In facie, la face, the face
Hye Jin Mun
In facie, la face, the face1)
1. Oksun Kim’s Park Portraits (2019-20) and Riverside Portraits (2019-20), now on view for the first time in Sahng-up Gallery, are a series of photographic portraits of second-generation youths from multiracial families in Taiwan and South Korea. How do these works relate to Kim’s existing oeuvre? The artist has stated that Park Portraits and Riverside Portraits give the finishing touch to her portrait trilogy, which began with No Direction Home (2009-11) and continued into Berlin Portraits (2018).2) Since most of Kim’s work involves photographs foregrounding individual people, those familiar with her work may wonder: aren’t all of Kim’s works portraits, technically speaking? It is true that most of her photographs take people as their subject, with the exception of The Shining Things (2011-14), in which Kim captured the trees of Jeju Island. Even in the case of The Shining Things, the trees were photographed in the exact manner of human portraits, with the photographed subject placed at the center, separated from its backdrop and framed as fully as possible, its characteristics and expressive traits emphasized. Thus there is little doubt that all of Kim’s work is focused as a rule on the human figure. Why, then, does the artist insist on the fact that these particular works are human portraits?
2. The titles of Berlin Portraits and Park Portraits provide a kind of hint. As the titles imply, human figures occupy over 70% of each image in No Direction Home, Berlin Portraits, Park Portraits, and Riverside Portraits. In the case of Happy Together (2002-04), which shows couples in cross-national marriages, or Hamel’s Boat (2006-08), which pictures foreigners living on Jeju Island, the spaces pictured in the photographs are almost as important as the people. Objects and props that hint at cultural difference, or backdrops involving natural scenery or buildings that clash with the “exotic” faces of the human figures, play a major role as indicators of the “otherness” of the subjects pictured. In No Direction Home and Berlin Portraits, the space taken up by the human subject increases, while the backdrop fades away in importance. Of course, even in these photographs, considerable attention is still paid to details in the surroundings. For example, the Korean traditional wooden furniture and papered windows of No Direction Home serve to highlight the alien status of the human subjects, who appear to be South Asians or Westerners. Nevertheless, as the human subjects are further foregrounded, the photographs slowly come to lean toward the portrait. The backdrop only serves to supplement the main figure, rather than competing with or overwhelming it.
Park Portraits and Riverside Portraits, Kim’s newest works, likewise put human figures at their center. What is different about these works is that the spatial surroundings truly retreat into the background, rather than participating in the signification of the photographs. When space is thus presented merely ambiguously, with all specifics and cultural indicators removed, the importance of the human figure increases. Especially in the case of Riverside Portraits, the natural scenery functions only to create an abstract atmosphere of vague desolation, rather than signalling any element of Korean-ness. Likewise in Park Portraits, photographed in Kaohsiung and Tainan, the background loses any signifying power in relation to the photographed figure. Nature in these photographs does not function as spatial signs, as they did in Hamel’s Boat to signal the indeterminate status of temporary residents, who are no longer travellers and yet have not settled down. Nevertheless, compared to the complete retreat of nature in Riverside Portraits, the vegetable life within these photographs retains the status of being half background and half photographic subject. Works such as ppm_xkz06 (2019) or ppk_lht83 (2019) use plants mostly as backdrops, but in works such as ppk_wcc10 (2019) or ppk_ccs67 (2019), the humans and plants take an equal share in being photographed together. In these cases, plants function less as backdrops and more as figures in their own right, presented along with the human subject and sharing its space. In this respect, Park Portraits attempt to combine No Direction Home’s human portraits of in-between people and the experimental tree portraits of The Shining Things. As a foreign species that has completely settled and taken root in the natural scenery of Jeju, the palm trees of The Shining Things function as independent photographic subjects that disclose their ambiguous and provisional alterity, neither completely assimilated nor rejected; the tropical plants of Park Portraits are less prominent than the human subjects, but they accompany the human figures as objects supplementing the strangeness of the young adults who are in between cultures due to their status as mixed-race youths born in Taiwan.
3. The two newer works differ from Kim’s previous works not only in subject matter, but also in formal respects. First of all, the framing of the subjects has changed. In both No Direction Home and Berlin Portraits, human figures are mostly photographed in full-length shots. Berlin Portraits has all its subjects pose identically for full-length photographs, and No Direction Home also photographs most of its subjects in full, with only a few exceptions. The full-length photograph, like the deep-focus shot, provides a wealth of information to the viewers so that they can make their own assessments of the subject, with few indications of the photographer’s intentions. In such cases, the impression of neutrality and objectivity is reinforced through a sense of distance from the subject. By contrast, in Park Portraits and Riverside Portraits, the camera moves much closer to the subject. There are a few full shots, such as ppk_cnt98 (2019), but most of the photographs are closer, three-quarter or half-length shots of the body. For this reason, the photographs generally feel more intimate, as they approach the subjects below eye level, rather than observing them dryly from a distance. The frequent use of the seated pose also allows the camera to move closer to the subjects at a lower angle. Another notable feature is the use of lighting. Compared to Hamel’s Boat or The Shining Things, which the artist also photographed in natural light but controlled for uniformity by working on cloudy days, the photographs of Park Portraits exhibit a wide range of tones. The diversity of lighting—the dark forest shadows of ppk_ccs67, the touch of sun that brightens up ppm_jlg15 (2020), the cloudy gray tones of ppk_lht83, the dappled direct sunlight of ppk_chn88—attests to a greater sense of freedom and spontaneity compared to previous works. Riverside Portraits, taken on the banks of the Han River, are relatively more consistent in tone, but upon closer inspection, one finds a range of lighter and darker photographs, with pps_jeh46 being an example of the former and pps_khn67 an example of the latter. These changes to Kim’s method suggest that the artist has tempered her own involvement in creating a uniform look for her series, in order to leave room for the quirks of circumstances and individual subjects.
4. Does this mean that the artist has reduced the distance between herself and her subjects in these recent works? This is one of the most ambiguous yet engrossing questions raised by the works. The distance between the photographer and the subject in Kim’s work has always been a complex and delicate matter of interest. First and foremost, all of Kim’s photographic subjects can claim some kind of direct or indirect relation with the artist’s own life. In the early work Woman in a Room (1995-96), which pictures women in their thirties exhibiting an autonomous sense of identity and resistance to social conventions through their undressed bodies, and in Happy Together, which reveals the cultural differences and friction within international marriages, Kim worked with subject matter that spoke directly to her own identity as a well-educated and internationally married woman in her thirties. The fact that it is always the woman who makes eye contact with the viewer in Happy Together clearly shows that the artist aligns herself with the wife in each couple, emphasizing the woman as the central figure of the photograph. The subject matter of later works moved beyond the self to involve cultural others or nonhuman objects, but one can still trace their close connection to her personal life. Hamel’s Boat, which pictures foreigners living on Jeju Island, began as an effort to understand her husband, who was living on the island as a foreigner himself; The Shining Things explored a similar alterity in the foreign species of palm trees that she encountered in her surroundings; Berlin Portraits functioned as both a sympathetic exploration of the in-between lives led by older Korean women who were dispatched to Germany as nurses and spent the latter half of their lives there, and an homage paid to these women whose experience of international marriage stretched beyond her own. Park Portraits and Riverside Portraits also reflect elements of the artist’s personal life: these works, featuring mixed-race youths from Korea and Taiwan as their subjects, are inspired by the artist’s daughter of a similar age, and the artist’s budding interest in the lives of those young adults who will experience a different kind of in-betweenness from her own.
All of these works are based directly on the particularities of the artist’s own life, yet retain a certain distance toward its subjects. It is a feature characteristic of Kim’s photographs that the camera refrains from fully sympathizing or identifying with the subject, and instead remains to some extent a distanced observer. Even in the case of Happy Together, a work that aligns most closely with the artist herself, the gaze of the camera is not simply one of identification. The expressionless faces of the subjects, the hushed and static setting, and the muted tranquil tones of the photographs suggest a viewer who observes the subject from a distance, rather than one who embraces them or makes emotional attachments. In this respect, Kim’s attitude aligns more with that of Diane Arbus than Nan Goldin’s. In fact, the relationship that Kim holds with her subjects lies somewhere on the spectrum between those two photographers. Kim’s work is reminiscent of Goldin’s in that she chooses subject matter from her own life, but one does not find in Kim the personal intimacy of Goldin’s photographs, which all constitute a kind of self-portrait regardless of their actual subject. Rather, Kim’s choice of remaining an observer, even with subjects that she can potentially understand, can be likened to the approach favored by Arbus, who feels intimacy with subjects who are unrelated “others,” yet resists being completely caught up in them and retains some distance. This ambiguous stance of retaining distance while acknowledging sympathy can also be traced in how the photographs are staged. In Hamel’s Boat or No Direction Home, the subjects choose their own outfits and poses, and they present themselves basically as they wish, in a space of their own selection. Yet the artist also participates in the staging to some extent. The artist generally leaves the subjects to their own devices, but occasionally intervenes to suggest a pose for a desired shot, to set a different mood, or to otherwise subtly direct and control the situation. This method of presenting the subject in a natural manner without artifice, while allowing the artist and the subject to both participate to some extent in creating the situation, balances the studio photograph and the documentary photograph. This curious in-betweenness can be found in Kim’s recent works as well. As previously mentioned, these photographs reduce the physical and psychological distance between viewer and subject by closing in on the subject, and appear at first sight to be less formally structured than previous works due to their variance in lighting. Despite this, we still do not know these mixed-race youthful figures, and we find it difficult to approach them. This is due to the fact that we are brought face-to-face with only the subjects themselves, without the supplementary objects that would provide information about the subjects in previous works. Unlike No Direction Home or Berlin Portraits, which allow viewers to speculate about the figures’ tastes, personalities, and occupations through their clothing and the interior of the home, the viewers of these new portraits have no way of guessing at any specifics of the individual youths pictured. The only clues available are the initials and fragmented numbers related to personal information found in the photographs’ captions, but these are merely abstract symbols that do not give us any information into the individual subject’s background. What the viewers finally face, then, are only the faces of these youths, upon which we find subtle traces of their mixed-race background, suggesting the exceptionality of their past and future life experiences.
5. The final question to ask of these works is whether they can indeed be defined as “portraits.” It is clear that Park Portraits and Riverside Portraits are photographs of human subjects. Since the photographs minimize elements other than the human figure, emphasizing the human subject to a greater extent than previous works, they can technically be categorized as portraits. However, the question remains: who are these photographs “portraying”? On the surface, viewers know that certain subjects physically exist—and yet, they cannot know anything more about these subjects before or after viewing the photographs. The photographs, presented in large format with all of their minutiae visible, allow us to see the faces in much more detail than we could ever hope to see in real life. However, the figures remain opaque to viewers, aside from the fact that they appear to be of mixed-race origin. The experience of viewing these kinds of portraits can be likened to that of viewing Thomas Ruff’s Portraits (1981-85), in which one sees the figures as precisely as is physically possible, and yet the surface is all one can see.3) Park Portraits and Riverside Portraits do not show us human figures as individuals, each with their own backgrounds and life stories. What arises in their place is the nebulous concept of “mixed race,” in all its collective abstraction and ambiguity; a peculiar concept, just like “race” or “ethnicity,” that exerts practical influence over reality and dominates everyday life, yet becomes endlessly elusive and confusing when one tries to pin it down.
In addition to the aforementioned “in-between” distance, simultaneously close and far, which is a trademark of Kim’s work, another prominent feature of her oeuvre is the unique way in which her photographs give simultaneous specificity and abstractness to her subjects. The human subjects of Kim’s photographs each bear their own names and characteristics, but when they are subsumed into a series, they lose their specificity as individuals and begin to function as yet another element pointing to an abstract otherness. As Kim’s photograph series continues to expand, the space once occupied by the individual’s specificity is taken over by the generic concepts of “foreigners on Jeju Island,” “nurses dispatched to Germany,” “couples in international marriages,” and “mixed-race youths.” In this respect, Kim’s photographs lean heavily on plurality, necessitating the form of a series, and thus touch upon typology as a method. However, Kim’s “otherness series” is much more formally flexible than the typology of the Bechers (Hilla and Bernd Becher),4) and is free of the all-encompassing archival desire of August Sander. Kim’s photographs set themselves apart through the very ambiguity of their subjects, which are too varied and specific to be consolidated into a type, yet too abstract to be called individuals. Park Portraits and Riverside Portraits acutely reinforce Kim’s particular brand of ambiguity, which oscillates between the general and the specific. Adding to the opaqueness of Kim’s new works is the instability characteristic of teenage youths who, unlike adults who have fully formed personalities and tastes, have identities that have not yet solidified and thus are unsure of where they belong or who they are. It is because of this that we cannot presume to know these youths, even as we peer into their bloodshot eyes, acne marks, and clumsy makeup. All that exists is their faces.
6. What is the otherness signified by “mixed race”? It could be said that the very faces of these youths bear witness to the indefinite actuality of “mixed race,” which is difficult to affirm or to deny. Some of the faces allow us to guess at a certain level of admixture, through facial features that diverge from East Asian norms, such as thicker lips, rounded noses, or large eyes; some faces do not visually suggest any departure from such norms. The fact that these latter faces are also “mixed-race” can only be deduced from seeing the other faces in the series. If all that we can see are these faces, and yet the faces do not offer up a clear identity, then the faces we see are in fact empty signifiers, indicating nothing. The same holds for the essence of “mixed race.” Technically speaking, in that there can be no “pure race,” the idea of “mixed race” also lacks meaning. The same can also be said for otherness. The self cannot be constituted without the other, and the idea of the other is a contingent and temporary concept that arises solely in relation to the “I.” “Upon seeing her you know how it was for her. You know how it might have been. You recline, you lapse, you fall, you see before you what you have seen before. Repeated, without your even knowing it. It is you standing there. […] You are she, she speaks you, you speak her, she cannot speak.”5) We see fenglin, hu an, sujin, hanna. We are not them; yet, at the same time, we are them. We see their faces, yet we do not know them. The faces are all different from each other, yet all the same. What does this face observe—and what can we say about it?
1) The title takes its cue from a passage in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee (1982): “IN NOMINE / LE NOM / NOMINE.” Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), p. 21.
2) Interview with Kim Oksun, 23 July 2021.
3) Needless to mention, Kim’s way of establishing distance from the photographic subject differs considerably from Ruff’s in that she does not treat her human subjects as inanimate objects.
4) The wide range of poses and types of framing contained within a single series is a notable feature of much of Kim’s work.
5) Cha, Dictee, p. 106.
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