Look Closer. The Devil is in the Details

“Behavior is the mirror in which everyone shows their image” Goethe
“FUSE” (2007-2008):
All images provided courtesy of Arario Gallery Seoul unless otherwise noted

A photograph is flat, isn’t it? Think again when you view the following life-size photo statues. In the capable hands of Korean sculptor Osang Gwon, hundreds of photographs become a life-size copy of the original, turning reality a bit on its head. People, horses, cars and bags suddenly take on a life of their own. If you missed Osang Gwon’s recent New York exhibition, here’s a cross-section of his work.

Contemporary woman warrior à la Gwon – “Metabo” (2009):

Installation view of Osang Gwon’s solo exhibition at Arario Beijing Gallery in Beijing, China
Installation viewPhoto:

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Osang Gwon decided not to leave Korea for international shores but to pursue his passion right in his birth place of Seoul. The 35-year-old artist first created international waves with his exhibition Deodorant Type, first shown in 1999 in Korea and in 2005 in Los Angeles.

“Error” (2005-2006) from the back…

… and front view:
Error frontPhoto:

Though his photo collages have been compared to David Hockney’s joiners, photo montages made up of many individual Polaroid photographs and often linked to cubism, Gwon has taken this method a step further by making life-size sculptures, therefore transcending into the 3D realm.

“Gaze Motion” (2005):
Gaze MotionPhoto:

“A Statement of 540 Pieces on Twins” (1999):
Statement on TwinsPhoto:

He’s even gone another step further by photographing his models and pasting their life-size replicas together out of hundreds of their photographs, distorting reality by making viewers look at details of a person captured at one point in time and assembled to reflect reality, yet leaving them with an impression that something is off.

“A Statement of Meaningless 360 Pieces” (2000):
Statement of MeaninglessPhoto:

This is exactly the effect Gwon was aiming for. He mentioned in an interview with Flavorwire last month:

“The early works were more distorted than the ones I’m making now. That said, I’ve never aimed at making a totally realistic figure. It’s always going to turn out differently, and that’s in line with my series title, Deodorant Type.”

Deodorant Type is an unusual title for an exhibition but one that the artist has put quite a bit of thought into:

“For me, it means covering something up and changing its odor. It implies not showing the exact thing, but transforming it. … In making this work, I want the finished figure to be off a bit, too. … I’m commenting on contemporary society, which is filtered through the advertisements of today.”

The artist wants to reflect on this influence of magazines and ads on society and got the title inspiration after seeing a foreign deodorant ad that clearly hadn’t taken the Asian context into account. (There are virtually no deodorant ads in Korea as the problem of perspiration does not arise. If it does, it is regarded as so serious that surgery is considered. Guess you didn’t know that – we surely didn’t.)

“Red Sun” (2005-2006):
Red SunPhoto:

“A Statement of 280 Pieces on the Absolute Authority and Worship in Art” (1999):
Statement on ArtPhoto:

Seeing the amount of detail that goes into these works, many visitors of Osang Gwon’s exhibitions wonder how long it takes him to make one sculpture. According to Gwon’s estimate, about three to four hours to photograph every part of the model’s body, sometimes longer.

Of course, he first has to draw a sketch of the planned project. Below is a page from Gwon’s sketchbook for his solo exhibition Deodorant Type: Sculptures by Gwon Osang at Manchester Art Gallery from June 21-December 21, 2008.

Sketch for the policeman on a horse:
Policeman sketchPhoto:
Drawing: Osang Gwon

Photographing the subject, in this case a Greater Manchester Mounted Police Officer:
Photographing officerPhoto:
Image: Manchester Art Gallery

Then, he sorts the hundreds of photographs into neat piles before carving the sculpture’s body out of Styrofoam. All’s left to do is stick the images on and gloss the final piece over. Sounds easy but it is a process that takes anywhere from one to two months, depending on how much help Gwon has and how many sculptures he’s working on simultaneously.

The artist in front of the finished piece:
Osang and policemanPhoto:

As for finding the actual models for his work, Gwon’s situation has completely changed as his fame and recognition grew: First, he worked with friends and family, his brother and sister especially, because they “wouldn’t get angry at having to stand for three hours while being photographed.” Now, celebrities like the British band Keane have approached him and Gwon is currently working on collaborations with Fendi and Nike.

“KEANE Chaplin” (2008):

Osang Gwon debuted his first photo-sculpture in 1999, not so much out of inspiration but more out of necessity: As a sculpture major at Seoul’s HongIk University, working with stone and metal all the time made his back hurt. So he was looking for a light alternative and voilà, the first photo sculpture was born. We’re sure glad it worked out this way.

With special thanks to Arario Gallery Seoul and Manchester Art Gallery for granting permission to use their photographs and providing information about Osang Gwon.

Sources: 1, 2

Jiyoon Lee. “Gwon Osang: Towards A New Kind of Sculpture.” Essay provided by Arario Gallery Seoul.