Nearly one out every 10 couples standing in front of the wedding altar in Korea today are interracial. Koreans, who pride themselves in the unbroken 5,000-year-history of their homogeneous population, have in recent years witnessed seismic shifts away from conventional marriages.
Still, its very much taboo amongst respectable families who still consider interracial (even to Chinese and Japanese) pairings a total shame to the family. The prevailing rule is that decent sons and daughters of Koreans will not consider marrying another race.
Such politically incorrect matrimonies and living arrangements are the subject matter in "Happy Together" a photographic project by Oksun Kim begun in the millennial year 2000.
When it comesto man/woman relationships Kim questions why Korean society limits itself to accepting only same race unions as legitimate, and therefore worthy of higher privileges. Being married to a German she knows her milieu all too well experiencing first hand the prejudice that comes with cultural gaps and misinformation.
Her color photographs are large scale nearly life size pictures mostly depicting the interiors of each couples living spaces. These husband/wife or boyfriend/girlfriends are usually former military personnel or English teachers (American, Canadian, French, German, Japanese) who decided to stay and live in either in Seoul, South Korea or on the JeJu Islands near the mainland where Oksun Kim resides and began the series.
The apartments look small and cramped, people seem to live out of boxes and suitcases as in "Hyunsoon and Kip"(2002). Here we see a man and woman pose for the camera on their bed, the space looks more like a hotel room than domestic space. Hey lays down with eyes closed, the womanlooks at the camera fully cognizant of the documentation going on.
In fact throughout her pictures the physical claustrophobia of the rooms match the hemmed in psychological state of the couples. The woman always look at the camera non-confrontational but wounded, while the man looks away a bit put-off by the intrusive camera.
Staged naturalistically, Oksun Kim has her subjects go about their daily routines or gets them in a relaxed state, taking the picture at the moment when the fourth wall between observer and subject collapses. Her women look especially vulnerable as if bearing the brunt of world-weary pressures.
The self-portrait "Oksun and Ralf (2002) shows the artist and her husband seated near each other, each seemingly preoccupied with their own thoughts. He's a former professor who found his career derailed by prejudicial obstacles that impeded his advancement in pay and tenure. As a German wed to a Korean woman his outsider status and the resentments it produces is clear in the photograph.
But it's the women who break with tradition that come across as suffering martyrs. They're treated badly by governmental agencies, and business. Their husbands are not allowed pensions and their general stature is low on the totem pole. The issue of Korean citizenship and visa regulations becomes very important for the spouse of a Korean national living and working in Korea. It's the wives and girlfriends who bear the administrative burden to renew work and family class visas, bringing much inconvenienceand financial hardship upon interracial families.
A visual conflict is elucidated and the viewer is compelled to ask what's to happen to these forlorn couples? Perhaps it's a sense of outsider-ness that bonds them or eventually leads to separation and divorce. Differences in comportment, styles of dress and house decoration indicate clashing cultures, a break down in communication and disharmony in the relationships.
As if searching for answers to the internal and external political forces that shape fundamental issues of race, Oksun Kim is deeply attuned to the complex navigations between culturally dissimilar people and their surroundings How such stresses affect the bearing of her subjects makes for arresting images.
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