A High School Girl in Wonderland
“Youth is present only when its presence is a problem, or is regarded as a problem”, said Dick Hebdige who was dedicated to the study of youth subculture. This proposition is also true of our society. When the mainstream media treat the ‘online delinquency of teenagers’ such as “wonjo gyoje”, or the practice of getting paid to have sex with older men, hot-rodders, unmarried mothers or Internet chatting, it turns out to be reality.
On the other side, the high school girls in Hein-kuhn Oh’s illustrated book-like images, at first glance, seem to still remain within the boundary drawn by the social hegemony. It looks like that they do not yet go off the rail. So can we reasonably expect that one or two years later, though not right now, we will be able to meet these very girls in hostess bars like so-called “danran jujeom” or “room saloon”? But Hein-kuhn Oh’s answer is No. Rather, his images raise a certain kind of artistic objection to such stereotyped idea found in the mainstream media.
There are primarily two reasons that the girls in his photographs appear to retain obedient attitudes: the one is these girls’ shared desire and the other is the artist’s own framing with the camera. To make their desire come true, that is, to be a star in the mass consumption society, these high school girls who are said to have been selected from acting schools by the artist are queueing up within the institutional line demarcated by the society. But the artist is framing the image of this girls in school uniforms in a such a way that they look quite different from the common ‘well-behaved girls’ while resembling them in some respects.
The school uniform is a kind of apparatus to suppress and control these physically grown-up models politically, socially and culturally. As is generally known, its meaning as a controlling device has been persistently concealed and glossed over in mass culture. For instance, the phenomenal function of this uniform in a TV program entitled “Jaengban Noraebang” which helped launch the singer Lee Hyo-ri into stardom is to mediate happy memories of school days. The singing class in school reenacted here is composed of incarnated memories, a cooperative spirit, physical punishment and so on. And it is the moment when Lee Hyo-ri appears the scene in her sexy clothes and with a brilliant dance that the hidden meaning of school uniform becomes suddenly brought to light. To put it another way in the light of the patriarchal and phallic gaze, the Korean society has in this way always established a high school girl in uniform as the object of sexual desire sometimes in a secret, or other times in a very explicit level. Therefore, the school uniform is the apparatus of sexuality as well as control.
Hein-kuhn Oh’s photographs represent this voyeuristic desire of the Korean society in a more reserved and rather subdued tone. The high school girls interpellated in his photographs are different from other female teenagers encountered in a subway train or a huge shopping mall in Dongdaemun. For, anyway, they are shown confined in a photograph/school uniform. And their desire also makes them keep a modest posture only on this side of the limit of the frame set by the artist. They are quite unlike those provocative and extremely colorful girls of marked individuality we can see in everyday life. If you really wonder where the cultural divide of the Korean society is located, it is enough to think of the fact that the age of “momjjang ajumma”(a slang meaning “a middle-aged woman with good-looking body”) is thirty nine years, who gained enormous popularity among teen netizens for the image of her well-built body on the website. At least among those under 40 years of age, it is definitely teenagers who lead the mass consumption culture centered on body image.
However, the teen models in Hein-kuhn Oh’s photographs seem to be crushed and flat: they are castrated of social heterogeneity and cultural strength peculiar to teenagers witnessed everyday. This is all the more because his photographic technique here eliminates reflection and presents middle tone areas only. His images quickly evade a chain of meanings in the denotative level that they are representing voyeurism and the corresponding desire for self-revelation. Such kind of disparity become more vivid when compared to, for example, Choi Kyung-tae”s pornographic paintings that were hard hit during trying to enter the establishment art world in a rough and inflammatory way a few years ago, or Araki Nobuyoshi’s works on perversion that achieved popular success in a museum.
To approach from other angle, we can also say that Hein-kuhn Oh introduces a new taste for teenagers. Here, this issue of a taste for teenage girls reminds us of Lewis Carroll’s photographs of girls. Lewis Carroll, a writer famous for his Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What A1ice Found There, remained unmarried for life and taught mathematics at Oxford university, while born in a clergyman’s family and even ordained priest. Because he was very fond of pretty girls, he was on friendly terms with his acquaintances’ daughters, telling stories to them and taking pictures of them. Expecially, these pictures are counted as representative of amateur photographs in 1860s. In Carroll’s photographic images, some girls are lying down in their clothes and others are sitting down unclothed on the sofa. His investigation and taste into and for early teenage girls seem to be highly tempered and sublimed in general.
The girls in their teens treated by Hein-kuhn Oh are the late-teenagers in Korea. As was mentioned above, these models are too old physically and culturally to be called just as little girls. Hein-kuhn Oh’s voice heard in these pictures to interpellates the models who are imprisoned in the apparatus of the institution and school uniform as ‘high school girl’ is weakened in both high and low pitches. This is why these school girls give us some sense of lack or absence rather than explicitly stimulate our sexual desire. They produce an impression of being destitute of something substantial and spiritual. Following the term of Barthes’ on the trauma in photography, the artist represents and exhibits ‘something that should be there’ but in a way that, if anything, leaves this sense of deficiency ‘unattended’.
And where is exactly “there”? It may be first inferred as the position of photographic gaze at high school girls. But this explanatory vocabulary ‘high school girl’ also enshrouds social meanings in such a serious degree. The reality itself which governs and controls the sexuality of these social beings who are no longer little girls though not adults is rather invisible in his unattended fashion. Instead, the context of this social reality is ultimately constructed by being removed out of the frame. Or in other words, it is conjured up as a kind of ‘constitutive outside’ as opposed to the identity materialized in the photographs. Even if it emerges within the frame, it exist only out of focus like an apartment building across the river or something like that.
In my opinion, his photographs ask these questions: on what ground do we interpellate them as the high school girl’ at all? Why do they exist in colonies in society only when they wear school uniform? How pitiful are their bodies and desires enclosed in school uniform as a ‘safeguard’ of prohibition and repression?
The answer that I have found so far is as follows: the school uniform is a dual safeguard. By labelling the girls as minority, it protects them from social dangers. Simultaneously, but in fact, it guards also the Koran society which is utterly helpless in the face of their explosive, potentially deviant vitality. Furthermore, we can go so far as to say that this society has been parasitic on their constructed identity by the mainstream media, constantly framing them with comments on the so-called juvenile deviance and so on.
The level and manner that teenagers produce and appropriate image with the digital technology are already far beyond those of the major media. Sometimes they upload the image of eoljjang(a slang meaning “person with a good-looking face”) around them and other times they unmask another eoljjang, that is, disclose his or her before image. They find out the past pictures of present stars that were taken carelessly without making themselves presentable before make-up or even plastic surgery, or before they were grown up or remade by stylists working for an entertainment agency. In addition, these teenagers are playing with image, composing their own and others’ photographs and adding texts like graffiti to them. With due regard to this ‘bivouac’ of image, we can realize that no less than the framing of teenagers by the major media is culturally very parasitic and thus vulnerable in spite of its seemingly powerful moral control.
Unlike the conventional framing of the institutional media, Hein-kuhn Oh negotiates with actual teen high school girls with their real names. In each of his photographs, these teen models are living sprightly. Of course, it is impossible to find this individual and idiosyncratic existence easily and at a first or single glance. But in contrast to his other photographs of older female, most of these teen models expose their whole body before the camera. They exercise their own right of existence through their name tags, shoes, age and proper nouns. Though in a feeble way, the wind and atmosphere blowing gently their hair, and their poses and shadows disclose their existence. They lay bare their maturity that cannot be possibly repressed by school uniforms. They are in existence in these photographs through their necks, arms, legs, some unbalance of the bare feet and, above all, the bruises in the arms and legs and the various skin troubles. These scratches and scabs show how in everyday life they are living and resisting the society which governs and controls them.
Incidentally, even though we consider that they are acting school students, it is still strange that their faces and figures are rather plain compared to the heroes and heroines of the internet images of eoljjang. As a result of artist’s deliberate casting, which I cannot assure, their features are generally a far cry from the typical style of eoljjang image except for two or three girls and their legs are mostly short and thick. Their poses seem to be produced actively with their own deliberations and efforts but are neither alluring and seductive nor cool and cute. Probably, this will be both a result and effect that the artist induced and negotiated rather than because they really are. Nevertheless, it is indeed true that the bodies of these teenagers, the dwelling place of their anxieties and expectations, their discontents and desires, shining through the momentary apertures which cannot have been captured completely.
So our hackneyed idea of the social identity of these high school girl models makes us perplexed to witness their existence as the images that are obscure, flattened, and compressed just as if stuck to the bottom. They are far removed from cheerful eroticism full of boldness, provocation and clamor. In this sense, the artist’s represented images are situated somewhere between the trite fixed ideas framed by the major media and the images used and circulated actually in the internet. As an example, in the work entitled “a floor”, the proportion of their faces placed within a round frame is smaller than usual. Unlike newspapers and graduation albums, Hein-kuhn Oh’s photograph makes the jacket of school uniform occupy more than the half of the round frame.
The Korean teenage female models in his works evoke some sadness, or more exactly, a kind of compassion. The models who, according to the mainstream media, are already deviating or could have surely deviated from social norms put on poses and expressions as much as they like and in their own way, only to be represented very smooth and flat in the aspect of effect just like an old boat now tied to a’ quiet little harbour under the withering afternoon sunlight. An old boat! They are merely of such age as to rush into their twenties! The camera they are staring at takes the place of their uncertain future and present social conditions. Keeping in mind the society’s eyes looking at themselves, they negotiates with this camera.
All things considered, I feel that the photographic images of these models are slightly frozen, covered with a very thin coat of ice, though it may be a strange metaphor. Judging from the mechanic function of capturing a moment peculiar to the still camera, our popular experience of TV and movie cameras, and the way these cameras present and represent teenagers, these images of thin ice are really a taste of entirely unprecedented stage.
Sliding on this thin ice, I am thinking again over the Korean society as the outside which constructed the high school girls in Hein-kuhn Oh’s photographs. This society is still an amateur. It only attempts to build the universally accepted image of teenagers, who move lively and breathe individually. Things are not different in the mainstream media, TV entertainment programs, and films with teenage heroes and teenage audience. It is primarily out of the highly absurd and stereotyped vox populi that these kinds of popular and dominant media make social and cultural utterances about teenagers. At the very opposite side of such worn-out narratives and fantasies, Hein-kuhn Oh is standing. His photographs are commenting on this amateur reality with a hardly audible and obscure voice but, on the contrary, a very clear tone if listened with strained ears. Here the long-standing complex wether the photography is art or not has been already overcome sufficiently.
Ji-suk Baek(art critic/exhibition planner)