Guannan Li captures Korean shamans, disappearing coastlines and artist’s utopias in her nomadic photography
“This project has been surprising in many ways, but one of our first efforts was to wrap our brains around an ancient belief system within another culture,” she says. Through academic papers, history books and interviews with Yang Jong-sung, curator of Shamanism Museum in Seoul, and Laurel Kendall, a leading researcher in the field, they created a blueprint of context for their project.
Although they anticipated a resistance in terms of access, the reverse turned out to be true. “We were met with a lot of interest, shamans love to be the centre of attention,” she jokes. Despite their spiritual practice, much of their work is still a transactional provision of service. “Juh-Young, for example, would sometimes receive requests like: when is a good time to break up with my boyfriend or girlfriend? What is an auspicious time to get plastic surgery?” she adds. In a casual joke, Guannan asked Juh-Young to do a reading of her future. Usually strict about doing readings for people he knew, Juh-Young tells her his reading after a moment of silence. It was, of course, what she already knew – that she will lead a nomadic life where no place is home. A plea for a more positive reading was met with a mere smile, the reading was already over.
Across Guannan’s other projects are moments all filled with niche situations. “A project I felt really fortunate to shoot is the portrait of artist Song Pei Lun and the Ye Lang Valley,” she says. “Decades ago, he began building the surreal stone sculptures that would eventually grow into Ye Lang Valley, which translates roughly to ‘Night Wolf Creek’,” she says. “He too, was obsessed with tales of an ancient civilisation that disappeared without a trace and has dedicated his life to create his own artist utopia.” Another project documents the coastal erosion in the northern Portuguese town of Cortegaça. “Here, I’m focusing on the fishermen community, forced to resettle and live in ramshackle structures called ‘fishermen hoods’.”
Referring back to Modern Shaman, Guannan concludes by telling us about a meeting with Juh-Young in Neustadt, taking place during his tour of Europe’s folklore festivals, ending with a joint German-Korean BBQ. “After dinner, everyone made it down to the beach for some impromptu performances as the shamans started chanting and drumming and dancing, a crowd of retirees, children, townsfolk and passers-by gathered,” she says. “Within minutes, they had turned this quiet sand strip into a beach party.” Throughout her work, her photography is genuine, telling the unique stories that she finds with her keen eye through a generous voice. Perhaps you have to be quite generous when faced with rather eccentric situations that she finds herself in.