Noh Suntag

Forgetting Machine, South Korea, 2006-2007

Archival pigment print 29X22 cm each

Courtesy of the Artist And thanks to Kunstverein, Stuttgart

In 1980, Noh Suntag documented the demonstration against the South Korean military dictatorship – an event that developed into a bloodbath.

The wave of protest erupted in the city Gwangju, where it was joined by students and many of the citizens and intensified after the local university was closed down. The army imposed a blockade on the city, and within nine days, put a violent end to the clashes. According to official data, 207 persons were killed in the massacre and a thousand seriously injured, but victims’ organizations estimate at least a thousand dead and fifteen thousand injured. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, youth for the most part, were victims of the violence of police and army. To this day, the massacre and the graveyard remain a symbol of the repression of the democratic movement in the eighties of the past century.

At Korean funerals, mourners are in the habit of setting up a photograph of the dead person, which they take home at the conclusion of the ceremony. Relatives of the victims of the massacre left the pictures behind in the cemetery, as an act of protest. The progressive deterioration of the photographs is a process the artist attempts to convey to the observer as part of the message of his work.

In August 2001, two weeks after the bomb attack on the cafeteria of the Mount Scopus campus, the portraits of the clients seated there were documented, relics of the event evident in their faces. Inspired by these photographs, Sharon Poliakine created a series of portraits in oils on canvas.

Despite the geographical distance between Poliakine’s work and that of Noh Suntag, and the different political context in which each was produced, in both cases the observer contemplates portraits of persons who have regarded death. The similarity takes one’s breath away, evoking the fear that violence is not diminishing; rather, it invades every corner, at every time, morally shaking the attackers, the victims, and the bystanders.