Exhibition Visit: Earth Alert – Environmental protest goes mainstream

by Philip Gowman on 17 October, 2009

in Choi Young-jin, Chung Chu-ha, Earth Alert, Event reports and reviews, Exhibition reviews and comment, KCCUK, Park Jong-woo, Photography

Choi Young-jin, Saemangeum, Gocheon, Korea 2006 (150x50cm)

Choi Young-jin, Saemangeum, Gocheon, Korea 2006 (150x50cm)

Over the past few years, environmentalists have been protesting about the massive land reclamation project at Saemangeum on the west coast of Korea. As well as being an environmental tragedy, it has also been a minor irritation in UK-ROK relations: prominent among the campaigners have been British naturalists protesting about the scheme’s impact on the bird population. A couple of years ago, the RSPB even got in on the act, suggesting that people write in protest to the ROK ambassador in London. When I sought to interview the Ambassador Cho Yoon-je on his return to civilian life in Korea, one of the questions included in my list was how the ambassador had responded to these letters of protest. This question caused some nervousness with the embassy’s Press minder, and my interview never got completed.

Wind the clock forward 18 months. The current exhibition in the Korean Cultural Centre is called Earth Alert – a Photographic Response to Climate Change. The exhibition is co-sponsored by the British embassy in Seoul and the KCC in London. It is evidence of the closeness of the UK and the ROK on key global issues. And one of the most arresting portfolios of images on display is by Korean photographer Choi Young-jin. At the show’s opening, the photographer was present and our host encouraged us to look at his dramatic photographs of Korea’s west coast.

Choi Young-jin: Saemangeum, Gocheon, Korea 2007 (150x50cm)

Choi Young-jin: Saemangeum, Gocheon, Korea 2007 (150x50cm)

Somewhat confusingly labeled as being of Sae Man Geum (I’ve never before seen the place spelled in three separate words, and have therefore corrected it in the captions shown in this post), there is no doubting what these photographs are of. Taken over the course of a few years, they show a dry foreshore that used to be mudflat and which now has trucks driving across it; a dead white seabird against a background of black sand. Most movingly, it shows an army of totems (Jang Seung) standing in the sea, planted by local protestors and intended as spiritual guards.

Choi Young-jin: Saemangeum, Taehang-ri, Korea, 2004, 150 x 50cm

Choi Young-jin: Saemangeum, Taehang-ri, Korea, 2004, 150 x 50cm

Whether the Saemangeum land reclamation project is all to do with pork-barrel politics, the need for agricultural land or simply an unhealthy obsession with golf, its impact on the environment and migrating wildlife now seems to be an issue which has gone mainstream. An issue that once caused profound embarrassment can now be openly displayed for debate at a government-sponsored venue. But while it is interesting that both Embassies are now embracing Saemangeum as an important environmental issue with which they can comfortably associate themselves, what is less clear is how that relates to the title of the exhibition – a Photographic Response to Climate Change. Yes, the Saemangeum project represents an irresponsible stewardship of the environment, but I’m not sure that anyone has said that it contributes to global warming.

Chung Chu Ha: A Pleasant Day, Kamami Beach, Korea, 2005 (100x79cm)

Chung Chu Ha: A Pleasant Day, Kamami Beach, Korea, 2005 (100x79cm)

The same comment of limited relevance could be said of a number of the portfolios included. Pictures of the impact of nuclear power stations on the local environment document another important environmental issue, but what have they to do with climate change? Many in the green lobby would support nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels in reducing carbon emissions. Yes, mankind needs to be more sensible about its possible harmful consequences (such as a very localised rise in sea temperatures caused by irresponsible disposal of waste hot water), but surely such photographs, though moving, suggest on the part of the curators either a highly partisan approach to presenting the green agenda (that nuclear energy has no part in carbon-free electricity generation) or a relaxed approach to sticking to the topic.

Park Jong-woo: Manaslu Glacier, Manaslu Himal, Nepal, 1999 60x40cm

Park Jong-woo: Manaslu Glacier, Manaslu Himal, Nepal, 1999 60x40cm

But other portfolios are clearly and urgently relevant. Robin Hammond’s pictures of a sinking Tuvalu, Park Jong-woo’s eloquent documenting of disappearing Himalayan glaciers, and other images of dying corals, encroaching deserts, charred remains of once mighty forests, and steelworks and power stations belching carbon, are clearly to do with the causes and effects of climate change. Barren wastelands caused by nuclear disasters or thoughtless exploitation of natural resources are not.

Whatever your thoughts about the lack of focus in the selection, what is certain is that this is a stimulating and challenging collection of work. It is also a strong and welcome follow-up to the Poverty through the Lens exhibition last year, which was a similar collection of international photographers on an important global issue. It is to be hoped that it contributes to debate and to a positive outcome in Copenhagen later this year.

Earth Alert: A Photographic Response to Climate Change continues at the Korean Cultural Centre until 28 November 2009

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