Jang Soon Im’s Donglaebu-SoonJeoldo (after the painting 동래부순절도 (東萊府殉節圖, 1760), Digital print, 64″ x 48″ {2012}

When I visited Jang soon Im’s studio at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont, there was little evidence that he had produced any work during his month-long residency. His studio was dark and the only work displayed was a video entitled Turtleship projected waist-high on his studio wall.

The video depicted a Korean Turtleship—a 500-yard-long, 16th century warship complete with 22 cannon portholes and dozens of steel spikes protruding from the ceiling of its enclosed top deck. Coupled with the video was an audio excerpt from the History Channel television documentary Technology Korea—a powerful battleship of the 16th century. The deep-voiced, English narrator touted the ship as a foremost example of Korea’s technological prowess, accompanied by a soundtrack of dagu drums and harrowing, operatic voices.

Despite the grandeur, it was hard to take the ship seriously. The video was smaller than the size of a computer screen, and the pixelated images of the ship had been taken from the graphics of a popular computer game, Age of Empire 2. Several images of the ship moving through the video game’s ocean had been strung together and looped, so it traveled through the same tiny section of water in choppy, artificial movements. The small amount of the historical ship’s remaining prestige was permanently cheapened when the video ended after 32 seconds and then looped. The glorious achievement of Korea’s spiked warships was destined to be forever mass-produced in bite-sized doses.

I had spoken to Im a few times during the residency before I had seen his work, and through those short conversations (“I make battle scenes,” he told me) I had decided to write his work off completely. Any work that refused to deal with the rhizome or phantom capital was clearly self-indulgent, visual fluff. After I saw Turtleship, though, I was captivated by the relationship between the dramatic subject matter and the flimsy aesthetic; I found more of Im’s work online—digital prints, collages, sculptures, drawings, and videos—that all re-imagined the battles of ancient Korea.

Details, Donglaebu-SoonJeoldo (after the painting 동래부순절도 (東萊府殉節圖), 1760), Digital print,{2012}

In the digital print, Donglaebu-SoonJeoldo (after the painting 동래부순절도 (東萊府殉節圖), 1760), dozens of military figures defend a walled village from an oncoming attack. The military figures are photographs of Im in different poses, wielding weapons and wearing military costumes he himself has fashioned out of painted cardboard and fabric. An outdated, striped, canvas tablecloth forms the ground beneath the walled village and the surrounding mountainous landscape is fabricated out of graphic paper shapes the color of Play-doh.

Through his work, Im does not try to recreate battles from past eras (a task he refers to in his artist statement as an “unattainable fantasy”), but instead plays out his own re-imagined views of these wars. To create the prints and videos, Im photographs the individual components and arranges them digitally according to the composition of a specific, found media source. In the case of Donglaebu-SoonJeoldo (after the painting 동래부순절도 (東萊府殉節圖), 1760) the composition is modeled after the 18th century painting referenced in the work’s title.


동래부순절도 (東萊府殉節圖),145 cm x 96 cm, ink and color on silk {1760}

By replicating the compositions of specific media sources, Im draws an explicit connection between his work and the media portrayals. Im’s pieces are playful, childlike, and wholly unconvincing representations of Korean military life. In Field Battle, the grand general defeats several missiles fired from enemy fighter jets with his foam-core saber.


But Im’s work is hardly different from the media sources they reference. In both Donglaebu-SoonJeoldo (after the painting 동래부순절도 (東萊府殉節圖), 1760) and 동래부순절도 (東萊府殉節圖) , there is no blood—the only visible difference between the alive and the dead is the orientation of their bodies. In Field Battle, the few traces of blood are represented by red teardrop-shaped pieces of paper that immediately arrange themselves into decorative, spiraling shapes after leaving the soldiers’ mortal wounds.

Through his humorous engagement with the artifice of media depictions, Im reveals these depictions as sensationalist, sanitized and romanticized fodder for a passive audience’s viewing pleasure. According to Im, Korea’s violent war history has entered the domain of sitcoms, jingles, and commercials where the realities of war and death—like the missiles that fire in Field Battle—are reduced to the gentle tone of a children’s slide whistle.


JANG SOON IM is a Korean born artist living and working in the United States. He is interested in presenting battles between ancient armies from past eras as an unattainable fantasy, a depiction of alternative worlds. For more on him and his work, click his name to visit his website.
STEPH ZIMMERMAN recently graduated with a B.F.A. in Photography from Washington University in St. Louis. She is currently in the process of avoiding employment. For more information on Steph and her work, click her name.

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