Koo Bohnchang, Clandestine Pursuit in the Long Afternoon

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Zen Foto (here). Softcover, 240×182 mm, 252 pages, with 119 black and white reproductions. Includes an essay (in English/Korean/Japanese) by Chang Suk Joo and a short text by the artist. In an edition of 1000 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

A gallery show of this body of work was on view at Zen Foto Gallery from October 25 to December 21, 2019 (here).

Comments/Context: When Koo Bohnchang returned to Seoul in 1985 after studying in Germany for half a dozen years, he found himself in the midst of a massive national transformation. Economically, South Korea was in a period of rapid growth and industrialization, with exports becoming an increasingly important driver of that expansion. Politically, mass protests against the ruling dictatorship in 1987 marked a broader movement toward democracy, and the upcoming Summer Olympics to be held in Seoul in 1988 drove a wave of patriotism and further Westernization. And socially, these competing forces were being brought together most visibly in the vast metropolis of Seoul, where old and new Korea were pushed into near constant conflict.

Clandestine Pursuit in the Long Afternoon gathers together Koo’s black and white street photographs from the late 1980s, documenting the uneasiness and estrangement he felt upon returning home. Similar in style and content to the work of Daido Moriyama and other Japanese photographers in 1970s Tokyo, Koo’s images see the turbulent changes in Seoul with the searching eyes of a stranger. His perspective is consistently dark and alienated, the familiar rhythms and realities of his home city having vanished, making him into an outsider.

Given the economic upswing that was taking place at the time, it’s not surprising that Seoul was busy with construction projects, but Koo sees all of this new building with a wary glance. Cranes and steel beams multiply with menacing authority, and bulldozers bite holes in the sides of older brick buildings. And while many of these images capture new construction, Koo documents the process as an ominous parade of ripped, torn, and broken things – tin shacks waiting for destruction, the head of jack hammer digging into the dirt, a gaping hole yawning open, a severed fan blade, and smashed double doors.

Koo isn’t any more visually optimistic about the state of South Korean politics. The faces on political posters have alternately been scratched out or lost in a tangle of hanging wires and shadows; and in one memorable case, a poster has been buried in construction rubble, the disembodied waving hand like a last gasp drowning reach. References to South Korea’s military past are no more positive – used jackets and boots are being resold, and the crumpled national flag hangs on a stick, tied down by tight wires. And if things get out of hand, shiny new rolls of barbed wire and half filled sandbags stand at the ready.

Textures and surfaces often give Koo an opportunity to see the apocalyptic in the everyday. Wet concrete and repaired sidewalks seem to ooze blood, vegetables are suffocated by plastic wrapping, and flowers wrapped in newspaper poke out with spiky unfriendliness. In other cases, these details are more puzzling. Puffy white insulation sits atop a dumpster like a dirty cloud, shiny silver wrinkles envelop a chair seat, and black rubber bands are twisted into an impossibly knotted tangle. Koo then pushes these scenes one step further, into the realms of the surreal or the absurd. Mannequins are tied in bent, vaguely erotic piles, white radishes are shaped like bombs, fish are sliced in half, disembodied anatomical legs hang from the ceiling, and beds of nails lie waiting for victims. He even makes Christmas lights wound on a tree and man seen through an aquarium seem utterly strange.

And when Koo brings people into the frame, they are no safer. Generally, he approaches them from the back, focusing in on the backs of their heads or their sprays of hair while riding on the bus or standing at food carts. In a few cases, he has framed the subjects in ways that make them look like they have no heads at all – bending over behind a kiosk, pulled inside a jacket, or slumped in a bus seat. In others, a motorcycle helmet or a tiger shirt overwhelms any personal identifiers. The only smiling happy faces are those found in dated posed photos in store windows; these pictures recall a decades old Korean past that is now literally fading or decayed. More modern emotions are found in a wary couple underneath a looming overpass and a boy blocking his eyes with his hands so he doesn’t have to see.

The design and construction of Clandestine Pursuit in the Long Afternoon match its content well. All of the images are printed full bleed, so the flow between page turns is kept continuous; the lack of page numbers, captions, and white borders keeps us deep in Koo’s world. And given that most of his images are horizontally oriented, the lay flat binding prevents the pictures from getting lost in the gutter.

Koo’s vision of late 1980s Seoul is often grimly grotesque, but it still feels remarkably intimate and personal. His images are evidence of a mind actively wrestling with the contrasts, small dramas, and overlooked discoveries to be unearthed in the changing city. The photographs have an undercurrent of frustration, the kind where memories and current realities don’t entirely line up, leaving the artist slightly unmoored from the present and therefore more attuned to its surreal underbelly. This distance heightens the moody chaos of ordinary urban life, making Seoul feel like a city balancing on a knife edge.

Collector’s POV: While Koo Bohnchang has had numerous solo gallery and museum shows in his career, he does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the photographer via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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