JoSeub: History is I
¡°Photography is the product of complete alienation.¡± - Marcel Proust [as quoted by Siegfried Kracauer]
Here is the artist: as one of North Korean armed guerrillas massacred by vigilant South Korean soldiers, then instantly resurrected to take a commemorative group photograph; as ¡°General MacArthur,¡± wearing a ludicrous wig and shades and charging on a shallow-watered shore (the same, or at least similarly unbecoming wig reappears on the artist as Marilyn Monroe, carousing with an American soldier); as one of shamelessly naked revelers in a party that spirals out of control and ends with an assassination; as a gangly track runner, barely propping herself up on painfully spindly legs; as a demonstrating student, assaulted by a policeman and bludgeoned by troops. Punctuating this stream of events are additional scenes of violence-a murder (a scowling man attacking a young woman with a pickaxe), a mayhem (a boxer with his face pummeled beyond recognition), and a torture (two men dunking another's head into a bath tub of water, while a couple of naked backs nonchalantly washing their bodies in the background). The artist adds, for good measure, a few panels of texts-narrations that describe the atrocities depicted, and a chronology of events, circa 1945-1980, that cryptically explains the history of a country written in blood.
Again and again, Jo (and what seems like a few good friends) materializes in the various scenes. The photographs, most of which are of a same size, are arranged in one long strip of a random sequence. In fact, what unifies these representational images seems to be the artist's transvestitism, far from meticulous but rather tacky and sloppy. A photographer as a performer: we have a good number of precedents in the history of photography in fine art, that is, the medium's gradual evolution from a tool of record to one of trickery. In this particular trajectory, which occurred with especial urgency sometime after the 1960s, the inherently duplicitous nature of the camera's eye collapsed with the artist's body and its performance. The name of Gilbert and George comes to mind, and, of course, Cindy Sherman may very well be Jo's patron saint. In its willingness to change identities as often as possible but its apparent lack of ability to do so well, Jo's performance in his constructed photography would lie somewhere between the methodologies of those two western forebears. I say ¡°apparent lack of ability,¡± but, to be more precise, the artist does not seem all that interested in disguising himself with any believable degree of accomplishment.
The English verb ¡°to disguise¡± is said to originate from the old French word disguiser, which consists of guise, meaning ¡°manner,¡± ¡°custom,¡± or ¡°fashion,¡± plus the negating prefix des. Extending this etymological chase a bit further, we find travestire, the Italian word for ¡°to disguise,¡± which arose from the Latin, trans (¡°over¡±) + vestire (¡°to clothe¡±) and is the source for the English word ¡°travesty.¡± As a theatrical term, ¡°travesty¡± refers to ¡°an alteration of dress or appearance; specifically dressing in the attire of the opposite sex¡± and is, in that light, closely related to ¡°transvestite¡± and ¡°transvestitism,¡± or in a more colloquial parlance, ¡°drag.¡± In a more general sense, it means ¡°an exaggerated or grotesque imitation, such as a parody of a literary work.¡± Here, then, is a word and its derivations that seem to encapsulate the modus operandi of the work of Jo Seub. He ¡°dresses up¡± to alter his appearance, sometimes into the opposite gender, to go against the ¡°custom¡± or ¡°fashion.¡± The result of this alteration is exaggerations, or ¡°grotesque imitations.¡±
What is the artist's subject then?: the history of a nation, or a history of violence. Jo's long, cinematically sutured picture sequence does not just tell a history; rather, it proffers a parody of that history. That much is easy to claim. In his work, the history is presented as a contingent narrative and, perhaps even, suggested as a literary invention. But, of course, those who have lived and know the turbulent recent past of South Korea-that is, most viewers of Jo's work so far-would likely argue that the history of that particular nation is anything but invented. For them, it is as real as it is painful and traumatic, with some choice moments of shared exhilaration. Punctuating what seemed like an endless repetition of political instabilities and regime changes were extreme hypes that bring the nation's subjects together to make them feel that they are part of a cultural and spiritual unity. Then to what purpose and gains does the artist parody such a troubled but noble history?
It has been previously suggested that Jo's work and its relationship to history parallels Marx's conception of history as repetition, first as tragedy then as parody, the famous quote taken from Marx's 1852 text, ¡°The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.¡± As often is the case with overused quotes, Marx's original thesis suggests far more subtlety and detail than the simple formula of historical repetition. Consider this paragraph that immediately follows it:
¡°Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.¡±
What the passage implies is the melancholic impossibility of any effort to make the present as extraordinary, since the past and tradition already predetermined that the present would be a travesty-disguised in appropriated ¡°names, battle slogans, and costumes.¡±
It's hard to argue convincingly that a ¡°revolutionary crisis¡± is in order here, however. What really is at stake rather appears to be the supposedly shared sense of history and national consciousness and its ideological rhetoric of unity, which began to crack at some not so distant point in the past. Not all subjects of the sovereign nation share a same story. The history has lost its confidence. The sacred narrative is now up for grabs, and mockery is as fair a game as sanctification. This is the aftermath of a revolutionary era that ended, a period of stability and complacency that renders its subjects paradoxically disoriented and undirected.
One of the things Marx reminds us in the abovementioned passage is the contingent nature of history: it can be shaped by who writes it and how he writes it, but it is always fatefully bound to what preceded it. Writing history is simultaneously passive and active, and, according to Siegfried Kracauer, the historian's craft parallels that of the photographer, as both ¡°record as well as create.¡± What occurs in Jo's travesty of history in his performative, constructed photography is an inverse of this situation. He enacts various scenes of violence and elation that constructed the narrative line of a collective consciousness, through outrageous travesty, with intentional lack of precision and completion, and with a body that consistently fails the power of enhancement and concealment of the camera's eye. And this may just be a way to make himself and his viewers into witnesses-not participants-and into strangers-not lovers-of the history they have always taught to assume they are part of.
At the dawn of photography, Proust praised photography for its ability to emotionally detach itself from its subject. In that way, the author imagined his objects of love, all of which eventually aged and died, could be alienated, preserved for his remembrance. History could thus be saved in frozen images and lived in the mind. For us living in the brave new world of digitization, media saturation, and pervasive absence of faith in media of representation, the only way to remember and to have a history may very be by repeatedly enacting what we already know. It's a tragic injunction, but that's what we might need in a world that is already a parody. Jo's work is one such attempt.
Jung Do-Ryun(Art Critic)