At Tonbridge school, visitors have been privileged to see the work in progress of Korean video artist Junebum Park. And pupils have been privileged to be subjects, almost like laboratory rats, in his latest work.
Park is known, among other things, for his Puzzle series, in which students are filmed from above as they struggle to solve a rectangular sliding tile puzzle, in which they and their desks are the tiles which need to be configured in a certain pattern.
In his 2009 work of that name, students from Seoul National University of Science and Technology, where Park happened to be teaching at the time, were the guinea pigs. In 2016 the maths classes at Tonbridge School were hijacked. In an added twist, the maths teachers were asked to divide their students into groups depending on how extroverted they were, and then the groups are set a simple test: in a 3 x 3 grid, eight desks, numbered 1 through 8, are arranged randomly, and the students are required to arrange them in order by sliding a desk into a vacant square. In the work-in-progress, the groups are labelled A, B, C and D. First the pupils are grouped together with like-minded colleagues; then the groups are mixed up into teams with a balance of psychological profiles. It all sounds horribly like a management training course at any large corporation (I should know – I’ve had to participate in such exercises). What I couldn’t tell, from the work-in-progress, was whether the balanced teams were any quicker then the un-diverse ones. What I do know is that when the teams weren’t mixed, the cautious introverts beat the headstrong extroverts. Hurrah!
Rather like the large-scale photographs of the Arirang Mass Games by Andreas Gursky, the works can be observed on two levels. You can look at the big picture: in Gurskys’s case, the images presented by the giant screens of which the children form individual pixels; in Park’s case the speeded-up video of the puzzle being solved (or not). Or you can move in close. Look at the individuals who make up that big picture. Look at what they are doing. Look at their expressions, their actions. In the case of the Tonbridge project, is that guy in the purple jumper really trying to spell out rude words with his hands for the benefit of the camera? I do hope so. If not, why not? In a group of twenty teenagers, surely there must be at least one whose mission is to sabotage the project.
The artist is heading back to Korea at the end of January, and the editing has got to be finished by then. What the finished work will look like, people will find out when it is unveiled for its premiere screening on 2 February. I hope the soundtrack survives: there is excited chattering, appropriate to the speeded-up tempo of the film, as the pupils attempt to solve the puzzles. And after one group succeeds within the allotted time there is an impromptu Mexican wave.
Thanks to Choi Yoojin of Hanmi Gallery for showing me round and acting as interpreter at the opening last night. Digital Generation – Art from Fidelity International is at OBS Gallery, Tonbridge School, Tonbridge, Kent TN9 1JP, until 6 March 2016. Restricted visiting times.