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Artist Back Seoung Woo


Photos That Are Not Photos,
Artist Seung Woo Back

I am not sure if the GPS was not working but I was lost in an alleyway of Yeonamdong. Every time the GPS was researching for the destination I was frustrated at the complicated backstreets. “Why has this place changed so much over the years? There are so many new buildings and restaurants in every pathway.” The interview time with artist Back Seong Woo was approaching. I had stopped driving for a moment and looked at the address written on a piece of paper. Then I got a call. “I see your car. I will go meet you downstairs.”

“Did you have a hard time finding my place? When they first built this building, there was not much around… these last couple years so much has changed. Many people who came to my place were grumbling about it but to me the change isn’t so bad. Only the people who want to meet me come looking for me. Amidst the busy surrounding, this place is ideal for me to focus on my own work.” I understood what he was saying as I reached the top, 5th, 6th floor of the tallest building in the area. I felt his peace as he sat in front of a large lounge table he had purchased in England and looked out the large window staring at the busy street. It was that feeling you are looking down at the world. The streets resembled a drawing of geometrical shapes. As people often say, take a step back and the world will look different.


Artist Back Seung Woo observes the world like an exhibition. He is a visual artist that expresses through photographs, video and installation art. Many people know him as a photographer because most of his work talks about photography. He majored in photography and worked as a commercial photographer. However now he uses the attributes of photography to create stories. He would rather be called a visual artist. Instead of ‘capturing’ an image he is an artist that ‘collects’. His collection illustrates boundaries of reality and unreality, real and virtual, the seen and unseen. He is popular among global collectors and most of his exhibitions take place abroad. In 2016, he received Artist of the Year Award from National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Korea.

“Are you taking a picture of me? Is it ok if I just sit here? Before I left to study in the UK I had many pictures taken of me. But as usual it feels awkward. I used to take fashion pictures for Vogue and Bazaar, but those elegant photos did not meet my satisfaction. When I was a commercial photographer, photography was transitioning from film to digital. I experienced a period of confusion. Taking images of the world as-is will no longer be meaningful. While I was finishing my PhD program at Middlesex University in ‘Fine Art and Theory’, I felt that taking pictures in an excessively digital world is meaningless like shooting water under water.” Therefore I began to work to discover the limits of photography and one of my first works was ‘Real World’. ‘The world we live in might not be all’ therefore I started to take photos of what is in between reality and unreality, real and virtual what is seen and unseen.





Artist Seung Woo Back believes that photos have limits because they are simple photographic snapshots, but that also open possibilities for boundless modifications and options. As a modern medium of art there is no obligation in having to reproduce the absolute reality. Seung Woo Back is known for his work related to North Korea. “I had the rare opportunity to visit Pyeongyang, North Korea. The pictures taken at that trip were used in diverse projects including ‘Real World Ⅱ’, ‘Blow Up’, ‘Utopia’. The focus of these works is neither North Korea nor politics. The main theme is ‘truth and fabrication’. The archives express the limit to photography as a medium; what is seen is not the whole story. The series ‘Blow Up’ were created long after I came back from Pyeongyang. I was inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s movie (1966). I wanted to show that if you look closely to a certain part of the image, you can decipher another story compared to the photo’s intention as a whole. Actually, the photos I took were confiscated and returned with nothing I had wanted. After many years I took out the original film and enlarged a part of the photograph and ended up with the ‘Blow Up’ series, which carries the artistic themes I had aimed for.”

Back archives all his work and employs his own methods to compile images with his own purpose. Recently, texts were also part of his work. He let us preview a miniature version of his work which he will be unveiling in the group exhibition this coming December 5th held at Seoul Museum of Art. I couldn’t quite grasp the work. Is the image the main part or is the image supporting the text? As I looked puzzled he explained, “You can interpret as you wish. This is a photograph but you cannot easily understand this work the way you would normally appreciate photography. I can say that it is not an image but has characteristics of an image? ”

Curator Boseul Shin from Total Museum described that his photographs are like ‘shooting black ink in clear water’ and not ‘shooting water in water’ as if he proposes a new way to appreciate photograph, that there is an entire new meaning in the larger whole. He expresses the limits of photography but in the end he shows that there are other doors for photography. Like the way he is looking at the busy streets of Yeonnamdong from above, he is viewing photography with a different perspective from a step back.


Shooting Black Ink in Clear Water.

As I read through various interviews of yours a lot of them described you as a photographer. I heard are not too happy with that title. How do you prefer to be called?

Honestly, I am not too fond of being called a photographer. I lack the belief and will that photographers possess. I have more interest towards the ‘properties’ of photography and how it functions as a medium. For example, I am interested in knowing how the concept of photography has changed and how the concept of the past adapted to the present. Therefore I prefer the title ‘artist’.

As Hongik University Visual Design assistant professor, your schedule must be very busy. When do you work on your photography?

I am very busy. Though most of the time they are things I do not have to do. (laughs) I believe I have a very different lifestyle compared to other artists. I live like a white collar worker on a regular schedule. I go to work in the morning and come back late at night. Other than the times I have to lecture or meet people I spend my day working on my art. I do not spend it solely in taking pictures. I also conduct research, read books, visit exhibitions, and converse with young artists… I have to work on a schedule in order to get my tasks done.


Well Made Objects and People Starting with the lights, each item in this room is intriguing. Seeing that you have old equipment in the cabinets you must have a special attachment to objects.

Could you introduce some of your favorite items including the Nordic style furniture?

In general, I have a lot of interest in well made products. I wouldn’t exactly call it a collection but I am trying to collect some items. I am very interested in furniture. I own much Scandinavian furniture from 1960’s and on. I love tables and chairs of Jean Prouvé, Finn Juhl, Hans Wegner.

I love Charlotte Perriand’s lamps and Jacques Adnet’s tables. Might seem trivial but I also own many Japanese pens that absolutely feel good when you write. I also have a lot of picture books.

Why do you love Nordic furniture?

I wasn’t particularly looking for Nordic furniture. I love products with a well-balanced design. Therefore I collect a large range of things. I also possess a cabinet made by Piet Hein Eek. I keep some furniture in a warehouse because they do not all fit in my house

Is there a person you would like to work with? 

It is difficult to choose a specific person. I would like to collaborate with an artist that has a clear sense of direction that I can communicate with. I am planning a book on the essentials of photography with Japanese artist Naoya Hatakeyama.

Jinjusikdang productizes and sells artists’ work and is working on an art product in collaboration with many artists.

I welcome new efforts like the one of Jinjusikdang. That is the kind of platform artists need. I would also like to participate when the opportunity comes. 

How do you spend your free time? 

Nothing special. Even if I am not working on my photography, I am travelling doing research which in the end all connects with my work. People say I am always playing but in reality I am always occupied, getting something done.



At times I would space out. Those moments were crucial for me to accept new things and absorb them as mine.

Knowing yourself and learning to see your surroundings clearly eases your way of perceiving the world. 

Where do you look for inspiration? 

That is a hard question. But for instance, I read a lot of novels. Stories from novels help me a lot. I visit the bookstore often. Comparatively, I do not have much interest in music and movies. I also receive a lot of influence from objects from my surroundings. Traveling also plays a big part. But mostly I am encouraged by conversations with other people. While I was studying in London I had a lot of time to think. Unlike Seoul, the night life isn’t so active and I had a lot of time to myself. During those quiet nights, I had many thoughts. At times I would space out. Those moments were crucial for me to accept new things and absorb them as mine. Knowing yourself and learning to see your surroundings clearly eases your way of perceiving the world. 

I heard you recently went to Japan. I’m certain you were inspired there as well. What scenery was the most memorable? 

I go to Japan often. Last week I went to Kyoto. When I go to Japan I often visit temples and stay there for a long time. I do not go out of my way to find exceptional places. I believe most of travelling is completed by chance. Japan is a food paradise. I really enjoy the cartoon series <Lonely Gourmet>. I’ve visited all the restaurants in the series, all by myself like a loner. (Haha) 

You have been trying to communicate the unseen through various works. You have also participated in a new group exhibition. Your work pace is quite fast. 

That’s correct. My work tempo is on the fast side. I like to think that I am still a young artist. I try to keep an interest in a vast range of things. When time passes by I will try to focus on one topic. 

What is your recent interest? 

Recently I have been interested in archiving of space. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be the theme of my next project. I have been looking around for these experiences and stories. Personally, I am hoping for a larger studio. I have been looking at various neighborhoods.

Now that you already know that pictures do not capture the truth, is there a need to put an effort show diverse series of photos? 

People might say there is no need to work hard in an era where photographs are no longer representative of the truth. However, you can propose new perspectives and open senses to make them feel emotions you have never felt with your conscious. That is the role of an artist. I am unveiling the fundamentals of photography but this is also because I love photography. 


“For modern artists, it was important to have innate abilities

but for contemporary artists the scope of that innate ability has become narrow down.

Therefore the attitude of an artist is very important.”

What attitude must an artist have?

I receive that question a lot. I might not be the ideal person to answer the question, but all artists should constantly question themselves on the attitude they must take on. For modern artists, it was important to have innate abilities but for contemporary artists the scope of that innate ability has become narrow down. Therefore the attitude of an artist is very important. From my perspective, an artist should be curious and tenacious about a certain subject. 

Any confirmed plans you would like to share? 

I have some group exhibition planned for this year starting with an exhibition at Seoul Museum of Art and Seoul National University Museum of Art. In 2018 I have an exhibition in Nottingham, UK and a project in Japan. I am also preparing a solo exhibition. I will let you know once the date and venue is confirmed.



Artist Seung Woo Back’s Favorites

Who is your favorite artist? 

John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, Thomas Ruff

What is the most impressive exhibition you saw recently? 

Thomas Ruff solo exhibition I saw in Japan

What is the most recent book you read? 

Okuda Hideo’s Restaurant Seaport. I’ve read it many times and I love it every time. It is similar to <Lonely Gourmet>. I have this yearning to travel by sea and eat all the time just like the book.

What do you need the most in your studio?


Where do you want to travel this instant? 

Kyoto, Japan

What is a restaurant that amazed you? 

Yamagen, a tripe barbecue place in Kyoto Japan. It was a place that appeared in <Lonely Gourmet> but it is simply amazing. .


What do you cook at home?

I like to eat what others cook.

What is your favorite food?

I am not a picky eater.

Is there anything you have purchased recently?? 
Stationary, notebook and brush that I bought in Kyoto last week.

Artist Seung Woo Back’s Beef Bourguignon

I am not a picky eater but when I have an important meeting I often go to French bistro L'impasse81 located in this same building. The place is run by a very close friend of mine. That restaurant is the reason I love French food to the point that it makes me cook. 

Beef Bourguignon (4 portions)

Ingredients: 6 slices of bacon, 1.2 kg beef used for stew, 1 carrot, 1 onion, 4 garlic cloves, 500g button mushroom, 1 bay leaf, little bit of thyme, rosemary, salt, pepper, olive oil, 2 1/2 cups of beef stock, 3 cups red wine, 1 teaspoon tomato paste.

1. Heat pan, pour oil and cook bacon till crispy

2. Set bacon aside. Use bacon grease to saute diced beef till it is nicely cooked

3. Set beef aside and stir fry diced onion and carrots 

4. On that same pan add bacon, beef and tomato paste and keep on stirring. Add salt and pepper to taste.

5. Add red wine, beef stock, thyme, rosemary and bay leaf. Close the lid and let it simmer.

6. When the beef has a nice texture, slice mushroom, cook it on a pan and add it to the stew. Let the stew simmer for a while longer. Enjoy.


JINJUSIKDANG is ready to explore through observing life Style of

selected artist such as what he or she wears, eats, and where to live in.

Creative Director | Kang JinJu 

Writer | Gye Anna 

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