In the contained photographic spaces of Hyun-Jin Kwak’s works, everything signifies and everything speaks. Every leaf, straw of grass, brick, stone, snowflake, water drop, tile, grain of sand beckons with determination, intention, and resolve. Each gesture, pose, body position, clothing detail and facial expression of the girls imaged is precisely conceived, purposeful, insisting, targeted. And the sites employed, especially considering, in the later works, a particularly keen eye for a kind of post-industrial late capitalist terrain vague (nicely counterpointed through also sampling neo-romanticist, even baroque, landscapes in a number of works), are meticulously resolute, even indomitable. And, to be precise in making Hyun-Jin Kwak’s particular aesthetics explicit: these latter sites or landscapes often work by decelerating, halting or diverting story line or narrative. In short, the micro worlds created and choreographed in each Hyun-Jin Kwak image are contingent and sovereign, in-dependent and, indeed, in a very specific manner, also free. They confront the viewer with a grand yet gentle authority, with wit and concern, with inventiveness and observational detail, allowing for complexities and intricacies of meaning in each single image and, which turn out to be characteristic for Hyun-Jin Kwak, allowing for an expanding oeuvre where values and denotations multiply and expand for each new work. There is indeed a remarkable trajectory in the oeuvre of Hyun-Jin Kwak where each new photograph feeds back onto previous works, modifying and adding to their narratives, proposals, associations, implications, connotations. Each single photograph, or series of photographs, holds its space, puts forth and carries its meaning, its meanings. At the same time as it finds its space in the architecture of the expanding archive of Hyun-Jin Kwak, influencing and being influenced by all other archive inhabitants.
Hyun-Jin Kwak’s photographs are produced on location. Field work, with all that this entails in terms of realizing an idea, a scene, an image; productions in public and/or institutional settings rather than the controlled space of the studio. Yet, one might claim that Hyun-Jin Kwat’s work combines studio practices with location work. Hyun-Jin Kwak allows for the precision of the studio to meet with the openness, rich associative input and ambience made possible through carefully chosen sites, spaces, locations. For, unlike the street photograph or the snapshot, but like the studio image, there is, one might say, nothing outside the frame in the photographs of Hyun-Jin Kwak. Each image is complete, self-sufficient, full, and in charge of its own space. Chance is, one might say, ruled out, even if surely things will happen outside the script so to speak in the production of works. Choice, tendency and distinction mark these images. Which, again, does not suggest that meaning is not volatile, complex, layered, contested or even paradoxical or undecided; Hyun-Jin Kwak’s photographs are not equations to which there is a single answer. They are stories, life stories, to participate in, respond to, be with or live with.
Girls in Uniform, the title given to Hyun-Jin Kwak’s ongoing and long-term project of photography and sculpture, is primarily made up of staged photographs. Sculptures are, in numbers, a lesser part, but do create important and revealing embodiments or materializations within the project. The staged photograph is today a major working methodology and, even, a genre of visual expression within contemporary art/visual culture. Thus, the scenes and situations enacted or performed in these photographs have been created exclusively to be photographed. They do not exist as such outside of the photograph. Curiously, photography, the medium of photography, holds a kind of doubled position, not so often noted. Photography is both the tool of production and the method of documentation (A performance, for example, is not produced but may be documented through photography; the film still is indeed a freeze-frame from a narrative underway). Perhaps we could say that these works are both produced and reproduced through photography. As such, the genre, especially in terms of its modalities of production, is commonly understood as affiliated with film, in particular the film still. The photograph captures a single frame, a moment, out of an evolving narrative – except for the fact that the narrative is imaginary; it never takes place as the photograph only recreates, stages, the one moment. Speaking of Girls in Uniform, however, it makes sense to also suggest theatre. Both in terms of the stage, that the set of production in Girls in Uniform is an island, an independent space, unaffected by contextual restraints, where it is possible to create, for example, social situations and perform actions unthinkable in a “real” context, and in terms of enactment, that these tableaux do not imitate or simulate, but produce, generate, create; we come closer to theatre than to film. And even though several works suggest that, or appear as, in their narrative construct, they take place in near vicinity to a “decisive moment”, they are fully outside of chronological time. This precisely calculated reference to the “decisive moment” is, rather, a means of locating these images near to points of transformation, change, alteration. The moment depicted, since these are indeed photographs, is a decisive and critical moment. After this moment, things will be different.
The scenes conceived of, constructed, selected, performed in Hyun-Jin Kwak’s photographs are not vernacular standard. With few exceptions, Girls in Uniform engages the extra-ordinary, creates situations that are on the edge of the social – from exploring or discovering sexuality or challenging the body through peculiar competitions to realizing scenes of punishment and reprisal or even heading for suggested collective suicide or accessing forbidden sites, to name but a few. Even when proposing collective contexts, these do seem to mostly abide by their own rules, such as the Korean schoolgirls in uniform collective, in the early photographs of Girls in Uniform, which seem to both pay homage to and revolt against their strict behavioral constraints, against the conformity of their everyday. And mini series, such as Dig or Game, within the larger body of work, imply power struggles, undisclosed violent events or cruel sisterhood initiation rituals.
One may indeed suggest that Hyun-Jin Kwak’s project is profoundly and deeply heterotopic. The micro-worlds staged and produced in each Hyun-Jin Kwak photograph are mostly their own universes, they settle their own disputes, manage their own jurisdiction, live by their own values, are organized to according to their own independent structures (especially given that all is pursued under the umbrella of that most liminal social space: adolescence, in the rift between childhood and adulthood), even if power and hierarchies are still reproduced in these autonomous worlds, seemingly replicating power, gender inequality and repression from the world at large. Moreover, as Girl in Uniform has evolved, exiting a Korean context and entering Western European spaces, the photographs do explicitly and precisely access such core heterotopic institutions/spaces such as the museum, the garden, the school and the factory, lending deeper momentum to Hyun-Jin Kwak’s critique of the social through the alternative narratives staged and performed in these situations/spaces; the girls, in uniform, appearing as clandestine visitors in these sites/places.
Perhaps the title itself, Girls in Uniform, may be seen to provide associations to key issues in this continuously growing body of work. Girls in Uniform indicates this elaborate encounter between the individual and the collective, between the subject and the norm, between conformity (uniform-ity) and freedom, between control and emancipation, But it is not a simplistic opposition, as Hyun-Jin Kwak’s work does also animate and articulate the power and dynamics of the group (the uniform is also a shield, a mask, and, even, a shared sign, a common language), of how the collective enables forces and energies unknown to the individual, the outcome of which may be both repressive or liberating. The subjugation of women in the society at large – East or West – is, in other words, doubly replayed in Girls in Uniform as that which produces the need for another order, the girl society, at the same time as it is manifested in the – as said already – reproduction of power, of how hierarchies and oppression are repeated, but now aimed to one’s own group or class.
Nonetheless, Girls in Uniform refuses classification and insists on undermining the viewer’s comfort in prediction and recognized territories. Again, each new work opens up new themes, pathways, understandings. The global village in Macondo is resolutely placed in a post-industrial wasteland and ruins kind of landscape, with the girls being asked to be reconceptualized as environmentalists, countered only by pastoral undertones in Circle of Circuit. And in Study of Elements mystique and fantasy enters, atmosphere thickens, as the protagonist is entranced and empowered from off-hour institutional escapades. Each new episode, in the evolving work of Hyun-Jin Kwak, offers and enables both new experiences and the rereading of all existing images. This complexity and layeredness of the enigmatic and captivating work of the artist, including the very particular feedback from inside, how each new photograph destabilizes and complicates previous photographs, keeps the viewer on the alert.
all rights reserved, copyright 2007 HYUN-JIN KWAK