“My work is an expression of the idea of the ‘instant culture’ that you can see in the leisure spaces of Seoul,” says South Korean photographer Seunggu Kim, who was one of our Ones to Watch 2019,referencing the intensity of urban living and the clamour of its inhabitants to find pockets for relaxation in a city where there is no time and no space. “The country’s nickname is ‘Dynamic Korea’, the expression that reveals the people’s style of behaviour is ‘pali-pali’ [fast-fast], and the typical keyword for Korea, I think, is ‘efficiency’,” says Kim, who has lived there all his life, completing his master’s at the Korea National University of Arts.
In the series Better Days, which is on show at The Korea Society, New York City, Kim shows this ‘pali-pali’ in the spectacle that is South Koreans at leisure. Seoul is a packed urban playground, people searching for a patch of rural space to take some precious downtime. There’s a lake filled with ice fishers, a field of picnickers waiting for a fireworks display, and the oddness of a panda hut, a winter festival display of stuffed penguins and a tiger on a snowy hillside, and a dinosaur theme park.
In the man-made mountains, ponds and waterfalls of Jingyeong Sansu, Kim deepens his exploration into the urban Korean simulacrum of nature. His pictures are of apartment blocks lined with extravagant rock-garden outcrops, which mimic the idealised Korean mountainsides. Marketing phrases promoting the holistic value of harmony with nature accompany the images: “Hoengak will ward off misfortune,” reads one; “Buaak is a new kingdom of growing dreams,” says another.
“People try their best to enjoy themselves in the ‘compressed time and space’ during their time off work,” says Kim. “They do this because we have very short vacations that come after long working hours. There’s a strong nostalgia for the natural environment we used to live in. This nostalgia is a side-effect of growth, overcrowding and urbanisation.” The idea of nature as an escape underpins Kim’s work, making it more than just another whimsical project on the spectacle of the urban leisure complex. Embedded within the totality of his projects is the idea of both the injustice (evident in his work Bamseom) and fragility of this way of life. In his images, there is the idea that nature might be visibly tamed, but it will one day come back and bite us where it hurts.
This is also evident in Riverside, a separate series showing the flooding of the Han River. Yet even here, the images are gentle. The river has burst its banks and laps softly onto pathways and into parks. Against a backdrop of concrete sinking into muddy river waters, people still go about their recreation. Under the current, however, one can’t help but feel that a more traumatic reckoning looms.
Better Days is on show The Korea Society, New York City, from 03 October to 18 December 2019.
Seunggu Kim was one of our Ones To Watch 2019 – an annual selection of 19 emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 750 nominations. Read the profiles of other Ones to Watch photographers here.