Gallery &CO119 is pleased to present its forthcoming exhibition, Daesung Lee’s Futuristic Archaeology, which will run from May 23 to July 13, 2019. Since its inception, photography has borne witness to and become an advocate for an increasing awareness of humanist and ecological considerations. In his day, American photographer Ansel Adams was already involved in several interest groups and influential lobbies seeking to impress upon the President and Congress the importance of Nature.
Ecological change happens incrementally, at a pace that is virtually invisible at any one time. Awareness often comes after the fact; alarms are sounded after people realize belatedly that things are not what they used to be. Today more than ever, as California burns and the permafrost melts, it is apparent that the time has come to promote a collective awareness of the ecological stakes and to envision possible future scenarios. This is the challenge South Korean photographer Daesung Lee has set for himself. Futuristic Archaeology turns the spotlight on Mongolia – or, rather, on the progressive desertification of Mongolia. The nomadic lifestyle has for centuries been at the heart of the country’s culture. Although urbanization has spread in recent years, 35 percent of the population remains nomadic and thus dependent on the vast pasture lands, lakes and rivers across Mongolia. This lifestyle is however increasingly threatened by desertification and the creeping advance of the Gobi desert.
The causes of this phenomenon are many, but changes within the lives of the nomads are a contributing factor. For example, the demand for cashmere in westernized countries continues to grow. But when herders replace their traditional sheep with goats, vegetation suffers and, with domestic livestock numbers nearly doubling since the 1990s, overgrazing has become a serious threat, depleting the soil and raising the risk of desertification in a territory which is already weakened by global warming as its lakes and rivers dry up.
Lee’s objective is to sound the alarm, not to pass judgment. His photos raise questions and induce reflection. They provide information about changes – changes in ecosystems, of course, but also changes in traditions, customs and lifestyles which are reliant on a specific environment. For Lee, photography can help track the Anthropocene era and the influence of humanity on climate and the environment. He sees photography as a companion to ecological awareness. His images encourage us think about whether we are really ready to confront change, to accept the increased scarcity of water and the disappearance of the nomadic lifestyles.
In the scenes he sets, the photographer also poses the question of heritage and inheritance. In a family portrait showing family members from patriarch to the youngest child standing in a green, grassy area while facing toward a landscape of sand, Lee subtly evokes the idea of inheritance and the perpetuation not only of our customs but of our very descendants and lineage. Having children is no longer a trivial consideration when there is nothing to leave them – no livestock, no land, no water, and not even a traditional lifestyle. His picturesque images depict Mongolians in traditional dress with horses or goats under a mainly blue sky. The images may be viewed like paintings in a museum – which is exactly what he wants. They contrast scenes and landscapes drawn from zones that are still green with landscapes in zones where life has been buried under the sand like archaeological vestiges. In the form of large paintings centred on canvas sheets, these images hark back to the dioramas of history and natural science museums.
The photographer thus blurs the frontiers between present and future, between documentary and fiction. One is drawn into a futuristic tale which is not far from reality, especially as the protagonists posing for the photographer are all former nomads who were forced to give up their traditional way of life. Lee has reinvented the aesthetics of landscape. Here the banner becomes the story, a fable which recounts the world’s cruelty as in a tale from Grimm. Fantasy and horror are forever linked in the background. By showing both the beautiful and the ugly, what exists and what is no longer, what is and will never again be, Lee speaks of the two sides of a same coin and of the dangers of an incomplete vision of things. Recourse to fiction when photojournalistic imagery no longer seems sufficient to clarify what is at stake, this is how Daesung Lee has chosen to frame his questions and to evoke the dangers of anthropocentrism. The camera becomes a militant banner, the questioning its megaphone. Here is reality; here is what will soon be reality. Lee shows us the choices we will face: to act or to remain passive, in full awareness of the consequences.