Girls on film

By Harry van Versendaal

A Korean schoolgirl is about to lose a finger in a cruel initiation rite; a line of marching students willingly commit mass suicide wading into the waters of a river; two girls brace for a duel on a rooftop.

These are snippets from “Girls in Uniform,” an art project crafted by Hyun-Jin Kwak, part of which went on display this month at the Technopolis cultural complex in Athens.

Enigmatic and captivating, the images seem to capture the tension between the individual and the collective, the interaction between the subject and the structures of power that come to shape the former’s norms and behavior.

Kwak’s schoolgirls are subjected to systemic power. But, operating from inside the cracks in the system, they too get a chance to exercise their own power on others. Depicted are acts of sexual experimentation, cryptic rituals and psychological and physical violence.

The uniform, tightly wrapped around the body as well as the mind, becomes a tool and symbol of constraint — yet, at the same time, also a shield offering that cozy sense of belonging. This is, after all, a paradoxical world that we live in.

Born in South Korea in 1974, Kwak now lives and works in Stockholm, Sweden. Launched in 2003, “Girls in Uniform” is an ongoing project that includes series of photographs, sculptures, installations and video works, some of which are still in the planning stages. Shown in the context of the Athens Photo Festival at Technopolis, a former gas factory on Pireos Street, Kwak’s exhibition was organized by the Swedish Institute in Athens and curated by Jan-Erik Lundstrom.

Kwak spoke talks here about the allegorical universe of her girls in uniform.

The images of your “Girls in Uniform” project are beautiful but unsettling. They could be read as an attempt to capture the tension between the individual and the collective, between free will and control. What message are you trying to get across?

Personally, I don’t think they are so disturbing. I guess it’s more about how actions and behavior deviate from what we expect from these young female subjects. On a more general level, I think the question of social relationships between individuals and their environment appears in quite different shapes in every society. My project is based on questions about the nature of social relationships between the individual and society, and how these are reflected in different social environments. I am interested in the sociological aspects of being and being formed as an individual, and in the question of identity.

I would assume that the uniforms worn by your characters in the pictures serve as a metaphor — the uniform in the mind, as it were.

Yes, that’s true: The girls serve partly as a metaphor for someone or something in transition; so it doesn’t have to be about age, it is also about time. These subjects are incomplete and unstable, but highly charged.

The uniform stands for uniformity, conformity and repression. At the same time, anonymity can give you a sense of security and be a driving force behind action.

There is a strong conflictual element between the two, but also a possibility to establish alliances in complicated conditions.

Why are there only women in your pictures?

I realized that I created a kind of group of alpha beings and there was no room or necessity for both genders in this project. Since I am one, I can fully grasp women as social and political beings and use this as a main subject and put it in such a context. I do not have the same confidence with men as such a subject.

Is your theme a bridge that connects your two backgrounds — East Asian and Northern European? Does the power to conform exist in both societies/cultures but merely in different forms?

There are different uniforms and codes of conduct that we all carry in any society and culture. The school uniform is a metaphor for a larger concept.

Meanwhile, the project is also a reflection of my biography. The methods and order I have used, the choice of location might say something about me. In the beginning, I tried to reconstruct the mental stages and patterns of behavior in Korean society. These were influenced by the relationship between rapid economic growth and ethics in recent Korean history. The first phase of the project relates to the South Korean educational system and the transition which occurred during the democratization of the country in the early 1980s. The Korean school uniform for girls allowed for an investigation into the processes of socialization, where different aspects of power structures, oppression, transgressions and an awakening sexuality were staged and made to confront each other. These aspects reflected, to varying degrees, the breaking points between the sternly authoritative and repressive system and the country’s recent openness at a time of strong economic and technological development, which also allowed for an individualistic consumer culture and an expansive cultural life.

As relations between the individual, the uniform (second identity) and society are not an exclusively Korean, or Asian, concern, the work acquired a new and expanded geographic and psychological meaning in its later phases. Even though school uniforms exist all over the world, and are actually more of a rule than an exception, their role within my project has become more and more metaphorical. This later part of “Girls in Uniform” also reflects my own biography, as my art is based in Sweden in order to explore environments in Europe.

In the photographs we see constructions of events/narratives that are parallel to the commonplace. Many of the locations/scenes in my works can refer to Heterotopia. These are spaces of otherness, which are neither here nor there, that are simultaneously physical and mental.

These choices of settings are central. I want the photographs to possess a theatrical quality at the same time as they refer to documentary (or psychological portraits). More and more, the project has developed into studies of elements in settings where the historical and architectural aspects are of considerable importance.

In my photographic staging at these locations, my use of models, props and the situations they are involved in are all employed in relation to the history of the site, for deeper relations between the story line and its visualization.

If your work is indeed a critique of conformity and identity formation in modern societies, I guess a counterargument would be that top-down identity-building provides some of that necessary glue that keeps a society together.

This is very true. As one who was born and raised in one culture while residing in a very different one, I may see more of these differences and problems. The very idea of this difference may be the starting point of the project.

I am not trying to say one is better than the other. Striking a balance between these seems quite a utopian idea at times.

But sometimes, what we may think as necessary glue to keep things together can easily turn into concrete that sucks you in and buries you.

Finally, it looks like you take a lot of time and effort in selecting your locations and staging your shots. Does that not contradict your message, in some way?

My choice of locations is carefully made, as you say. They do not only serve as a backdrop, but also help create certain emotions by using the atmosphere and possibly also the history of the site. I don’t think this can be done in any other way, nor is it contradictory. On the contrary, I believe it largely contributes to the theme.

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