Polar Heir. Han Sungpil



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Frozen memory

The image of a great sailing boat victoriously approaching an icy territory. An image of triumph, almost heroic, from which multiple stories could be imagined. Many stories could be envisioned about that boat, about its crew and the reasons that led them to travel there, but the reality is that this ship is known as Antigua and at that time it was arriving at the Norwegian coasts of Svalbard, transporting the artists from the residency program Arctic Circle, including Han Sungpil.

When imagining territories like this, close to the North or South Pole, we commonly think about an immaculate nature, of icebergs and landscapes covered by white snow, inhabited by polar bears, seals and penguins and where there are almost no signs of human presence or where there is a total absence of them. 

When Han traveled to the Arctic for the first time, he discovered that in these areas there were hidden also less popular stories. He was impressed by the great contrast between the ancient natural history of these places and the recent mark left by the explorers and researchers that arrived there. He was particularly interested in the passage of time, present in the polar areas. Here he found the traces of stratified memories that seemed to be partially covered over time, like the ruins of a wooden building that seems to vanish between two big masses of land and snow, at the center of one of his compositions.

This photograph taken at Deception Island speaks about those polar stories barely spoken. It talks about the whaling stations that for many years have wreaked havoc on the waters of the Antarctic and the Arctic, as the images that he captured in Svalbard show the abandoned coal mines, that were for a long time a cause of conflict between world powers.

Underneath the surface of these photographs is engraved the memory of those places. A memory formed by the succession of stories over time, like the accumulation of snow cover gives rise to the great glaciers, main protagonists of the polar imaginary and testimonies of the passage of time.

In Han Sungpil’s work memory has played a fundamental role. From his famous Façades and the projects displayed in this exhibition to the photographs of the series Memory and Traces, that contains some of the keys to understanding his interest in this matter. Korea and, above all, its capital, maintain a complex relationship with their own memory. This situation has been mainly caused by recent facts as the Japanese colonization, the civil war that provoked the division of the Korean peninsula, and the following influential presence of the United States. This is reflected in the great mix of Seoul’s urbanism, that is composed by a mixture of architectural styles that can be easily differentiated according to the period in which they were built and that constitute a testimony of their memory, captured by Han Sungpil’s photographs.

In the case of the Poles, according to the author, their memory is composed by three different colours: the white of its ancient snowy landscapes, the red of the bloodshed caused by whale hunting, and the black of the coal mines and the coveted oil. Paradoxically, the same place whose natural resources have been used for the development of industrialization, from where it has been also extracted the black gold that contaminates our cities, it is also the home of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, known as the “doomsday vault”.

Han’s message, however, is not pessimistic, and much less apocalyptic. Through these works he informs the observers about things that have happened and things that continue to occur. This way he makes them to become part of these realities and invites them to reflect on it. His purpose is to raise awareness about what happens there from where we do not receive enough information and to communicate what he was able to experience in person, thus fulfilling one of the fundamental roles of photography throughout its existence.

Knowing Han Sungpil, it should not be difficult to find a certain hope in these photographs. A look at the future based on an awareness of the past and the present, which seeks the involvement of all. He is aware of the fact that one of the most powerful weapons of artists is their ability to arouse concern, to stir consciences and provoke reactions. It can be undoubtedly used to achieve the necessary measures for a better world. Perhaps this way, thanks to these changes, a fourth color could be added to the history of the Poles: the blue of the icebergs safe from the thaw, and the blue of the air and the sea free of contamination.


Esperanza Pino

May 2017

About Han Sungpil

Han Sungpil (b. 1972, Seoul, Korea)

Han Sungpil practices art mainly by means of photography, video, and installations, covering subjects such as environmental issues, originalities, history, and the relation between the real and the represented.

He strives to understand the world’s diversity by exploring nature and interpreting mundane worlds that have been sources of his inspiration. This process of philosophical inquiry and artistic representation often includes a sense of humor in a subtle manner, incorporating sublime elements of beauty, the objects and concepts we consider worthy to discuss and enjoy at a seminar or festival of aesthetics. Once his works enter the exhibition hall, they become invitations for the appreciators to explore arrays of philosophical questions, one of the most crucial ones being how we can design an ideal synthesis for the post-contemporary.

His works have been exhibited and reviewed at notable venues and events around the world, including the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (Seoul and Gwacheon, Korea), National Assembly Library (Seoul, Korea), The Museum of Photography (Seoul, Korea), Museum of Fine Arts (Houston, USA), Chateau de Chaumont (Loire, France), Abbaye Royale de Saint-Riquier (Somme, France), National Museum of Fine Arts (Buenos Aires, Argentina), Museum of Contemporary Art (Shanghai, China), Fotografie Forum Frankfurt (Germany), Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (Japan), Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts (Japan), Yokohama Triennale (Japan), and Havana Biennial (Cuba).

He received a BFA in photography from Chung-Ang University in Seoul and completed Curating Contemporary Design, a joint MA program offered by Kingston University and the Design Museum, both in London. At this moment, the nomadic artist is working somewhere on Earth, discovering or rediscovering the unknown or the misunderstood.

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