Published in Art Asia Pacific on March 8, 2016
Artist Noh Suntag sees the division of North and South Korea as a relationship that embodies a strange coexistence. The two nations, in ideological extremity with each other, are two sides of the proverbial coin and signify the presence of political disparities—communism versus capitalism—existing side by side. These are some of the first thoughts that come to mind when witnessing Noh’s photographs that were on view in two simultaneous solo exhibitions, at 43 Inverness Street and the Fitzrovia Gallery in London.
The exhibition at 43 Inverness Street—which functions within a private residence of the gallery’s director, who also curated the show—brings references of the Korean War (1950–53) into the domestic space, alluding to how the notion of separation can challenge what is deemed familiar and comfortable. Noh employs his education in photography, political studies and painting to capture silent scenes that dispel myths and reveal the truth about his country’s partition. Scenes of military intervention in the South Korean farming village of Daechu-ri employ dark humor, layering the works with a sardonic overtone. One particular series, “State of Emergency” (2000–07), has an almost comical propensity. Toy-like soldiers sprout out of the earth like crops, like a modern-day capitalist farmland that grows soldiers instead of rice. The analogy of the scarecrow befits this image; instead of preventing birds from landing on the earth, they are preventing farmers from working. The slight “Dutch angle” (a tilted shot used in photography and cinematography to add an unsettling air to a scene) further adds to the feeling of disconcertment.
In another photograph from “State of Emergency”, a stepladder divides the farmers from the military men—the authoritative force seems anachronistic, appearing to belong in a different scene. The military men look uncomfortable in a land that is not theirs, while the farmers sit relaxed in a land that is rightfully theirs. In many ways, Noh brings in surrealist preoccupations into his works, making uncomfortable juxtapositions that probe and provoke. He pieces together incongruous elements to make a parodic commentary on the relationship between the two antagonized Korean nations.
Into this mix of militarized imagery from South Korea, Noh includes a photograph of North Korea from his series “Red House” (2005), where the glowing flame of the Juche Tower burns bright in the Pyongyang dawn. The philosophy of Juche, former North Korean president Kim Il-sung’s (1912–1994) communist ideology, celebrates self-reliance yet stands in conflict with the welfare of its people. The flame symbolizes the only source of illumination in a city that has plunged into a weathered darkness.
Noh’s views appear to be unbiased, as he highlights the ideological extremities of both Koreas. His depiction of North Korea in the series “Red House I. North Korea in North Korea” (2005) is investigative and challenges the self-projected image of the nation: orderly, precise and uniform. The images, bold and chromatic, depict the annual Arirang Festival (“The Mass Game Show”), aimed at exhibiting the physical and cultural prowess of the country. Though the festival aims to present the country as a well regulated, united and systematic unit, it may also be read as endorsing the eradication of the individual to produce a draconian, homogenized zone. Noh brings forth the humanity within the homogeneity. The photographs reveal inconsistencies and imperfections—a dancer slightly out of sync, a gymnast bending a bit too low—all of which make each person an individual, rather than a mere cog within a carefully contrived, national spectacle.
The titular series “Really Good, Murder” (2008), which was shown at The Fitzrovia Gallery, looks at the self-assured normalization of weaponry and militia that takes place in military shows in South Korea. One work—a soldier training a young girl to throw a grenade at an unseen North Korean puppet—is particularly stark in its theatricality. The artificiality of the scene is such that the two actors seem to be engaged in a pas de deux. The preoccupation with weaponry and the subsequent paranoia it generates is elucidated in “In search of lost thermos bottles” (2010–11), which references a much-publicized controversy where the former head of the Grand National Party, Ahn Sang-Soo, misidentified burnt thermos bottles to be artillery shells.
Despite the two exhibition venues being connected by theme, the emotional response they produced from the viewer was starkly different. Just as one starts settling into 43 Inverness Street, a cozy, welcoming home where the house cat rubs against your leg, the works jolt and startle one out of their composure; meanwhile, the typical white cube space at Fitzrovia Gallery didn’t offer any space to ensconce. The photographs were a revelation, each one more telling than the other.
Noh’s analytical position recognizes the politics of division and polarization, both at the governmental and societal scale. The photographs in the two London shows conversed with each other in establishing the ever-changing relationship between the two Koreas. Noh has poignantly captured the relationship between the state and its people, and between the individual and the masses. Through a use of sharp wit, he sardonically provides commentary on the role of the state in hindering this relationship. He ties together two nations, with a conflicted past, to expose the underlying humanity that encompasses daily life in North and South Korea.
“Dance of Order” is on view at 43 Inverness Street, London, until March 12, 2016. “Really Good, Murder” was on view at The Fitzrovia Gallery, London, from January 21 to February 26, 2016.