In January, artist Kim Shinwook (b.1982) won the 12th Ilwoo Photography Award in the exhibition category. As part of the award, his solo exhibition Mentality of Disconnection is being held at Ilwoo Space on the 1st floor of Korean Air’s Seosomun office building from August 17 through October 5, 2022. More than forty photography works are featured in the exhibition.
Kim’s photography works were recognized for unraveling various stories from an ethnographic or cultural perspective. He mainly works with photography but occasionally includes archival materials as he reaches out to the subjects’ surroundings, such as people, landscapes, history, and legends, to point out the main theme. Tracing these surroundings is somewhat similar to puzzles that make up one big picture.
For instance, Night Spotting (2015-2018), one of his earliest series, began when Kim provided airport pick-up services at Heathrow Airport for a living while studying in London. This series touches on the marginalized stories of the changing lives of people, landscapes, and the judicial system caused by the existence of the airport.
In Search of Nessie (2018-2020), exhibited at the Amado Art Space/Lab after winning the 2020 Amado Photography Award, started from the artist’s interest in the Loch Ness monster photographed in Scotland in 1934. The artist captured various stories and landscapes from people who believe in the existence of Nessie the monster through photos of articles, Nessie-inspired merchandise, and letters.
In Ilwoo Space’s exhibition, the story of disconnection unfolds through a group of works in Mentality of Disconnection (2021-) and Edgeland (2021-).
The Mentality of Disconnection series captures the traces of memories brought about by the division of North and South Korea. This particular history seems to become more and more distant as it goes down to the next generation, but its memory continues to leave marks in the collective consciousness and unconsciousness of Koreans. This is not just about the physical disconnection that makes South Koreans traveling to the North or the other way impossible but engraved in the collective memory of today’s Koreans.
Kim visualizes these vestiges through three separate stories; the displaced people of North Korean defectors, the North East Sea Line train route, and the Korean tiger.
As Kim’s grandparents and father originally come from North Korea, the artist has been revealing the issue of division and disconnection through various subject matters. For example, The Marginal Man series traces the life of a North Korean defector living in England by recording the man’s surroundings, letters, and interviews. The artist depicts the life of a defector called Mr. Choi, but rather than focusing on the individual’s life, the artist intends to reveal the essence of loss, alienation, and boundaries by following the emotions of displaced people, foreigners, and the marginalized who do not belong to any other community.
The story of the old Donghae Bukbu Railway captures the railroad that used to connect Yangyang in Gangwondo of South Korea and Wonsan in North Korea, constructed for the purpose of exploiting resources during the Japanese colonial period (1910 – 1945). The original plan was to connect the railroad to Russia and Europe. The tracks and tunnels, constructed on top of the country’s grieving history, are now left as closed remains with bullet marks representing disconnection after the Korean war. Kim captured various memories, landscapes, and surrounding fragments of this particular history in this group of photography works.
The Korean Tigers series traces the story of the tiger, a symbolic animal of Korea, which used to migrate between Siberia and Jindo, Jeollanamdo. As much as it frequently appears in traditional Korean fairy tales, there were a large number of tigers in the country. Yet, Japan’s imperialistic campaigns, such as the ‘wild animal rescue project,’ particularly hunted down large animals like tigers and resulted in the animal’s subsequent extinction. Later, the Korean war shut down the animal’s route to the South. The artist traces various aspects of the collective memories of the tiger that remain in Korean emotions and memories through his works.
Edgeland is another group of works that captures the collective memory of rupture. Kim borrows the term ‘edgeland’ from Marion Shoard and Robert Macfarlane’s books, which explains the area between the city and the countryside as a space where traces of human beings are left but with wild nature outgrowing out of human control.
The works capture the transiting space that exists between the cities and the rural areas in Gyeonggi-do Province in South Korea. The region surrounding South Korea’s capital city, Seoul, Gyeonggi-do is a place with complex big city areas and rustic countryside, but it is also a region that borders North Korea, where its west coast is installed with guard posts and bob wires.
To the artist, the Gyeonggi region is where connection and disconnection, development and preservation, and physical and emotional division are intermixed. In this series of works, Kim took photos of areas including Imjingang River and Chopyeong Island in Paju, or the area where the Gyeongui Railroad Line used to be connected to Sinuiju in North Korea, to reflect the vestige of history that resulted in the division of the country.
Kim Shinwook received the 2013 British Institution Awards from the Royal Academy of Art (UK), the 2018 ManifestO Recontres Photographiques de Toulouse (France), the 7th Amado Photography Award (Korea), and the 2022 Ilwoo Photograph Award (Korea). His works are in the permanent collection at the Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts (Japan), the GoEun Museum of Photography (Korea), Oriel College, the University of Oxford (UK), Seoul City Hall (Korea), and many others.