Oksun Kim: The Flatness of Things
Nam-See Kim
(Professor, College of Art and Design, Ewha Womans University, Seoul)

Persons/Things and Their Backgrounds

As artist Oksun Kim moved to Jeju Island, she was unable to photograph ‘landscapes,’ regardless of people’s expectation and encouragement. Landscape is a rather unclear photographic object since it is hard to tell where it begins and ends and where persons and things are to be located. For an artist who had been focusing on persons and things that stood (alive) in a definite location, it must have been perplexing to capture such an undefined object. Kim’s photography doesn’t grasp a landscape, which is uncertain of what and where it is situated by definition, but something that is certainly ‘occupying’ a spot. The reason why the artist’s photographs of trees appear as a portrait is because they depict them from within the background they occupy, as if they were people. As a result, those trees in Kim’s photography tell the stories of where they stand as well, including white laundry hanging on line beyond a low wall, the adjacent greenhouse, and traversing electric cable tipped by a tilting telephone pole. This character is also apparent in Hamel’s Boat (2008) series, where people are the protagonist. Peter the nomad, Jason the bard, Victor the tour guide, Katharine the dreamer––every person is called by their name, standing, sitting, and lying, and tells the story of Jeju, of its forest, beach, streets, the wind, a wall scribbled with “Do Not Pee,” the marketplace, and a school yard altogether.

I believe this aspect is the core of Kim’s photography. Within it, the key object (persons or things) certainly exist, as well as the background of their ‘occupancy.’ This background is the location where the tree, the persons or the thing was present at the moment of shooting. In Happy Together (2002), it is homes of internationally married couple, in Hamel’s Boat, it is Jeju Island dwelled by foreigners, and in No Direction Home (2011) and Adachi Portraits (2023) it is locations in Japan or Korea where they came to reside due to marriage or work. None of them are native to the location, yet like the palm tree in Jeju, they migrated through marriage, immigration, job seeking, or transplantation to here and now, finding their own places and backgrounds. And they might be migrating further, depending on circumstances. Kim’s photography explores the relation between these beings to the places which they occupy here and now. “What I see has been here, in this place which extends between infinity and the subject (operator or spectator)”1)––through the essence of photography as such, Kim tells about ‘their existence here and now.’

In this regard, Kim’s photography differs from that of Richard Avedon or Robert Mapplethorpe, who emphasize figures through close-up shooting and discard the background. Photography with a single figure who fills up the entire frame conceals where the person is at, and focuses thoroughly on the object with no background. In doing so, it de-historicizes the photographed figure or thing by detaching them from the place of their presence. As a result, the figures lacking a specific background turn into an universal icon that transcends any time and space. In contrast, Kim’s photography indicates and demonstrates the actual beings who specifically dwell here and now.

In the exhibition The Flatness of Things (2023), photographs of persons, trees and things that the artist has been taking are hung onto the walls of the exhibition space with no distinction or separation from one another. The property of the photographic genre that rendered everything onto a two-dimensional plane combined with such a method of arrangement emphasizes the ontological flatness of their beings. Moreover, the exhibition shows the expansion in the artist’s direction of interest. Whereas Kim’s previous work mostly told about ‘the fact one exists here and now,’ in this exhibition she went further with the circumstances that brought them to the here and now as well as their relation to places of their current presence and to places they left behind. In her new video work A Kind of Home (2023), interviews of a second-generation immigrant who is born in Japan and spent whole life there but still recalls the emotional moment of the first visit to South Korea, a Korean woman who has been working in Japan for sixteen years nevertheless sympathizes with foreigners in Japan, a woman who becomes aware of the identity conflict of her son who is born and raised in Japan are cross-cut with the presence of ‘walking palm trees.’ The figures of these ‘marginal people’ who do not feel fully comfortable, neither in the place where they migrated and settled, nor in the place they left behind, are overlapped with the palm tree, which, despite being transplanted at random, survived the cold and winters of Jeju and became a part of the hybrid landscape. The ‘walking palm tree’ is a symbol of those who have endured the time of migration and settlement and are living in the hybridity of the here and now.2)
‘Walking palm trees’ as such also appear in Brides, Sara (2023). ‘Sara’ came from the name of the first Korean picture bride. The bizarre term of ‘picture bride’ derived from the marrying process of Korean women in the 1920s to Korean men who went to Hawaii for work. Barely thirteen or fourteen, the girls left their parents and hometowns and moved to a faraway country to get married to a man whom they had never met. Pictures were focal for making up their mind. According to Honolulu (2009) by Alan Brennert, this process begins with the words of a matchmaker in town who told: “You know how hard life can be in Korea, so it should come as no surprise when I tell you that some fifteen hundred Korean gentlemen are today living in a place called Hawaii––a lush and fertile group of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean––which is a part of America. Many of these men journeyed there as bachelors and have since become wealthy and prosperous, but they have a problem. There are not enough Korean women there for everyone to marry, and most will not consider marrying non-Koreans. (...) Well, it’s my business to help these lonely men find wives. I consider it a patriotic duty, aiding Koreans who are far from home and in a bad way. I’m proud to say that I’ve signed up nearly two dozen young women from Kyongsang-do, and they are all now happily married women in Hawaii.”3) As the young girls, intrigued by such introduction, saw “a picture of a man in a dark suit and bow tie standing in front of an expensive house shaded by exotic trees”4) they could make up their minds. After the pictures of “young woman wearing lipstick and kohl, all the artifice with which the matchmaker had prepared to be photographed”5) were sent to those men, they wrote on the backside of the photograph: “My name is Mr. Noh and I choose the girl named Regret.”6) Then the marriage was set up in this manner. Only after reaching Hawaii going through an almost ten-days-long journey on a steamboat in anxiety and hope, the girls would have noticed that their groom-to-be weren't rich businessmen but day laborers at sugar cane farms.

‘Picture brides’ being one of the most specific cases of marriage emigration in South Korean history where photography played a key role, they must have been unmistakingly fascinating for Kim’s practice. Here the problem was that the actual persons of concern barely survived by now. The artist could have photographed their remaining sites of residence, memorial halls or archived materials, yet she “wasn’t attracted by the thought of focusing on documented records.”7) Therefore, she detoured to the choice of approaching ‘brides here and now’ who immigrated to South Korea after their marrying process, not essentially different from that of historical picture brides. It’s a choice that’s in keeping with Kim, who values the ability of photography to reveal the here and now over the ability to document which is inherited to it. . But the photographs of Brides, Sara greatly differ from the previous ones by the artist. The costumes the figures wear are not at all for daily circumstances, while their postures are also excessively staged––sitting on an obliquely placed chair with an arm resting on its back, facing the camera with both hands on the waist, or faintly smiling with hands put together on the lap. More decisively, in contrast to Kim’s previous photographs, figures are situated in front of a backdrop with fluorescent effect at partial lighting, instead of specific locations on streets or at homes.

Staged and Unstaged Reality

There is a clear reason why photographs from Brides, Sara series turned out as typical profile portraits of the kind. It is because they were commissioned to a studio photographer in Hwanghak-dong, [an old area in] Seoul. It is interesting how this very first conceptual work by Kim highlights the subtle tension between photography and reality, which is the most focal point in her own photographic work. A photographer choses a spot from which a figure or thing will be photographed, then she manipulates the object from the chosen position, and releases the shutter after selecting one image among others visible from the viewfinder. This gesture of photographing8) per se already ‘stages’ reality in a certain way. However, contrary to painting whose plane is composed entirely by the artist, the photographic image resulting from the exposure to the light reflected from the object is partially infiltrated by reality and cannot be fully controlled by the photographer. Thus, as masterfully formulated by Walter Benjamin, “all the artistic preparations of the photographer and all the design in the positioning of his model to the contrary,” photography is destined to convey “the tiny spark of accident, the here and now,”9) which is directly transferred from reality. Compared to painting, photography “has an outspoken affinity for unstaged reality,”10) but it is also especially out of this reason why “the boundaries between staged and unstaged reality are fluid”11) in photography.

Kim’s photography creates delicate gaps in-between this “staged and unstaged reality.” For example, the consciously manipulated posture of the figures in Happy Together––one facing the camera while the other turns away––as well as their background (including things within it) are a ‘staged reality’ as given by the artist. However, driven by a certain kind of voyeuristic desire and as tenacious as a detective, we believe to see an ‘unstaged reality’ from the picture, for example the intimate relationship of the couple. The same happens in portraits of the second generation of multicultural families against the similar backdrop of palm trees in Jeju (Park Portraits) or portraits of Korean nurses who emigrated to Germany at their Berlin homes (filled with hybrid objects) as background (Berlin Portraits, 2019). The profile pictures of Brides, Sara take up the form of an entirely ‘staged reality’ from the beginning. Like most profile photographers would do, the photographer of the Hwanghak-dong studio must have directed in detail how these immigrant women should pose, control their gazes, make facial expressions, etc. Yet the ‘unstaged reality’ overlapping on such ‘staged reality’ unravels itself like a tiny spark. Namely their gestures adhering to typical styles of profile picture in South Korea––“both men and women wear suits, with the hair styled to expose their forehead and ears, smiling just slightly.” “Rather than a stern expression with straight lips, the slightly smiling face can give a positive impression.”12)––as directed by the photographer, while wearing the traditional costume of their original countries. In this way, the characteristic of Kim’s photography demonstrating the ‘presence of persons or things here and now’ is suggested in Brides, Sara likewise, even though the artist didn’t execute the shooting process in person. Here, neither the figures are separated from the background they ‘occupy’ nor is the background erased or discarded. Instead, the actual costumes, postures, gestures and facial expressions these marriage immigrant women have, construct the backgrounds they ‘occupy’ in the here and now, as strikingly specific as the stripes of gaffer tape fixing the bottom of the studio backdrop. That's probably why their expressions in the photographs overlap with those of the “walking palm trees,” who can only stare blankly at where they are.

1) Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 77.
2) Park Portraits (xxxx) series, where Kim shot the second generation of multicultural families against botanical background similar to palm trees in Jeju, also reveals how Kim’s work is deeply aware of the relation between the figure and the background.
3) Alan Brennert, Honolulu (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2009), 51–52.
4) Ibid., 53.
5) Ibid., 70.
6) Ibid., 55.
7) Quoted from an email from the artist.
8) Vilém Flusser, Gestures (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 72–85.
9) Walter Benjamin, “Short History of Photography,” Artforum, February 1977, 46–51.
10) Siegfried Kracauer, “The Photographic Approach (1951),” The Past's Threshold: Essays on Photography (Berlin: Diaphanes, 2014) 63–78.
11) Ibid.
12) Kiwon Cho, “Portrait is the Highlight of a Resume: A Proper Shot in Suit,” The Hankyoreh, October 12, 2011. https://www.hani.co.kr/arti/economy/economy_general/500531.html (last accessed on June 25, 2023.)