Han Sungpil's photographs make it difficult to distinguish what is real from what is fake. His intention to reveal gap between represenration and reality is maximized by the elaborate use of light. Han takes photographs that make the border between these two realms extremely vague.
Back in the mid-20th century, media critic Marshall McLuhan was describing photography as a "cool" medium, while Roland Barthes was focusing on the unintended "Punktum" captured in the frame. The main reason for this is the documentary nature of photography. They believed the photograph to be capable of telling the truthin every event and situation! But Baudelaire, who viewed the birth of the medium from the vantage point of of 19th century, raised the alarm over what he described as an industry spy in the house of art. As though to fulfill this prophecy, the technology developed by leaps and bounds in the name of industry efficiency, before eventually arriving at a relationship of perfect complicity with image manipulation: Photoshop. The 21st century digital photograph harbors the potential for collusion with the virtual from the moment it is taken. In spite of all this, reality, as classical theorists like Barthes have believed, will always intrude as long as photography is based in the object. This explains how the medium gains the authority to approximate art in its classical conception.
In addition to the development of different media, another issue in recent years has been the debate over AR(augmented reality). The dictionary definition of this term is "the use of information to add certain information to a real space, or a space in reality to which information has been added (i.e., 'augmented')." If virtual reality was predicated on a discontinuity with actual reality, Augmented Reality means supplementing the real with the virtual. Today, we see different industries experimenting with the development of media like the smartphone-esque "wearable computer." But efforts to supplement the real world with a virtual one go back much farther than that. As we all know, reality is not simply what meets the eye.
back much farther than that. As we all know, reality is not simply what meets the eye. All objects exist within time. We divide time up into yesterday, today, and tomorrow, or the twenty-four hours in a day. These divisions all appear very static to us, but they are an important means of graphing, in the most dynamic of ways, just how we move about within time. Within this dynamic graph, there is a constant mixing and merging of past, present, and future. Today, for example, is tomorrow's yesterday. Language demands that we specify tense; it does not permit this kind of temporal mixing. But images are a different story: we can use them to depict this mixture. Space is time's body, something concrete in which invisible time is given flesh. The present, being the transition point between past and future, occupies this very space in reality. Just as time mixes, so too are the spaces of reality characterized by a blend of the real and virtual, with an endless transition between the two. Han Sung-pil latches onto the traces of this. His medium, if it must be categorized, is the photograph, which is capable of capturing the truth in a way that does not betray Barthes' trust.
Han's work can be divided into two main strands: pictures of large trompe-l'oeil murals, and his Façade series, in which he captures fences that let us see into the restoration and reconstruction of symbolic buildings in the world's cities and countries. The murals, most of which he encountered on his European travels, are not simply about bringing chaos to the spaces of reality. Some of the pictures do speak to the functions of a building, but others conjure up disorder in the image of a residential zone.
One example is Secret Tale, which features two buildings where totally different classes of people reside. On the beautiful veranda of the building on the left, we see a painter, decked out in fashionable late 19th century regalia, as he looks down on the street below, his face a mask of arrogance. In the window of the building's garret apartment, we find an astronomer in 17th century dress, holding a telescope. Meanwhile, in an unprepossessing building to the side, a middle-aged woman in modern clothes is tending to the flower on her windowsill. The image presents a different landscape from one we are used to, where the rich and the working class live amongst themselves. A closer look, however, reveals that it is not the reality; rather, it is a picture on the side of a building. This is not a wealthy neighborhood, if the laundry hanging between the buildings is any indication, or the humble café in the right corner. Closer still, and we see that the seemingly bulging wall is actually a flat plane. The whole thing is an optical illusion, one that demonstrates a solid understanding of perspective. Like the moment when the "walk" and "don't walk" signs are both lit up at once, this one scene has the virtual coexisting with the real to form a single slice of life.
Han's photographs make it even more impossible to distinguish the real from the virtual. His attempts to reveal the gulf between the two reach their zenith with his subtle use of light. In order to make the boundary between virtual and actual even more indistinct, he chooses a particularly exquisite time for shooting: at the so-called "magic hour," he works under conditions of daybreak and twilight, when a mysterious blue right holds sway. It is a brief period during which the light changes every five to ten minutes, so successfully capturing it requires him to stay and work in a city for days at a time.
The series was inspired by a glimpse of the restoration of St. Paul's Cathedral in the winter of 2004. A fence had been thrown up for the effort, and the image on it showed the original building from the past. The present-day building is the real thing, but, being under construction, is not the original. Ironically, the image on the fence is both past and future, explaining what is by saying what it will be. In other words, say, the future, as past, explains and extends the present. The virtual image augments the reality. Han Sung-pil is showing reality itself, where the accretion of relationships between virtual and actual, and between original and image, amplifies meaning through their intermixture. More recently, the artist has been showing the restoration of Korean cultural properties. The aesthetic elements of the imagery are even stronger in these works. Shadow, which shows the restoration of Gameun Temple Site, renders a characteristically Korean sense of emotion with its placid tones. Restoration is already under way on one of a pair of pagodas, and the image of it enclosed in a fence is a masterwork, conveying a dramatic contrast between virtual and real. Another work shows Seoul's Myeongdong Cathedral under restoration; Han Sung-pil captures the scene in a way that amplifies the meaning through a threefold repetition of vertical lines, including N Seoul Tower as seen in the distance from the cathedral's statue of the Madonna. He achieves aesthetic completeness through a mixture of the real and virtual.
Han explains this situation with reference to a passage in Zhuangzi's Leveling of Things: "Is the me at this moment the real me, or did a butterfly become me in its dream? Is the me now my true self? Or did the butterfly transform into me?" His work is both a photographic discovery of the idea behind the film The Matrixin a vast cyberworld, the reality we live in may in fact be one great illusionas a well as record of reality augmented with a more powerful sense of presence through its combination with the virtual. More than this, Han's work reinforces the butterfly's dream, the augmented reality scenario, by impinging more actively on the reality. In Tandem Sequence and Fly High into the Blue Sky, we see his work used as an actual fence. In both cases, the viewer's distinction between virtual and real is confounded further the photographs are taken so that the lines of the fence image and the actual building correspond precisely. As the virtual images become fences themselves, and as virtual/actual and art/life are more actively intermingled, reality itself becomes enriched.
The gate of Namdaemun was destroyed in a senseless act of arson, but it made a reappearance as a construction fence pieced together from hundreds of individual photographs. A fake capturing the real, this fence links past and future while concealing an absent present, putting history inside the frame. It is also record of a tragic history: the crime of arson, and the fire that destroyed one of Korea's major pieces of cultural heritage. The artist's trenchant questions continue in this work, coupled now with questions about history itself. As the satirical title (Plastic Surgery) suggests, the next Namdaemun will not be the one familiar to Koreans. No longer will it be an original. It will be a copy, a reproduction of the Namdaemun image. But now that the original has been destroyed, it is the copy that will take its place as a pivotal presence in a new history.
If reality is a mixture of the virtual and the real, then what is history? History is fluid, not fixed. It is in the former East Berlin that Han Sung-pil located the moment when a historical image was cleared away shown to us in two video works, Amor Fati and Workers of All Countries, Unite!, which show the relocation of statues of Marx and Engels, two figures who altered a century of human history. To the tune of Beethoven's Fifth and Frank Sinatra's "My Way," the expressionless statues are removed from their original position, losing their erstwhile historical meaning in the process.
In addition to these video works, Han also created reproductions of the Berlin statues, which he housed in a pristine white gallery. Existing in a kind of zero-gravity space without anything to indicate direction, they exhibit a greater sense of isolation, of being robbed of all context. Where they once harbored rich significance as historical presences, the statues are now "whited out" in a setting without coordinates. Having lost their original meaning, the images of Marx and Engels are now archival materials to show that we are living a time of uncertainty, without any sense of direction. A part of history (the accretion of time) has lost its reality and become imagery (the virtual) recalling the past. If these works capture the moment when history becomes virtual, then Han's recent photographs of the Statue of Liberty bear witness to the moment when the fake becomes historical. In 2001, the United States issued a postage stamp bearing the statue's image. It turned out that the image was not of the original statue off Manhattan Island, but of a knockoff in Las Vegas. In his Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard defined the "hyperreal" as the phenomenon in which an image without an original becomes a new form of realityin other words, the simulacrum becomes the newly real, influencing the reality and substituting for the actually existing. A technological nihilist, Baudrillard said that as media indiscriminately produce and disseminate fantasies of desire under the influence of capital, they hasten the day when the image dominates.
Han Sung-pil found evidence for this phenomenon in assorted faux Statues of Liberty in Korea's so-called "love motels." In a consumer society where we buy into symbolic value that is reduced to surfaces, a great ideological icon of the French Revolution, or an icon of power that was intended to affirm French influence in the newly rising United States, now appears in the baffling context of a modern motel. One has to question the meaning of "freedom" in Korea today when it has been estranged from the great humanistic values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and now adorns cheap lodging. "Suppose the real Statue of Liberty is destroyed in a global catastrophe, the kind you see in disaster movies," the artist says. "As the centuries go by, won't it be a Statue of Liberty from a Korean motel rooftop that gets put in a museum as a priceless reproduction offering a sense of the now-lost original?" There is no reason, he argues, that his own photograph might not serve some archival purpose when that time comes. As long as it continues tracking an ever-changing reality, Han's camera remains faithful to the classic concept of the photograph as documentary record. And that fidelity shows us a reality where the virtual intersects constantly with the actual, where history becomes imaginary and imaginary becomes history.
Lee received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Seoul National University’s Department of German Language & Literature. She received another master’s degree dealing with Kazimir Malevich at the Russian State University for the Humanities’ Division of History of Art. She runs the programs “Between Russian Art and Literature” and “A Thematic History of Western Art” and teaches at Dongduk Women’s University, Yonsei University, and Chung-Ang University. She regularly contributes to columns such as “Lee Jin-sook and Artists of Our Era” (Monthly Top Class) and “Lee Jin-sook’s In-depth Reading of Art Books” (Joongang SUNDAY). She is the author of the Russian Art History (Minumin, 2007), an introduction to Russian painters, The Big Bang of Art (Minumsa, 2010), a criticism on young Korean artists, and a collection of art essays called Depending on Beauty.