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January 21, 2010

When she was 6 years old, Jang Suk Joon watched her mother and neighbors protest developers who wanted to tear down homes in their Seoul neighborhood to build cheap, red-brick apartment buildings. This was in the 1980s, and although the developers got their way, the experience stayed with Suk Joon. Now a documentary photographer, she takes hundreds of pictures in Seoul’s neighborhoods to create large-scale photo collages, turning ordinary sights like white picket fences into stunning cloud formations.

She is proud that the collages, which in some cases measure up to nine feet in length, get people to view their homes from a new perspective. “When people see my work,” she says, “they start thinking, ‘I live in this. It’s not just ugly. It’s not just useless.’”

Suk Joon’s process for making the photo collages is equal parts intuition and obsession. First, she walks in different neighborhoods with her digital camera in hand. Sometimes, stray dogs follow her. After awhile, her eyes begin focusing on patterns: the red bricks of apartment buildings, the box shape of garage spaces, the blazing white of fences, the zigzag of staircases outside of condos. Suk Joon snaps away.

Next, she downloads her pictures and begins to assemble them—hundreds, sometimes thousands—like a game of Tetris, she says, slowly guiding the pictures into place, intuitively finding where they fit.

The result is visually stunning and catches viewers off guard. Most people, Suk Joon says, don’t realize they’re looking at the doors or staircases they see every day that have been made quickly and cheaply for developers who want fast profits.

“I want to be reminding them of why we are living in those kinds of constructions,” she says, sitting on the edge of her seat at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Northern California, where she spent a month working on her photography last year.

Suk Joon, who graduated from the Korean National University of Arts in Seoul, first started taking pictures in 2004 because she wanted to know how to work her digital camera. Since then, she’s gone on to have solo shows at the Christchurch Arts Centre in New Zealand and Seoul’s Gallery Hyundai. She’s also been part of several group shows in Seoul, including the Seoul Museum of Art and the SOMA Museum.

What calls to Suk Joon over and over again is urban architecture—its political history and its aesthetics.

It was after the Korean War, Suk Joon explains, that the government began making white houses for poor people, who were arriving in the city desperate for work. Gone was any semblance of recovering and celebrating Korean architecture, and in its place came the Western model of building homes as rapidly as possible with inexpensive materials. It’s these white homes and fences that Suk Joon used for her piece White wall, which when set up in a light panel measuring six and half feet by nine feet turns government housing into cloud formations.

Developers, in particular, have been good fodder for Suk Joon’s work. She began making the piece greenfield in 2005 when she saw that roof gardens in her neighborhood didn’t have grass—the flooring on the roofs had simply been painted green. Then she noticed that the new housing developments had garages whose floors had also been painted green. “I know one rich guy who made several of these [units], same brand,” she says. “He would get more money from companies to destroy and rebuild.”

The greenfield collage is made up of these garages, but at about nine feet in length, the piece creates the illusion that someone has stacked hundreds of boxes, making a viewer who knows the story behind the piece think twice about how housing is created.

Sometimes, Suk Joon talks with her father about the decisions his generation made about architecture and housing. “It had no aesthetic point, just for function,” she says, adding, “That’s why my country can get more money and everything grows really fast economically…because everything is cheap and fast, for function not culture.”

But Suk Joon admits her father has a strong argument. “We needed bread,” he’s told her about the housing construction in Seoul’s post-war era, and she understands. “They needed to keep living,” she says somberly. “They didn’t want to die.”

Her art embodies this perspective—critical without being judgmental.

One of her most eye-catching pieces is Flower carriage bar, a photo collage of bright red, blue, green and orange doors, which from a distance gives the impression of being a large quilt handmade by someone’s Korean grandmother. A closer examination reveals that the doors are a bit unappealing. That might be because the pictures are actually of doors to bars that sometimes double as brothels and are located in districts near factories, catering to the men who work there.

Flower carriage bar shows why Suk Joon’s art is so memorable: it invites viewers to take not just a second look at the places where they live and work and those places that they shun, but also to take a closer look at how their neighborhoods are shaped by politics, history and yes, even sex.

Daisy Hernández is editor of You can reach her at

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