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Yeondoo Jung is known for his photographs, videos and installations that toy with the borders of reality and representation. His works often reveal their mechanisms of pictorial illusion, and expose the apparatuses by which still and moving images are constructed more generally. For his recent exhibition at MAAP Space, his first solo show in Australia, Jung presented two single-channel videos: Documentary Nostalgia (2007) and Twilight Seoul (2012).
Documentary Nostalgia is a silent, feature-length (84 minutes) video in which a team of stagehands constructs and deconstructs an evolving series of vignettes for a fixed and unedited camera. The sequence begins in a small domestic interior, which is based on a memory of his father’s home.1 A worker dressed in bright orange overalls enters and hangs a framed picture of a classic misty-mountain-sunset scene on one of the wallpapered walls. Other similarly dressed workers place a rug, adjust a chandelier, position a light fitting and dress the window with a cherry blossom as they tweak the composition for the all-seeing camera. Another worker, actually a magician disguised as a worker, produces a burst of flame while he puts a flower delicately in a vase. Soon, the entire room (now obviously a wobbly, wafer-thin film set on casters) is forced into a new position so that a small portion of its exterior, complete with brick veneer and signage, forms part of a new urban streetscape. The workers proceed to lay a bitumen-looking drop-sheet for a road, graffiti a roller door next to a small grocery store and position a sign for a bus stop, at which two actor-commuters subsequently stand and get rained on by watering-cans.
Jung uses such choreographed techniques to shift the composition again and again, from interior to streetscape, then to a wheat field, then a scene of rolling green hills with grazing cows, a mist-filled forest and finally to a mountain peak from which a rock climber looks out across a cloudy valley towards the sunset, à la Caspar David Friedrich, et alia. This final setting also creates a kind of feedback loop as it recalls the picture hung in the earlier interior setting. While based on the artist’s memories, each vignette is archetypal in some way. They unleash an array of visual references that include Romantic painting, Disney forests, Socialist Realism, television sitcoms and George Méliès’s cinematic magic tricks (Jung’s magician performs periodically throughout the sequence).
Jung is highly conscious not only of the pictorial traditions that comprise contemporary globalised visual culture, but also of their apparent malleability and interchangeability. While there are some obvious changes between scenes, such as the large photographic backdrops that slide across on rollers and the conspicuous stagehands themselves, there are also subtler interventions that make it difficult to discern when or if a composition has achieved its intended point of resolution. Delicate lighting changes, slowly dissipating fog, an extra piece of foliage here and there, a minor positional adjustment by an actor, all hint at the possibility of progress towards an idealised version of the image. And yet any such resolution remains deliberately out of reach, impinged on by the image’s imminent dissolution, its manifest temporality and awareness of the careful craft that has facilitated this momentary frame. In this way, Documentary Nostalgia is a strong reminder of the fugitive nature of images. Like fleeting pangs of nostalgia, images have the potential to be potent, powerful and resonant, and yet simultaneously impotent, feeble and transient.
Like Documentary Nostalgia, Twilight Seoul (8:40 minutes) is a study in composition for the camera. Together with collaborating artist Luka Fineisen, Jung arranges studio remnants (cardboard boxes, broken electronics, rugs, coffee mugs, etcetera) into an ungainly agglomeration that, with the help of a smoke machine, a large photographic backdrop and carefully placed lights, slowly comes to resemble a panorama of Seoul and its surrounding landscape. Throughout their undertaking, Jung and Fineisen cordially discuss their choices in the arrangement. They also repeatedly return their gaze to a point next to the camera, where, one presumes, a live feed aids their orchestration. Consequently, Twilight Seoul is imbued with the same self-conscious awkwardness as a webcam conversation. The mediation of the screen, despite its real-time function, dilutes any pretense to spontaneity or immediacy. Jung and Fineisen thereby highlight the uneasiness of their image making, while maintaining the potential for such activities to still be earnest and endearing.
At the heart of Jung’s project is a desire to reveal the dominant apparatuses of pictorial illusion, namely mise en scène, the camera and editing. This is, of course, not new to the history of photography and film. A roll call of artists from Man Ray to Michel Gondry, and theorists from André Bazin to D.N. Rodowick, have wondered about the myriad ways that photographic apparatuses interlace with realism and illusion. The increasing pervasiveness of digital cinematic techniques across contemporary visual culture brings renewed significance to these concerns today. As film theorist Richard Rushton points out, one of the dangers with this ongoing field of inquiry is that it can often operate from, and therefore risk perpetuating, the proposition that representation is distinctly separate from reality; that representation invariably misleads one away from reality.2 What Jung’s works show, however, is that moving images have a strange ability to imprint themselves, sometimes despite themselves, as concurrently mesmerising and cumbersome, magical and banal, sincere and self-conscious, illusory and real, and sometimes all at once.
Yeondoo Jung, Documentary Nostalgia, 2007. Video still. Courtesy the artist and MAAP.
1. Email from the artist, October 23, 2013.
2. Rushton, Richard, The Reality of Film: Theories of Filmic Reality, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2011.