The twenty photographs installed in this exhibition were created with the cooperation and control of the embassies in question. In cooperative ventures with such institutions, the artist is unable to unilaterally control the process. Given that the process of taking and compiling these photographs is subject to numerous external constraints, “A Multi-Culture” can be regarded as being a type of “process art” beyond the medium or form of photography. The process for this collection commenced with requests for the administrative cooperation of the embassies. Among the 100 embassies in Korea, photographs of 20 different ambassador‘s offices were taken with approval of the ambassadors or their governments. Taking photographs in embassies is restricted and, furthermore, must undergo a strict censorship process to ensure that the image of each country is not to be damaged or that confidential state secrets are disclosed.
Undoubtedly the works of Jang differ from the existing examples of “process” focused art in which the production process takes precedence over the outcome. However, the process should not be ignored in that the work process accompanying the outcome or the manner in which the project progresses determines the artistic production. If you look at the list of the twenty countries selected, you will see South American and Eastern European countries dominate and that more economically and culturally advanced countries declined to participate in the project. The external elements that shaped “A Multi-Culture” included the political and cultural decision of each country, rather than natural phenomenon or casual factors, and they had a detrimental effect on the project.
From this aspect, the “multi-culture” presented by Jang does not refer to a mixture of various cultures, but the various attitudes of different cultures. This notion of multi-culturalism, at present, is a crucial issue in Korean society and has come to refer to the newly emerged minority class in Korean society involving immigrant workers, foreign brides, international students and mixed-race families. But, the artist objectively and indifferently records the individual cultures that exist in the cultural communities in Korea (rather than concrete cases of the multi-cultural), and the ideological attitudes they advocate, through the symbolic space of the embassy office. Thus, the viewer meets miniature versions of countries – while Korean culture and that of these other countries skillfully coexist in such individual spaces.
Essentially, discourses of multiculturalism try to rule out determinations of value or superiority of specific cultures. However, art historian Thomas McEvilley asserted the duplicity of existing multiculturalism in contemporary art. Originally, multiculturalism, as one trend of visual art, originated during the historical trend of post-colonialism and was a way of deliberating on the identity of individual cultures in a situation where several images of different cultures were mixed. However, it is true that an objective understanding of another culture is very difficult. This is because cultural relativism or long standing visual and educational customs make it difficult to understand multi-culturalism as a juxtaposition of equal cultures.
‘A Multi-Culture’ by Jang reveals the duplicity of multi-cultural discourse. Originally, a series in art referred to a series of multiple works produced continuously or repeatedly, which showed the continuous interest of an artist for a specific idea or theme. Of course, the works included in a series should obtain independence as individual pieces as well as adhering to the overall theme of the series. However, the ultimate goal of Jang was to disclose differences through the repetition of similar themes.
The ambassador’s offices that appear in the twenty works of “A Multi-Culture” series are not much different from general offices. Basic furniture, such as desks, bookcases and chairs, is arranged in common ways. Office supplies and the national flag or map of the country to which the embassy belongs can also be seen. Of course, observers can witness big and small indicators of the culture of each country in each photograph. Scenes of N Seoul Tower (Namsan Tower) from a window, potted plants or maps of Korea, and other small clues show a mixing of these cultures as well. That being said, “A Multi-Culture” focuses more on the dynamics between the photographs by juxtaposing individual works rather than the cultural mixture formed by each country and Korea as evidenced in each photograph.
Gilles Deleuze claimed that the horizontal does not follow the order of sameness but reaches an instability generated by differences. He tried to disclose a similar order of fundamental differences through the principle of comparison. Furthermore, he explained that the iconic signs of art are connected to the nature of being and such nature is formed through difference. Seen from this aspect, Jang’s “A Multi-Culture” reaches the essence of what the artist wanted to show while each work discloses minute differences. For example, the well organized office of the Swedish ambassador cannot generate any meaning in and of itself but the difference is visualized when juxtaposed with the office of the Ecuadorian ambassador. These meanings are then amplified when juxtaposed with the office of the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates. To Jang, ideological class structures, as seen from an everyday perspective through the series, discloses differences through the horizontal juxtaposition of individual pieces, and the tension created by the differences is further connected to the production of signs that expose this structure.
Culture can be regarded to contain hierarchies as it is the human product that specifies and reveals the identity of individuals or groups. As such, is it impossible to understand the real meaning of “multi-cultures” or to understand each culture as being equal? The question posed by Jang’s “A Multi-Culture” series will continue with more stories and records in the future. The answers to the questions will be left up to the viewer.
Text excerpted from essay by Kim Jyeong Yeon