Think of a theory of photographed landscape. You might claim that most landscapes look to the future, for typically they show houses and roads and other structures which help us to deal with tomorrow’s eventualities. In a house we can shelter from bad weather, should it arise, and a road will take us to our destination. The spires and towers of religious buildings point to the long term future which we can only imagine. You can apply this theory quite easily to the great landscape of nineteenth century with their wealth of canals, tracks and farmlands. But the scheme doesn’t apply everywhere, for a tree, for instance, lives within its own seasonal time and the sea goes about its business in its own way.
We need a theory if we are to approach these landscapes by Hyung-geun Park. What are we to make of, for example, a pool of red liquid overhung by foxgloves and pine branches? It is not just a scene from early summer, and the redness too seems to refer to earth. It must be a foxhole. But such prosaic explanations aren’t very satisfying. He has enhanced the original scene, making earth into something like a lava flow. That is more like it, for we are dealing with the imagination which has its own terms of references and which can think of a burrow reaching to the earth’s molten core. Perhaps the reddish flowers express that possibility? Let’s say that the flowers signal that internal warmth expressed in the glowing soil. In that case we are still dealing with cause and effect but the originator can only be God, for who else would want to make such connections. We, in our daily lives, concern ourselves with practical requirements. Only God, with an entirely different set of preoccupations largely unknown to us, would take such things into account.
Park’s procedure is to invite us into a domain where practical explanations suggest themselves – but no more than that. In another of the pictures a misshapen plastic ball lies on the surface of a pond green with weed. In the normal course of events one would imagine that the ball was reclaimable, but you also know that if you were to make the effort you would soon sink out of sight in the bottomless morass disguises by the algae. You pass quickly, that is to say, from a technical difficulty into a reflection on mortality and the life ever after. Park puts us in touch with the incommensurable, for his incidents open doors into infinity.
One of the photographs is of a graveyard in springtime, to judge from the daffodils and tulips on display. Spring flowers, which are comparatively short-lived, signify the turning of the seasons. In a Christian context, which this is, they also signify Easter and the Death and Resurrection of Christ. Altered to the possibility of meaning you will notice a horizontal cross, and in the background a tilted stone with a fully vertical cross beyond. Right in the background there is an upright tower, completing the transitions. Bill Brant, Britain’s most poetic photographer, proposed something very similar in a series of pictures taken in the 1940s in a graveyard on the Isle of Skye in which tilted memorial stones point to the precariousness of the human condition and its hopes for better times to come. What Park does in such a picture is to recognize the potential or inherent meaning in a scene which most of us might simply take for granted as part of the daily round of commonplaces events.
The gravestones with their accompanying flowers are, of course, memorials. The flowers, though, will soon fade, and the script on the stones will become illegible with time – as we well know. Memorials invoke lives past and they propose that those lives will be remembered, and they involve a lot of wishful thinking. The details of life are hard to gather, and there can be no assurance that memory will live on. That is to say, Park singles out an instance in which past, present and future come together in a way which we hope will be conclusive, but which we know will not. He is attracted to such moments, and he disrupts them. There is one intriguing picture which he calls ‘Abstract Clothes’, and it is a contrivance or installations. There are men’s clothes and women’s, and there is a book and a package of pills. What we know about the Garden of Eden is speculative but the book, a generalized book at that range, may represent knowledge and the pills suggest birth control. Clothing, which appears to have been discarded here, was one of the outcomes of the knowledge of good and evil. So, if this is the Garden of Eden it seems that the fatal events have been put into reverse or that the participants have gone backwards in time and that they are somewhere offstage enjoying the primal moment before the serpent intervened.
It is hard to characterize contemporary photography which is, in fact, quite varied. There is, for example, a light style which one associates with Japan: white balloons on snow, say. Then there are those deliberate arrangements favoured by the North Americans – salon photography rather in the manner of the nineteenth century. Hyung-geun Park, by contrast, favours what might be described as the depth model, which associates him with the Surrealist tendencies of the 1920s and 1930s. One of the pictures on snow here he calls ‘Two Trees’ and it features a curtained window almost concealed by dense cypress trees. Cast your mind back and you will remember that Bill Brandt was interested in the significance of distant windows because they stood for elsewhere and for the mysterious other. Park’s poetics are like those of Brandt, not least because they both seem to possess a cosmic awareness. In one of Brandt’s early pictures milk bottles stand on a doorstep on an early morning in London and a newspaper announces a solo flight to New Zealand on the other side of the world. Park, in his turn, remarks on the globe come to rest in autumnal bushes amongst snowberries half taken over by shadow. It’s his way of describing the turning of the earth and the division of light and darkness. It is a world, Park’s of epiphanies and of emanations rather than of phenomena and of immediate objects of perception. He is, quite simply, a major artist in photography.
– Ian Jeffrey, 05.June.06