in visual form. It has helped me understand how a world that seemed so ambiguous was created and allowed me to live my life in my own way.
And I hope it will help other people to live their lives in their own way, too.
Suk Kuhn Oh was born in Incheon, Republic of Korea, in 1979. After serving as a photographer in the Korean army, he received a bachelor’s degree in photography from the School of Art and Design at Nottingham Trent University, UK. He has exhibited widely over the past fifteen years with ten solo exhibitions and over sixty group exhibitions in Republic of Korea and internationally in Australia, China, Japan, Mexico, Russia, United Kingdom, and USA.
His work is held in a number of public and private collections including: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (USA); Ilmin Museum of Art, Seoul (Republic of Korea); Incheon Foundation of Arts and Culture (Republic of Korea); Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Art (Japan); KT&G Sangsang Madang, Seoul (Republic of Korea); Portland Museum of Art (USA); and Santa Barbara Museum of Art (USA). He currently lives and works in Incheon.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.