Review: “Motherland”, Visual Anthropology


Joo Myung Duck
On View Until: April 18th, 2015
Miyako Yoshinaga Gallery, 547 West 27th St, Suite 204. New York, NY 10001

“Photography can excel at one thing better than all other genres of the fine arts: the documentation of reality.” – Joo Myung Duck

To accurately observe phenomena in our world, the camera provides the key to this problem. Photographs are independent bodies of data. Photography can accelerate our experience or understanding of other places in the world, its inhabitants, its history etc.; and Joo Myung Duck is a sort of ethnographic photographer with his camera, recording socio-economic life in post WWII Korea. He looks at customary Korean architecture, small villages, landscapes, inhabitants and families: in every respect, his “motherland”. The whole of this show combines selected photographs from three bodies of work: “Mr. Holt’s Orphanage/The Mixed Names” (1965), “Korean Families” (1965), and “Lost Landscapes” (1987-2001)

We look at faces that aren’t really Korean, not wholly but mixed-race, and I find out that these children were often abandoned by their mothers, children who came to be in the world of US servicemen and Korean women. But despite their mixed faces and being orphaned, these photographs actually reject any show of pity or judgement: we see children as they are growing up in a culture which does really not match their faces.

"Mr. Holt's Orphanage/The Mixed Names" © Joo Myhung Duck
“Mr. Holt’s Orphanage/The Mixed Names” © Joo Myhung Duck

Were they abandoned simply because they looked different? Is it an issue of racial appearance? I thought. Maybe; but I realized no. One can get a sense of a larger context of history when looking at Mr. Holt’s Orphanage, a context which also happens to be stifled by the invisibility of what took place during the Korean War: a massive rape of its women. Children who more often than not, born from rape. But no one really knows this, about the mass rape, about the sexual slavery and its terror, the accumulation of its silence and the rewriting of history. The horror of this time that has been kept in silence, voices that were kept quiet and stories that are still scarcely known today, and this is what I see when looking at the faces of these abandoned mixed children. Joo’s record of these faces reminds us of the war, that time, the aftermath, war’s consequence. It reminds us of the abandonment mothers place on their children who are products of rape; it reminds us to remember why. It reminds us to think about abandonment, the reality of it, the wonder of what effect it can have on our growing up; on our minds; as a collective, in a society.

While combining an ethnographic approach and using his own photographic language into his images, Joo authentically records large areas of landscape. Joo Myung Duck treats his work as an optical process as much as it is an art process. Landscapes that don’t really look like landscapes, not traditional landscapes however, but looks to be seen through a lens of love and an attentiveness one doesn’t see often. Images that are highly sensitive to the emotions of Joo. Photographed in pale light, we must place our faces closer to the frame so we can see the intertwinement of branches, flowers, and forests. The darkness of his images reflect Joo’s attitude, and our emotions too that challenge us to see ourselves in there (that reality; how Joo feels when he looks at Korea). They are landscapes that make me float in another time. They are records of a land stored away for future use, for their Beauty.

At the end of the show I felt as if I gathered a sense of regional awareness through the memory of Joo’s mechanical camera. Calling Joo’s work responsible fieldwork is faithful to the sense that we gather real and unvarnished information on an unfamiliar and complex environment that is free from bias and critical judgement. He surveys an ethnographic overview of his homeland and accurately records materials, people, cultural geography and circumstances about which we have restricted understanding on. Photography is an aid in preserving impressions and are explicit records of material reality – we will only get more from photographs, from Joo’s photographs, when we give them our complete observation. For Joo, for the ethnographer, film replaces the notebook and the reliable funtion of the camera allows us to keep looking back as many times as research, or Beauty, demands.

"Lost Landscapes" (1987-2001) © Joo Myhung Duck
“Lost Landscapes” (1987-2001) © Joo Myhung Duck



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