In his written introduction to the two parallel exhibitions at 43 Inverness Street and the Fitzrovia Gallery, Noh Suntag says “I am exploring how the Korean War lives and breathes in contemporary Korean society. I glare at the space where divided powers manipulate the war and division at will, treating them as a chapter of history fixed in the past, but as it suits the powers, reviving their memory for their own purposes. The power of division is a monster of the present operating and malfunctioning in both South and North Korea”.
At a panel session at SOAS on 5 February, Noh further expanded on this theme, stressing how, during the Korean War, not a single part of the peninsula was left untouched by war, and how the armistice, being merely a ceasefire, results in the two sides pointing a gun at each other across the DMZ.
Noh has several themes that arise out of the division of the peninsula. Obviously, North is divided against South, but that does not necessarily mean that they are opposites – and in fact Noh argues that there are startling similarities: the two sides are mirror images of each other, for example in the way that both nations are highly militarized, and in the way that both side behave when they meet each other. Secondly though, Noh is interested in the way that Koreans are divided against Koreans South of the DMZ, and how South Korea itself has become distorted as a consequence of the division of the peninsula.
The works on display on the ground floor at 43 Inverness Street illustrate this. They are mainly from Noh’s State of Emergency series, and capture scenes in the eviction of farmers from Daechuri to enable the US military base, Camp Humphreys, to be expanded.
Over coffee at 43 Inverness Street on 30 January, Noh gave his audience the historical background behind the bitter struggle over this fertile area of farmland known for the quality of its rice: in the 1930s the Japanese evicted the farmers from the area in order to build an airstrip. Post liberation, the farmers moved back; but during the Korean War they were moved out again because the area was perfect as a military base for the US forces. After the Korean War, farmers moved back to the outskirts of the base. But now their descendants are being evicted for a third time to enable the camp to be expanded, as part of the removal of US troops from the Yongsan area in Seoul.
Noh’s photographs document the standoff the farmers and their families against the police, paramilitaries and hired thugs who are enabling the land to be cleared. Noh gets in among the protestors and into the turmoil of the conflict, but the freeze frame images he captures are remarkably still and serene, at odds with the intensity and passion of the subject.
The stark monochrome photographs are both funny and sad. Soldiers stand upright in the fields almost as if growing out of the soil; a group of toughs in business suits stand huddled together like a group of meerkats in the desert; a clump of riot police stand defensively on guard as rural ajummas picnic in the field – Noh explains that the photo was taken in a brief lull in the violent confrontation.
As part of the efforts to evict the farmers, the authorities started pouring concrete into a river to cut off the water supply to the land. A protester climbed on top of one of the concrete-mixers to hinder the operation. In a series of seven photographs Noh documents the actions of the police as they remove her from the giant vehicle. Curator Suzie Jumgeun Lee commented that the photographs are like a Rubens Descent from the Cross in their composition and sense of unworldly stillness.
One point that Noh wants to make in this series is that, though the eviction is for the benefit of the Americans (“ordered by the Americans” as he puts it), there are no Americans in the photographs: it is Koreans who are fighting Koreans.1 Similarly, in the photograph of riot police manning the barricades (sturdy sheets of steel that look like shipping containers, emblazoned with the Hyundai brand name), it is Korean protestors they are guarding against, outside a summit meeting of the APEC summit. Hyundai, one of the biggest success story of Korean industrial globalization, is the brand name that the anti-globalisation protestors see before them at the summit.
The images which advertised both of the current exhibitions are of the bright, colourfully orchestrated spectacle known as the Mass Games. These are from Noh’s series Red House I: North Korea in North Korea, in which he looks at the images that the North Koreans project of themselves: a picture of uniformity, of the parts in service to the whole which is itself in the service of the Leader. Noh is asking: “are the North Koreans really that strong,” really that scary? Does the way that they present themselves – confident and militaristic – “reveal a sense of anxiety?” Noh’s images, by zooming in close, looks at the individuals themselves who are sometimes in an almost comic state of disorder: each dancer is different with legs parted at slightly different angles, socks and skirts of different lengths. Beneath the surface, “the performers are living people, not robots,” he argues. And his image of the Juche Tower at night, in which the only light to shine out is that of the Juche flame in a sea of darkness, highlights how even in Pyongyang there is not much electricity.2
The second chapter of his Red House series is subtitled Give and Take, and documents what happens when North and South Koreans meet each other – as for example has been possible in the past either during specially organized (and controlled) trips or at the Mt Kumgang resort. At such encounters Koreans from both sides of the border act in a similar way – obsessively pointing cameras at each other.
Some of the photographs that Noh took in Kumgang, or in Pyongyang as part of an official delegation, were displayed in Seoul as part of a duo exhibition with North Korean defector artist who goes by the name of Sun Mu. When Sun Mu exhibited in China, his exhibition was closed down by the authorities for being treasonously anti-DPRK. But paradoxically at the Seoul exhibition the display was scrutinized by the South Korean authorities to check that it was not in breach of the National Security Law for being overly sympathetic to the North. In Red House III there is an intriguing photograph of a South Korean secret policeman taking a photo of Sun Mu’s scurrilous portrait of Kim Jong-il (grinning underneath a severed, upside-down DPRK flag). Because of the tiny size of the policeman’s camera, as he holds it to his eye to take the picture it looks as if he is crying with emotion in front of the portrait.
In Red House III – North Korea in South Korea, Noh looks at how North Korea is represented in South Korea, and the attitudes of Southerners to the North. In his photographs of puppets of North Korean leaders being burned in Seoul City Hall Plaza, or of Southerners looking northwards over the DMZ, or paying to look at such images of the DPRK as are allowed to be seen by the authorities in the South, Noh is highlighting that each Korea had an equal obsession with the other – they are mirror images of each other. The two enemies have become alike.
Although in the West we naturally think of North Korea as heavily militarised, Noh argues that the South is not that different. A standard accusation in an argument which gets out of hand is “are you a communist?” In his series Really Good, Murder, he shows families enjoying a day out at a military air show, where children can enjoy playing with anti-aircraft guns or a young high-school girl is shown how to throw a grenade by a soldier, in a pose that looks as if they could be dancing together. Out of shot is the target of the grenade – cut-outs of North Korean soldiers.
At such shows the defence industries display their wares – South Korea is a major arms exporter – highlighting how South Korea, as a consequence of the recent history of the peninsula, is itself heavily militarised. At the Inverness Street talk, Noh explained the duties of every South Korean male: two years military service followed by periodic retraining as a reservist and then finally civil defence duties until they reach the age of forty. On both sides of the border, argues Noh, huge amounts of resources are invested in the military. As both sides glare at each other across the line of division, maybe there are ways in which they are not so different.
Really Good, Murder is at the Fitzrovia Gallery until 26 February; Dance of Order is at 43 Inverness Street until 12 March. Noh Suntag was talking at SOAS on 5 February and at 43 Inverness Street on 30 January. (Details here)