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Spring 2010 in Korea had its share of ups and downs. Notably, a navy vessel named Cheonan sank in the West Sea. The victims were considered killed in action, and a funeral was held amidst national mourning. Korea is the last divided country in the world. This is a clear fact. However, a fact that does not change for a long time usually attracts little attention. It has been 60 years since the Korean War, and 57 years since the cease-fire. The reality of the nation’s division has lasted too long to have much effect on Korean individuals. Meanwhile, war is never far away from their reality. All men of Korean nationality must enlist and serve in the military. Koreans often say that one becomes a ‘real man’only after serving in the army. All Korean women, at one time or another in their lives, shed tears for a boyfriend or a brother or a son going off to the army. In Korea, the unfinished war that has been put on hold goes on in the form of exceptional incidents and everyday happenings.   

Considering that art is based on the everyday lives of artists, it is in a way surprising that Korean artists do not deal more with issues related to the country’s division, the military or North Korea. Why is it easy to talk about one’s trials and tribulations back in the army days over a drink, but not in art? It is probably due to the sense of taboo that has come to dominate the collective unconsciousness of the past two generations of Koreans. The fact that North Korea continues to function as a country is an uncomfortable reality for South Koreans. North and South Koreas are ‘major threats’to each other in one of the most tragic situations in modern history. They are neighbors that should never become close; brothers and sisters who have become enemies. South Koreans who went to elementary school during the Cold War era — when the cease-fire line was more solid than any real wall — entered adulthood having to deal with the psychological shock of accepting the fact that Il-sungKim was also an official leader of a country and not a pig-like monster with horns like they had thought. It was difficult for both North and South Korea to recognize each other as they really were in order to maintain the stability of their regimes. The unprecedented closed diplomatic policies of the North blocked all visible and tangible experiences. As a result of the confrontation with the North, mandatory military service may have become an actual reality for individuals in South Korea, but North Korea itself has become an ideological reality. The gaze upon the nonexistent reality of North Korea can only be ambiguous and complex. In that sense, the fact that Seung Woo Back’s Blow Up and Utopia deal with North Korea is enough to make Koreans nervous. Because in Korean society, ‘division’is an issue that is more sensitive than violence, obscenity or religion. 

Interest in scenes that combine reality and non-reality, or what we believe to be reality and what is not reality, is the framework that defines all of Seung Woo Back’s work. His work finds the fragments of non-reality in reality, in a world that believes that only what can be seen is real. As a result, the fragility of the reality that people believe in is revealed. His Real World I series shows a theme park that features miniatures of world-famous landmarks along with clues that indicate that the buildings are fake. Non-reality that does not attempt to hide that it is not real ends up gaining the status of reality in his photos. The photos, taken with a large format camera to incorporate more details, question what today’s generation and society believe to be real and propose an answer, the Seung Woo Back way.
Real World IIfeatures toy soldiers that disturb the calm order of reality. The small soldiers that seem to be carrying out secret missions in back alleys late in the evening do not try to hide that they are not real. The artist does not manipulate the scale of the subjects, and therefore, recognizing that the soldiers are fake is very easy. As a result, it is up to the viewer to justify their existence. The viewer relies on his or her experience and memory to find an answer as to why the soldiers should be there. The series takes place at night — a magical time when anything possible — leaving open all possibilities for an overturning reality.

The beauty of Seung Woo Back’s work is that it exposes the fiction of the visual world using a visual medium. This is also one of the reasons why photography itself has come to take up such an important place in contemporary art; Seung Woo Back uses photography for his work for this very reason. For a long time, photography reigned as a means to show reality as it is. Even now, it is often used to represent reality. Photos whose function is to ‘prove’something from the basis of our reality. On the other hand, pointing out the fiction of reality replaced by image has also been a longstanding theme in art.
The reason why photography can start from reality but at the same time be fictional is due to an element of ‘choice’.In other words, all photographic images reflect the reality chosen by the person who takes the photos. Choice is generally made by the artist taking the photos or the person who is directing the way things are to be seen. The more a society is mature and open to diversity, the more there are of persons  enjoying the freedom to choose. North Korean society is characterized by a lack of flexibility where the power of choice is concentrated around political authorities. Power that is not decentralized takes on a completely different nature depending on who is exercising that power. When a photographer is given the chance to visit North Korea, he or she hopes to witness a special world that other people have not seen. However, when the photographer fails to do what he or she set out to do in the face of the impenetrable rules and regulations of the forbidden land and realizes that he or she has no role to play there, the photographer ends up giving up. Seung Woo Back goes through the same process. However, long time after his visit to North Korea, he realizes that the issue at hand concerns the ‘right to choose,’and decides to exercise his right.
Blow Upexposes the hidden things in North Korea’s reality, which has been designed by political authorities. From the films that were returned to him after being cut up and censored, the artist finds elements that North Korean authorities want to conceal and blows them up. Blow Up is both the title of the series and the technique used in the series. It allows the viewer to see what he or she has not been able or permitted to see up to now. In the process, the right to choose is handed over from the‘rules and regulations (the authorities or power)’to the ‘artist’.

Blow Up does not show the viewer what he or she wants to see. Rather, it shows the viewer what ‘they’do not want to show. An English brand, a stewardess, passers-by on the street... In fact, the subjects do not seem important enough to conceal, but the moment they are chosen and blown up, they become invaluable information that has survived North Korean censorship. The process follows the logic (or illogic) of a world where unconsciousness is organized in a far more sophisticated way than in a disguised reality. Everything appears suspicious. A measuring stick to assess the realness of the information creeping up from the cracks of an unstable, fabricated reality is nowhere to be found. There is no correct answer; only a will to show something that is as close to actual reality as possible. Anxiety reaches its peak when people do not know who they are fighting against. No one knows up to what is the hidden, up to what is the shown, up to what is fabrication, and up to what is the truth.
Films that are cut up because of rules that say that they must be censored; secrets that are collected because of rules that say that they must be collected — are they more valuable than information that has not been censored or collected? The information that the artist shows in Blow Up is reality in the sense that it has been mechanically documented by a camera. Meanwhile, it also gains the status of reality through the process of being chosen and blown up by the artist. What is noteworthy is that the scenes that the viewer sees (thanks to Seung Woo Back) are, at the end of the day, just a few of the places that were chosen by the authorities to begin with. What he saw, heard, felt, and thought during his month-long stay in Pyongyang provided the basis for his choices, and in that sense, the series is the result of an incredibly well organized unconsciousness.
Just as disguised reality is not reality, organized unconsciousness is not unconsciousness. What Seung Woo Backattempts to disclose is not some hidden scene or element but ‘fabrication’and ‘concealment’themselves. By juxtaposing a person whose duty seems to be to jog all day with that of a guard, a woman in uniform on traffic duty with that of an empty street, and a store that is difficult to picture with any visitors with that of wandering passers-by, Seung Woo Back discloses how reality has been fabricated and concealed.
Seung Woo Back takes interest in ambiguous reality, but he prefers clear answers. His work does not pose furtive questions; they make willful declarations. The reason his attitude appears cynical is because the gazes of the observer and the observed never mix. The gaze of the people in his photos never overlaps with that of the artist. The fact that there is no exchange of gazes signifies that each side is absorbed in his or her role and uninterested in interaction. If the observed are absorbed in their acting, the observer is only interested in exposing how fake their appearance is. Because the flow of the gaze between the observer and the observed is cut off, the viewer has no choice but to be tied to the viewpoint of the observer.
The blown up scenes in Seung Woo Back’s photos — the back of people wearing bandanas and hats that seem to have been made from the same place, faces hidden behind parasols, children with the exact same expression, people standing in the street looking at something — give the viewer glimpses of a reality hidden until now and at present made clear for viewing. As a result, the viewer ends up sympathizing unquestioningly with the clear answers proposed by the artist regarding the fictional nature of North Korean society. 
The artist’s power becomes even more potent in Utopia. Photography is no longer used simply to observe actual objects in greater detail. The artist goes further by starting to process objects to accommodate the intentions to conceal and fabricate. Seung Woo Back finds photos of state-of-the-art buildings and facilities shot in North Korea for propaganda purposes, and adds his own imagination to them. The buildings are made dramatically higher or grander, and different colors are added to the background. By going beyond simple disclosure, and actively participating in the process of fabrication and concealment, he is not asking, “What is fiction?” but stating, “This is fiction.” Meanwhile, it is all too known that sometimes the things that do not exist anywhere can be even more true than things that actually exist. Utopias are like that.
Scenes that have been fabricated and selected to be shown to someone share a fundamental link with utopias that do not exist. An apartment inhabited by no one, an operation room with no patient, a factory that does not produce any products, a fighter plane that never does any military drills — they have all been fabricated for show and thus, in a way, are utopian. All of the artist’s manipulations serve to emphasize the utopian aspect of fabrication. In particular, the colors that have been added to the grim black and white photos isolate the subject from reality and actively reveal the fakeness of the image. At first glance, the bright colors give a cheerful feel to the photos. However, the colors used are those that were typically used in 20th century communist propaganda materials, and show that there is a clear intention behind the manipulations.
In Utopia, Seung Woo Back employs the most basic of artistic strategies: changing the form and color of the images. From painting to digital art, form and color are the most basic visual elements of image. By changing them, he adds his viewpoint to what in the beginning are extremely neutral images. It also serves to remind the viewer that his interest is not limited only to North Korea. North Korea is just a symbol of fabrication, not the ultimate object of his interest. Unlike the excited gaze in Blow Up, he takes a step back in Utopia. In Utopia, he no longer focuses on the fact that he is Korean, living in an enemy state of North Korea, but tries to explore more fundamental issues. 
What is closer to reality, or non-reality: fabricated reality or exaggerated reality? Seung Woo Back has become more comfortable with the question, and it is now up to the viewer to find the answer. Humanity has built the world based on an obsession with visuality. The history of the eye equals the history of beauty and the history of perception. Whether the viewer decides to trust his or her eyes once more or mock at everything that is fabricated instead totally depends on his or her own choice. What Seung Woo Back’s work encourages may just be such a recovery of the freedom of the senses. Doubting everything that is before the eyes or getting used to being deceived is the final right that the viewer has been given.
By  Suejin Shin, Ph. D./Psychology of Photography
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