Highly visible secrets



High noon is the point of most intense visibility. It is the moment of “all for light”, when  the sun has reached its peak, the moment that marks the beginning of its descent. One could speak of a momentary flash of ruthless lux, the light of truth, no longer the subtle lumen that allows the separate things of the world to shine forth. [1] More than one of the images in Hyun-Jin Kwak’s  series Girls in Uniform take us to these points in time – the decisive moments that are opportune for duels, when one stands ready to alter the course of the rest of one’s life.


Perhaps it is more appropriate to say that the images place us close to these moments – shortly before or after – in their vicinity, our vision pressed against the inevitable, our eyes exposed to the unforeseeable ways that are about to change forever the lives of the characters.


At the same time it is slightly odd that such singular and individual decisiveness is combined with the anonymity and even a certain sense of security afforded by the uniforms that the young girls are wearing. This gives the scenes a feel of premeditated yet clandestine choreography, each depicted act becoming an instance regulated by an undisclosed code of conduct.


In Kwak’s images these encounters often take place on alleys or rooftops – also motifs of exposure and danger. A rooftop is the facet of a buildings that is not usually seen, that is off-limits, forbidden. It represent the invisible aspect of an often monumental visible structure, like a reverse figure of the tip of an iceberg. Similarly, in Girls in Uniform, that which is most visible is often the most unseen.


This is partly because the feeling of exposure is coupled by the certainty that not everything is revealed to us. Something remains hidden, something is being dug up, or buried – in some images literally. We see the girls hard at work, shovels and hoes raised. The girls work in pairs, like accomplices always do; secrets cannot exist unless they are shared. The viewers become witnesses only to the event of uncovering. The secret itself is never revealed to us; what is revealed is that the secret exists, is close by, just out of our reach. The chain of consequences has been severed and the order of actions has become indecipherable.


These actions that take place high above the ground or seeking to puncture the image space from below exert tremendous pressure on the limits of the images themselves. It is almost as if the characters could only bear to exist on a burdened stage. Or that the nature of the actions they perform is unfit to be dealt with in the open. This in turn only intensifies the allure of the secret that remains the concealed motor of the action, its motivating narrative generator. (Here the series follows the route charted by such artists as Jeff Wall, by his visual interpretations of the dark enigmas of Kafka.)


Not all of the photographs are about active protagonists caught at moments of a tactical pregnant pause. In some of the images the young girls (one still hesitates to call them “children”) are tired or asleep (or may even be dead, their corpses posed). They rest in awkward positions, uncomfortable, heads drooping. They are immobile, arrested even more than subjects in photographs usually are. In many of these images there is also a heightened sense of perspective. The form of the bridge and the rows of trees invite vision to intrude upon these moments of rest; to commence an imaginary glide to an unconscious world. 


At the playground, amidst the stillness of the children’s playthings, this uneasy confusion between what is Live and what is Real – as Roland Barthes famously noted – is perhaps most disturbing. [2] For it was Barthes who noticed how photographs were capable of animating the dead and the alive equally, a photographic image being "a living image of a dead thing." [3] Girls in Uniform aptly acknowledges this quality, the narratives it evokes readily feed of all such ambiguities.


A photograph offers a uniform exposed surface; that is its own ethos amongst images. Hyun-Jin Kwak’s images put this uniformity to a test, expose some of its breaking points. The delicately arranged gestures of the characters, many carefully composed lines of sight, the refined placement of props in the pictures; all this adds up to create a focused and detailed unique world, simultaneously playful and serious, and yet so inaccessible because of all the hidden oaths, liaisons and communal binds that must be active in the world of the girls, guiding their individual faiths with invisible reins.


The photographs make us aware of several different kinds of “we”. There exists the “we” of the uniformed girls, encompassing their every individual digression as well as the acts done in hypnotic unison (like the unexplained passive march to the murky stream). Theirs is a community based on undisclosed but shared covenants. In contrast the witnesses to the photographs themselves – you and I – form another kind of “we”. The photographs make a community out of us viewers based on the feeling of shared inaccessibility. This community is not based on affirmative actions or the recognition of agreements but on the imposing presence of the limits of such agreements (or, following Georges Bataille on a certain “incompleteness” or “insufficiency,” which is the true basis of community). [4] What joins us, what we have in common, is the incommensurate.


In this way the photographs also transport us (from the sites of communities contained within their own regularities and discriminations) to the junction where the Other is being constantly created. Perhaps here lies also the work’s social dimension. The images make us aware of the shifting cultural codes and conflicting geographical environments – the tropical and the arctic, the West and the East – and of the uniformity of differentiations that remain at work in the background, something that remains in place when something is so obviously always out of place in the image (in the ex-position of the photograph.)


Competitions are continuously taking place. The girls evidently strive for the upper hand, competing physically and academically with their comrades, individually or in groups.  They seek empowerment within their (fantastic) world, and obviously within themselves. And at the same time our vision takes part in the contest for meaning, adjusting the familiar to the inaccessible, the universal to the singular.


In Hyun-Jin Kwak’s photographs the image of a secretive youth is a potent emblem for such construction work. The frustrating ploys of growing up are a shared currency for all, yet at the same time private and intimate.


Such is also the nature of the photographic image. It is always curious how plain surfaces can turn sweetly intricate at a click of a shutter; how every individual photograph can be true to singular things and simultaneously harbour the traits of its own class of images – can stay restlessly in uniform.


Harri Laakso  




[1] The relation of this theme to photography has been explored especially by Jean-Luc Nancy. See for example Anne Immelé, Jean-Luc Nancy, WIR. (Filigranes Éditions, 2003), 61.

[2] Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998), 78-79.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See Maurice Blanchot, The Unavowable Community. Trans. Pierre Joris. (Barrytown: Station Hill, 1983), 5.


all rights reserved, copyright 2007 HYUN-JIN KWAK