The Aesthetics of Confession and Surface
Park Sang Woo
KIM Oksun takes the prominent phenomena in our globalized and multicultural world as her subject matter, i.e. the women in international marriages, expatriates, and foreign vegetation. Kim employs the method of straight photography and examines the hidden layers of her subjects. She has majored in pedagogy for her undergraduate studies, and it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that she started taking photography seriously during her graduate school years. In twenty years of her long career, Kim stayed productive and had ten solo exhibitions including Woman in A Room (1996 & 2000), Happy Together (2002), Hamel’s Boat (2008), No Direction Home (2010), and The Shining Things (2014). Kim is the winner of several major photography awards namely, the Photo Critic Award (2000), the Daum Prize (2007), and the Donggang Photo Award (2016).
Why does the photography world take so much interest in her? Can the essence of Kim’s oeuvre be clearly defined in such a way that the vast range of her individual works can be succinctly explained? If yes, what would it be? Presumably, the most prominent element of KIM Oksun’s art is its confessional mode of storytelling. Although Kim’s subjects vary, all of her works are surprisingly revealing. They reveal something deep that had been sitting at the bottom of her consciousness for long. Kim’s works are her monologues about the imprints that have been left on her mind by the things she encountered on her life’s path. Kim has once quite explicitly commented on this. “At the beginning stages of my works, I try to think hard about the things that stay behind: a residue of feelings, so to speak. I ask myself what it is that I want to talk about the most, that I am most desperate. I reflect on things that — on a structural level — create the most pain or most conflict in life or the phenomena that occupy the largest share of my mental resources. Then I start from there.” 1 What would her “residue of feelings” be? What is it that occupies the largest portion of her mental resources? Judging by Kim’s works, they seem to be related to Kim’s personal life. To be more specific, Kim is very inquisitive, artistically, about her identity and the relationship she has built with her close ones.
Simply put, she tells stories of herself and the people around her. She has told the stories of her and her husband’s marriage, and of other international couples that she could identify with, other minority couples, expatriates living in Korea, et cetera. In a sense, KIM Oksun’s works reminisce of Nan Goldin’s famous photographic series, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Similar to Kim, Nan Goldin portrayed the lives of her close friends that she described as her “tribe”, the young people in minority groups, namely gay people and the people suffering from AIDS. Nan Goldin was clear about how she viewed her art. “My work is my visual diary that I let people read. These pictures come out of relationships. This is my family, my history.”2 As Goldin’s, KIM Oksun’s photographs are not anyone else’s but her own visual diary of herself and the people around her. “From very early on I wondered if I were taking too much out of my own life. Because there are many artists, who base their works on “external” inspirations. But I started with things that I spent the most of my time on.” The first of Kim’s so-claimed egocentric tendencies was shown in her MFA graduate thesis exhibition Woman in A Room (1996). Kim took photographs of female models, mostly her friends and acquaintances, posing nude inside their respective houses. Their bodies were not those of typical idealized, glorified nudes. Their bodies were presented ordinary, even dull. KIM Oksun’s Woman in A Room series has often been interpreted in the feministic context. I object to such readings. Reading Kim’s works as feministic would be too hasty and superficial a conclusion. I claim that the artist intended to portray her protagonists as “strong and independent women who claim the spaces of their own, separate from their parents’ house and are in full control of their surroundings.”3 But why nude? Dressed models and models in nude are entirely different concerning their effects. It seemed to Kim that nude would give her subjects more candid feel without their social masks, more up close and personal4.
With the Woman in A Room series Kim wanted to recast women with a new identity that is — according to artist’s words — “women as independent beings” and “women who are not afraid to reveal themselves”5. One could suppose that this new identity Kim projected onto her subjects was probably the one she was seeking for herself at the time, as a woman in her late twenties. Not long after this search for identity as an independent young woman, KIM Oksun found herself standing at a new crossroads of her life. First, Kim got married — an international marriage. Second, she left her long-time hometown of Seoul city to settle down in Jeju Island with her newly-wed husband. In the face of this new reality, what did “occupy the largest portion of her mental resources” this time? It was the personal topic of her international marriage. Kim produced her series Happy Together around this time. “Happy Together was conceived from the questions about my marriage6 .” is Kim’s word. In Happy Together the artist asks whether the fundamental gap, that two parties in an international marriage experience, is cultural or individual7. Bearing this question in mind, Kim took the photographs of the married couples similar to their own — couples of Asian female and Caucasian male, in particular — including the photos of themselves.
Kim says “I am curious. I am really anxious to know. Are they — in their little bubble called the international marriage — happy? I’m asking, ‘Are you happy together’?”8 Well, are they? Kim seems to be skeptical, judging by her works. The air surrounding the couples in the photographs is depicted somewhat dull and tense. Husbands are captured in the photos with their backs to the front, implying that there exist some miscommunications in the marriages. Kim choreographed her subjects’ eyes so that in none of the photos did a couple looked at the same direction. Kim says “two people share the same space, and yet they see things entirely differently due to their fundamental differences in upbringing. Subjects’ eyes serve as metaphors.”9
Another peculiar thing about the subjects’ eyes is that women are looking directly into the camera while men are looking away. This makes viewers feel that women in those marriages are the lead characters of Kim’s story: that these works are written and produced in the POV of female characters. Here, Kim tells the story of herself by virtue of telling the stories of others who are in similar situations to herself. “I have created the Happy Together series because I took great interest in both the personal and social layer of the nuptial binding of which I am a part.”10 In Happy Together, KIM Oksun not only express and externalize the frustrations from her marriage but attempts at resolving the issues arising from it. “At one point I used to hate Ralph — her husband’s name — so much. But after Happy Together, I could finally put a lid on the feeling.11 In 2007, Kim started another series as a token of reconciliation for Ralph with Ralph as her muse. This new work is called the “Hamel’s Boat”. A simple question about Ralph — the single most important person in her life and her identity — led to the creation of the series: Why does Ralph, a former German national born and raised in Germany, choose to live for such a long time in this foreign land? Curious, Kim started taking photographs of Ralph. Soon after, she began taking photos of other expats living in Jeju Island — wanderers, musicians, painters, vegetarians, nomads, English teachers, tour guides et cetera. She took portraits of her models in their favorite spots in Jeju, where they spent the most of their time. With this project, KIM Oksun was sort of searching for clues to help her understand her husband’s mysterious way of thinking. But it wasn't all personal. To Kim, Ralph didn’t stop at being her husband. Ralph was now a sign, or a symbol, of all the other expatriates who were the living exhibits of the issue of migration and settlement, or of increased fluidity in the global era. In Hamel’s Boat, “boat” stands for two things, like any other boat. A boat is a means to escape one’s former life, and a means to seize one's dream life: in short, a way out and a new way in. The Jeju Island was to the expatriates an escape from their boring hometown, and at the same time a symbol for a new lifestyle of travel, exoticness, freedom, and opportunity. No Direction Home is a natural extension of Hamel’s Boat and features the portraits expats residing in Jeju Island. In Hamel’s Boat, Kim took photographs of her models in the outdoors; whereas in No Direction Home, she took them in the models’ homes. Here too, she took an interest in the hybridity or the boundaries between cultures. The bizarre juxtaposition of stereotypical Korean residential setting and a foreigner in it caught Kim’s eyes. In the Happy Together series, there were many cases of similar juxtaposition where two very contrasting furniture pieces from two different cultures were cohabiting under one roof. Despite these evident similarities with her previous works, however, in No Direction Home, there is an element which radically differentiates itself from all others. Before No Direction Home, she split her attention equally between her subject and its surrounding. In No Direction Home, however, KIM Oksun focuses greatly more on her subjects and regards the space they are in as mere backdrops.
What is Kim trying to accomplish with the shift in focus? I would argue that before No Direction Home Kim was more reliant on narrative or context that her characters brought with them. In No Direction Home, the very objectness of her characters comes to the fore. This is evident when we compare the changes in her monographs before and after No Direction Home. In the published catalog for Hamel’s Boat, the caption beneath each photograph included the model’s name and occupation to better deliver the whole context. In the book of No Direction Home, however, there are no captions at all: only the names of the models are indexed at the end of the book. With no information whatsoever to help them make out the photographs, viewers have no choice but to confront Kim’s subjects that stare right back at them.
Why is Kim doing this? Why put more emphasis on her subject than on the narrative it suggests? This is because Kim had gone through a sort of transition in her artistry. She now has a different understanding of the medium of photography. In the past, it was Kim’s understanding that photography is a tool with which you gaze into the world.12 That basic concept, in turn, led her to believe that a tool is somewhat inferior to a goal, and that end trumps means. Moreover, the artist believed that one could condense and jam in a grand narrative into a single photograph in such a way that its viewers could read from a photograph its subject’s past and future. But KIM Oksun gradually drifted away from this belief. She had doubts. She came to realize by heart that maybe what is shown could be all there is to it and that photography is a medium which essentially records the surface of its subject. “Photography is a two-dimensional medium. I now feel that I should forgo the belief that there could be more to it. A photographer must make do with what stays, in the end, on the surface of the final print. I wonder how it would be, a photograph that communicates with only what it has.”13 The culmination of this idea is No Direction Home, and it opened a whole new phase in twenty years’ of Kim’s career. It is a shift away from storytelling photography to the photography’s surface. “I want to steer away from the myth that photography too can deliver a complex plot. I want to create works that are capable of communicating on a surface level alone.”14 In summary, KIM Oksun took a great leap with No Direction Home. And she moves from the aesthetic of depth to the aesthetic of surface. She jumps from narrative to materiality and, in turn, from the literary to the photographic.
The great shift towards materiality and the aesthetics of surface, however, is yet incomplete in No Direction Home. Because the traces of literary narrative — the story of herself and her husband, and of the strangers — are still apparent in the images. Kim seems more resolute to complete her quest with Shining Things Around (2014). The elements of narrative, however, isn’t totally ridded here. The non-native vegetations that are the main subjects of the series are none other than metaphors for the people living in foreign lands. Kim still attempts at telling a story, this time in a ventriloquial manner. There is one distinctive development, though. By changing her subject from humans to inanimate plants, Kim achieves the higher degree of materiality than ever. Empathy and instant identification on viewer’s part are trickier than ever. “I imagine that even if trees were to convey some form of a message to me, I wouldn’t be able to notice it. I guess the trees are the type of interlocutors — compared to humans — that demand more focus from my end.”15 In Kim’s vegetation series, there are still more elements of a human than objects, more pieces of evidence of narrative than of objectness and more signs of humanity than technology. Will KIM Oksun be able to finish her self-imposed quest of “The Big Ontological Question: What is Photography?” and push through with her ambition to establish the aesthetics of surface which also happens to be a major theme in the world of contemporary photography? I would be more than happy if my critique could assist the artist in any way on her journey.
1 Takeout Drawing Newspaper 2011. 10 Vol. 27, p. 2.
2 Same as above.
3 Author’s interview with KIM Oksun, conducted on June 1, 2016.
4 Same as above.
5 Same as above.
6 Artist’s statement, Happy Together, 2002.
7 Same as above.
8 Same as above.
9 At the 9th Colloquium hosted by the by Fuji Film Co., The Photographer KIM Oksun, The Photo Critic PARK Joosuk, March 17, 2014.
10 Takeout Drawing Newspaper 2011. 10 Vol. 27, p. 2.
11 Same as above, p.2
12 Author’s interview with Kim Oksun, conducted on June 1, 2016.
13 Excerpted from the artist’s statement, No Direction Home, 2011.
14 Same as above.
15 SHIN Suejin’s Real Interview, VON magazine, September issue, 2014.
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