A Photographic Study of the Residence and Cities in the 21st Century

 It has been already five years since “Apartment Republic”, written by Valerie Gelezeau, was published. The book received much attention by a sharp analysis of Korean apartments by a French geographer. Since then, a number of critical studies on the issue of the apartments and real estates in Korea have been produced by Korean theorists, but few of them received as much favorable response as Gelezeau’s. The main reasons must have been the objective viewpoint of a foreigner and the characteristics of Korea brought into relief in comparison with the situation of Europe. According to her, while an apartment complex in France is a symbol of ‘alienation from the city’ as a residence of poor people located outside of the city being classified as a problematic region, an apartment complex in Seoul is located in downtown and is a symbol of ‘assimilation with the city’ which most people wish to live in due to its convenience, functionality and high property values…
 In a similar context, Chanmin Park, a photographer, studied the apartments in Korea and the multi-unit dwellings in Scotland through the two series of “intimate city” (2007-2009) and “Blocks” (2010-2011). In the process, the eyes for comparison and contrast were developed in a natural way, and the photographer could build a unique viewpoint about residence and the general dwelling. Chanmin Park was born in 1970 in Seoul and spent his childhood in Dongbu Ichon-dong, an area which led the initial building of high-class apartment complexes in Korea. So he was the first generation that accepted apartment as a typical type of residence. … His first photo series of “intimate city” are black-and-white photographs of Mapo-gu, Yangcheon-gu, Yongsan-gu and other areas in Seoul, and the dense apartment complexes in Incheon, Busan, etc. Due to the geographical features of Korea where a mountain is located in downtown, the city shot by the camera of the photographer was born as a landscape photography of the 21C Korea in which layers of the distant view of the ‘real mountain’ and the close-range view of the ‘artificial mountain’ – the apartment complex – coexist in one photo in a clear black and white tone…
 Pursuing such peculiarity of Korean apartments as the main type of residence, the photographer went to Scotland belatedly for study and began to expand his observation and study with the multi-unit dwellings there… The boom in the construction of multi-unit dwellings in Europe preceded Korea by about 20 years. The multi-unit dwellings in Europe attracted interest in the beginning with continuous inflow of population into the cities during the 1950s and the 1960s. But after then, with the poor management of large buildings and the problem of obsolescence, many people of the middle and upper class moved to independent houses and the multi-unit dwellings were avoided gradually. On the other hand, apartment complexes in Korea started as a dwelling for the ordinary people, and their image was not so good until the early 1970s. But after then, they aimed to be high-grade dwellings, and large construction companies created brand apartments to have favorable response by the middle class and the rich as well. The main reason for the different pattern will be the demand and supply of a large scale of apartment complexes in Korea due to the population density of Korea – and especially in Seoul – uncomparable with Europe. But besides that, it might be that the unconditional desire of Koreans for a ‘big house’ and a ‘new house’ and the stereotype of considering a house for possession, not for living, keeps such a continuing boom in apartment. We cannot avoid the problem of redevelopment and reconstruction due to the poor management and obsolescence of large buildings, either. But the desire for a big and new house makes us become dull about breaking down small and old houses to rebuild them. In fact, such indiscriminate redevelopment can lead to irrevocable serious problems such as the destruction of nature, the gap between the rich and poor in cities, alienation and isolation of the poor class, bubble in the price of real estates and economic decline. Realization such general problems and realities of Korea, the photographer indirectly suggests that we reflect on our situation referring to the experience of Europe which suffered the obsolescence of multi-unit dwellings and the problem of redevelopment before us. This is why the photographer paid attention to the complex of multi-unit dwellings located on the outskirt of the city in Scotland where there are ultra-luxurious golf courses in the heaven-bless land which view the North Sea and castles and mansions are scattered throughout the countries.
 In fact, the buildings appearing in “Blocks” seem somewhat strange. At a glance they look like large buildings located on the outskirt of a city, but it is impossible to figure out the exact time or place of the construction of the unidentified buildings. Rather than a space for people’s residence, they look like a large warehouse or even a certain style of monument. Or they look like a new type of buildings to be built in the future, rather than modern buildings in which people live in now. Why is it that the photos that took the contemporary multi-unit dwellings in Scotland give such a unique feeling? It is because there are no windows on the buildings. Just like he erased the brand names of the apartments in his previous work of “intimate city”, the photographer erased windows of the buildings in “Blocks”. Only by erasing the windows, these buildings suggest alienation and isolation being transformed into anonymous concrete blocks beyond space and time.
 Let’s suppose there is a house without windows. No lights or wind will be allowed to come into the house and the people won’t be able to look outside. In other words, people will not be able to live in a house without windows. Of course it will be possible to take in light and air artificially and let people look outside with a special method, but the house cannot be a good house in many aspects. However, the absence of windows in a house where people live does not mean the physical inconvenience due to the lack of the functions of lighting, ventilation and view. It means a house without ‘life’. Before erasing the windows, there were the traces of people’s lives together with the windows in the original photos of “Blocks”… Thus, if we rule out the possibility of artificial devices, a building without windows is not a space for dwelling of people, and a depersonalized space which excluded the taste and lifestyle of the people living inside the space for residence. The reason why Chanmin Park erased windows in “Blocks” is this: He intended to show the paradox of the identity of multi-unit dwellings or apartment which is the same as the standardized product under the manufacturing system of capitalism – a ‘block’ which blocks the relationship among people being just like a warehouse or a container box. And, furthermore, he shows with the extremity of a ‘house without windows’ the situation in Korea where unified residential style constructed with the same plan are generalized and the value of the property of real assets are pursued, not considering a house only as a space for residence.
 Many artists have worked with the subject matter of the residential space, buildings and cities. Especially, in the area of photography, in relation to the concerned topic, numerous photographers pursued their own interest and experiments focusing on the typological architectural photographs of Germany and the neutral landscape photos of the U.S. The photographs of Chanmin Park might be located somewhere between them. However, he solidifies his identity as a photographer from Korea who lives in the 2000s. His characteristics are shown clearly by his activities before and after taking photographs. Before taking photographers, he does an in-depth research through the Internet and with books. When he studied in Scotland, he was not familiar with the area. Instead of walking around the city endlessly like a flaneur in the 19C century, he planned for detailed scenes in advance by using the Internet maps and road view obtained from Google Earth, etc. and then began shooting. After shooting, he wrote down the numbers of the latitude and longitude on each picture as a subtitle. And, rather than entering the dark room to develop the photos with chemicals, he put the high-resolution data of the photos into the computer and make natural images by erasing the necessary parts in the photos with a digital technology before printing them out. Like this, he is a 21C-type photographer adjusting well to the digital environment. However, his intention or attitude is not different from that of the impressionist painters in Paris during the 19th century who witnessed the generation of the modern society and led change as a flaneur, or Edward Hopper who realistically dug into the solitude and despair of the U.S. cities between the two world wars. In an era of globalization and neo-liberalism in which the interest of an artist is not restricted to the problem his/her motherland, Chan-min Park began with the residential reality and urban problems and intends to present various realities with artistic results with a broader viewpoint through more comparisons and contrasts within the scope of his ability. Anybody may do it, but not all will be able to do so. A series of his works offers a meaningful consideration that photography can do about the residence and city in the 21st century.
Hye-young Shin | Art Criticism