In the collage eponymously titled Decoding Women (2014), for example, Koh’s composition entails a woman’s body placed against a skyline formally articulated in his recognizable photographic aesthetic but also includes text and drawing. The figure is reminiscent of the Neo-Classical odalisque yet by placing the historical trope of woman as erotic and exotic within urban space, Koh draws attention to how women have been codified by forces beyond their control. Other works in the exhibition also cite diverse sources such as the ambiguously gendered self-portrait where the artist has rendered himself as clown or nineteenth-century saltimbanque. Solemn, pensive and self-reflexive, the close-up of the artist reveals a heterogeneous self-fashioning that poetically conveys the inherent presence of the feminine in masculinity and vice versa.
But the issues that Koh’s most recent body of work raises is not isolated to what Simone Debeauvoir referred to as “the second sex.” For in questioning the impossibility of “decoding women” because there are other variables that constitute identity such as class, culture and sexual preference including gay, bisexual, heterosexual, and asexual, Koh’s solo exhibition indirectly asks that of men. In doing so, the exhibition interrogates the normative “coding” of gender by which society has created and sustained an innate asymmetry of power evinced most recently in the debates concerning same-sex marriage, equal pay for equal work for women, and discrimination and general non-acceptance of the transgendered.
Koh Sang Woo’s vibrant photographs explore an idealised version of pure love, uncorrupted by power or greed. Working with real couples or carefully chosen individuals to document their relationships, he paints onto their bodies before taking their portraits as part of a theatrical performance. By reversing the colour and light in the exposure, he gives his photographs an unmistakeable visual electricity and intense emotional charge – hyper-real romance for the IT age. Koh Sang Woo has exhibited widely worldwide and was listed in 2013 as one the 100 most important Korean contemporary artists.
– Raul Zamudio –