Palm Tree Seed Blowin' in the Wind
Kim Seung Gon
“Beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissection table of a sewing machine and an umbrella" - Lautréamont, Les chants de Maldoror

This photography collection opens with the image of a palm tree. The image is followed on the last page by that of a group of foreigners either standing or sitting on rocks at the seaside. One female in particular holds a watermelon in a somewhat awkward posture whilst several young companions are positioned before the camera on the granite rock. Although those in the group share time and place, the image presents us with the traces of psychological separation. The photographed people allow us to sense the absence of relationship through uninterested gestures and the sensation of subtle distance. Our sensory world temporary loses its focus and concentration on the photograph itself as we succumb to the strange aura permeating from the framed image of foreigners standing in an island’s typical humid air and low chroma.
In 2010, 7,400 foreigners from 44 separate countries lived on Jeju Island. Located to the southeast of the Korean mainland, Jeju has a landscape hewn from volcanic rock, moderate weather, and an average temperature of 15℃. Foreigners account for one in 80 of Jeju habitants. Oksun Kim photographs mainly English-speaking foreigners such as American, Canadian, and Australian. They all have diverse jobs on Jeju: English teachers, businesspersons, local newspaper editors, travel agents, scuba instructors, and environmental activists. However, most of them came to live on Jeju as they have been attracted by its nature: especially the beautiful sea, mountains and clean air. But is that all? Warm weather and beautiful nature also exists elsewhere.

Oksun Kim, a documentary photographer, differs from other photographers who search for and capture specific events and places. In setting up a detailed concept, the key to her work is found in her deciding on a model as part of the process of actualizing the concept – in choosing equipment, place, and means of expression. Many of her models are close foreign friends, or others from their communities. The photography process commences through the establishment of an understanding and agreement between photographer and model as to the subject of her work, the intention of the image and the method by which she works. Jeju’s nature, the models’ workplaces and the contexts of their everyday life subsequently become photographic studios. Oksun Kim considers how the feelings of models fitted into the concept of her work – this is an important aspect when selecting models. What she seeks in her models is the sense of self-control, open-mindedness, and idiosyncrasy that run through people’s lives. All have their own stories. While there is the person who swam alone for a month around Jeju Island, there is also the person embarking on a new life by quitting his job as a lawyer to become an English teacher following a traffic accident. We all accept realistic controls. In doing so we have to be satisfied with limited freedom. Oksun Kim’s photographs suggest to us the liberalized soul of borderless people who search for new meanings to their life as they escape from the spaces to which they previously belonged.

Heavy and inconvenient equipment such as a 4×5 camera with 150mm lens and tripod are used to capture situations both indoors and outdoors like a scene like a snapshot and a frame cut from documentary film. Her photographs contain a mixture of the elements of snapshot and carefully directed poses like a play. Even though torso shots or a few close-ups can be found, the majority of her work principally consists of full-shots which the model fills the frame from head to toe. As the limited space of everyday life environments such as bedrooms and dining rooms barely allow for the setting up of tripods, the only way to photograph such a short distance is with 150mm standard lens. However, more than this, the intension of the photographer in wanting to photograph models like a standard photo in an illustrated guide book would work behind this. The illustrated guide book should accurately reveal the external features of its object apart from personal impression or aesthetic sensation. This is why the photographer uses large and often cumbersome equipment in her work. Working with her model for about an hour, the photographer requests little in the way of specific posture or costume. The only thing the photographer asks of her models is to avoid artificial facial expressions and fake smiles in recognizing the presence of the camera. She attempts to construct the most natural conditions as possible by preventing such artificiality. As the models are acutely aware of the way they are being photographed, they adopt their own facial expressions and postures in the manner that they themselves would like to be projected in front of the camera lens. The models separate themselves from realistic context and attempt to reveal their true identities. Here it is possible to infer to some extent their personal preferences or tastes, and even the psychological status from faces often devoid of constructed expression.

The facial expression of the human being reflects inner emotion and is one of the most powerful tools of social communication. However, facial expression and smiles from the superficial level tend to be acquired. By eliminating facial expression from their faces, Oksun Kim makes her models anonymous so that she can control their subjective emotion and construct a neutral status. Within this condition, she can secretly push the idea in which the photographer merely witnesses being in a somewhat objective manner. We can face the moment of epoche in hermeneutics by watching their faceless face like a plant. By bracketing our routine and natural systems of recognition the photographer provides us with the opportunity to experience pure consciousness. Thus the photographer’s strategy tends to be successful. However, if we pay more attention to her photographs, it is also possible to discover some evidences to be read. While we follow the photograph collection’s pages, we are able to gather information that transcends the external features of projected objects. More importantly, we are enabled to investigate the triviality of the background and to engage in a search for its meanings.

Allen, wearing a helmet and red windbreaker over his formal suit and necktie, sporting sandals on his feet, his knapsack placed in front of his scooter, stares into the camera with an uncongenial gaze. A frame hanging on the wall, a dog lying on the floor, the apparently careless organization of books piled on table and desk; the Dolhareubang, small plants, a gym machine, clothes, globe; the oriental painting hanging on a wall, the TV on the brassbound cupboard…. and curtains and sofa. All are likely to be found in any Korean home, yet these few items are almost all that are needed for making ‘home’. This clearly demonstrates the fact that most of the models are not mere settlers. Whilst some items seen in the background of the photos undoubtedly contain typical patterns of foreigners’ lives on Jeju Island, more significantly Oksun Kim’s aim is to suggest something more than just this basic narrative. As in the Rorschach test, she offers audiences the chance to actively, and selectively, read fragmented meanings in the text. In other words, these items in the text work as devices of mise-en-scene in order for us to project the institution of ‘home’.

Foreigners - those people who have transferred from rooted space to different time-spaces. Steve sits in the un-separated floor space between living room and kitchen. Putter and golf ball, electronic rice cooker and a bottle of wine by the sink tell of location. What expressions other than depaysement would best describe the dissemination and contradiction constructed by the status between these realistic and concrete things and the illogical condition Steve is facing? Lisa with her exotic tastes, the clothes hanging here and there, the cheap framed print of the river of milk, a flock of sheep, and Jesus. A bare-footed Kris sitting on the cement floor on which plastic bag, mixer, and shoes scattered abstractedly faces a similar situation. The threshold Kris sits upon is an ambiguous space that reveals no clear division between outdoors and living room. Wearing Arabic clothes, Kris wanders about from place to place refusing a concrete location. It is possible to feel the aura of their own intimacy in their eyes. It is not merely the strong gaze that reaches through the camera lens to our hearts. It might be the melancholy atmosphere of the modern nomads that floats in exotic space. Melanie letting her hands droop over the legs of her chair; Katherine tidily holding her hands; Ram’s red apron framed by the background of red curtain as stands back to the camera averting the possibility of a face posed for photo.

Here the faces of the models in Oksun Kim’s photography reveal either little facial expression or project dream-like, yet muted, visages. Almost bleach-like faces construct an even more neutral background than that in which the limited numbers of signifiers frame the domesticity of its subjects. It is crucial to read the subtle moves within their inner minds through such extremely limited evidence. Detailed description portrayed by the standard lens and particles of sheet film, the revealed faces of the models in transparent and soft artificial light confirm that the photographer attempts to minimize her own role. Linsey, standing in the pale light, looks towards the camera with an out of focus gaze as if she is wandering around different time-spaces that allow her to escape from her present place. Sherrin, Katharine, and Jerry sitting in chairs; Ram showing his back; Phillip and Veronica with their backgrounds of black stone wall and leafy palm tree with its tangled philodendron; Jeju airport is seen in its location behind the memorial and excavation of the 4.3 massacre: all are portrayed as having equal claims to space in the context of Jeju’s settings.

Who are they? Simple household goods portray indoor and liberal lifestyles freed from traditional forms and allow us to characterize them as ‘bohemian’. In the 19th century European immigrants fled their hometowns to cities such as New York and Paris, escaping war, racial discrimination and political oppression. Those who have lost their own identities due to a long wandering life; all are freethinking and play out liberated lifestyles that are different from conventional worldviews. Given their aims to break away from the system and worldviews of the established, they come to share similar characteristics of the Bohemians and hippies of half a century ago. Although they do not wear long mustaches and hair, or wear beads around their neck, their distrust of technocracy and rationality, their desire to be free from the mainstream lifestyles fed by capitalism becomes the distinctive and shared attribute of modern bohemianism today. It might be possible to uncover evidence so to understand their motivation in choosing Jeju Island as the refuge of the contemporary nomads who departs from their motherland.

A long time ago it was severe wind and waves that brought Hamel to Jeju Island. After a 13-year-detainment he escaped and finally returned to his motherland. He had a hometown which he desperately longed for. In the 21st century, new migrants to the island where Hamel drifted ashore are given freedom to choose their lifestyle by themselves. They come to Jeju Island to live with and enjoy a simple life, to find space to think and enjoy the beautiful nature, to encounter and join others with a diversity of ideas and reflections. They are not mere travelers attempting to enjoy the fruits of emancipation and indulge in a freedom from their routinized lives by wandering aimlessly without plan or aim.

The (nude) female, the international couple, the homosexual as dropout…. Why does Oksun Kim carry out her work with a perspective on marginalized groups? It might be the fact that she is a part of a cultural diaspora as she herself is married to a foreigner. The perspectives and attitudes of the group she has been dealing with are located within the position of minority, or are objects discrimination within the power structure of a modern society. Oksun Kim’s photographs throw a question to us regarding social prejudice and custom, patriarchic institutions, and traditional value systems. Within the simplicity of her scenes, it becomes possible to read many elements in the level of narrative and psychology from the visual information emanating from the choice of objects and carefully calculated postures – from the faces, the customs attached to objects, and the bleach-like neutral color lighting. All project the symbols and signification embedded in those elements that make up the image. Oksun Kim aims to portray the overall narrative of her basic thesis – Minority – by accumulating constancy in her works.

No ‘Oriental country’ endures as the Other in this time-space compressed world. Mysterious kingdoms articulated by abstract dreams, jewelry and fantasy no longer exist. Yet, besides those practical reasons that explain presence, a haze of illusion and curiosity towards a country of the Far East remains at work to some extent in the deep unconsciousness. Nonetheless, the Cambell family, sitting crossed-legged on the floor, Mona sitting upon a cushion with her legs crossed, and those who go barefooted in their rooms clearly indicates that they are gradually adapting to the new surroundings: especially as a way of living in a particular land and local way of thought.

We can return to the image of the palm tree. This tropical plant is foreign and originated from the warm south islands of Japan. Maybe the seeds of the plant were blown across the sea or brought by birds as they migrated across the sky. The palm tree takes root and becomes settled in a foreign land and has a tenacious hold on life…. Is it coincidence that such an image overlaps with that of the modern nomadic and minority group? In her work Oksun Kim has portrayed this beautiful plant as settled in Jeju’s climate and in doing so has perhaps left us with a poignant symbol of exoticism.