made you look -  interview with Hyun-jin kwak

text: Sookyoung Huh, publicerat 2017-01-13

How did you start the series Girls In Uniform?

Girls In Uniform (since 2003) is an ongoing project that includes a series of photographs, sculptures, installations, and some video works are also in the plan. The project began when I entered the Master Program at Konstfack. I had no idea that the project will get this big. I thought I might need three years for it and now it has been more than a decade since i started. The social dynamics between individuals and their environment arise and appear in quite different shapes in each society. My project is based on questioning the nature of these social relationships – between individual and mass, and how these are reflected in the environment. I am interested in sociological aspects of being and being formed as an individual, and the power of identity.

The ‘Uniform’ can be signified and read differently depending on the society. One cannot deny the element of formality in uniforms and it’s symbolic value as a binding factor.  It is interesting to see a sort of migration throughout your series, moving back and forth between Sweden and Korea (mostly) and then extending to Italy and now, Denmark. How do these physical border crossovers apply to your work and process? Does it all become a verification of the concept or do you see distinct similarities between the societies?

As relations between the individual, the uniform (second identity) and society are not an exclusively Korean, or Asian, concern, the work acquired a new and expanded geographic and psychological meaning in its later phases. Even though school uniforms exist all over the world, and are actually more of a rule than an exception, their role within my project has become more and more metaphorical. This later part of Girls In Uniform also reflects my own biography, as an artist based in Sweden to explore and investigate environments in Europe. I recently realized that I am a person who does not have strong sense of belonging – that might clarify one or two things in my work, as projecting a sort of displacement, in relation to person/people and their surroundings.

Please tell us more about your recent series. The most recent series of Girls In Uniform - Study of Landscape and Beauty, the models dip their heads backwards into the cold mountain valley streams. It seems like the directing and staging of the model is a significant part of your “script” or narrative. How much do you plan before each shoot and also how do you find the models?

In the beginning of the project there was a clear script for each piece. But an image always comes to me first in detail, then I think more about the image, the meaning of it, then I build a story around it. In this series, I went back to my roots, kind of, I used some of the same models from the first series, now they are in their mid 30’s. The last time I worked with them was 2004, it was fun to reunite again. It was also difficult as the nature of their pose was unnatural and physically demanding, lying down and holding onto a slippery rock while submerging their heads into water backwards – is really challenging since a photo shoot usually goes on for 3-5 hours. About an hour into the shooting, the models gave in to the situation and performed almost as if they became the characters that they were portraying.

The motives and format of this series refer to classical oriental ink paintings, especially landscapes and portraits of immortals and beauty and women. During the process and preparation of this series I was thinking of and reflecting on how nature, the supernatural, the beauty, and women are described in these traditions of painting/philosophy. One impression that I became aware of was the composition choices regarding gender. Opposed to how men are depicted in this tradition – as active subjects involved in refined activities, performing art, poetry and meditation – women are traditionally rather depicted as passive, almost merging with and becoming part of the landscape. Instead of being active subjects, they are objects of desire and for the projection of ideas about beauty and sensuality.

The visual ingredients are orchestrated in the final stage, but how does the story line develop? Does it form early on in your working process and develop layers until completion?

In most of the cases, I’d say, it is very much thought out thoroughly in terms of realization, not only visually but including all aspects, so at the shooting all the possible controllable elements are double, triple checked and carried through. Of course there is a possibility that unexpected surprises can occur and one has to be ready to deal with it – such as weather or other kinds of unpredictable/accidental elements. There is nothing you can do about it, so you better bring it and work with it. A few times, these disappointments even turned out to be in favor for the final result.


Tell us about your ongoing/future project in Denmark.

One of my ongoing projects is a site specific work in Aarhus, Denmark. I was contacted by Galleri Image in the Spring of 2015 for a possible cooperation for one of the Cultural Municipality Programs in the European Culture Capital 2017, and since then I had two residency periods for research and production. The result will be shown there in October. FRESH EYES - International Artists Rethink Aarhus is an art project focused on photography, literature and urban space.

The photographic series in Aarhus have two points of departure in the city, the state archive and mental asylum. Both places are closing down and/or moving their activities to elsewhere. This near-to-obsolete-status may reflect a shift in the history of the city – pointing at a situation in history when practice, organization and functionality of a space is outdated. The two spaces also reflect – in very different manners – an attempt to create order in – or control – a threatening chaos. I believe that between these spaces there is a two-way transport of meaning, as well as room for interpretations and narratives to be created by the viewer.

As a space (also as mental space) between these two places I will work with a sequence of staged photographs in one of the parks of the University campus area. In these images the index cardsfrom the state archive are transformed to origami cranes and used as props. For this sequence I will reconnect to my ongoing series Girls In Uniform. The models are dressed in Korean high school uniforms.

Since Girls In Uniform, over the years, has developed into studies of elements in settings where the historical and architectural aspects are of considerable importance it has also become a possible reflective tool, to look at, and investigate foreign places. The uniformed girl somehow came to represent my own foreign perspective and placement and displacement in different geographies of the West, functioning as a Fresh Eye.

Looking forward to see the new works in this series, in yet another Scandinavian social context. What are your upcoming exhibition plans this year? 

During the Venice Biennial I will take part in a collateral show called ”Personal Structures” at Palazzo Bembo. I will participate with works from my project "The Island –  A Case Study of a Collectors Mind" from 2012. In this project I depicted a worn down palace in the center of Reggio Emilia. It’s a large private palace from the 16th century that has gradually decayed, despite some vain attempts by the owner to repair parts of the building. The once grand rooms have over the years harbored a social club and a refugee camp, and traces of the activities can be found as archeological remains. The owner of the house is a collector of all imaginable things and has long ago lost the capacity to keep any order or hierarchy among all the objects. I was fascinated by this space – as well as the physical location and appearance of the space within the city structure – as a psychological space. In the Autumn, the ongoing collaboration with Aarhus, FRESH EYES – international artists rethink Aarhus will result in a large group show and an art book, under the program of European Culture Capital 2017.



Sookyoung Huh som intervjuat Hyun-Jin Kwak är konstnär, curator och skribent.