Interveiw with Jörg Colberg for Foam Talents (2013)
Q: Let me start off with a simple question. What makes a good photograph? What separates a good photo from a bad photo?
A: Rather than asking myself, “What is a good photograph,” I constantly find myself asking the question “what is good art.” Victor Burgin said “the most important work that art can attempt is… to support the exercise of one’s own intellectual and sensual faculties without ceding to pressure from outside.” Where strong art resists, the weak one compromises. On the premise that photography is a form of art, my fascination with this particular medium lies in its nature of reflection. When a photograph is taken, the camera creates a virtual mirror that reflects the images placed beyond its lens, thereby, materializing the reflected image two-dimensionally. Inherent in this photographic process is the defiance of the authenticity of what one would otherwise naturally perceive through vision. In my opinion, therefore, a good photograph is one that reflects, rather than reveals, something.
Q: Looking at your series, I noticed that the individual photograph does not appear to be that important. Instead, it is placed in a series, and the viewer is asked to see the relationships between images to understand what you are after. How important is the individual image?
A: I studied film before stepping into photography. Even though I believe there is a substantial distance between the two different forms of art, in terms of building a body of work, there needs to be a system that holds things together, providing context and an underlying connection to what might otherwise seem to be a fragmented group of images. Images are contextual just as time is contextual. Sometimes I feel that I am merely a bridge that stands in between my parents and my future child - just as a lens is a channel between the reflected and the reflection. However if I am absent from this linear line that is my legacy, the context disappears. So I would say I am as important as my before and my after. Likewise, all individual images are equally important in the context they construct.
Q: To what extent do you see your images as a collaboration with your parents?
A: I am often puzzled to find my viewers describing my work as portraits when I consider them as performances that are choreographed and then ‘placed’ exclusively onto the photographic image. One of my tutors said my work has a strong sense of demonstration and I was thrilled with his observation as I couldn’t agree more. While photographing, I usually spend most of the time correcting my parent’s poses in order to create a composition, which gestures outside of the metaphoric. Perhaps, by doing so, in my own compulsory way, I try to impose my ideas to be reflected within my parent’s bodies when, in fact, I am inevitably a physical reflection of them as their son. This never-ending oscillation between me and my parents could be called a collaboration, but then I guess every true relationship is.
Q: Reading your statement I was struck by how you the many cultural elements in it that are unfamiliar with me as someone who was born and raised in the West, unfamiliar with many concepts of Asian thought (Confucian culture, the somewhat different ideas of how one's parents are thought of and treated, …). Photography is a visual way to approach the world. To what extent one's cultural background enters how photographs are made?
A: I was born and raised in South Korea but also had opportunities to live in both the USA and England, in that order. During my first year in London, I still remember experiencing first-hand the cultural differences between the USA and England. Even among English-speaking countries, there exists a tremendous cultural differences; it is not only between the East and the West where one can find cultural differences. It is very natural for my cultural background to be reflected in my work and I believe I should not be apologetic for that aspect. I’ve seen many non-Western artists attempt to “cleanse” their work of any personal cultural background in an attempt to please Western viewers. In contrast, although I’ve never employed Orientalism in my practice, I allow my cultural background to express itself naturally and genuinely. Because it is the very nature of culture.
Q: … and how can we navigate cultural differences, regardless of whether it is a Westerner looking a images made by a Korean photographer or a Korean looking at photographs made by, say, an American?
A: I believe art is a conversation rather than a form of communication. Where communication may fail, a conversation is not judged by such criteria. This is because communication is used to achieve a specific purpose, while a conversation allows for a number of different possibilities. I am not making educational images for Western viewers to study Asian culture. Rather, through the process of investigating and “conversing” with my art, my hope is to encourage my viewers to come up with a set of questions throughout their conversations with my work. Those questions may lead them to read my writings, examine reviews of my work, look for my other works or seek to understand the cultural connotations expressed in my images.
Regardless, as the questions prompting a conversation are already embedded in my work, the choice is with the viewer as to whether or not to deepen this conversation. Nevertheless, this conversation may be hindered as people often can only see to the extent of what they already know. For example, I was not able to see the significance of Robert Frank’s photographs or Daido Moriyama’s work before acknowledging the socio-political climate from which they were made.
Q: So you're happy to fully place the onus on the viewer? (“If you want to understand this, you have to do your own work!”)
A: The conversation always begins at the level of the images themselves. I would say that my work is successful when it has the right equilibrium of appearing as an image that can start a conversation with any cultural background, that is to say that they are perceived on the level of images. Once it starts, I would rather keep quiet and listen to the conversation between my work and my viewers.
Q: I'm curious about your artistic and cultural influences. Who are the photographers, writers, thinkers, … that have informed your work?
A: If I were to mention five exhibitions that have had the greatest impact on my over the preceding three years, I would include Marina Abramovic, Paul McCarthy, Thomas Hirschhorn, Gillian Wearing and Paul Graham. Furthermore, I have been a longtime fan of Stanley Kubrick, Kitano Takeshi, Ki-duk Kim, David lynch, Iwai Shunji and Ozu Yasujiro.