13th Gwangju Biennale — Minds Rising Spirits Tuning

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Hyun-taek Cho

Gwangju-based photographer Hyun-taek Cho captures the changing faces of neighborhoods and community spaces to question the spiritual charge of inhabited realms and the medium of photography. Cho has observed the impact of Gwangju’s gentrification on the city’s older quarters and its replacement of traditional life practices. He conceives experimental and sensitive portrayals through techniques ranging from camera obscura to panoramic imaging to document the traces of transformation in modern Korean ways of life.

Cho’s photographs record haunting palimpsests of sites and communities in transit that probe hidden alleyways, domestic abodes, and residual landscapes. The photographer’s tactility and experimentation with light are highlighted by his camera’s capturing of the edges of peeling wallpaper, used clothing, and overgrown scenery from the window of an abandoned home. These works maintain a distinctive effort to annotate the thresholds of social transformation to prevent collective memory from becoming a “motion blur,” similar to his other series Boys! Be Ambitious (2007–2009), which investigates Korean masculinity, adolescent dreams, and the erosion of aspiration through aging and growing cynicism with the world.

In his most recent work, Cho records the tensions between modern and traditional cultural values and sacred beliefs amid the rapid spread of Christianity on the Korean peninsula. Since 2018, he has traveled the country taking panoramic photographs of stone statue markets that manufacture and sell grave markers. While working on the project, the artist witnessed people putting their hands together and bowing to the stone sculptures for sale or bringing drinks and fruits as prayer offerings. Such public acts of reverence animate the presence of bygone faiths and ancient gods, recognizing the stone sculptures not as mere products but sacred icons, and acknowledge the active presence of animism and shamanism within Korea’s capitalist economy. Cho’s high-definition, dimly lit panorama fills the long, wide Biennale Hall. The artist leads us along a series of life-size prints of stone statues documented over long exposures to record in the dark and in solitude luminescent scenes that reckon with the vivid life of spirits and deities in a deserted marketplace.

Natasha Ginwala / Joowon Park