An Itinerant’s Record: A Trajectory of Documentary

Young Min Moon (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

GoEun Museum of Photography is pleased to announce the midcareer retrospective exhibition of photographer Area Park. The exhibition spans the past twenty years of his oeuvre, featuring his major series of works. Area Park strives to overcome the very limitations and paradoxes inherent in the practice of documentary photography, and as such, his work may be seen as a metaphor for a trajectory of documentary that probes the fundamental questions of photography.

In his early work Area Park confronted the rapidly shifting social realities of South Korea after the demise of military regimes. 386 Generation captured the painful moments of social struggles waged by student and labor movements. People in Seoul documented the exhausting conditions of everyday life of the working class and the realities of forsaken commoners who have sacrificed their lives for their nation.

Adopting color photography for the Arbeit series, Area Park grapples with the violence of neoliberalism and those exploited in its system. It is noteworthy that the artist discloses the names and their daily earnings in the title of each image. Probing the present social problems, Park adopts a panoramic format for the first time, rather than framing his subjects in dramatic manners as one would find in typical documentary photography. Such was Park’s idiosyncratic attempt at overcoming the limitation of documentary photography, whose status has severely dwindled after its supposed ‘neutrality’ or ‘objectivity’ have been seriously challenged.

Also presented in panoramic mode, Park juxtaposes sets of two different images for the series Boys in the City. Constructing narratives in such manner was another way to expand the possibilities of documentary practice. The series includes images of vulnerable teenagers and young adolescents who dream their dreams but are nevertheless subject to harsh realities, and are surrounded by material and economic social infrastructures that they cannot seem to withstand. Using a large format camera for the series The Game, Park explores the enduring legacies of the Cold War in terms of physical, ideological, and psychological traumas. It is noteworthy that Park boldly presents what may appear to be journalistic photography in large-scale work that measures some two-meters wide.

After moving to Japan Area Park focused on the fundamental elements and condition of photography. For the Hidamari series Park demonstrates that it is possible to make photographs with minimum amount of light. The series is an embodiment of his modest desire to make beautiful images using the most direct and conventional elements, namely, light, space, and duration, without resorting to now rampant digital imaging processes.

In the aftermath of tsunami in Eastern Japan in March 2011, Area Park chose not to join the competitive news media photographers. Instead, he allowed himself passage of time and critical distance in order to represent the ruins of the catastrophe. Way of Photography includes both documentations made in such manner as well as images of his willful attempts at making interventions of his personal visions into the site.

An Itinerant’s Record represents found objects in Fukushima and Miyagi prefecture after the tsunami, as well as those that the artist obtained at flea markets in Tokyo. The images of the disparate objects are unified in terms of ontological reflection on things that have survived the brutal force of nature, or those chosen after abandonment. The artist’s sympathy towards such objects are a metaphor for dysfunctional bodies and deaths, and their memories, as well as poetic documentation of the artist’s personal biographical journey as he recognizes the materiality of flesh that is left behind after death.

The exhibition title An Itinerant’s Record may locate the artist at his hometown Busan, looking back at his journeys throughout South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam over the past two decades. But more significantly, it represents the artist’s sustained effort to strike a balance in documentary practice. Vehicles like a tricycle or wooden horse may appear to be personified, hence exuding certain sentimentality. However, the underlying leitmotif of his work is the persistent philosophical and fundamental inquiries into the nature of photography and the act of documentation. The exhibition title is thus a metaphor for his physical relocations, mental precariousness, and formal experimentations to situate the inquiries into documentary photography. In the end, Area Park’s documentary evolved from one that functioned as an immediate evidence of the event and site to a conventional form in which historical moments and aesthetic moments are fused into one, and finally to a kind of ahistorical moments that refuse specific historical meaning. In short, Area Park seems to be traversing these three different tendencies in documentary photography. In this regard, his work is a means to control the balance between exploration of possibilities in documentary and its paradoxes, and as such, it represents a documentary of his movements and journeys as much as a trajectory of documentary.