An Illustrated Dictionary on the Flatness of Things
Gyewon Kim
(Professor, School of Art, Sunkyunkwan University, Seoul)

Since the mid 1990s, Oksun Kim has been taking portrait photography. Even when taking pictures of palm trees in Jeju Island, she gazes at them as personified figures. She took numerous pictures specifically of women and immigrants among different portraits. In most cases, she entered their private space and set up her camera the place where their daily life was unfolded. In some sense, Kim’s photography seems to prove the sociologist Erving Goffman’s point that “what is one’s ground is one’s figure.”1)

The persons look toward the camera at their homes. They reached a foreign territory, founding new families, decorating their rooms with souvenirs from the places of their departure. At the same time, bringing in new objects, they cultivated their taste and chased their dreams through new leisure activities in the new land. But where could exactly be the actual terrain where they are standing? The modern ‘jus soli’ based on nationality, geography, territory, sovereignty, ethnicity etc. cannot give any answer to this question. Over the past thirty years, Kim might have been attempting to temporarily capture a fluctuating identity between migration and rootedness under the name photographic practice. And for this exhibition, the artist calls what she has traced for many years as “flatness of things.”

Flatness of Things is an exhibition literally unfolding the trajectory of Kim’s oeuvre in its broadest sense, ranging from Happy Together (2002) to new works produced this year, Adachi Portraits and Brides, Sara (2023). In the exhibition, her works are neither presented in chronological order nor grouped as series. Discarding the axis y of time, it could naturally be liberated from the conventional distinction of photographic objects in portrait, landscape, and still life. On the wall of the exhibition space, portraits of people from diverse regions, ethnicity, and generation mingle with each other, as equal presences. A patinated object of someone creates a gap between human figures and palm trees to make room for itself. As implied in the exhibition title, all these objects in Kim’s photographs reveal the ‘flatness of things’ where no space for disparity, authority, or hierarchy is available. Foremost, photography itself means a medium of ‘flatness’ to her. This is not a matter of a two-dimensional flat image. Here, the flatness of photography indicates the artist’s specific attitude and approach to the object––refraining dramatic staging or overwhelming narratives and capturing candidly its surface into her image. Indeed, Kim once uttered about Berlin Portraits, where she photographed Korean immigrant women in Germany, that it is a “testimony lacking of dramatic events or activities,” a “scene where the past, the present and future coexist”––and if any truth were to be revealed in it, it would be given in a “plain and ordinary” manner.2)

However, in contrast to the seemingly “plain and ordinary” testimony of daily life, the place where the figure in the portrait is standing is engraved with wounds of turbulent modern history. Behind the propagated harmony and peace of all global citizens, the twentieth-century globalism was accompanied by the shades of the darkest oppressions such as traumas of colonialism followed by commands of the Cold War, indiscriminate economic development and rapid growth, labor migration and exploitation etc. People ceaselessly got deprived of their grounds or were pushed to leave their hometowns and had to configure another life with another face in unknown places. Moving from one place to another, as one culture (of an ethnicity or gender) gets grafted to another, identity becomes variegated and entangled, leaving marks onto faces and places. Whereas Kim’s formative work Happy Together questioned the photographed ones as well as to the artist herself whether migration, border crossing, and hybridization can make one truly happy, No Direction Home (2011) and Hamel’s Boat (2008) didn’t chase grand terms like the pursuit of happiness. Instead, in her photography, the artist approached subtle senses of humor, dreams and playful imaginations that permeated in the lives of foreigners who settled down temporarily in the province of Jeju Island. In terms of style, Kim’s works on Jeju kept the typological approach similar in the previous work, yet when we can notice a certain poetic sensitivity from these Jeju series, it might be due to her own engagement within the actual “life in Jeju.” Stagings in snapshot style sporadically appear, revealing her relaxed gaze, somewhat liberated from the weight of a typifying camera.

It is exactly from this laid back gaze and approach, and her respectful attitude toward the photographed persons, where a kind of ‘active neutrality’ arises. The artist’s ‘active’ intervention for eliminating dramatic interpretation or expressive intention paradoxically results in a ‘neutral’ stance. In fact, such ‘active neutrality’ is an attitude penetrating through typology and New Topographics, and it was also prevalent in contemporary photography of Korea and elsewhere. Nonetheless, what is specific to Kim’s photography is how it depicts realities in Jeju as never portrayed before. The Shining Things (2014) highlighted plants and trees non-native of the island that flew in from somewhere outside to root in different spots, while The Museum of Innocence (2016) focused on homes and belongings of multicultural families and refugees on the island. Kim’s camera moves in-between human and plant species, exploring proactively the traces of hybridity. The resulting images show that the soil of Jeju is essentially a place for ‘the flatness of things,’ with no distinction between pure and mixed breed. That is, Kim’s work crystallizes artist’s own gaze and perspective, as a person who has navigated from the ‘mainland’ and settled down in the island––as other immigrants and even palm trees did.

The flatness of all these things becomes Kim’s photographic object, as purely ‘shinny’ as they are. Palm trees safeguard the entrance of a residential area as if a harubang statues used to do in the past; foreigners living in the island adopt a Korean girl from the mainland, founding a highly multiethnic and multicultural family. Kim’s camera thoroughly scans their luminous surface and love for family. We tourists of Jeju, eager to consume culinary specialties, enjoy the view to the ocean and purchase local harvest, have no way to know about these purely ‘shiny’ beings in the island. Tourism by nature encourages chasing specialized products ‘made in Jeju’ and the consumption of something that is believed to be only available in the specific location. It is intriguing how Kim’s camera turns away from all these touristic objects and aims toward exactly the opposite direction. From the 1990s to the present through the grammar of photography, her work provides the most accurate information than any other practical data regarding the shifting population and labor structure of Jeju. In her photographs, Jeju appears as an habitat for the ‘flatness of things,’ which poses a critical question about the presumed idea of nationality, ethnicity, boundary, etc.

Recently Kim has expanded her subject and began photographing places outside of Jeju. In Berlin Portraits (2019) she portrayed Korean women working formerly as nurses in Germany, who emigrated from their countries as “pillars of industry.” The artist stated her desire to explore more of the relation between the history of migration and individual lives through photography via research and interviews on site.3) She set up her large-format camera within their private space and captured the present of the elderly women who’ve owned their life as ‘guest workers’ in the foreign country over the past half century. In struggle and solidarity to stabilize their social status, love and marriage, and making efforts to reach a multicultural society, they have aged by now, all naturally captured by the camera in a calmness charged with impactful experiences.

The new work Adachi Portraits portrays Korean-Japanese people, foreigners, interethnic couples and their children's generation in Adachi, a town in Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan. In contrast to Berlin Portraits, the artist not only approached indoor spaces but also attempted outdoor shootings in their respective workplaces and neighborhoods. There is also a certain change to notice in her setup of distance, angle, lighting and staging. To convey the intensity of sentiments provoked by the figures, she stood in tighter distance to the models for closeups or emphasized the contrast made by natural light. In Brides, Sara, she introduced a fairly new manner of taking photography. To an old photo studio in Seoul, the artist invited women from the Philippines, China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan who married Korean men and immigrated to South Korea. Using the camera, filters, and backdrops owned by the studio she followed the classical grammar of portrait photography. She appropriated the idea from the story of brides’ photographs sent to Hawaii in the early twentieth century. ‘Sara’ in the title is the name of the first Korean ‘photo-brides (sajin sinbu)’ who left for Hawaii. Like many other ‘photo-brides’ of the time, Sara had visited a photo studio nearby to her hometown to take an appealing profile picture eventually to be sent to Hawaii. After a hundred years, Kim took appealing profile pictures for ‘Saras’ in contemporary South Korea. Like ‘Saras’ of a hundred years ago, ‘Saras’ of our time wear neat makeup, in their traditional costume or other meaningful outfits that each of them have kept, stand in front of the camera and make a pose. They appear in ethnic dresses, wearing large and impressive ornaments, tinted by the light filtered through flashy colors.

Those ‘photo-brides’ in Kim’s work must have their personal stories, memories, and identities that cannot be represented by the single name of ‘Sara,’ same with the figures in Adachi Portraits. They must have crossed the Korea Strait out of different reasons, hiding the token of otherness stigmatized as zainichi [a marginalizing term of Korean residents in Japan], and continued their lives in each and different look. Still, the faces of women in Kim’s photography seem to express a sentiment of commonness. Could it be the weight of diasporic life, the courage of crossing given borders, and a certain willingness or hope accepting challenges in calmness and confronting the future?

Over the past thirty years, Kim’s photography quietly paused at daily places, faced the time of figures and things that had been hidden behind the dominant histories, addressed who they are and where they are standing. When her photography gives us a sense of unfamiliarity and dissimilarity, it is because we’ve never looked into the presence of the ‘flatness of things’ through such an intimate gaze. She is the kind of artist who crosses borders carrying a large-format camera while the representative Photography with capital P of the twentieth century gets rapidly fragmented within the cloud environment of our current time. In the mercilessly sharp focus of her photography we can finally observe the shapes, textures, and details in the flatness of things, of which we’ve never been aware. There lingers a certain gaze, reminiscent of an illustrated dictionary. In a dictionary, nothing is more privileged or put in the center. It portrays the objects as they are with neither subjective nor dramatic interpretation. It just juxtaposes and arranges the objects and reproduces their ‘shiny’ surfaces.4) So is the ‘flatness of things’ by Kim. Her photography confirms that rich stories can be told just by clearly exposing the object as it is, rejecting the arrogant gaze of the self in the attempt to penetrate the surface to enter the inside and dissect the object’s meaning. In doing so, individual figures don’t degenerate as a part to be absorbed to the whole and there is no center to be found in the direction where the part is heading for. While the flatness of things rendered as an illustrated dictionary arises as a multitude of perspectives in endless flotation, it deconstructs the privileged center, relativizes differences, and gradually erases tokens of otherness. We are yet to know what kind of different world it might arrive in.

1) Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1963, 88.
2) Oksun Kim, “Nursing Women,” Beyond the Border and the Boundaries: Stories of Korean Nurses Who Went to Germany, Seoul: Seoul Museum of History, 2017, 130.
3) Quoted from my notes of the artist’s exhibition introduction at Sungkok Art Museum in the morning of June 10, 2023.
4) Around the gaze of the illustrated dictionary, I referred to the photography and writing of Takuma Nakahira, a Japanese post-war photographer. Takuma Nakahira, ‘’Why an Illustrated Botanical Dictionary (1973),” Why an Illustrated Botanical Dictionary, Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, 2007, 9–37. About Nakahira’s photography in the style of the illustrated botanical dictionary, see: Gyewon Kim, Photo-Nation: The Beginning of Photographies in Late 19th Century Japan, Seoul: Hyunsilmunhwa A, 2023, 329–343.