No doubt it was the moment somebody began pinning floral bouquets to the lapels of visiting critics, ushering us on to the red carpet and shoving us towards Kim Bum-il, the jovial Mayor of Daegu, that it became clear this south-western city was taking seriously its turn among Korea’s overlapping biennials. While the Gwangju and Busan biennials essayed adjacent internationalisms – Gwangju delivering an ‘Annual Report’ excerpted from exhibitions worldwide, Busan’s ‘Expenditure’ likewise expansive and diverse – Daegu was always going to feel (and not simply because its sole focus was on photography) at some remove from the flux of contemporary Korean art, no matter the official declarations of relevance and innovation. Under the directorship of photographer Bohnchang Koo, however, the traditional and contemporary strands in Korean photography combined in intriguing, if sometimes reticent, ways.
The Biennale’s overarching rubric – ‘Then & Now: Memories of the Future’ – sometimes seemed as though it might devolve into a straightforward chronology: a strict history of photography from a city whose photographic artists have only relatively recently left off purely documentary modes, inserted too readily into the broad narrative of photography in the region. The inclusion of an exhibition of ‘Four Hidden Photographers’ from Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China suggested as much at first: Han Youngsoo’s studies of Seoul in the 1950s and ‘60s lacked precisely the bravado of Japanese photographer Shoji Ueda’s My Wife on the Dunes (1950), in which the woman of the title has almost slipped out of frame at the bottom right-hand corner, while three men sinisterly punctuate the vast expanse of sand, cameras in their hands. Korean photographers came late to such formal daring and ambiguity: it was not until the 1980s that Bohnchang began to produce similarly distant perspectives on the inhabitants of Seoul as they prepared for the 1988 Olympics.
The main exhibition of contemporary Korean photographers suggested that, in the intervening two decades, the country’s younger photographers have worked hard to overcome a certain modesty of ambition among their precursors. This is not always for the best: much of the work here rehearsed too eagerly the terms of a dated engagement with technological artifice or with the duplicity of media ideals of physical perfection. Debbie Han’s ‘Graces’ (2007–8) – digital manipulations of the faces of Western classical statuary with Korean women’s bodies – was distinctly schematic in import, flimsy in execution. Kim Sanggil’s ‘Motion Picture’ (2001–6), in which conspicuous product placement (a FedEx package, a bottle of Febreze fabric freshener) interrupts daily life, seemed similarly strained in its commentary on the unreality of life in an advanced Asian economy.
The best of these contemporary photographers were those who frustrated shorthand expectations about the critique of globalism or the digital realm, and turned instead towards more solid forms of self-presentation. Kim Oksun’s ‘Living Room’ (1999) series showed naked Korean women in domestic settings that varied greatly in terms of décor but hardly at all in terms of architecture: a modest treatment of variation and repetition in style and circumstance. It was a question too for the more engaging works of what to do with the large print, which predictably dominated the exhibition. Ahn Sekwon’s ‘Seoul, A Landscape of Silence’ (1987–ongoing) is a series devoted to the city’s hectic regeneration: quite deserving of its scale. Bang Byungsang’s wide-angle shots of Koreans at play – in forests, on beaches, by riverbanks – proposed a more subtle understanding of its scope than was common.
That’s not to say that among the artists who knowingly embraced a particular photographic discourse on digital or cinematic artifice there were not those who succeeded in staging something new. Jung Yeondoo’s ‘Location Series’ (2007–ongoing) – meticulously constructed tableaux: a tiny hunter’s lodge afloat in a lake, bathed in theatrical or film lighting, a luxury bed (and incongruous set of bongos) by a moonlit stream – are of a piece with his Documentary Nostalgia (2008): a meticulous and wry video in which a vacant room is slowly set-dressed to become fields, clouds and woodland. Such works suggest that the Daegu Photo Biennale might in future broaden its remit and begin to conceive of photography in a more expanded sense. In this instance, Bohnchang is to be congratulated for his urgent sense of the scope of Korean photography, then urged to go further.