After the unexpected success of our first excursion to Getxo Photo and the Ecce Mono of Borja, we decided to continue the series with an even more exotic destination. We left our vessel safely anchored near the South Korean coast, just off the Demilitarized Zone with North Korea, a 4km-wide strip of No Man’s Land that divides the two countries. In the fifty years of cold war, the DMZ has become a Natural Reserve where Bambi and his mother life peacefully between Dragon’s teeth, tanks and missiles, as shown in Jungnam Ko’s photographic series.
Unfortunately, the North Koreans did not give us permission to land on their territory; despite the visual material I had provided to prove my loyalty to the Cause. Alas, we headed inland, in order to reach the second largest city of the country, Daegu. Daegu is more or less pronounced like the “Accent deguuuu”, a little rooftop that the Frenchmen construct over some letters, without any other reason than to confuse those who do not belong to their Grande Nation. Anyways, let’s get to the pôint: Daegu hosted these days its 4th Photography Biennial, and we were able to visit some of its finest exhibitions, such as Karen Irevine’s Repositioned Personal and Natalie Herschdorfer’ The Youth Code!
The Portfolio Review was an interesting opportunity to recruit fresh blood, and was won by Ji Hyun Kwon, a very talented photographer from Seoul who lives in Germany now. While her already quite known series Dormitory shows the coexistence of Korean students in shared rooms, her new work, The Guilty, treats her own sense of guilt for becoming an artist (while her parents wanted her to become a lawyer). No wonder she was invited to join the Captain’s table and chosen as my personal Guide for the research field trip to Gangnam.
Gangnam, the “district south of the river” is one of Seoul’s most fashionable and trendy locations. It is well-known among Koreans, and metaphorically used much in the same way we mention Beverly Hills, when we want to talk about the rich and beautiful. And, it has gained an awful lot of attention outside of Korea, due to the song Gangnam Style, performed by K-Pop singer and performer PSY. The song is unforgettable, but it is really the mind-boggling video that has set the records: 343,579,271 viewers on YouTube, as of today. It is likely that this new world record will be broken very soon by another home video of a lazy cat or a baby that says “No” to everything, however, Gangnam Style has risen some serious questions: While most Westerners take the video (and the song) as a bizarre jewel of oriental Wanna-Be-Entertainment, South-Koreans understand the song as a hidden critique to an ostentatious lifestyle that has taken control of a vast part of the peninsula’s population. In the well-researched article Gangnam Style, Dissected, author Max Fisher analyzes the background story of the video, which lampoons the self-importance and ostentatious wealth of the tony Seoul neighborhood.What seems to be just a satire about Gangnam itself turns out to be about people outside Gangnam, who pursue their dream to be one of those Gangnam residents with big cars, fancy dresses and operated noses.
Accordingly, the average Korean household carries credit card debt worth a staggering 155 percent of their disposable income, and there are nearly five credit cards for every adult: “South Koreans have been living on credit since the mid-1990s, first because their country’s amazing growth made borrowing seem safe, and then in the late 1990s when the government encouraged private spending to climb out of the Asian financial crisis”. Limitless credits for those who cannot afford it? Sounds somehow familiar, from our side of the shore!
No wonder that their suspicious neighbor in the North didn’t hesitate to make a video parody, mocking South Korean presidential candidate Park Geun-hy and her father, Park Jung-hee, South Korea’s former dictator. Park, credited with overseeing South Korea’s rapid economic rise, still is a controversial figure in his country because of his dictatorial rule. The video was posted to the official North Korean government website Uriminzokkiri, a true masterpiece in the style of the cold war propaganda.
South-Koreans see the phenomenon ambiguously. While they are proud of their country’s economic and cultural achievements, and see no reason why this should change (a recurrent situation before any crisis), they also are aware of the somehow perverted redefinition of cultural and social values. In a personal experiment, I tried emulating some of Psy’s moves on a busy street at rush hour in the Gangnam destrict, in order to see the public’s reaction. The outcome was two-fold. First result: I nearly got run over. Second result: The ones that did NOT try to run me over, seemed to find it funny to see a Westerner do the moves, and showed themselves somehow proud of the song’s success among the Long-Noses. The experiment’s success had to be celebrated in one of the trendy Gangnam Clubs, the ones that Psy and his friends are not allowed into, for not belonging to the caste of the rich and beautiful. Needless to say that for me, getting in was no problem… even it meant entering the venue through the window of the Lady’s Toilet. Oh, what a night!
But every shore excursion comes to its end, so we leave behind the land of spicy cabbage and slick metallic chop sticks, in order to get back en route. Yet, not without mentioning a project that illustrates the up-to-date urgency of our two first land excursions, for the documentation of contemporary life and art: On a truly profound level of critique, the video Ecce Mono goes Gangnam style, connects both phenomena, in a quite conceptual, yet visually pleasing manner. What we have here is an intriguing chef-d’oeuvre of contemporary media art that will be remembered by generations ahead, for its elegance and poignant socio-political meaning. Bravô from Le Capitain!