“Asian soft-porn images all have something in common – the gaze of the performer and how they perform in front of the camera, assuming really iconic poses,” says Ina Jang, a South Korean artist based in New York. “Presumably, they are instructed by someone to behave that way.”
Jang’s exhibition Utopia, which recently went on show at the Swiss Musée des beaux-arts du Locle, is inspired by such images. Delving into the depiction of women in Korea and Japan, Jang found a striking stereotype in the so-called gravure (or glamour) magazines popular there – women who are shown as girlish and submissive, sporting pink cheeks and a school uniform “even if they were older than 25”.
“I remembered seeing gravure magazines – essentially watered-down versions of Playboy – in every convenience store in Tokyo,” says Jang. “All the females in them are portrayed as passive and helpless, sometimes playful.
“When I started researching the pornographic visuals, it hit me that there’s a clear formula in the way women are portrayed in them,” she continues. “I printed out some of the images, cut out the body figures and photographed them. From there, I kept making images with similar positions.”
Jang is a well-established fine art photographer, whose images often focus in on women and use an instantly recognisable, delicate colour palette. For this series she used sickly-sweet acid tones – recognisably hers but also a reaction to the magazines, which use soft, feminine tones. “When I was looking at pornographic images online I imagined the series should be shot in a minimalist way, but I wanted the strong colours,” she says.
It sounds like a rarified world, but for Jang it also suggests a much darker undercurrent. When she started working on the series a story broke in Korea about a man who had been waiting to commit a random murder in a public toilet in the Gangnam district of Seoul; “since a lot of places in Korea have restrooms that are for both genders, it means that this guy had been waiting in the stall for a woman to come in so he could kill her,” she explains.
Working on this topic took its toll, so after finishing the “exhausting” research for Utopia, Jang decided to work on another, “more playful and intuitive project” on the side – eventually creating a new series she named Untitled/ Titled. “I remembered the leftover cut-out papers from my previous shots, than I just started painting colours on chipboards and used cut-outs to created portraits,” she says. “Or landscape, depending on how you see it.”
And, revealing the work ethic that’s helped ensure she’s already represented by three galleries, just seven years after graduating from the School of the Visual Arts in New York, Jang is also working on another series, for another solo show scheduled to be shown next May in Tokyo. It’s “a completely different body of work”, she says, titled Mrs Dalloway after the Virginia Woolf novel, and inspired by paintings by Old Masters that are on show in NYC’s MoMA and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.