Art Paris Art Fair Grand Palais, 27th-30th March 2014
Old versus new in South Korea
Although the hanbok has recently made a debut in high fashion and is a school uniform in some South Korean schools, the centuries-old Korean dress is typically worn only at ceremonies and special occasions.
Photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten used these heavy, layered dresses to juxtapose South Korea’s history and culture with its modernization.
“Even though they aren’t so flattering — you don’t see their bodies, it’s quite wide and the top is wide — they’re very graphic,” Fullerton-Batten said.
During a recent trip to the South Korean capital of Seoul, Fullerton-Batten shot these cinematic images of Korean girls in hanbok with modern architecture as a backdrop. The bright colors of the dresses look out of place against the gray, austere buildings, representing the conflict between the old traditions of the country and the modernization of the city.
She visited during monsoon season and had to carefully time her shoots in between breaks in the downpour. The coincidental gray from the weather brought out the color of the girls’ dresses even more, she said.
Fullerton-Batten included props to represent other elements of South Korea’s culture and history. For example, to represent Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945, one photo shows Korean girls pulling a rickshaw with a Japanese woman sitting inside. In another photo, the models are looking down in dismay at a present wrapped in green – a faux pas in South Korea, where gift-giving is a huge part of their culture.
Fullerton-Batten only had five days in Seoul, but she took months ahead of time to plan each image and acquire costumes and props. She worked with Kim Aram, an editor at the Korean art magazine Blink, to pick out the settings and find models. She used street-cast models who responded to a Facebook post by her friend.
Her vision — of mixing modern with old traditions — wasn’t understood by some Koreans. Even her producer who coordinated the shoots expressed doubts, and producers don’t usually express their opinions, she said.
“The producer from the beginning struggled with the idea,” she said. “He asked why I was bringing a rickshaw in that shot, and when I explained he was a bit apprehensive.”
He told her to contact each girl and explain the images to see whether she was OK with it.
“All were delighted by it and thought it was brilliant,” Fullerton-Batten said.
However, when she presented her work in progress at the Gong Dang International Photo Festival, a few questioned it.
“I was upset, because I don’t want to go to a country and make anyone feel like I’m making fun of the country,” she said. “I think they didn’t understand why I was dressing girls in traditional dresses, then having them carry heavy twigs. But I treated it like a stage set and didn’t want to treat it like reportage or make it too real. I wanted to make it more surreal but still believable.”
She has since presented the finished work and had more positive reactions from other Koreans, she said.
In a way, the reaction to Fullerton-Batten’s work mirrors the tension she represents in her photos. Certain art observers who expect a divide between traditional and modern art may not understand the contemporary work’s juxtaposition, whereas viewers who have been exposed to contemporary art, such as her models, may find it easier to see and appreciate the vision.
— Lauren Russell, CNN