When I was a young girl growing up in Seoul, like all other girls and boys my age, I wore a uniform to school. The summer uniform was my favourite: a turquoise sleeveless dress with off-white accents and lapels like a sailor's shirt, worn with a matching cap. The dress identified me with my school and friends, and I recognised kids from rival schools by the colour and style of their uniforms. For high school students, these identifications were more complicated, since the law required their uniforms be black and white. Sometimes you'd see a grey skirt or trousers, or a variation in detail like lapels trimmed in white, but all in all, things remained fairly monochromatic. Add to this the compulsory haircuts - crew cuts for boys and severe bobs for girls - and everyone looked more or less the same.
This was, of course, before Levi's, Coca-Cola and MacDonald's reached Korea. High school students now wear more colourful and individual outfits (though perhaps this variation simply represents a different consumerist predictability). So Do-Ho Suh's installation High School Uni-Form (all works 1997), composed of 300 Korean boys' high school uniform jackets, is a bit of a throwback. Aligned in a perfect grid, standing at full attention, the dark uniforms conjure a disciplined, stoic gathering of elite students at a formal ceremony, or soldiers obediently awaiting orders. Impressive in its emphatic physical presence, immaculate precision and scale of repetition, High School Uni-Form carries symbolic overtones that are at once sombre and euphoric.
The sense of euphoria comes from the installation's almost fascistic vision of collective identity. This fascist overtone is no mistake; school uniforms have always had a relationship with military fashion. In Korea's case, boys' high school uniforms are, in fact, Japanese in origin (which in turn were based on a German design), and were imposed on Korean students during the Japanese occupation of the country from 1910-1945. High School Uni-Form, unencumbered by the distractions of difference, represents a fantasy of social formation that has the appeal of formal clarity and a seemingly unshakeable certitude of unity. But the installation also registers a spooky emptiness at the core of such a vision. For the collective unity here is composed of hollow bodies, lifeless like a massive scarecrow. Sewn together as a single unit, the 300 uniforms, even while maintaining individual distinctness, are connected to one another at the shoulders and hung over a skeletal framework. The 570 missing arms and legs of the installation seem to suggest the sacrificial economy that is structural to all collective identification.
But High School Uni-Form is not a simple critique of such an economy. For even as the installation encourages a critical reading of regimes that oppress difference to impose their power, it also registers the ambivalent desire and quiet pleasure involved in the submission of one's body and will to forces outside oneself. The abandonment of individual will can be a beautiful liberation of the soul, as many religions can attest. Meanwhile, the occasion for the gathering of Suh's 300 ghosts remains unclear - a funeral, a graduation, a quasi-military exercise? The fact that most Korean males have to trade in their high school uniforms for army ones upon taking up compulsory military service emphasises this ambiguity, locating High School Uni-Form at precisely the transitional juncture between boy and man, student and soldier, school and army. As such, the installation can also be seen as a marker for a particular moment in the life of a young man, defined not only by the repression of individuality but by homosocial camaraderie, friendship, togetherness, and affection that are all the more precious because they survive within the hidden crevices of the regimented, disciplinary organisation of state-controlled institutions.
The semi-nostalgic sentiment hidden in High School Uni-Form is perhaps more clearly articulated in a complementary installation, a wallpaper project entitled Who Am We?. For the piece, Suh scanned approximately 37,000 portraits of schoolboys from his Korean high school yearbooks, reducing their size to the threshold of recognisability. Transferred to sheets of wallpaper, the 37,000 tiny faces are individually contained within oval frames. On walking into a room decorated with this wallpaper, one hardly notices the source of the ever-so-subtle undulation of muted sepia colours on its surfaces. It is only up-close that one discovers with surprise the uncanny faces that have taken over the room's architecture, enveloping our gaze, awaiting recognition.
Who Am We? is again a meditation on the tension between individual and collective identities. The grammatical disagreement between the 'we' and the 'am' in the title immediately announces this concern. But in this case, the tension is translated through the polarities of identity and anonymity, and played out in relation to the limits of optical perception. Even from a distance of twelve inches, the uniqueness of each face blurs and the oval frames turn into a series of dots on an enlarged halftone screen; at two feet, the portraits merge into an undifferentiated tonal field, a sea of indistinction.
Complicating the phenomenological logic of Minimalist sculpture, the apprehension of the portraits as coherent images and the room as a coherent space are set against one another, with the viewer's eye and body functioning as mediating constants. This oscillation raises a certain self-conscious awareness of one's own physiological limits. It also takes on a metaphorical poignancy: the act of stepping away from the wallpaper rehearses the memory of past departures. At the moment of leaving, the horizon emerges anew, the vague space of the future appearing expansive and limitless. From that moment on, the space of the past shrinks from view; and the impossibility of a full return is compensated only by a dreamscape of apparitions. For those who have been subjected to, or have subjected themselves to, the destabilising conditions of cultural displacement (both micro and macro), Suh's articulation of longing-in-leaving will have a special charge.
Like High School Uni-Form, Who Am We? serves as a homage to a particular moment in the artist's life as defined by a collective body, and also attempts to undercut the inevitability of loss and separation by transforming memory-time into a materiality that envelops the present. So it is fitting that the high school portraits of Suh's classmates be reconfigured as wallpaper, because as such they have the capacity to transform any room or architectural space into a memorial. Each of the countless faces from Suh's high school yearbooks - a few intimate friends, many acquaintances, some spoken to once, most strangers to the artist - represents an untold story, a singular life of secret loves and public obligations, of particular experiences lived, and a future to be lived. Yet, seen from afar, from the vantage point of historical time, singularities blur out of focus, coagulating into a larger mass of faceless bodies that recede into anonymity.