Pastiche Landscape – Scenes in Heterotopia

 

Art today is not simply the object of appreciation for any self-awareness. Art is a constant encounter with reality while removing its difference from reality, or a specialization of reality. Reality here does not mean any realistic depiction or imitation. Different types of social phenomena caused by the accelerated evolution of civilization raise issues concerning the reality of today and the struggle between the individual and society and free will and power. Can we really consider that postmodernity, with which we escaped from the bondage of history or the era of only one principle and worth, has opened the age of autonomous life? A city has gradually become an arena of massive sculptures1) amid globalization, and aspects of each individual’s quotidian life have evolved spectacles by virtue of individual media as the sites of life are seemingly tinged with artistic factors. Today, displaying seems to be a reason for being rather than merely showing.

 

Art photography in modern times shares this tendency. Art photography seems to pursue a style which is not conventional or is in a state where it's hard to distinguish its style from that of commercial photography. This is a phenomenon that appeared when digital photography was commercialized and any privilege granted to analog photography disappeared. Although we have to avoid excessive simplification or dichotomous classification, contemporary art photography tries to disclose the cultural aspects and attitude of photography. On the contrary, documentary photography is a genre of photography which documents the most private domain of an individual, unfurls narratives from a Foucauldian microscopic political perspective used to discover a contact point between individual and society, and displays aspects of life and the world after classifying them like they belong in a collection.

Before classifying and arranging the types and stylistic features of contemporary art photographs, we need to remember that art photography is still a medium to document the times as well as one of a few significant forces to make a stand against the unprecedented power of the mass media and the individual media paradoxically imitating the preexisting media for spectacles in the name of diversity. This is not to admire art photography unconditionally but to clarify that the term art photography is an action of putting artistic obligation into practice, not simply a technique and the latest fashion.

Sunggu Kim’s documentary photographs are also the products of such practice. His photographs capture artefacts in a suburban style, architectural structures, indoor spaces, and places that display old-fashioned trends found in a metropolis and its suburban areas or overstated, immediate human psychology. His works can be defined as a capturing of sub-cultural aspects in a megalopolis from a typological perspective. A series of his photos remind us of aspects of our urban life. They feature places in an imitative, common, yet minor state, bringing up those inhabiting the places.

Suburban Types

 

Two cone shaped ice towers (Pocheon, Gyeonggi, 2012) stand in front of a restaurant in Pochen, Gyeonggi Province. These uncanny objects were created by sprinkling water in mid-winter. Kim seeks to capture imitations of utopian illusions in the sub-culture consumed in Korean society.

 

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1) The idea of a sculpturized city refers to a theory proposed by Hal Foster claiming that contemporary architecture is evolving into a spectacle that consumes art. It views today’s architecture as being dependent on sculptural imagination rather than following functionalism.

He takes notice of objects (things, buildings, parks, cities, regions, etc.) found in Seoul and the metropolitan area in order to showcase fantasies for deviation and the extraordinary. It is not hard to find objects like these ice towers in Pocheon because most amusement parks and tourist spots in the suburbs of Seoul are full of these types of objects. Suburban typology can be seen as a pastiche phenomenon generated by reckless development with no consideration for historical context or aesthetic style. A pastiche in art can be seen as a state in which the times, regionality, and originality are indiscreetly jumbled together, departing from historically recognized representative modes and stylistic characteristics after the “end of art.” This can be also seen as a post-modernist phenomenon, similar to appropriation. In terms of architecture and urbanolgy, pastiche can be regarded as a phenomenon without any context, produced through an indiscreet appropriation of mainstream architectural idioms, lack of skill, and neo-liberalistic desire stemming from the absence of philosophy. Unlike in the West, pastiche in Korea seems identical with reckless development caused by neo-liberalistic fever.

 

Such a suburban type has been a signifier that insinuates the possibility of deviation from a social system. Such a signifier of deviation is realized through an emulation of sublime nature. This has been very common as confirmed by the ice tower in Pocheon mentioned above. Goyang, Gyeonggi (2016) displays a photo of Neuschwanstein Castle (Schloss Neuschwanstein), a typical tourist attraction of Germany, that is hanging in a restaurant in Korea. Kim’s scenes such as a rampant occupation of a city’s interior and exterior by images irrelevant to the city, an arcade appropriated from a scene of Paris, a tourist facilities complex that is a copycat of the Provence region, a folk village that has been fabricated based on tradition, an entertainment program conceived in the name of folklore, and a water fountain set near a beautiful landscape make us feel perplexed and embarrassed even though they are considered to be the results of pastiches.

 

On the one hand, urban development is modeled on globalized eco-cities like Hong Kong and Singapore while on the other hand, the apparition of de-contextual pastiches moving beyond the cutting-edge facilities and geographical conditions of such globalized eco-cities are making an inroad into the interior of a city. This pastiche penetrates our quotidian aspects, claiming that my place can be another place, even in a different time and dimension. The problem is that this goes beyond the warning of simulation declared by Jean Baudrillard. This is how a pastiche contaminates the whole nation, moving beyond its boundaries to conceal the fact that there is no original. The events and scenes that Kim has captured are not meant to criticize or satirize the suburban type. The artist discovers us in these scenes. His pastiche makes an active use of our reality in which we have to escape to somewhere every day and run from daily boredom.2) In particular, the Han River scenes (Sangam-dong, Seoul, 2013 / Yeoido, Seoul, 2013) allow for metaphorical thinking in photographs featuring scenes of pastiches. Those who are in these shots look out at the sights of flood waters of the Han River. What on earth do they want to see? Why do they stand there?

 

Boring Spectacles

 

If seen from a different standpoint, the birth of a city is bound up with the birth of a suburb. A typical suburban scene is associated with the sanitization of a city undergoing rampant development with the addition of new apartments due to a bubble economy. A suburb is a place for relaxation and deviating from established mores.

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2) Boredom here is far from any notion of bourgeois relaxation or romantic solitude. I ironically refer to the temptation to escape from daily routines to a compulsive life and the desire for extemporary, hypothetical deviation as “boredom.”

A suburb refers to the periphery of a metropolis that provides its residents with a sense of freedom in a highly oppressed society. Its identity can be described as “a passageway of emancipation” to the outside sphere of social conventions. Suburban architectural modes reflect such social psychology. Architectural structures built in suburban areas such as pensions, restaurants, and motels display the epitome of a specialized suburban architectural style. As they were built with cheap materials using easy to apply technology and a fusion of the Western Cottage Style and traditional symbols, they are regarded as a type of structure that has derived from consideration of maximum economic gains and the types of pastiches seem to be growing as a vernacular style. This kind of structure exudes a folksy atmosphere and is regarded as a type of amateurish architecture however it can be seen as a spectacle that integrates fragile human psychology with consumerism.

 

“The general public experience uncommon feelings through the devices and atmosphere that architecture arouses. This is a strategy usually adopted by tourist centers, shopping districts, and theme parks which are all spaces for spectacles offering impressive sights.”3)

 

Neo-liberalism is fused with consumerism, providing us with architectural spectacles. Such spectacles contain lofty beliefs and secular honor while repeating imitation and appropriation by vernaculars and amateurs. Contemporary architecture that consumes art transforms architecture into entertainment. They have to be seen as a realization of an imaginary world transcending time and space. A pastiche of the suburban type appropriates a massive spectacle. Pocheon, Gyeonggi (2014) is a miniature version of the spectacle of an ice festival. People transmit their current state in real time with digital shots. I wonder whether they made a foray into moving over their place within their social network. It doesn’t matter whether their trick was successful or not. The suburban type inspired by suburban architecture and commercialism cannot be interpreted with postmodern pluralism.

Suburbanization of the Outside of Meaning

 

Vernacular is a discriminative term. This term refers not only to a region’s local, intrinsic language or architecture peculiar to this region but also to local color and dialects. These connotations may give us a glimpse at the fact that an architectural style can be judged not only by its modeling quality but also by its social grade. That is, suburban buildings are symbolized as a suburban type by their stylistic similarity and pastiche character. The urban aspects Kim has captured appear theatrical and overstated. Hwayang-dong, Seoul (2014) seems to feature a practice area for driver's education. This is a place faithful to its own function rather than advocating any authority or value. Interestingly, its garden is filled with figures of Buddha, animal statues, and stone pagodas. This scene may well be a reflection of his personal preference but this field seems to be a copycat of a sculpture park. These statues should be in a temple but they show a situation in which the signifiers and the signified are separated amid a shattered religious context. A society in the 21st century undergoes change into the one where producers and consumers as well as artists and viewers become one. Statues at a practice field for driving license in Hwayang-dong, Seoul are symbols displaying Korea’s long-held cultural vestiges, but intimate that vacant symbols devoid of meaning take up a position.

 

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3) Choi Sun-seop, Oh Jun-geol, “A Study on ‘Spectacles in Architecture’ in the Suburban Areas of Seoul,” The Architectural Institute of Korea Collection of Papers 29 (5), May 2013, p.151.

 

As a post-colonial cultural discourse, hybridism refers to a narrative on a hybrid experience through which one’s cultural identity is blended with alien elements with time after one who came from a colony in the Caribbean regions emigrated to the First Country world. That is, one’s cultural identity has to be seen as a mixture of various factors and experiences.

 

Kim’s photographs take note of alien, overstated aspects of Korean society brought up by cultural, social phenomena such as the birth of suburbs and leisure activities. Upon a closer examination a mix of heterogeneous signifiers in his photos displays a twofold psychological state. If so, can a pastiche landscape be considered a new cultural identity confronting the Western mainstream culture that Homi Bhaba has advocated? Bhaba sees culture as something composed of differences and a field where a swap of such diverse differences takes place. That is, culture assumes it cannot be unified with just one single principle or style. Hybridism derives from a Western negotiation representing a new style that abandons culture and tradition based on the phenomena of solid modernism and its relevant theories. It was considered disturbing to conventionalized cultural identity rather than a combination of the old and the new as well as the mainstream and the non-mainstream. In contrast, Kim’s photographs featuring pastiche landscapes remind viewers that the reality of sub-subjects that drop out of the race for success are specialized as suburban typology rather than constructing any significant sub-cultural identity that disturbs established solid cultural order.

 

What does the city tell us? The aspects of a city we consume are largely divided into two factors. One is a manifestation of future-oriented values through vertically soaring architectural spectacles and the other is the lives of varying form hidden behind urban spectacles and those residing there. In the era of neoliberalism each individual unveils their view and taste but this diversity cannot be said to represent freedom and democracy. Images and texts exchanged in real time through a social network create a forum for very autonomous communication between individuals. However, no one would dare to assert that there has been a new democratic media platform and it has helped to attain ideal values. That is why the possibility of mutual communication using either individual or public media has provided the potential to escape immense power and everything produced and consumed has become spectacles. In other words, an individual becomes both a producer and a consumer. We all can be the subjects of production and consumption, but this means we also become wonderful viewers of the media, be it positive or negative.

 

By Jung Hyun, Art Critic & Inha University Professor