Art as Counter-Memory: Contemporary Lens-Based Art in East Asia

Worn-out photographic funerary portraits, a crying woman in a cemetery with photographers surrounding her, a group of protesters in white mourning clothes, and an empty square (Fig. 1). These black-and-white photographs comprise Korean photographer Noh Suntag’s photographic series titled The Forgetting Machines (2006–2007). The series contains 24 remarkable photographic portraits, which appear shredded, tainted, and blurred by vapour. These images were created not by retouching the photographs but by taking pictures of old portraits as they were found in a cemetery in Gwangju, South Korea. The subjects of these ill-fated portraits were the victims of the Gwangju Democratisation Movement, arguably one of the most pivotal events not only in Korean modern history but also in the modernisation of East Asia.

Noh photographed these portraits in the old cemetery in Mangwol-dong, Gwangju, where dead bodies were temporarily buried after being carried in handcarts or rubbish trucks during the uprising. A new cemetery was built in 1997 in order to replace the old one, but many of the bereaved families refused to move the burial sites as an expression of their discontent regarding the inadequate apologies from those who were responsible for the violent suppression. Looking at Noh’s photographs, viewers can realise that student identification photos and graduation pictures were used as alternatives to funerary portraits. With the ordinary texture of a mundane private life, these portraits encourage viewers to think about the individual victims who once lived common lives. The irregular damage to the portraits and the added descriptions of each victim’s life and cause of death also evoke awareness of the individual subjects. It is this ‘vernacular memory’ that Noh’s work casts light on; the memories that have been neglected by the dominant narratives that were posed over the years during which the portraits were damaged.

Vernacular memory, according to John Bodnar, is formulated and sustained by small-scale social units, rather than “‘imagined communities’ of a large nation”, sharing the same experiences and restating views of reality acquired from first-hand experiences. It is distinct from “official memory”, which is formed in order to maintain the “continuity of the institutions”, as well to “promote nationalistic, patriotic culture”. Since “public commemorations usually celebrate official concerns more than vernacular ones”, Bodnar argued that it is usually vernacular memory that is overlooked during the formation of nationalistic public memory. Despite the disadvantageous status of vernacular memory in the strongly selective procedure of the formation of public memory, the very existence of vernacular memory is essential in a society in order for it to be vigilant against the operation of hegemonic memory represented on a national scale. This is because vernacular memory can oppose selective amnesia and draw attention to the hidden histories that have been excluded from dominant contexts, thereby disturbing biased constructions of official historiography.

Having passed two decades in silence, memories of incidents in Gwangju appear to have been integrated into the country’s public memory since the beginning of the 21st century. Memorials, archives, and commemorative events were established in the city of Gwangju by the municipal and federal governments, exhorting people to remember what happened during the demonstration. In the new cemetery, a funerary photo-portrait enshrinement hall was built, where visitors can see overwhelming display of the portraits and worship the victims’ sacrifices. A gigantic monument was installed adjacent to this hall, representing the country’s memorial iconography that intends to instil a sense of patriotism. Noh’s photography, which invests more importance to the incidental over the momentous, casts stark contrast against the memorial halls and monument, in which the fantasy of permanence is embedded. As Pierre Nora and many other scholars of memory have argued, official memorialisation can make us more forgetful, for once we assign official forms to memory, we tend to be relieved of the obligation to remember. Noh’s photographic series can be understood with regard to this distrust of official memorialisation that fosters amnesia, since it calls into question what memorialisation can achieve and encourages the viewers to ruminate on the historical contexts that brought about this amnesia in the country.

Deconstructing the certainty of history embedded in official memorialisation has been the salient task for Noh and his contemporary photographers in Korea. They attempted to resuscitate the dormant memories of the turbulent 1980s, although they did not have first-hand experiences of the time. They also captured the legacies of colonialism and the influence of the country’s decades-long confrontation with North Korea, since they believed that these conditions resulted in irrational events such as the atrocities in Gwangju. What is noteworthy is that this tendency to resuscitate collective memories of traumatic events can also be found in contemporary photography and lens-based practices in other East Asian countries, especially China and Japan. This tendency is deeply related to the growing nationalism in these countries, which aggravated tension among them with diminished attempts at resolving the historical issues that have always been a source of friction in their relationship with one another. Nationalist sentiment and resentment towards neighbouring countries have been supported by governmental efforts to concretise particular historical interpretations and propagate the fantasy of shared memory by assuming idealised forms of memory. It was mainly because the country could foster the sense of a common present and future as well as illusion of common values by creating the sense of a common past.

It is not surprising that the new generation of contemporary artists in this region try to resist against the selective process of forming official memory. Sharing a deep distrust of the didactic logic of institutionalised attempts at commemoration, they forged new ways of representing memory by dismembering that of traditional iconography. Since most of them possessed only belated memories of traumatic events without having first-hand experiences, they tended to show a nuanced reflection on historically difficult subjects, demonstrating that the memories of tragic events cannot be recaptured in all of their temporal and cultural specificities. This shared attitude enabled them to differentiate their artworks from the official means of memorialisation that arouse viewers’ empathy based on patriotism. Although these artists deal with distinct historical contexts with disparate artistic languages, it is worthwhile to compare them. It is because, in order to resolve the tension in this region, it is necessary to revisit and reassess the painful memories of their past. On the premise that memory can be an agent of change that could transform the relationship of the present with the past, what these artists try to do is to be vigilant against the operation of hegemonic memory in order to open up a space of contingency where alternative public memories can be created and history can be reimagined.

Zhang Dali’s renowned archival project A Second History (2003–2011) is an interesting example that creates alternative public memories based on the specific Chinese historical contexts (Fig. 2). It displays propaganda images, found in various forms of publication and print media, which have been doctored or altered according to the political vision and appropriation under Mao’s regime (1949–76). Presented in a chronological sequence, the project provides modified images with their corresponding originals throughout the series. Through this juxtaposition, Zhang shows visual evidence of state censorship that has been executed on photographic materials by party-run photo labs between the 1950s and 70s. The core issue that this project highlights is that state-led censorship directly and blatantly affected the formation of official memory in China. Following Japan’s surrender in 1945 and the founding of the Central Government of the People’s Republic of China, photobooks were produced as mass propaganda material in order to spread and promote the new government’s ideology as well as to motivate people’s participation in the nation-building process. Private publishing was highly censored and all books had to be distributed through state enterprises, a process which enforced strict content and style guidelines. Zhang’s project sheds light on this period, during which photography and printed matter were used as tools to facilitate the process of forming and reshaping official memory.

Resulting from eight-year-long research of historical records, Zhang shows paired images exposing the erasure or addition of key political personages; modified backgrounds in accordance with the state’s aesthetic standard; alteration of written slogans, and so on. By documenting these changes, Zhang reveals that the censors did not simply focused on making a political point but also followed the aesthetic standards of the time, rendering unattractive faces beautiful, short people taller, and widening narrow eyes. Exploring and visualising the idea of collective memory manipulation, the series also questions the ‘truth’ of official accounts of history. In doing so, it not only criticises the obviously falsified images, such as photographs in which important political figures were deleted or added. As in some photographs in which anonymous people who were not focusing on the central event or looking at the lens were removed, the series also shows subtle discrepancies between the original and the modified copies. It warns that the gap between the reality and the carefully choreographed official memory can be deceptive. At the same time, the series invites viewers to consider the vernacular lives of those who have vanished namelessly behind the curtain of the official accounts of history—just as those faces eliminated from the photographs.

Koizumi Meiro’s recent video work titled Oral History: What happened in and around Japan between 1900 and 1945 (2013–2015) is another noteworthy example (Fig. 3). It also sheds light on vernacular realms of memory, as does the photography of Noh and Zhang. In addition, it differentiates itself by actively engaging with them. Koizumi created this 47-minute long single-channel video work by interviewing people in the streets of central Tokyo, during which he asked whether they knew what had happened in and around Japan between 1900 and 1945. The video shows unsteady close-ups of the mouths of anonymous 200 interviewees talking about this historically controversial period. Interviewees can be divided roughly into two groups: one group consists of people who gave testimonies on their experiences of the war and subsequent incidents; another group, which forms the majority of the interviewees, is comprised of people who do not have any first-hand experiences of the war. Most of respondents who belong to the second group gave uncertain answers such as “I have no clue” and “I am bad at history” that the artist criticised as “absurd statements” in his note on the Oral History project. He further pointed out that the interviews with this group of people showed “full of historical contradictions, distortions, and stupidity”. What is noteworthy in this project is that the artist critically engages with these conflicting memories by muting and deleting subtitles with thick black lines when interviewees’ remarks were judged to convey wrong or distorted information about history. This is particularly meaningful in Japanese social and historical contexts, considering the country’s peculiar attitude in its facing up of the war legacies.

Memory culture in Japan is distinct from that of Korea or China, as its recollection include those of a perpetrator during the war and also as a victim of the atomic bomb and military occupation by the United States. Furthermore, the country’s official memory of the war has been formed by focusing mainly on its conflict with the U.S. This has led to partial amnesia, marginalising memories of atrocities committed in mainland Asia during its expansionist war. By slowly approaching the collective unconscious of Japanese people, Oral History reveals that the war-related memories have been seriously distorted under the influence of this official accounts of history. It also displays how the memories of different generations clash and contradict each other by juxtaposing survivors’ testimonies with young people’s unclear statements. This suggests that collective memory of the war can become even more precarious and complicated due to the generational shift. It is this “shape” of memory culture in contemporary Japan that Koizumi attempts to show; memory which has been formed by both enforced and self-censorship, as well as decades-long periods of willed amnesia regarding wartime activities. Instead of merely disclosing the reality of collective memory, however, he clearly reveals his own historical standpoint and tries to engage with this “shape”. It is a particularly meaningful gesture as it opens up the possibility of a renewed future. As Aleida Assmann and Linda Shortt put it, “memory is not only susceptible to change, it is itself a powerful agent of change”. Based on this premise of memory’s positive role, Oral History warns about the danger of passive reception of memories or testimonies as ‘truth’, and thereby encourages critical attitudes towards them and urges for new forms of action against them.

Although dealing with memories of disparate national and historical contexts, these three artists focus on hidden sides that have been neglected in dominant historical narratives. They reveal that official memorialisation is complicit in forgetting and that the operation of this “forgetting machine” has a stronger influence on the collective unconscious. To borrow Nora’s words again, “memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present”. In other words, to resist against history is not a mere act to reproduce the past but an attempt to activate memories in the present. These artists therefore examined how the past is connected to themselves and how it acts upon current society in order to renew the present’s connection to the past by means of memory. Moreover, rather than following the pre-coded means of naming the past, which neutralises the past from the living present, these artists’ works incorporate fragments of the past to reorient the present and thereby the future. Cultural critic Laura Marks emphasised the importance of these ‘fragments’ when she wrote that “television, movies, and other ‘public’ images compose a sort of official history, while the unpreserved present-that-passes is more like unofficial history or private memory. To confront one with the other is to dig between discursive strata – in the process, perhaps finding trace images of unofficial or private memories”. The fragments retain what have been excluded from histories, pointing to the inaccuracy and inadequacy of historiography. Through the collection of these fragments, these young artists’ photography and film demonstrate their struggle to create an alternative history, which in turn can provide a renewed understanding of East Asian history.


장나윤은 영국 런던의 코톨트 인스티튜트 미술사 박사과정에 재학 중이다. 연세대학교에서 의류환경학을 전공, 경영학을 부전공했으며, 홍익대학교에서 예술학 석사 학위를 취득했다. 런던의 유니버시티 칼리지에서 미술사 석사 과정을 마쳤으며, 2014년부터는 줄리안 스탈라브라스 교수의 지도 아래 동아시아 지역의 동시대 사진, 영상 작품에 나타나는 국가 단위의 집단 기억에 대해 연구하고 있다.

Nayun Jang

Nayun Jang is a PhD Candidate at The Courtauld Institute of Art, London. She holds a BSc in Clothing & Textiles and Business Administration (minor) from Yonsei University, Seoul. She obtained MA degrees in Art Theory & History from Hongik University, Seoul and in History of Art from University College London. Her PhD project, supervised by professor Julian Stallabrass, focuses on lens-based art practices in East Asia that represent collective memories of the region’s difficult past.

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