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GWANGJU, Republic of Korea — I am looking at a screen. With each scroll it grows bigger, bigger, and bigger, morphing into an array of RBG pixels. And these pixels — they too grow, becoming grandiose, revealing more pixels within. This ineluctable progression stops only when they suddenly transform into an isometrically-rendered building.
This is just the beginning of Sunwoo Hoon’s web cartoon “Flat is the New Deep“ (2018), presented for the first time at this year’s Gwangju Biennale, Imagined Borders. As it is often the case with new media works, it is tempting to consider the pixel as a mere self-referential motif to the medium of his work. But in fact, it operates as a powerful metaphor for the South Korean artist, who first encountered it as he doodled with Microsoft Paint during compulsory military service. For the pixel, as a unitary notation of any digital image, symbolizes not only the utopian representation of individuals in a democratic society, but also an ever-increasing flattening relationship between technological devices and politics.
The latter issue is explicitly at stake in this work’s narration of the history of protests in South Korea. We see events ranging from the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, when hundreds of protestors were brutally murdered by the authoritative ruler Chun Doo-hwan, to the current #MeToo movement, unfold on top of buildings that symbolize public space. Slowly, the flat face of websites emerge between buildings, ultimately morphing together. Here, the story becomes about the pixels — symbols of the citizens — amassing together to form a new formidable collective. The idea is powerful. That, despite the extreme poverty experienced after World War II and the Korean War, which was followed by the acts of corrupt dictators and the rise of conglomerates, the voices of the collective can be heard through the universal and nomadic pixel. As I write these words — and you read them — we are looking at a screen. That is the point.
On the flip side, there is a darker facet to the pixel, which Sunwoo’s work impresses upon. Interspersed in this chronicle are moments when the universal accessibility of the internet is harnessed for political regressions, such as the once indefatigable reign of the now-impeached president Park Geun-hye. Innumerable screens with the name of the alt-right website surround her campaign poster, recalling how she controlled mass-media through “alternative facts” while deflating the national pension at the behest of a Samsung heir.
Further, the meaning that the pixel carries is at constant risk of being mutated. Towards the end of “Flat is the New Deep” we see a TV screen in which the leader of the #MeToo movement in Korea, prosecutor Seo Ji-hyeon, is featured prominently. Immediately following are suspended iPhone screens with the hashtags #MeToo and #WithYou. These messages appear to come together in solidarity for the movement, which is articulated by the inclusion of demonstration scenes below. Yet in “The Flat is Political” (2017), another work by Sunwoo displayed in conjunction with “Flat is the New Deep,” the reverse is true. After iPhone screens with the hashtag #I’m_Feminist pop up, the message becomes offset with people denigrating female empowerment. In the continuously mobile domain of the internet, the malleability of meaning associated with shapes and words and forms is paramount. Sunwoo shows how this can be dangerous: how the form of the pixels — as an image or a tweet — can remain the same, while its meaning shifts.
A year and a half into Donald Trump’s presidency, Sunwoo’s works certainly come as both a sharp rebuke and an ominous warning. There are daily examples. Only recently, it was revealed that fake accounts from Russia were behind “No Unite the Right 2 — DC.” Fake news and accounts constantly threaten the perceived sanctity of elections. “Flat is the New Deep“ reminds us that pixels are circulating faster than ever — growing and mutating like a cancerous cell, changing meaning at every turn
The 12th Gwangju Biennale, Imagined Borders, is on view (111 Biennale-ro, yongbong-dong, Buk-gu, Gwangju , 500-845, Republic of Korea) until November 11.