Shining Things Around
LEE Youngwook
“…where monsters arise from underworlds,
and strangers intrude from hinterworlds,
gods generally reside in otherworlds beyond us.”
- Strangers, Gods, and Monsters, Richard Kearney

An artist who has captured the strangers in her photographs for nearly a decade, KIM Oksun is now turning her eyes to the trees. The focus is mostly on the palm trees unique to Jeju Island where she currently resides but there are also other types of arbors in the images. Some of these trees stand alone, while others stand together. Some are in the woods while some are just around the corner of the neighborhood. It seems the artist started to look more carefully around her living domains as well as the sceneries within with and is starting to sense one by one the objects or the glowing light emitted by them.
KIM’s previous photographs on the strangers feature all types of aliens with a status of visitor, temporary or permanent resident who are internationally married couple, gay couple, English teacher, businessman, travel agent, yoga instructor and more. Happy Together (2002) is the first result of this project, a series on couples composed of a Caucasian husband and an Asian wife. It was interesting because of its unconventional way of shifting the focus towards the audience. The Asian woman in the photograph gazes squarely at the audience. In the scenes where she/they reveal(s) a moment from everyday life with her/their husband(s), she/they observe(s) the audience. Through these scenes that are normal to the photographed person but that may cause a sensual repulsion from those with confined views, these women seem to question “how is this life any different from yours?” At this point the eyes of the audience biased with curiosity, snooping, fantasy and prejudice experience a kind of sensual rupture. The details of the scenes are each condensed through delicately captured moments and perfectly contained to cause chaos to the audience. The spaces enhanced by the details unique to the international families and the world of fusion covers the viewer’s eyes and rattle them. Thus the images lead the audience to voluntarily restructure their views and senses and force them to accept such integrated life and living to acquire an open minded view that expands together. If so, aren’t those who hold the senses and views of fear based on exclusion (against the strangers) nurtured by nationalism, ethnicism, and patriarchy the most appropriate audience for these photographs?
In Hamel’s Boat (2008) and No Direction Home (2010) the focus shifts from the audience to the people in the image or the subject. The type of strangers featured in these series cannot get any more diverse. The artist’s eyes seem to be fixed on the life or lives of heterogeneous individual(s). Hamel’s Boat captures a moment from each person’s favorite and frequented activity taking place at an outdoor space. For instance, sally the flaneur is leaning against the wall at a Jeju alley way during a walk while rich the naturalist gazes over the ocean at a small beach after finishing his solitary swim. brian the fighter is photographed with the slopes of a low hill as his backdrop during his Japanese fencing practice. Standing in front of the exotic scenery and living quarters of Jeju, they expose their everyday life as a foreigner and as a free man who would transcend across the borders without any hesitation. The artist watches them at a distance not too far and not too close. Questions seem to dwell on the surface of these images asking “what are they doing here, at this foreign land? What are they to me?” Yet there cannot be any clear answer to these queries. They are only living their lives, surviving each day with a dream and hope at this unknown place they have chosen to settle in. The stranger is a relative notion. As they are stranger to us, we are strangers to them. There is only such difference. Hence the message of the images perhaps can be deciphered as such. “In fact we (who look at the photographs) too live here at a place that is familiar yet foreign with our own dream and hope in a way that is difficult for some to understand.”

Unlike those from Hamel’s Boat, people appearing in No Direction Home are either sitting on or standing next to a chair or a bed in the room instead of being outdoors. What’s most distinctive about the series is that the artist is compressing the characters into a much standardized frame and photographing method as if they are for pictures for an encyclopedia. For instance, the distance between the camera and the subject is always set so that the subject’s body fills up the screen while the lighting is very flat to erase away almost all the contrast from the image. Thus the distinction between the subject and the background fades away and the space within the image is flattened. Moreover, personal character is contained from the person’s expression as much as possible while the props laid in the background too are simplified and minimized. I believe such attempt is linked to the (un)intentional will to capture and expose something that does not perish even after objectification, homogenization, standardization and simplification, or something that can be only visualized by processing it that way. Let’s take a look at one example. What we see in melanie (2009) on the cover of the book is not just about her exoticness or the heterogeneous characters created by that exoticness when fused with the details of local culture. The image suggests something beyond the current layer. The stranger actually does not exist. In every aspect, it is the result of projection. The focus therefore is transferred to the borders dividing this stranger from us, separating homogenic objects from heterogenic ones, and the foreign from familiar, then to the screen of recognition and senses that is the foundation of this borderline. Then some other things seep from the other side of the screen. In melanie, that other thing or what’s equivalent to ‘Real’ as Lacan would put it, is no other than the tight tension sensed from the screen with overly simplified dim light over her left head, or the flow or resonation of certain light created from her face, distortion of the shape of her leg that diminishes suddenly, and the sole of the slipper.

KIM Oksun’s new images on trees appear as a documentation of certain discovery or encounter. These trees are located at a deserted prairie, inside the woods untouched by men, or a mundane corner that is abandoned or neglected. In other words they are peripheral. The trees too are peripheral. They are not extravagant or grand that tries to stand for some symbolism. They are just there. Rooted to the place, fastened, without any embellishment, they stand as they are with a face given to them by the environment. Yet each of the trees in the image emanates certain energy. Or I should say that they shine. KIM discovers that shining and documents her encounter with it.

What’s interesting is that the photographs of these trees resemble portraits. If you think about it, the way they are photographed is quite similar too. Most of the trees are full sized and are place in the image center. The focus is on the trunk rather than the background and the distance between the subject and the camera is set based on the height of the tree. Of course some of them are not the same. Such arrangement reminds of the people from No Direction Home. Also at times the trees are arranged within the image in a way that is similar to the ones from Hamel’s Boat. The people and the trees are posed in a resembling fashion. What needs to be brought to our attention is how these trees are personified. At times they put on a man-like expression, at times they pose in ways humans would under certain circumstances. At times they discharge an energy comparable to that of the humans or some other being.
For the sake of this discussion, it may be better to observe the palm trees alone, separately from the other ones. The form of palm trees in the photographs prompts human facial expression or an attitude at a situation. For all other trees there are only two types. One consists mostly of trees resembling uniquely shaped beings or their attitude. From the other type a certain kind of spiritual being can be sensed from the way the trees in the woods blend in with other objects.

The image of palm trees taken from locations of everyday life shows the tree hiding along the alley, behind the house, at a small farming ground or next to an empty lot. Sometimes they protrude, sticking their long arm over a stone wall, a roof, entrance of the village or top of a vinyl greenhouse. Some of them are located at a plausible site like the center of the front yard or the roadside. The most commonly found background of the image is electric lines laid on top of the trunk or intersecting in the middle. The trees appear to be abandoned and are no longer subject of interest. Rather it should be said they are standing in between the village and the city just like the strangers. The location they stand in and the way they look are as peripheral as it can be.
However that is not all. Take a closer look at the photographs and they are all shining in any way they can. Using their entire body as a medium, they convey their own expression and attitude. Some trees distort their distinctive palm leaves and stems in a bizarre fashion as if they are doing acrobatics to emit a lively energy. With another tree the fully spread out leaves sway from the wind and the tree seems to be enjoying the wind calmly. Then another tree shows off its extravagance like a well dressed up woman. There’s also a tree that is proud as it is. Of course perception of these forms is to some extent is a result of imagination and projection. What can actually be sensed is the sequence of forms or the vibe that allows one to imagine the shapes. The exoticness or the differences of the palm tree itself enhances such imagination. Yet what can be sensed here is the distinctiveness of the object that is revealed as a contrast against or through all peripheries including the exoticness. There is a story often mentioned when discussing constellations. Stars are in the sky. But when they are viewed in a certain way and when each of their features is scrutinized, suddenly they come to have a shape and a make-believe image. Thus they shine even brighter.

One type of image on the trees other than the palms features those standing alone at a field or next to small shrubs at an empty lot. Yet it is inconclusive where most of these trees are because their trunks are blown up. They are mostly hybrids, mutants or deformed. The artist probably photographed the trees up close with an intention to highlight such character. Some tree grew askew at 45 degrees and stands that way now. Some tree grew thicker towards the top like a tornado. Some tree reminds us of a creepy alien we saw from a science fiction movie while some tree is gloomy with dabs of inner darkness as if a monster is crawled up inside. None of them are normal. They are deformed, odd, shabby or scary. In a nutshell, they too are peripheral. They too shine. In this case it is the periphery itself, the hybridity, mutation and deformity that shine. They shine further as themselves within the peripherality and not despite of it. It is difficult to tell from the image of Untitled_daepo1170 (2014)(plate1) whether the object is a tree or a cluster of trees, vines and bushes. I come in contact with a homeless man who is quiet in nature, sitting in his ragged clothes. That raggedness shines.

KIM Oksun was able to detect expressions and attitudes from these trees. In other words she was able to encounter certain shines from peripheries because she has or came to have a view that is somewhat different. When I say a different, I mean a view that looks at the surroundings and not centric oriented, a view open to the subject instead of trying to dominate it. How is such open view possible? This is intimately connected to our attitude towards the world. It is an attitude admitting to the limits. The limits are not just about an incompetent self or a crazy world but a process of fully taking in that ultimate limits and recognizing the being outside. Our personal and social lives today are deeply stained with centric oriented thinking and behaviors. It is not an easy task to be unleashed from them. Once in a while one may have the eye-opening experience but soon everything would return to their places. Nevertheless, by chance or through consistently accumulated awareness, if such centric oriented way of thinking and order can be rattled, our views will slowly transform. Peripheries become important under such context (The definition of periphery is not confined to space. In fact periphery can be found from any place with such center-peripheral structure exists [for instance, our inner self]). Now periphery sheds its meaning of being peripheral in the center-peripheral structure. Periphery now comes to indicate a place where the central power weakens, where the view of the center is confined, a type of borderline area. Thus things once unseen from around here start to be seen. New things are witnessed. These new things came from beyond the limits of our minds, from outside. The definition of periphery is transformed into a venue to encounter the outside. These new things are no other than the traces of others. The other in principle is not visible and is not someone who I can capture and assimilate. What we can encounter peripherally are only the traces and indications of it. The other would only reveal itself through such traces. These traces and implications are the very shines we meet with our newly widened vision. What KIM intends to document in her new work is no other than the encounter with these traces.

Such traces of outside-other becomes more evident when it comes to the photographs of trees in the woods. Unlike before, the shape composed by a tree and other trees, or by tangled vines and bushes suggests presence of certain being rather than reminding the viewers of a personified form. Such impression is once again confirmed by detection of a spiritual energy. At times the energy is felt from the unique shapes of vines climbing up the intersecting branches. At other times it is detected from the tree covered all over with ivies appearing like a live, deformed animal. There are other cases where the mutated tree with strange looking branches penetrating through its trunk releases the energy into the woods. Then there are instances where it is felt from the trembles of the slender branches intertwined with each other. This spiritual space in the woods too is a place frequented by nobody, just a waste land overlooked by all. However in this case, the objects that traces of other penetrate into are always minor, meager and minute like the shrubs, vines, slender branches, bushes and deformed trees. They deliver certain awe to us all. That even the most humble being pushed to the periphery can shine.

The other is something beyond the limits of recognition and thinking. Yet the other will not suffice at being excluded and remaining outside. It makes its approach by breaking away the way we think and sense. Therefore it may be risky to accept this other. It may make our being and identity unstable and demand us to endure the pain of dismantling oneself. In that sense, the centric oriented views are not the only problem. Views violated by the other, or overwhelmed by the other are prevalent as well. Such is often spotted from the contemporary abject arts. It is most likely the absolute devastation on the reality of life resulting from the centric oriented thinking and order had on the contrary caused such flood of the other. Thus it becomes important to secure a way of life and views that do not eliminate the other. At the same time it is necessary to coexist and not be overwhelmed by them. This is where the positive significance of periphery comes back to life. The key is in enforcing periphery of my own. I need to admit that the periphery is my place and accept that this world and my life are simply unfamiliar. Enhancing peripherality equals to growing the power to embrace and welcome the other. That way, the other will not materialize here anymore as a threatening being. After a long struggle with the cultural other of strangers, KIM Oksun is now entering into another phase where the outside encounters the other. She seems to be inspecting the peripheries now. I look forward to see fruitful results from her new exploration.

Art Critic LEE Youngwook