Photo exhibit attempts to ‘reappropriate’ history

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Photo exhibit attempts to ‘reappropriate’ history

“Age and People,” an exhibition put together by the National Photography Association of Korea, is a living testimony by local documentary photographers and photojournalists who attempt to “reappropriate” Korean history.
The photographs, mostly in black and white, document people and incidents that have occurred over the last half century, with one of the main subjects being the U.S. military presence in Korea.
An image on loan from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration shows a Japanese representative signing an instrument of surrender at the Korean headquarters of the Japanese Army in 1945. A little girl selling chocolates and candies on the Seoul streets that were purchased from military rations is a poignant image of Korea after the war only 50 years back.
Turning to the 1960s, Kim Young-soo creates a photomontage out of photographs of interracial couples and commemorative shots of U.S. soldiers that were left behind in the photo studios near the U.S. base in Seoul. Then, as it turns to the 1970s and ’80s, often dubbed the period of transition, the show focuses on the decadent lifestyle of the younger generation, described in the ehhibit as the consequence of an oppressive society.
When it comes to depicting the U.S. military presence here, the angle is clearly critical, as seen in a photo by Lee Hyeong-rok in 1957 in which an American soldier in uniform delinquently leans against a tree, smoking a cigar at a zoo in Seoul. A picture of a military base in Gunsan taken in the late ’90s shows a Caucasian identified as an American soldier cuddling a group of Filipino barmaids.
The show brings up the issue of race and identity by presenting a series of photographs by Ju Myeong-deok depicting biracial children from 1965 who have been left at Holt’s orphanage, now known as the Holt Children’s Services.
While there is an undeniable truth to the harsh reality the country has lived through in the past 50 years, some of the images from the exhibition tend to stress a “victim mentality” that anyone who has lived in Korea long enough has been tirelessly reminded of.
Maybe it’s the nature of black and white photography, which deliberately makes the content of the image look more nostalgic. Perhaps it’s another issue to consider when designing a show of historical archives: whether to set its agenda as a romantic reflection of the past or a critical debate on historical reappropriation.
In the case of “Age and People,” which was organized to commemorate the 60th year of Korea’s liberation from Japan, it wasn’t clear whether the show was meant to trigger a historical remembrance or to reminisce about Korea’s past. Maybe the curator stood somewhere in between, which is often the case for shows targeting a wide-ranging audience.

by Park Soo-mee

“Age and People” runs through May 8 at Marronier Art Center in Daehangno. The museum is a few minutes’ walk from Hyehwa subway station, line No. 4, exit 2; hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily except Mondays. For information, call 02-760-4500.
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