Review: Hein-Kuhn Oh

Middlemen at Art Sonje

May 3- June 17, 2012

On first glance the photographs of Hein-Kuhn Oh look like straightforward portraits of military men, but upon closer examination these images are more, or rather less, than they seem. Cut and pasted together digitally, each subject, mostly low ranking members from one of the several branches of the Korean military apparatus, were apparently photographed in a studio and then placed in a military context: barracks; beachheads; artillery ranges. By calling this series Middlemen the implication is that these men are in-between or go-betweens, perhaps in military ranks, stages in life, or something more politic. As is well know, all men between the ages of 18 and 32 must serve 24 to 26 months in the South Korean military, where conscription acts as a personal, and social right of passage for those who serve, whether they like it or not. So these men, in Oh’s images, are they buffers between civilians and officers or as stand-ins, replaceable, moveable pieces in a game, which utilizes an endless stream of young men serving their nation? Or could it be are they models of manhood, or that which forcibly makes one a man? The obvious repetition nullifies identities and underscores interchangeability. So in spite of being portraits any unique qualities are undermined by their assembled production, positioning them as both indexical and illusions. These photographs, then, at their core do not speak of individual men and their relationships to each other, but of ours to them. Posed as tender and tough; manly and womanish; each staring out and staring us down; indifferent and engaged; sad and proud, they challenge the viewer to, what? A fight? This staged confrontation leaves more questions than answers, but reinforces a love of men and the precarious spaces they can inhabit.

Julia Marsh