Michael Lundgren questions the impact of humanity in a celestial series shot in the deserts of the American southwest, Mexico and Lebanon

A photographer’s inaugural picture can speak plenty, perhaps setting the tone, the subject matter or direction addressed in the future. Michael Lundgren, a USA-based photographer known for his visual pilgrimages into the deserts of Mexico, Arizona and Utah, first picked up a camera at the age of eight. Using an old twin lens, he recalls wandering outside and observing the ferocious vision of a tree in autumn. Deciding to capture it, he framed the tree on a waste level finder and, despite thinking he’d heard the shutter sound, he never found out if the tree actually appeared to be on fire in his image. He hadn’t put any film in the camera. 

Although this isn’t the case for all photographers, Michael’s debut into the medium – by means of a tree on fire, not so much the lack of film – undeniably hit a chord with the young creative. To such lengths that he chose to constantly surround himself in the wonders of the environment, capturing earth’s glory and preciousness with the delicacies of his frame and eye for the supernatural. “I grew up immersed in the natural world and found my time there to be as so many have described it: a spiritual experience,” he tells me. “Time in the landscape felt more like coming home than travelling far. As I became a young man, I watched the fields and woods that surrounded my home transform into suburbs and parking lots – my awareness of the earth as a limited resource grew side by side with these changes. On a few journeys to western United States, I feel deeply in love with the desert, its extremities of light and dark, and a certain vastness of space only found in arid places.”

Having worked in his profession since the 90s, Michael has gone on to publish three monographs: Transfigurations, Matter and Geomancy, all of which illustrate the otherworldliness of the desert through an exploration of both the artificial and the natural, perceived through his signature non-documentary style of fantasy blended with environmentalism. Geomancy, in this instance, comprises a book and new exhibition of the same name, currently on view at The Museum of Photography in Seoul, Korea, and running until the end of the month. The series itself pulls together 39 photographs in total and explores the artist’s deep inquest into the subject matter of desert located in the American southwest, Mexico and Lebanon. 

Eery, crystal sharp, and minutely detailed in its approach, each and every photograph appears to have been plucked from a film of science fiction. Its theatricality and alien representation – achieved through zoomed in photos of prickly cacti, metallic sheens of rock faces, and hauntingly desolate landscapes – gives the work an unnerving feel, like the scenes themselves have come from a world far from our own. Familiarity is a distant word throughout Michael’s Geomancy, and that’s precisely his aim with the entire body of work; because he himself started out slightly bemused. “Geomancy began with a handful of pictures I didn’t understand,” he says, citing this as the way he always kicks off a project. “When a picture confronts me that I don’t understand, a shift occurs, one that I’m barely conscious of. A new line of questioning is formed.”

“With this work,” he continues, “I began to see the earth as a series of messages that wouldn’t offer up their meaning easily. From the geologic to the human traces found there, the earth itself began to feel like a surface drawn upon over and over again, each layer a sign of something both knowable and unknowable. A palimpsest.” The latter being something that’s been reused or altered but still visible of its earlier form, which is an apt description of Michael’s photographic tendency to manipulate the landscape. “The desert and arid lands in general have a different relationship with time. As my brother Erick Lundgren says, ‘The desert remembers, the forest forgets.’ The notion here is that what has happened and what is happening is simultaneously present in the desert. As if there is a continuum of awareness. My hope with Geomancy was to create a body of work where the earth itself oozed with memory.”

Crafted over the course of four years in multiple countries, the majority being deserts in Mexico and the USA, Geomancy indeed sings with a life of its own. The desert has rich visual connotations; aliens, droughts, beaming sun, the lack of wind and rain, road trips or tornados. In an American context, for example, the term Great American Desert was used in the 19th century to name the western part of the Great Plains, located just shy of the Rocky Mountains in the north. Today, the land is more commonly referred to as the High Plains, and sometimes used to describe North America and parts of Mexico. These treeless, uninhabited lands have made appearances throughout art for decades, the more obvious in Western films or dystopian thrillers. 

In Michael’s Geomancy, these desolate ecosystems are given an equally as incongruous meaning as they float between the supernatural and the manmade. “I’m interested in the place in our experience that exists just before conscious recognition, where the world is unrecognisable to degree and then suddenly there is a shift and our brain registers the world,” he adds on the matter. “Think of waking up from a shallow nap and not fully understanding where you are, or taking a walk in the dark of night. What we see in these spaces is not the literal confirmed world but an abstract one where our imagination is able to function. Photography has this wonderful ability to somersault from the abstract to the literal and I hope the images sit within this liminal space.”

Achieving just that, Geomancy opens up the enclave of consciousness, where the viewer is unintentionally asked to make sense of what’s in front of them: an image that appears to be from both the past, present and the future. With such a profound grasp of time and travel, Michael’s work gives an affirmed nod to the celestial, but more so does it raise awareness to the impeachable – and enduring – impact of humankind. Speaking of a memorable story from making the series, Michael turns me to a trip in Campeche, Mexico: “I hired a Mayan guide to take me into a series of caves. We set off in the mid-afternoon, which turned into a five-hour journey through the narrowest passages you could imagine. Deep in the heart of these caves, he brought me to a reliquary and gestured to a ledge of ochre stone before us – 

‘These are the bones of my ancestors who dies here hiding from the Spaniards’. 

What struck me was that even the inside of the earth holds the memory of the human.”

Michael’s Geomancy is currently on view at The Museum of Photography, Seoul, until 26 June 2021. All photography courtesy of the artist.

Korean Art from 1953

Kimberly Chung and Yeon Shim Chung reflect on the tumultuous forces at play in Korea in Phaidon’s latest book

Lee Seung-taek, Burning Canvases Floating on the River, c.1988, performance. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Hyundai

Following Korea’s liberation from imperial Japan in 1945 and the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953, a tumultuous political climate beset the country, changing the pursuit of art for generations to come.

While the rapid economic development of Korea has been paralleled by a surge of critical interest in Korean popular culture and commercial films at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there remains a lack of English-language resources and scholarly materials to match this flurry of interest in Korean modern and contemporary art. This omission, although unintentional, is compounded by the emphasis placed in the past on scholarship focused on premodern art and archaeological history. Research on Korean modern and contemporary art has remained fragmented and decontextualised, often concentrating on the aesthetic aspects of singular movements such as the monochromatic painting style known as Dansaekhwa and its increasing cultural capital in the West. With the exception of a few globally active individual artists, the various phases of contemporary Korean art have been equally under-represented in the traditional canon of Westcentric art history.

Lee Ufan, From Line, 1973, glue and mineral pigment on canvas, 194 x 259 cm. Courtesy The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea.

This project was initiated by art historian Yeon Shim Chung and, with the help of curator Sunjung Kim, Korean studies scholar Kimberly Chung and film theorist Keith B. Wagner, was fully conceptualised with the contributors during a workshop and two-day symposium held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) with the support of the Korea Arts Management Service. This publication is the culmination of studies by researchers and scholars who share a variety of critical perspectives on the different developments in Korean art. A critical reappraisal of Minjung art, for example, highlights the polemical art practices that confronted the politically charged climate of the 1970s and 1980s during Korea’s controversial rapid modernisation. Another important chapter outlines the early stages of post-war art in North Korea in the 1950s and 1960s. This collaboration also moves against regionalism by incorporating into the study of contemporary Korean art important global contexts, cultural flows and transnational moments – such as the art of the Korean diaspora – alongside newer global concerns. By also understanding the inter- relationship between diverse forms of aesthetic practice, this anthology attempts to introduce a new trajectory of Korean art criticism that provides an in-depth study of developments in Korean art at critical social junctures.

Lee Quede, Self-Portrait in Traditional Korean Coat, c.1940s, oil on canvas, 72 x 60 cm. Private Collection. Courtesy of the Lee Quede Family
Oh Yoon, Marketing I—Hell Painting No. 1, 1980, mixed media on canvas, 162 x 131 cm. Courtesy of the artist’s estate
Lim Eung Sik, Looking for Work, 1953. Courtesy of the MMCA Collection. © the artist’s estate

Excerpt from Korean Art from 1953: Collision, Innovation, Interaction, published by Phaidon, £59.95 ( Words Kimberly Chung and Yeon Shim Chung

Out of the Ordinary: Korean architecture under the spotlight

Architectural historian and critic Hyungmin Pai talks to Ray Murphy about curating London’s first major exhibition of contemporary South Korean architecture

Slow Island Trip Centre by Oujae Architects – image by Jaeyun Kim
Slow Island Trip Centre by Oujae Architects – image by Jaeyun Kim

In June 2014, South Korea was awarded one of architecture’s most prestigious awards – the coveted Golden Lion for its national pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2014, which thrust the country’s architecture into the international spotlight.

Now one of the pavilion’s co-curators, Hyungmin Pai, has put together an exhibition at The Cass, London Metropolitan University, with the aim of showcasing the next generation of Korean architects. As Out of the Ordinary opens, we speak to Pai about the state of contemporary Korean architecture and what sets these young practitioners apart.

What were your main reasons for curating an exhibition of work by young Korean architects?

While South Korea is increasingly receiving attention in many areas of its artistic endeavors, contemporary Korean architecture is a fascinating yet under-exposed topic. I believe Out of the Ordinary is the first exhibition on Korean architecture of any scale and scope to be shown in London. When presenting this topic in a place like London, there is a real sense that I am doing something genuinely new and this is very satisfying. The basic modes of practice we see in these young Korean architects may have precedent in the experience of UK’s young architects of previous generations, but the character and trajectory of their work is an original phenomenon.

“I believe Out of the Ordinary is the first exhibition on Korean architecture of any scale and scope to be shown in London”

Management Office Annex by Oujae Architects – image by Jaeyun Kim
Management Office Annex by Oujae Architects – image by Jaeyun Kim

What trends or themes tie the work together?

I deliberately chose a pool of architects that are working in all kinds of environments and have very different tendencies. If there is a common aspect to their practices, it is that they have been successful in catching an emerging clientele hungry for a kind of architecture that remains undefined. They are usually low budget and involve work outside of the traditional boundaries of the professional architect. What I wanted to show was a kind of resourcefulness and toughness that these practices employ.

What are the key differences between your generation and the new generation of Korean architects?

The architects of my generation and older ones in Korea never lacked opportunities to build. It was a build first think later situation. They practiced in an era when large corporate offices and a few star architects dominated. Though there is much less work now, the ecology of architecture in Korea is healthier because there is much more diversity in the work produced and many more interesting architects.

How difficult is it for these new practices to achieve modernisation without it appearing to be Westernisation?

This isn’t really an issue in South Korea, particularly for this generation. You will see that these architects are not really that worried about looking genuinely Korean. This, I believe, is a strength. They understand that the Korean situation – the land, the institutional and social processes, and the often-hidden cultural mechanisms – has such a strong character, so their work will inevitably be Korean.

Ucchin Museum by Chae Pereira Architects – image by Thierry Sauvage
Ucchin Museum by Chae Pereira Architects – image by Thierry Sauvage

HM Seoul Hongdae by D LIM Architects – by Youngchae Park
HM Seoul Hongdae by D LIM Architects – by Youngchae Park

The show aims to ‘explore the recent radical changes to Korea’s built environment’ – what opportunities and challenges do these changes present?

With the 2008 global economic crisis, Korea very abruptly entered an era of post-development. Through a series of infographics, Out of the Ordinary presents the radical shifts in demography and current social trends. Korea’s centuries-old Confucian family system is quickly breaking up in an unprecedented manner. The most important urban project in Korea these days is high-density collective housing of one-room units. These new spaces in which people live, and the changing relations between public and private, demand an architecture that is both intelligent and hard-nosed.

How might winning the Golden Lion at the 2014 Venice Biennale impact the way the world sees Korean architecture?

The Golden Lion going to our Korean pavilion was part of a growing interest in architecture beyond the traditional centres of cultural production. The older, Eurocentric paradigms really can’t account for what is happening in Asia. Locally, there’s a growing trend of bringing architecture into the different folds of culture. One of the biggest projects I will be working on in the coming years is creating a new architectural collection for the soon-to-open Asia Culture Complex in the city of Gwangju, Korea. I’m sure that China will soon build something much larger, but it is, without exaggeration, the largest cultural complex in the world. Who does such audacious things these days? The intellectual and logistical challenges of projects like this provide enough energy and anxieties to last a lifetime. It’s an interesting time to be in Korea and in Asia.

Namehae Cheo ma House by Joho Architecture – image by Sun Namgoong
Namehae Cheo ma House by Joho Architecture – image by Sun Namgoong

What influence have the likes of Kim Swoo Geun and Seung H-Sang had on your own practice?

Architects such as Swoo Geun and H-Sang are immensely talented but were never systematically trained, so their work is very strong yet difficult to understand. Swoo Geun and H-Sang – both good friends of mine – and younger Korean architects such as Minsuk Cho, have taught me how the range of senses can inform disciplinary production. Swoo Geun and H-Sang have instinctively taught me to have trust in your senses. Through their work they have widened the scope of what aesthetics can mean.

H-Sang once suggested that architecture in Seoul was treated like a “subset of engineering” – do you think this is still the case?

It certainly used to be so during a period of high growth, when the construction industry was one of the main engines of South Korea’s economy. In many large government and private projects, architects would be employed as a sub-contractor to the construction company. In the Confucian bureaucracy, architects were often considered to be ‘merchants’. There is now a growing demand for an architecture that is much more creative and sophisticated. The conscientious architects have worked long and hard to improve the status of architecture, in both institutional and cultural terms.

Out of the Ordinary runs at The Cass until 28th February 2015

Words Ray Murphy