Tree Becoming Man, Tree Becoming Photograph
My fondness for trees is so great that when I go to Odaesan I would hold a fir tree that's at least a hundred years old and embrace it for as long as I can. Looking at photos of me in such rejoice with the tree in my arms is somewhat embarrassing, White birch I cuddled last winter at Odaesan was surprisingly not cold. Fierce wind was swirling through the nocturnal mountains but the tree was still warm. The warmth couldn't have come from the tree so it was a mystery how the arbor maintained such temperature. Although I have always been blunt about my affection for trees, I must have regarded them as senseless items like rocks or steel. That must have been the reason for my surprise upon discovering the warmth. As a life-holding entity that metabolizes water and nutrients without showing it on the outside, a tree cannot possibly be cold as in the case of stones and iron. It is so even in the dead of winter when its metabolism is minimal. Thus I have pondered. Do I truly understand trees? Have I actually seriously thought about this being named tree? Haven't I simply accumulated layers of stereotyped images of trees? That was when the tree portraits by Oksun Kim stroke me. Kim establishes her very own ontology of trees through her photographs. Instead of stretching their arms out towards the sky as if they are ready to emit oxygen everywhere, the trees in the tree portraits are always covered in dust, timidly standing with the gloomy skies in the background and interfered by others.
The tree image
Search 'tree' on Google and you will always find images of trees with thick trunk in the middle and fine branches spreading out from it. That is the structural order of a tree that we believe in. The image of thinning branches extending from a big trunk with lush leaves hanging from them is a typical structure that divides core from periphery. It is a completely hierarchical structure. Essentiality of the trunk in the center is paramount while it is less so as for the branches. 'Jiyeopjeok', the Korean word for peripheral with a literal meaning of branches and leaves, is used to indicate meaningless details. Image of a tree appears grand because through such structure which strictly differentiates the core from periphery, it plays a symbolic role of the world’s society and human organizations. Companies, schools, and military units are all structured in this way with major roles at the top and smaller roles down the hierarchy ladder. In English, the term tree is used in cases such as family tree. Its depiction is called a tree diagram because of the hierarchy embedded in the shape of a tree. How an order of rank is described as a tree validates or gives a natural look to the hierarchy among humans. Because the hierarchy is depicted as a tree, which is a natural object, it appears as just.
Oksun Kim's trees are free of such hierarchical order. The branches and twigs are entangled in a rank-free form. As they are not in the shape of trees generally familiar to us, in the common eyes they appear as junk and not trees. When we look at a form and comprehend its nature, there is a certain essence in that form. In simple terms, the essence is character. For a painter to draw someone's face well, he or she must describe the character of the face and not its contour. Yet Oksun Kim's trees lack that character of tree that we know of. It's a game that denies trees using trees. It's a game questioning genuineness of the tree we knew until now. At this point, our network of senses, perceptions and common sense are disturbed. Perhaps Kim's photographs are demanding us to view the objects differently by moving away from the previous habit of pattern perception. The way human eyes perceive a tree is different from the way of a camera. Oksun Kim chooses to follow the latter. If she had followed the human way, she would have set up white cloth behind the tree to eliminate the disorganized background and highlight the form of a specific tree as Myeongho Lee would have done. Instead she chooses to photograph the trees and background all intertwined with one another. When a person looks at the tree in the woods, its ideal image is already stored in the head. A graceful fir tree growing straight up to a height of 40 meters would be an example. However, fir tree is not the only tree in the woods. In the background there are all kinds of trees interfering with the visual segment the fir tree belongs to. Human eyes are fairly selective and are able to eliminate the disturbing noises and only see what one wishes to see, in this case the fir tree. To be more exact, it's not that the human eyes are selective but it is the brain that is selective in processing the data taken in through the eyes. The brain can reversely provide feedbacks to the eyes, and people can see things incorrectly. Meanwhile, a camera is unable to differentiate the fir tree from others and captures all clutters of branches. That is not the fir tree we expect, standing tall and straight. Yet that is how the tree exists in the woods. It can only survive by being together with other trees. It is just like how a person in a society can only exist through the relationship with others. Therefore it is not entirely untrue to say Kim's trees portray the tangled form of humans in the society. The prejudice on trees in people's mind is adjusted by the camera. What camera sees is more trustworthy than what human eyes see, because it does not have any preconceptions that are tied to the human perceptions.
The tree myth
We regard tree as a type of savior. We believe it's a good thing to have many trees in the mountains and it's a nice house if there are fine trees planted in its yard. The trees Kim portrays are not such great beings. In the way there are central and peripheral classes to humans, trees too can be divided into central and peripheral and have different classes. The trees Kim photograph are peripheral. Every one of them is frayed and disorganized. What went wrong? Nothing. Nothing other than that Oksun Kim has looked at the tree through the unprejudiced eye of the camera. An action hero is not always so brave in real life and a tree does not always stand gallantly, giving off oxygen. Oksun Kim says those trees are the looks of Jeju. They are certainly different from the trees I saw when I visited Jejudo. Maybe because I have always been a tourist, but the trees in Jeju all seemed pretty and fair. The difference between Kim and I are the difference in views between someone who visits the island once in a while, and a resident. That is why the trees appear differently.
In fact, although Oksun Kim's photographs are not intended for professional opinions on trees but if you wish to know more about the flora, there are plenty of fine books on trees that I would recommend for reference. In the past when a clear line was drawn between image and reality, the contents of an image was absolutely unrelated to fact and it was something that should not be touched. Nowadays image and reality freely cross paths through affection, influencing each other for this to become that and that to become this. Thus in order to observe a photograph well, it is clear one must thoroughly understand the subject. It's because a picture is no longer a picture, but a status holding the subject's energy. Therefore looking at the tree image and sensing the energy of the tree was not entirely an act of vain. First on my list of recommendation is <Tree Encyclopedia of History and Culture> (Geulhangari) by Pangwon Gang. This extensive book of 1115 pages is full of historical and cultural stories on trees that are indigenous to Korea. The book does not restrict trees to being an organism living in nature, but regard them as historical and cultural entities. As a matter of fact, try some more research and you will find abundant discourses on scientific stories alone without anyone having to explain to you the history and culture of certain species. There are several books on such discourse these days amongst the flood of science publications. <Sangwook Kim's Study of Science> (Dongasia) written by physicist Sangwook Kim is a good example. If you are looking for a book on plants written from a philosopher's point of view, I would recommend <L'herbier des philosophes> by Jean-Marc Drouin. If these books are too difficult and complicated, try typing in 'Korean trees' in a search engine and you will find numerous books. Confining the search to 'Korea' concerns me for I may appear as nationalistic, but it will certainly be helpful to first learn about the trees living in the Korean Peninsula and then slowly expand to trees in other parts of the world.
There is a major issue about our perception on trees, that we overly view them as heroes. Many feel thankful about trees because they produce oxygen, heal emotions and are used as fuels. Tree cutters or those who set forest on fire would be treated as criminals. Do those people realize trees too can get cancer and they too can be vulgar and hostile? Pine trees we sing about in our anthem discharge toxins which is why you won’t rarely find other grass or trees nearby. Plants named sweet oleander contains deadly poison in their leaves and stems that is 6000 times stronger than cyanide. Furthermore, do people actually understand dense forest is not always good and it is important for various species to form a harmony and maintain proper density?
Trees presented in books or paintings are always well balanced and described as harmless. While all individuals in this world are finite, fragmented and biased in some ways, how did trees end up having such a positive impression? It must be the age-old history of trees mythicization. From ancient times, trees have been a myth in our lives. There have been plenty of cases mythicizing trees across all eras and regions, ranging from shrine tree at village entrances where our ancestors prayed to, to Pan of Greek mythology or Rome’s Silvanus. The tree myths are derived from the fact that trees rise vertically. It is equally so for Yosemite’s metasequoias that grow over 100 meters and the bearberry shrubs found at the peaks of Seolaksan growing only 10 cm every century. Metasequoias are mythical because they are tall and bearberries are mythical because they are short. They fulfill the condition of excessiveness that is an essential requirement of myth. Something mediocre cannot become a myth. The gods in myths are overly beautiful, overly strong or faced with an overly tragic fate. In the end, myth is a term indicating the excessive side of our discourses. In other words, myths are a realm of excessive significance. Similarly the tree image we desire is not a real or functional tree but an excessive tree. The myth we seek from a tree is a tree that extends endlessly towards the sky and is simultaneously benevolent. In other words, the tree myth indicates infinity of existence. In the deep woods of Odaesan or Seolaksan, there are trees lying gallantly on the ground, broken from their own weight. They seem to say they do not live eternally to forever make oxygen and save the human race, that they are only one of the many finite beings on earth.
The tree photograph
Photographers who take fancy photographs of celebrities are the most unappealing kind there is. They do an excellent job of inflating the mythical image of people using photographs. In the course, the myth mythicizes the photographer too, with words like ‘the photographer who magnificently captured actors who and who’. The images they create are bound to be false. In their photographs, it is not only the celebrity's extravagance or character but also their freeness, frankness and bare face that are mythicized. In other words, every last bit of the celebrity becomes a myth. Becoming a myth means it is given excessive value that the object did not possess originally. In the hands of photographers, celebrities are elevated to the level of god and they are no longer human. Most often, the images consumed by the public are mythicized in these ways, ranging from the portraits of stars to the incidents reported in the news. Roland Barthes had already discussed such mythicizing of images in his book <Mythologies> so there is no need to further mention it here. Yet it should be noted even when Barthe wrote about the mythical traits of all kinds of mundane objects—wrestling, soap powders, strip shows, wine and milk—he did not mention the mythical side of trees. Was it because trees are ubiquitous? It is unjust to create false images of celebrities and it is equally unjust to create false images of trees. Not only unjust but dull.
Oksun Kim's tree portraits approach the tree from an opposite angle. The tree portraits do not mythicize the trees at all. Like someone who had just woken up from sleep and brushing up the untidy hair, the trees are described without any disguise. It is not just about describing the trees. It is a fundamental question raised about photography. Frame of photographs always works in a way so that spotlight is shed on what's in the middle. Whatever comes in the middle becomes the heroic protagonist. That is the common way of photograph taking. From ID photos to the surreal images by Man Ray, all photographs follow the rule of these frames. By handling the frame in such ways, photographer becomes a protagonist of the photograph, or the main subject. Now in the 21st Century, any sincere photographer would start thinking about how to exit such basic order of photography instead of what to shoot. Oksun Kim’s work stands ‘outside’ the order. In her photographs, trees are positioned in the center of the frame but no matter how hard you look they are not the main story. In fact trees in her images are far from the already familiar status of tree’s existence. How do trees exist? To start off, trees are the hosts of a forest. In the woods trees are confident like the owner of the house at one’s own home. Prosperity of forest in the end is prosperity of trees. As a completely self-sufficient being, a tree does not have to eat anything and it won’t complain about the cold, heat, or darkness. Each and every tree is opulent and a forest full of these trees is a hall of prosperity. When I was traveling on a container ship and embarked at the docks of Port Klang in Malaysia, a joyful feeling came upon me that something good is about to happen as I observed the sea of Malaysian jungle stretched out endlessly in front of the towering vessel. The source of that feeling was the richness of the jungle forest that cannot be found in Korea. Many forests have their own names, like the ‘Fir tree Boulevard’ of Odaesan, ‘Metasequoia-line Road’ at Damyang and the Boulogne Woods in France. These forests add historical and cultural prosperity to nature.
There are also trees outside the woods and closer to our everyday life. They are roadside trees in the city or trees grown at homes. People grow these trees because in appearance, they still hold the richness of the woods. Yet they are only prosperous while they are in the forest and once they are placed outside they become humble and no longer rich. The most pathetic sorts of these garden trees are yew and white birch. Go to Taebaksan and you will discover an amazing sight of yew trees that are said to live a thousand years and stay a thousand more after death. The power of life compressed in them over the years is simply astonishing and the enigma makes even a materialist like myself to succumb. On the other hand, yew trees in a garden are like a beast captured from the prairie that’s tied to a chain, miserably recoiled and depressed. It is the same with white birches. Those trees that have once boasted their snow-white branches along the high ridges of Odaesan, now live a shameful life as ornamental plants while they perish from the dark pollution. These yews and white birches are not living beings. They may be artificial highlights of the urban spaces or gardens, but they are not owners of their lives. The trees that are forcefully snatched away from the rich forest and moved to the city, receive artificial care and live a disgraceful life. Like the people who were captured in Africa and shipped to the American continent to live as slaves, and became 'black' American citizens later on, trees live their second lives in the city as artificial beings.
These two sides of tree's existence place trees in the center of attention, for good or evil. Meanwhile trees in Oksun Kim's photographs are not the center at all but are excessive beings. They deviate from the core and fail to join the realm of significance. Trees in those images are mostly found close from home, rather than in the deep woods. They stand uncertainly in between mankind and nature, and in the course they have lost their character as trees and were deformed. Rather, they have strayed away from the center of tree-hood. Animals and plants alike become marginalized when nature enters the human world, and trees are not an exception. Livestock loses its prestigious life and is degraded to 'food', while plants become ornamental. In other words they lose their significance of existence and are only used to serve humans. Oksun Kim's photographs focus on one of these abandoned beings—the trees. Camera, a machine that is far from myths, conveys the bare faces of trees.
The tree people
There are tree-like people in this world. Their existence resembles trees, not wanting much and enduring. Although they are coarse on the outside like a tree stump, inside clear sap runs through their veins. Portraits made by Oksun Kim give off scents of the tree people. Their appearances are untidy like tangled branches. Oksun Kim is probably the first and the last person to notice these people through a camera. They are not celebrities who are likely to appear on mass media, nor are they energetic folks who are only satisfied when they show themselves off to everyone. More than anything, it is their facial expressions that look like trees. At least that's how they appear in the photographs although it is unknown what their true natures are. Oksun Kim's photographs embody a status where trees are people, and people are trees. This is not a meaningless joke. This is in the sense of tree 'becoming human', and human 'becoming tree'. In Gilles Deleuze's <A Thousand Plateaus>, the concept of 'becoming' is crucial. Deleuze asserts what exists in this world is in a fluid status that is constantly becoming something because their essence is not concrete. Something is always becoming something else. Even at the moment when it seems to be maintaining a constant identity, it is always doing its magic to be oneself. 'Becoming' does not always indicate slowly changing into something through evolution. For human to hunt wolf, one has to become a wolf. Such changes of shape and nature too are an important part of 'becoming'. The strength of Deleuze's philosophy lies in making an observation of fluidity that can change anything in this world into something else. In 'becoming', an entity sometimes becomes something contrary. A student graduating and becoming a teacher, a policeman becoming a criminal, the predator becoming a prey are all natural in Deleuze's philosophy. .
Therefore it is not entirely unlikely for tree to become human and human to become tree. As nature is adjacent to the human world, it slowly becomes human (let's not misinterpret the expression 'becoming human'. It does not mean something resembles human or becomes human-like but indicates transfer of human characteristics. Therefore becoming damaged by the strokes of human hands and destruction by humans are all part of becoming human.) and human becomes nature (once again, let's not get the wrong idea about this sentence. Becoming nature is not always positive. It's about how artificial order falls apart to dismantle the elements, like parasites entering the stomach and skin becoming coarse after being wounded.). Thus the people Oksun Kim photographed have become unique. Through the magical effect of those photographs, the human boundaries are deteriorated and they have become half trees. Just as trees depicted by Kim are in a limbo that is neither natural nor artificial, the people too are in a limbo who are neither foreigners nor Koreans. In fact, don't Koreans originating from the main peninsula but living in Jeju too have an ambiguous identity?
Therefore, how much do we need to turn into a tree in order to accept this situation, where humans became trees and photographs too became trees as the artist shot trees and people?
YoungJun Lee(Tree Critic)
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