Freedom’s Just Another Word


Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.


The Borg in Star Trek



Hagwon and Haircuts


The schoolgirls at Seoul’s Young Hoon High are in revolt, and its freedom they’re after.  The girls are not fighting for time off time in a school day that runs dawn to midnight.  They are not asking for freedom from the routine corporal punishment in the Hagwon, or private teaching institutes they attend until eleven o’clock every evening.  They are not even asking to choose their own classes.  These young ladies want to decide how to wear their hair.  Demanding to choose one’s hairdo, emblematic of a teenager’s rite of passage, might seem more of a supplication than insurrection, but in South Korea it not only signals teen-spirit, but realpolitik, the fallout of sweeping, albeit trickle-down democratic reform underway since 1993 when Kim Yo'ng-sam became the first civilian president following 32 years of military rule.  The 1980 Gwangju massacre brought changes to South Korea’s fierce anti-Communist régime that ultimately led to civilian democratic rule in 1988 - not coincidently just in time for the Seoul Summer Olympics – and in 1995 direct elections for local officials, including mayors and governors, were held for the first time in 30 years as democratization solidified.  In tandem with the egalitarian makeover there was stunning economic growth that made South Korea a member of the "trillion dollar club" of world economies in 2004.  Today South Korea’s standard of living rivals many countries in Western Europe, South Korea boasts the highest number of broadband Internet connections per capita in the world, and Samsung, LG, SK, and Hyundai have become powerful and influential multinationals.  Prosperity ushered in cultural enhancements too; with the loosening of censorship and the opening up of a climate of cultural liberalization the country’s entertainment industry has been explosive since the 1990s, producing Asia-wide successes in music, television, and film in a phenomenon known as Hallyu, or the "Korean wave."




여고과담 and Soft Power Politics


           In no small way the success of Hallyu is due to a string of horror films set in Korean girl’s schools, all replicas of Young Hoon High.  The first of these films, Whispering Corridors (여고과담), appeared in 1998.  Directed by Park Ki-Hyung, it was the first popular film in South Korea to express itself as a hybrid between entertainment and muscular social commentary.  Whispering Corridors, which unfolds within the fictional Jookran Girls High School, is a ghost story that grows up around the school’s eerie past which has mysteriously triggered students to murder their teachers.  Woven into this thriller was not only a homicidal mutiny against authoritarian conformity, but storylines that allowed Park to zero in on formerly taboo subjects including the wicked corporeal punishment common in Hagwon (a subject especially pointed in a country where 67 percent of parents admit to flogging their children as a means of discipline), and the suppression of individualism and creativity which stimulated teen-suicide (surveys by the Korea Teachers and Educational Workers Union, and the Korea Youth Counseling Institute estimates indicate that 43% to 48% of South Korean students have contemplated suicide). 


While Whispering Corridors appeared six years before Joseph Nye wrote his defining book Soft Power where he argued for culture as a crucial political change agent, especially in emerging democracies, the movie serves as Exhibit A for Nye’s argument.  Using entertainment as his vehicle for social critique Park’s Whispering Corridors prompted feelings for a society that are, in Nye’s words, “individualistic, anti-establishment, pluralistic . . . and free.”  Park’s filmmaking was enlightening and defining; it spawned a network of influence across Hallyu, and as his country’s democratization evolved Park’s version of soft power mutated into other civilizing expressions.  It is a discernable chain-reaction: Five years after Kim Yo'ng-sam became President Park directed Whispering Corridors, and in another half-decade Hyun-Jin Kwak produced her photograph MARCH in 2004.  At a micro-level Hyun-Jin Kwak’s picture shares with Park’s movie the unambiguous critique of a society that would encourage the repressive and marshaled life at Young Hoon High.  She knows of what she speaks; Hyun-Jin Kwak is an alumnus of Dongbu girl’s middle school and Daegu girl’s high school in Daegu, South Korea.  It may be fairly said that Park and Hyun-Jin Kwak represent either end of the first generation of South Korean artists to enjoy the power of soft power that democracies naturally cultivate.   


For Hyun-Jin Kwak the style of film is contagious; her sceneography is cinematic, her photographs, in the way film stills tantalize, tempt us with disquieting hints of narratives at the moment they begin to intensify.  It is equally true that she has been encouraged by photographers whose own work has been shaped by the art of film; standing before Hyun-Jin Kwak ’s work Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman, Anna Gaskell and Justin Kurland are never far from mind.  Like these artists Hyun-Jin Kwak is handy at weaving together urbane and intimate social constructions insinuating complex psychological narratives.  But against these generalizations, MARCH is distinctive.  The style of this large photograph reads more like a political cartoon than a sliver of narrative; it is based on a stock metaphor, it is made up of caricatures, it is as ironic as it is humorous, it is an unequivocal reading of the conflict between South Korea’s traditions of compliance with its political commitment to democracy. Its content is exhaustible on contact.  


Set at ground-level in a deep canyon forged by rapids, Hyun-Jin Kwak presents an unending succession of Korean school girls marching two by two, in uniform, in unison, into the river’s abyss.  She frames this irreversible performance of mass suicide, casting the girls in the role of lemmings who according to the popular myth behave in a similar suicidal fashion, which lends the picture a tone of irreverent absurdity.  By giving us a sorority encoded with obedience, who remain oblivious to the majestic splendor that literally engulfs them, Hyun-Jin Kwak  utterly negates the possibility of individual awe or human spirituality that Caspar David Friedrich so poignantly mastered in comparable settings.  To be open to contemporary events still in memory, the scene Hyun-Jin Kwak constructs is reminiscent of the 1977 Guyana mass suicide orchestrated by Jim Jones when 914 inhabitants of his colony Jonestown, 276 of them children, committed mass suicide that Jones referred to as "revolutionary suicide." In light of Hyun-Jin Kwak’s pictures of girls disenfranchised from their own individualism, it is significant to recall that 70% of the inhabitants of Jonestown were black and impoverished.  In every respect, MARCH is Hyun-Jin Kwak’s most explicitly politicized picture, and least intricate.




Unsupervised Girls At Play



Hyun-Jin Kwak has completed three distinct bodies of work and begun a fourth in her surprisingly brief career.  In all four she looks past the society Korea’s girl’s schools are designed to manufacture to divulge the secret societies that flower in the cracks between conformity, repression and tradition. The girls in her pictures will never feel liberated merely choosing their own haircuts.  Nor are they one-dimensional-comatose-caricatures leading the next one-dimensional-comatose-caricature in line to their death by their own mindless example.  Hyun-Jin Kwak’s are precocious young women who gamble in subterfuge, manipulating power to give life to self determination.  These pictures are enigmatic shadowy furtive weird concealed reticent excessive inexplicable cagey highly wrought evasive intricate bizarre inscrutable deadpan impenetrable tightly packed sphinx-like puzzling deceptive opaque involved indecipherable wary clandestine elaborate extreme, but above all they are charismatic.  Hyun-Jin Kwak tells captivating stories about cult induced behavior, or sexual experimentation, or suicide, or treacherous games, or cryptic rituals, or psychological intimidation, or predators, or sexual humiliation.  And more frightening than Park’s movies, they are plausible.


Consider Part 1 (Nr 2)-Naivety Buried, 2003-2004, where three school girls experiment with suppressed sexual curiosity.  The girls, enjoying their own le déjeuner sur l'herbeare, loll on their picnic blanket while nearby four others play ecstatically around an anomalous earthen mound.  Amongst all the snacks scattered across the blanket, one girl relaxes, the next is on all fours reaching for a bottled drink and the third takes advantage of her friend’s cheeky position lifting her skirt pointing to her pudendum with her index and middle fingers spread apart.  Her sexual teasing is held short of becoming serious by a defusing laughter.  Weighed up against Egon Schiele’s comparable Etendue sur le ventre, 1911, where a sleeping girl’s colorful pleated skirt is lifted to offer us her reddened vulva, Hyun-Jin Kwak  gives us adolescent sexual stirring but never as an explicit overture.  Rather she flips Schiele’s masculine vantage – from above and behind – to protect the innocence of this feminine sexual episode from any intrusion.  Once the yoke of a tyrannical education and repressive society is lifted, Hyun-Jin Kwak tells us, playful freedom is possible and then her pictures quietly open the doors to sexual and psychological emancipation.  Far from Schiele’s gratuitous objectification of Etendue, Hyun-Jin Kwak establishes these girls-in-uniform as individuals discovering themselves, and each other as personalities full of fascination and desire. 


The implication of intruding on innocence, which Schiele always made the most of, is revisited in Part 1 (nr 4) Play/Lost, 2003-2004.  This is a picture of duel encounters, one unexpected and the other unwanted.  The structure of the photograph bespeaks a filmic narrative: Looking for a shortcut on a rainy spring day a quick turn onto an alleyway abruptly presents four dispossessed school girls.  Two cuddle despondently beneath an umbrella, a third stares into the beyond caught up in her pensive mood and the fourth, squatting in the alley, makes eye-contact projecting psychological intimidation that comes off as an expression both belligerent and mistrustful.  Hyun-Jin Kwak’s title suggests a morality lesson about the burden of self determination; freedom, without limits, can lead you astray, leaving you bewildered, adrift and timorous.  Hyun-Jin Kwak’s setting recalls Tony Matelli’s droll sculpture Lost and Sick, 1996 where three Boy Scouts, pledged to “Be Prepared,” wind up stuck in a miserable Beckettian scene where they inconsolably throw up.  But the state of affairs Matelli describes is Hyun-Jin Kwak’s turned inside out; the Boy Scouts would embrace any help from any point on the compass they left behind at camp.  The protagonist of the small universe in the alley, the squatting girl, is a tightly wound ball, but of what?  Repugnance or acquiescence?  Her umbrella, both protection and weapon, and your intrusion, menace and deliverance, casts her role ambiguously; is she prepared to courageously defend the intimate sisterhood, or risk what it would take to recognize salvation?


Courage is the portal into the sisterhood Hyun-Jin Kwak pictures.  It is a special sort of courage that we only experience once in a lifetime when we pass from childhood to adulthood.  This passage comes in many forms, but for Hyun-Jin Kwak it always involves secret rituals or death-defying games each initiate must suffer before she can be accepted as a sister who the community is bonded to; and who is bonded to the community.  Hyun-Jin Kwak’s initiation rituals always involve risk (Game #3, 2006), pain (Part 1 (nr 8)-Prize/Dues, 2003-2004), physical brutality (It Came With The Snow, 2006), or psychological torture (Part 1 (nr 6)-Lasting Moment, 2003-2004).  It would be a mistake to think that Hyun-Jin Kwak’s rituals are fantasies she has entirely invented or that such rites of passage are primarily masculine.  Ceremonies, rituals, rites that celebrate the passage of young girls into their adult lives are universal and often mark the arrival of their menstrual flow.  Many involve genital mutilation and scarification, or test the physical endurance of each initiate.  In Nigeria the hleeta, or initiation ordeal for young girls, begins with a severe flogging with reed switches followed by other physical and psychological abuses and ends with scarification. 


We sit on the lip of witnessing more than scarification in Part 1 (nr 8)-Prize/Dues.  The darkened scene is set in the basement storage of a girl’s school where three sailor-suited students have begun an induction ritual.  The first aid is prearranged.  To the right, calmly slipping a box knife from her bag, sits the officiant. An older girl, she prepares to perform her official duties.  Centered in the photograph is the initiate who volunteers her fingers spread wide on the desk top.  She is tranquil, she is convinced in her decision, and she seems not to notice the compassionate witness who steadies her for what is next.  But what is next?  The answer is foretold in the deformed left hands of her officiant and witness.  Her prize is belonging; her dues will be the upper portion of her left index finger.  In this ritual, like others in the passage from girlhood to adulthood, blood will mark the arrival of her adult life.  Hyun-Jin Kwak is creating her own anthropology.


And if you fail the test of courage that would have carried you across the bridge from a state of exile into the bliss of recognition, approval and acceptance?  What then?  Hyun-Jin Kwak covers this subject too in perhaps her most unsettling image titled Nr 2 Sleep, 2006.  The scene is that of a crumbling bridge located in Kyongju City, the former capital of the ancient Shinla dynasty (q.v.; 668-935).  Just across the bridge an old path leads quickly upward into a darkly dense and overgrown wood.  There is a mood of timelessness that prevails over this scene lending it the appearance of something preordained.  The bridge is gradually being overtaken by the woods encroaching from its far side, weeds replace the mortar between its stone work, and dead leaves from seasons past collect along its balustrade.  At the crest of the arching bridge a school girl slumps in a perfectly balanced pose; head bowed, feet arranged gracefully pointing outward and hands resting in her lap one atop the other.  In spite of Hyun-Jin Kwak’s title, the girl’s posture seems improbable if she is relaxed in sleep.  Instead her flawless equilibrium telegraphs an impression of some painstaking ceremonial posture we might associate with the ancient tradition of supine burials.  Scrutinizing the girl’s appearance it is an aura of exhaustion, surrender, acquiescing to failure that come directly to mind, and then inevitably an ambiance of ignominiousness death.  Hyun-Jin Kwak deftly guides us from joyless obedience, to the mirth of secreted self-discovery, to the depths of humiliating failure.  She leaves us at the foot of the bridge in Kyongju City with a question she cannot answer; on which side of the passage do you stand?



Ronald Jones 


all rights reserved, copyright 2007 HYUN-JIN KWAK