Installation view of Koo Bohn-chang's “Vanishing Ashes” series (1994-95) / Korea Times photo by Park Han-sol

Seoul-based photographer Koo Bohn-chang captures the minimalist essence of Korea’s 18th-century moon jars by breathing life into the soft, milky shimmer of these rotund vessels through his lens.Koo, who has been exhibiting his works since 1983, orchestrates a spiritual “homecoming” of these luminous jars, which are now dispersed across the world in the collections at the British Museum in London, the Musée Guimet in Paris, the Museum of Oriental Ceramics in Osaka and the National Museum of Korea in Seoul.In his “Moon Rising III” series (2004-2006), the 12 vessels, which appear almost weightless and ethereal under shadowless lighting, stand in for the moon serenely rising and setting across the sky.Each image reveals the vessels’ various slotplayground signs of wear — slight cracks here, stains and discoloration there — to highlight the distinct beauty found in their imperfections, while poetically, and quite literally, evoking a sense of the passage of time. “I’ve always been fascinated with discovering the traces of time contained in objects and people, no matter how unremarkable they seem, and bringing out those microhistories through my camera lens,” Koo shared with The Korea Times. “After all, the present that we know is shaped by every one of those past stories and memories.”

It is only natural then, that his quest to immortalize these buried microhistories led him to subject matters well beyond the moon jars and other centuries-old white porcelain works that have since been separated from their homeland as in the “Vessel” series (2004-present).In fact, what currently graces the Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) in time for Koo’s first-ever museum retrospective are over 500 images from his 43 photographic series — many of which, in one way or another, lyrically trace the vestiges of the personal and collective past. Displayed at “Koo Bohnchang’s Voyages” are his otherworldly portraits of faded paper flowers traditionally used in Buddhist and shamanistic rituals in “Paper Flower” (2008, 2023), as well as the painted concrete blocks that once masqueraded as the wooden frames of Gwanghwamun, the main gate to historic Gyeongbok Palace, in “Concrete Gwanghwamun” (2010).“Concrete Gwanghwamun,” unveiled to the public for the first time in the show, is remarkable for encapsulating the tumultuous modern history of Korea in just a few uncanny snapshots of the landmark’s architectural remnants. The wooden gate suffered partial bombing at the onset of the 1950-53 Korean War and underwent restoration during the authoritarian government of Park Chung-hee in 1967 — but with reinforced concrete due to time and cost constraints. Only in 2006 were these industrial blocks finally replaced in order to return the gate to its original state. Although his latest project, “Gold” (2016-present), which focuses on the golden relics unearthed from tombs of the Silla Kingdom (57 BCE-935 CE), seems like a departure from the more unassuming objects he previously sought to capture in camera, Koo said that its essence remains the same.

“They still bear the marks of time, albeit in a more subtle way than other artifacts,” he noted. “These aureate crowns and ornaments come from a millennium-old burial chambers. Their owners went to great lengths to eternally possess them, but eventually, all those people disappeared from the earth. Only the objects lived to tell the tale.”Rediscovery of Koo’s earlier, formative seriesBathed in soft, hazy light, the photographic series created over the last three decades by Koo exudes an almost unworldly quality filled with contemplative silence.But the retrospective also offers visitors a chance to plunge into the veteran photographer’s oeuvre well beyond these more celebrated pieces — most notably through his earlier series, which brims with the raw spirit of experimentation and bursts of creativity. It was in 1979 that the 20-something Koo decided to give in to his creative impulses, leaving his corporate job in Seoul and boarding a plane to Germany. While studying photography at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg, he sought feedback from the esteemed documentarian André Gelpke.What was Gelpke’s advice? That Koo should infuse his works with his own identity rather than making himself indistinguishable from European minds.On view at the exhibition are the striking array of attempts made by Koo to achieve that mission.

“Clandestine Pursuit in the Long Afternoon” (1982-88) and “A Perspective on 1980s” (1985-90) comprise dynamic street snapshots of Seoul during the decade marked by democratization movements and the 1988 Summer Olympics. The Seoul that he knew before he left Korea was no longer there; his potent images were a way of addressing his feelings of unfamiliarity toward the city on the cusp of chaotic and rapid modernization. Untitled” (1989) features solarized still-life prints with surrealist injections, while “In the Beginning” (1991-2004) shows multiple photo papers that have been stitched together to birth a composite image of writhing human bodies. “Vanishing Ashes” (1994-95) presents a series of burnt fragments of photographic prints that faintly recall the disastrous tragedies of the time.And “Breath” (1995) poignantly juxtaposes the close-ups of Koo’s bedridden father taken just a year before his death with shots of a stopped clock, a bird specimen in formaldehyde and withered branches.Seeing a majority of my works laid out in one place like this, I realize that I’ve really done a lot of different things. There have been significant changes that affected my personal and creative life throughout the last five decades, but I am grateful that I didn’t put down the camera and continued my journey up to this point,” Koo expressed. And at the age of 70, he insisted that his voyage was far from over.“I’ve been thinking more about what I can do with projects involving cultural heritage assets. It’s not just about capturing them in photos; it’s about taking pride in our culture and finding new perspectives to reinterpret them in a modern context. Personally, just as I highlighted Joseon-era white porcelain vessels in the past, I would like to continue working on the ‘Gold’ series that brings attention to a wider array of Sill-era golden artifacts.”“Koo Bohnchang’s Voyages” 슬롯게이밍 runs through March 10 at the SeMA.


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