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After Night Falls

“Night unnerves us and surprises us with its strangeness; it frees powers within us which
were controlled by reason during the day…”

Brassai

 

 

Now we must write the history of the dark photograph.

 

So much of what is happening in the world takes place at the border of vision, at the edge of

fnight (so to speak), at the limit of visibility. Although the challenge of making a photograph in

darkness was implicit in photography from the beginning (How much light is enough? How

much time is enough?), Brassai identified this as a quintessentially modern ambition. Not utter

darkness anymore, naturally descending darkness, and this was his point. With the lamping of

cities, first by gas and then by electricity, darkness surrendered its totality, became the negative,

the reverse, of the light that bracketed it. It became also a space, a territory to be navigated

and colonized. The lamping of cities released human activity from the tether of a diurnal rhythm

and fostered – demanded – night life, that latency that Brassai visually explicated. He is justly

famous for his photographs of the demimondaine and the café dwellers of Paris, who could by

then exist at all hours, but his most complex image is that of a car traveling through the parklike

Avenue de l' Observatoire, its headlights cutting the fog. The park is a forest of night, each lamp

revealing emptiness and concealing menace. And the car itself is inscrutable, an uncanny

signifier suggesting love or crime, either way clandestine. Prophylactic light, the light of control

and security, spurred its opposite, the proliferation of the illicit.

 

But the burgeoning of the new night world wasn’t limited to sex for sale on street corners and

second-story men planning a heist. An extensive catalogue of Brassai’s photographs detail the

activity of a society devoting itself to the industrial ideal of ceaseless productivity and round-the-

clock labor. Bertolt Brecht wrote of “those in the shadows you do not see.” He meant an

underclass, the lumpen criminals, but he also meant the truly invisible workers building a society

that would run 24-7 for the benefit of those who could afford to sleep when they chose.

 

It took dominion everywhere, and became the glow of a global capitalism that now stains the

night of the developed world, of the whole world, a background radiance that often erupts in

bursts of excess energy. Some years ago, at a point of anxiety in his life, Taewon Jang had an

intuition about the semi-secret night of a country constructing itself, Korea, and he set out to

photograph it under its own power (so to speak), using no flash and letting his film record the

ambient light through long exposure. He titled that early series “Collusion,” suggesting not only a

relation among light, time and the medium but also among the powers-that-be responsible for

massive construction projects, high-rise apartment complexes, ominously colored skies, the

ziggurats of a new Ninevah. Since then, he has traveled around the world (and extensively

across the United States) to record a global society slowly but surely banishing its night. Taken

together, this remarkable archive, with its many references to the history of travel photography,

testifies to the fact that darkness is now a theme, a problem, and its explication a demystifying

act of literal and metaphoric importance. As Jang has said, “For me there must be darkness to

reveal the light.” And as chemical photographers know, all things latent are revealed to those

with the patience to wait in the dark.

 

The photographs indicate that Jang’s choice of locations was not haphazard. Based on his early

work in Japan and Korea, he developed the following procedure. He researched on the

internet places where the landscape, natural or urban, was in the process of transformation,

especially where industry and energy production were involved. And then he went there, found

the precise spot he wanted – in some sense a formal, rather than a political decision – set up his

camera and went to work, usually until he aroused the suspicion of security patrols, in which

case he would withdraw, only to return again. The night paid him back spectacularly. The

photographs do not allow us the luxury of comfortable condemnation, for they embody a new

and problematic beauty, a beauty that hovers between the fabricated and the natural, a visual,

political and semantic relation in which these opposites are necessary to each other, suspended

and irresolvable.

 

For example, the most dramatic presentation in the book involves a vast energy project that has,

certainly, a positive side – a wind farm in southern California near the Mojave Desert. This

monument to technical ingenuity exerts a hypnotic fascination and inspires a formal celebration

that far exceeds the “joy before the object” of the Neue Sachlichkeit photographers of the

1920s. Faced with these pictures it is impossible not to feel a kind of optimistic delirium,

perhaps similar to what Goethe felt when he walked through the Palladian arcades of Vicenza, a

sense that the species capable of producing such excellence cannot perish and must be divinely

inspired. Goethe ate grapes, a perfect expression of his ecstasy at the perfection of imagined

things. I cannot help thinking, also, of early photography’s projects to document monuments of

the built world, from Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square to the pyramids, in an expression of

limitless confidence and inspecting power.

 

Taewon Jang brings us full circle on this ambition. In its repetitive purity, more emphatic than

any project of minimal art, the wind farm also provokes a kind of cold revulsion, even paranoia,

that in the effort to “save the planet,” we have to rely on technical systems so complex, abstract,

had suddenly been invaded by our own technology. No wonder there is constant objection to

such farms by local inhabitants, quite apart from their “aesthetic” incursion on the landscape

(aesthetics in this case amounting to no more than if someone about to go before a firing squad

complained that his last-minute letter of reprieve was written on the wrong color paper). Better

the crude towers of a nuclear plant, familiar like castles or cathedrals. Perhaps the emotion

these pictures arouse is simply despair at the recognition of defeat, an awareness that no matter

what scale, technology cannot save us, or, rather, preserve a certain lifestyle.

 

The other face of the wind farm is the vast oil refinery of Galveston, to which Jang devotes even

greater attention. These pictures are all shot from a distance, so the oil processing enterprise

appears as a glowing vision on the horizon, literally a city of energy extraction, production and

distribution. The wind farm and Galveston are both devoted to the global frivolity of energy

consumption that makes possible the so-called consumer society, with its necessities

(automobiles, air conditioning, heavy weapons) and its diversions (automobiles, weapons,

entertainment and shopping complexes, and media devices, including the cameras that Jang

carries).

 

And light, of course, filling the sky and time, altering human and animal sleep cycles, eliminating

dichotomies everywhere, leveling experience and banishing myths. It is impossible not to think

of Galveston’s true counterpart in the economy of waste and consumption, Las Vegas, a

metastasizing tumor of light in the desert. Jang has not photographed Las Vegas, because this is

not a sociological expose, and yet the connection is more forceful by its absence. Is this what

Plato and Zoroaster had in mind? Disastrous revelation, an excess of insight, blinded by the

light? As riveting as the particular images may be, it is the totality of the photographs and the

linkages they suggest that make the book so valuable. I hesitate to call Jang’s work disaster

porn, but the end of the world – or the end of the civilizing process represented by global

development – never looked so compelling or inevitable.

 

A key element to Jang’s project is time – time the revelator and time the destroyer. Shooting at

night has required that Jang use long exposures, and much of the “special effects” of the

photographs are artifacts of that open eye. Energy literally accumulates in the sky, and a

background glow can appear as a sudden flare. Even the atmosphere itself seems to become

visible. In contrast, other moving elements disappear or leave only traces, including the

surveillance helicopters that patrol industrial sites post-9-11. In conversation, Jang has made an

interesting point. In Japan and Korea, where space is at a premium, buildings are usually

demolished and built over, so there are no ruins. But in the United States, where there is

nothing but space, new buildings and entire industries arise next to the corpses of old ones.

Because of liability concerns, crumbling structures have to be patrolled along with working

ones. Both the dead and the living must be surveilled. Hence the thin arcs of light that mark the

helicopters’ paths where they wouldn’t be expected.

 

Jang has also remarked that when he began the project, he was interested mostly in the signs of

abandonment and decay, evidence of wounds to the land inflicted by human beings. Such are

the deliberately archaeological photographs shot in Blair, Nevada, formerly a gold mining town.

Most of what he depicts in this sequence are foundations facing an empty desert, and the

resemblance to ancient ruins such as Pompeii or the Native American cities of the Southwest is

too obvious to miss. Likewise the Ozymandian irony: look on my works, ye mighty, and

despair. But the moral is misplaced. The point of ancient civilizations is not that they passed

away but that new ones kept arising to take their place. Jang makes a great photograph of an

immense defunct power plant on the Hudson River being dismantled from the inside. The

earthmovers at work seem like the mechanical equivalents of devouring beetles, creating new

loam for the nourishment of what must inevitably grow there next. As time went on Jang

became more and more fascinated by this parallel process of destruction and growth, often

happening in adjacent places and sometimes the same place.

 

Nietzsche once made a famous remark to the effect that when you look into the void, the void

looks into you. You become what you behold. This is the secret the night tells the day, that we

are more than half in love with our own extinction, which we can’t help but mistake for

perfection. The seductiveness of the photographs confirms it. The final image in the book

shows not an industrial monument or skeleton but a group of people standing in an empty field.

We can’t tell where they are or why they are there. In the long exposure, they appear as no

more than dark shadows in the surrounding pale night. Some are sitting or hunkered down,

some standing. They appear to be waiting as the sky lightens, or perhaps darkens; it’s

impossible to tell exactly which point in the night’s trajectory Jang has caught them. What Jang

has said about the monoliths in his photographs could also apply to these human subjects: “In

the context of nature, they are paused, as if to rethink their purpose.”

 

 

Lyle Rexer

 

 

Darkness Visible

Lyle Rexer

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”         

Martin Buber

Henry Fox Talbot predicted in The Pencil of Nature (1844) that someday a photograph could be taken in complete darkness to reveal the “secrets of the darkened chamber.” It didn’t happen until 1930 and required an exposure of 48 hours as well as a plate coated with an emulsion sensitive to heat. In spite of everything, an image took shape, capturing what the eye could not perceive.

Originally, photography was seen as a union of opposites, of light and darkness, of mind and hand, of positive and negative. The values we place on the contemporary print and its daylight clarity – its dense information about the visible – were scarcely in evidence. The earliest photographs were

photograms, paper records of light’s impedence in silhouetted negative forms. Later, positives and negatives were exhibited together like Platonic twins, and darkness (the negative’s reversed value appear dark even though they aren’t) was considered both beautiful and true, because the negative was closest to the source of the image, a direct registration of the original conditions.

Darkness was fruitful.

Taewon Jang is our contemporary in every way – in his simultaneous embrace of digital and chemical methods, in his awareness of the paradox of beauty and devastation that photography today discloses as no other medium can. Yet I couple him with the early masters of photography because of his willingness to descend into darkness to bring experience into the light.

Descend into darkness. I do not take the expression casually. In Jang’s case it represents the originating conditions of these stunning photographs, their political implications, and their philosophical ramifications. Several years ago, during a time of emotional crisis, Jang was driving the northern outskirts of Seoul, where he had done military service. He was struck by the intense beauty of the landscape, but as he continued driving this beauty was replaced in his sight by the signs of rampant development becoming all too common in Korea – and throughout Asia. Looming factories and condominium complexes had arisen seemingly overnight in once empty and even pristine places. He wondered if his children or grandchildren would ever have his experience of natural beauty, available since time immemorial for our contemplation.

He wondered, too, how to convey the shock, the sense of some occult process eclipsing nature. Jang found a metaphor for this dark relationship of domination when he chose to photograph the industrial sites at night, in darkness, to emphasize the concealment and mystification of rapid industrial growth. With long exposures, some up to several hours, he allowed the invaded and colonized sites to become visible.

“The industrial forms emerge out of the darkness and become more aggressive,” says Jang. “For me there must be darkness to reveal the light.” The light here refers not only to the gradual accumulation on the film but also to a knowledge from which we cannot walk away, a knowledge bequeathed to us in a sense by darkness. Jang quotes the Buddhist philosopher Bubjung to express his intentions: “Where there is light, people move forward, but when light disappears, at last people stop and look around.”

The paradox, however, is that the darkness illuminates more than simple devastation. To be sure, Jang does not play political guessing games. “I see these images as negative,” he says, “and I want others to see that, too.” He titles his series “Collusion,” to emphasize the sense of broad participation

and active deception involved in the crimes against nature, and his photographs more or less span the industrial globe: Korea, Japan and the United States. The corporate machinations behind rampant growth – what Jang terms “desires projected outwards” – are indeed dark. But in most of the photographs, what emerges over long exposure is the landscape itself, primordial but newly signifying. The industrial forms are already lit and at least partially visible, but it is often a combination of artificial and ambient natural light that allows the photographs to be made. And it is a relation to the

landscape, not a divorce from it, that they reveal.

I am thinking here of several unforgettable images: glowing red dots atop apartment towers that signal the buildings’ presence within a dense fog (Collusion 3: Abandoned High Rise); an imposing, almost military phalanx of squat concrete breakwater pylons (Collusion 7); a single highway overpass foundation (Collusion 19), as evocative of ancient Babylonia or the Yucatan monuments as it is of industrial society. Perhaps because of the time it took to make them, a quality of ceremony attends these images, as if our building and  ravaging of the landscape were not simple expediency but a ritual we are destined to repeat until the end of time or until the Earth is exhausted.

These photographs do not allow us the luxury of comfortable condemnation, for they embody a new and problematic beauty, a beauty that hovers between the fabricated and the natural, a visual and semantic relation in which these opposites are necessary to each other, suspended and  irresolvable.

I cannot help thinking of early photography’s ambition to document monuments of the built world in an expression of limitless confidence and power. Taewon Jang brings us full circle on this ambition. In addition to Buddhism, one of his primary influences is the religious thinker Martin Buber, who admonished us to examine our situation at every present moment and not to live in the past or the future. This is what Jang’s photographs  accomplish. “Man’s monoliths remain,” he remarks, “but in the context of nature and paused as if to rethink their purpose.”

 

 

The Mirror of Nostalgia

Taewon Jang “Self-Portrait”

Jienne Liu
Curator, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea

Taewon Jang’s work is derived from the way of ‘training the artist himself for looking things squarely’ as he started studying abroad. By things he means not only possessions but also objects, people, and his viewpoint toward the world. It must have been quite a shock to find him within unfamiliar surroundings. Jang then realized that it was himself who has been located in the center of irrational reality that was rather strange

to him and needed to be solved, and he came to understand that self- perception is the starting point to initiate change of thoughts. Accordingly, the artist’s choice of main subjects shows evolutionary progress in the course of work phase. At first he began to work with gender difference, social groups that he was involved with, and then his interest for subject has been finally fixed to himself. And also the recent interest that draws his attention is working with reminiscence from his childhood to present time. Bringing back recollection from the past is the best choice to reflect self image on new environments. The method to draw the past into presence means not only remembering the past time but it also means returning

back to one’s core of the mind. It begins with pursuing absence that does not exist in present time. Nostalgia is the strongest remnant of  remembrance from the past. The artist compares nostalgia to circumstances he is facing without realizing it, and this process gives him chances to look into himself and people around him in reality through different perspective. Jang’s family, who is the closest to him, is placed in the middle of his artistic viewpoint and is the main subject in his productions. He sees his self-portrait in his family for family is one’s other self in a broad sense.

“Letter to Mother I” is the work that the artist produced to remind that his mother and he coexist in this world in some space they share. The space implied in this work is the birthplace of the artist, and those two souls of his mother and him are brightened up by the light. “Portrait” represents

his creative techniques using images of his family. It is a series of photographs created by the technique that is cutting out shadows from the photos of his parent, his older brother, and himself and gluing them to his face prior to taking pictures of him. He also tries this technique to put together his family photographs and his body in “Family Portrait of My Back”. It is a picture of him that his family photo from his childhood pinned on his back, and it could be interpreted as an abusive attitude to his body. And yet the excessive use of body reflects modern art’s trend using one’s  interest in body actively or overcoming one’s limit to their bodies. The artist’s body is used in a slightly different manner in “A Man with No Shadow”. It is an image of his entire body coiled up with light bulbs. He took this picture in his studio, and it is a factor that is relatively connected with

his previous works about the group he belonged to. This series of works are taken from various positions and angles, and it creates an effect as if a performance is in progress. In this piece of work, the body image that is encircled by lights represents radiating energy, and it is expressed through shadow or backlight.

The extreme contrast between light and shadow is related to his memory. He recollected his fear of fire, and then produced quite a lot of works that had to do with a conduct with fire. A ceremony for burning objects, “Pray- Incence”, an image burning Ji-Jang-Kyung (Sutra of The Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva) with incense, are pieces directly connected to fire. Taewon Jang treats fire and light as the same artistic language, and it supports concept for existent image remaining in the best condition for radiation and ignition. His obsession with fire develops into intense study for shadow.

Just as we must rethink our purpose in front of these pictures. The photographs do not appear to us all at once but seem to disclose their information as we spend time examining them and our eyes get used to their darkness. Figures appear in the landscape, our eyes move away from the sources of light to focus on small details, like the amazing delicacy of scaffolding or of the floating island in a harbor scene. Gradually we find our way into the dark almost disappearing foregrounds and the dim, ominously colored skies. Other photographers specialize in repetitive spectacles of multiplication and waste. Environmental disaster is our culture’s visual addiction, an expensive (and short-lived) schadenfreude. Jang does not stage; he solicits our attention through the obscurity of his images. Although he comes from a different background altogether from the so-called

Dusseldorf School of photographers and his sympathy is not with their archiving aesthetic, Jang joins them – especially I would say Thomas Struth -- in seeing photography as not an inspective art but as a reflective and deeply introspective one.

Shadow subject often symbolizes extinction of substance, and it is also connected to images that express trace of existence. The technique of eliminating or exaggerating shadow is a strong denial of shadow, and this way of expression creates an extreme contrast with other works that deal with light and fire. Study for light and shadow is a natural consequence from inevitably experienced medium for the artist’s primary method of producing is photography. However, the artist’s extreme elimination or exaggeration of shadow proves that emphatic denial is an affirmation. He is

equally fascinated by light and shadow in his creative mind, and does not intend to conflict them. This is to say Taewon Jang uses duality of light and shadow properly for his productions.

The extreme contrast between light and shadow is related to his memory. He recollected his fear of fire, and then produced quite a lot of works that had to do with a conduct with fire. A ceremony for burning objects, “Pray- Incence”, an image burning Ji-Jang-Kyung (Sutra of The Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva) with incense, are pieces directly connected to fire. Taewon Jang treats fire and light as the same artistic language, and it supports concept for existent image remaining in the best condition for radiation and ignition. His obsession with fire develops into intense study for shadow. Shadow subject often symbolizes extinction of substance, and it is also connected to images that express trace of existence. The technique of eliminating or exaggerating shadow is a strong denial of shadow, and this way of expression creates an extreme contrast with other works that deal with light and fire. Study for light and shadow is a natural consequence from inevitably experienced medium for the artist’s primary method of producing is photography. However, the artist’s extreme elimination or exaggeration of shadow proves that emphatic denial is an affirmation. He is

equally fascinated by light and shadow in his creative mind, and does not intend to conflict them.

This is to say Taewon Jang uses duality of light and shadow properly for his productions.  Duality in subject and concept can be explained in

light and shadow, existence and extinction, life and death, good and evil, etc. And it comes from the artist’s objective thinking toward subjects and society. He prefers to choose subjects and materials that can give him capability to juxtapose two opposite things at the same time. Typical examples are incense that burns and leaves ash behind, light and shadow when it comes to material; and he uses materials wisely in different situation or condition. Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva, which he uses quite often for his piece of work, is a good example of duality revealed in. It is a Buddhist sutra written for chanting at Buddhist funeral process ‘Chun-do-jae’. Ksitigarbha’s vow and his effort to save people in both heaven and hell are portrayed in this Buddhist sacred book. The sutra is a symbol for boundary of life and death to the artist’s mind for it describes details of hell, rescuing parents and ancestors from hell, and good deeds to pursue an easy passage into eternity. The artist’s effort to look into things  truthfully is not just to emphasize particular parts of subjects. The image he creates naturally reveals his own perception to it and the subject’s

unique characteristics. In fact, Jang deals with memories that are rather dark and unpleasant than joyful and bright. He discusses that dark memories often become clearer when he concentrates on subtle memories, and he is able to see through those memories better in the course of completion.

The artist’s nostalgia can be realized into definite optical language because it is about his own unclear yet existent memories. His attitude toward reminding nostalgia continuously can be explained in his ego’s overcoming reality from a narrow point of view and also his healing process for loss caused by modern society’s material civilization in a macroscopic way. In other words, Taewon Jang handles the world of loss that is much bigger than his own trauma through his works of art. His intention is to suggest that the audience too lives in an era of loss with their trace of wound, and he insists to communicate with them. The effect on the audience might vary for each and every one of them has various personal backgrounds. Nevertheless, the artist’s working process and outcome imply his effort to overcome his loss through symbol of ego, and those are much expected to communicate with the audience while the artist presents himself as an ‘injured healer’.

 

 

The Sun has No Shadow

Lyle Rexer

How do we know the world, since we cannot know it in itself, in its undivided essence? We know it from its contrasts and differences, the separation of one thing from another thing always in relation, always in a state of exchange. Photographers know the world this way by instinct and necessity, because their world is light and shadow, color and the absence of color. It would be impossible to know anything without a picture, and impossible to have a picture without oppositions. I think of Taewon Jang’s series “Collusion,” in which pictures emerge from a unitary darkness, coaxed into being by sufficient light. Pictures at the edge of shadows.

But what of the source of light that creates shadows? What of the imagining, creating self, a sun without a shadow? We cannot know ourselves as undivided essences, as modes of being which simply are. This is the condition the artist investigates. We could say, instead, the artist clouds or obscures, bringing darkness into the light so that we can see its boundaries, contours, limits. Again, a picture becomes possible only when shadows appear. This seems to me the theme of the current exhibition, and although photography is intrinsic to it, it is not a photography exhibition. It is an investigation of the shadowless sun, using photography as the means.

The artist’s motivation is embodied in a project that Jang has been attempting to perfect for some time. He has been engaged with the idea of passing a small camera, attached to a light source, down his esophagus, perhaps even as far as his stomach. The pictures he hopes to bring

back are unknown, that is never before visible, and seek above all to make the inside, outside. To put it another way, they transform the photographing subject into a photographic object, and bring light and vision to a hitherto inaccessible darkness – his own body, his own source of being.

We can think of this unrealized image as the true endpoint of the exhibition, a picture to be imagined. Unlike “Collusion,” this exhibition is internally motivated. All the other photographs in the exhibition are oblique paths toward it, metaphors for it, this invisible picture. No wonder light appears in unexpected places, emerging from unexpected sources, sometimes even reversing its own effects. The works provide partial and moving glimpses of the shadowless source of being by shadowing it with memory, genealogy, biology and religion.

To make pictures of himself, Jang can only make pictures of the things that made him, beginning with his family. The most striking series is a group of photographs that he made by cutting out the shadows from portraits of his family members and placing those cutouts over images of his own

face, which provides dimension to the image. The family is a kind of mask, behind which appear the eyes of the person. The mask can never be removed, the self can never be seen independently of it.

Jang here regards the surface of the photograph as akin to the surface of the body, to its skin. This is a modernist connection at least as old as Edward Steichen, but in Jang’s case closer to a 1960s awareness of the materiality of photography, joined to the contemporary desire to ground aesthetic and cognitive experience in the body. For this exhibition Jang has created new images from a previous series, “Family Photographs,” in which he pins family snapshots to Jang’s body. He has also created several photographs – sculptures really – in which he replaces the shadows cast by the subject with his own blood, and covered the whole with resin. Jang is not sentimental about the sources of the self; he feels them like a skin but he also investigates them, peels them, subjects them, even as he recognizes the body itself is always mediated by images.

The most moving images involve his mother and her influence, and yet they are also the most distant, as well as the most literally illuminating. For these images, Jang first photographed the Buddhist prayers that his mother would copy every day, for the wellbeing of her children. As Jang describes her religion, it is a matter of practice rather than understanding. “The writing is the pure mind of my mother,” he has said, unclouded by philosophical engagement or doubt. She is one with the characters, and the characters blot her out. She is one with her children. Jang develops a print of the written characters, then places is over an arrangement of lit incense sticks. These slowly burn through the characters of the paper, opening holes for light to pass. Jang re-photographs the burning print just at this point, producing a fiery alphabet of illumination, a text that consumes the writer in the process of writing and the reader/viewer in the process reading. A text that consumes itself in the process of illuminating the experience beyond it.

A variant of this series introduces other themes, as Jang puts the prayer text under a pile of earth and allows it to begin to decompose. At some point he removes the paper, shines a light through it, photographs the damaged but illuminating text, then reburies the photographic print. This constant shifing between the materiality and textuality of photography, between two dimensions and three, with an awareness of the limitations of both, marks Jang as an outsider to photography, unconcerned with its surface coherence or illusionism, and unconcerned as well with the optical and political problems of point of view. Yet, as Jang has remarked, “I appreciate the fact that in spite of everything digital, the photograph is somehow still trustable, still linked to the world. And that means that you cannot ignore any part of it, for the whole of it contains information that you need.”

Even if the information is ambiguous, at best. Perhaps the most arresting image in the exhibition is large vertical photogram, made by placing objects on a piece of photographic paper and exposing it. This creates silhouettes of the objects. When the photogram is developed, wherever light falls will appear dark, and where it is completely impeded, white. The terms of comprehension are reversed. This photogram contains a picture from Jang’s

childhood and an image of his own hand, made by shining a light through it. It is the most autobiographical of his works, bearing direct evidence of himself and his past, and yet it is the most abstract and the least directly readable. There can be no direct representation of reality in art. It is a contradiction in terms. And identity is always only an approach, never an arrival, via shadows.

 

On the Cruelty of Light

Suejin Shin
Psychology of Photography

There is a man who is walking straight towards fear,

as if he did not know any other way,

and goes step by step down the road forced by no one.

Surprisingly enough, it is simple to avoid a fear so intense as to

suck every drop of your blood:

Just close your eyes tight.

Darkness gives you a chance to shut your eyes.

However, there is another man who still did not close his eyes,

for he can anticipate the coming light.

With his eyes slightly open, he just keeps on watching, carefully holding his breath.

The Tohoku earthquake in 2011. The only thing that guides him are the remnants of the villages and the names on a map. The existence of all forms

of life have all gone. What stands now are the scars left by the tremendous power of nature. Taewon Jang’s Generic Landscapes are photographs taken of this gruesome tragedy caused by the earthquake. He does not reveal all aspects, but instead, asks what you can never completely see or the unfathomable measures of nature. For the artist, the act of taking photographs is not to record such trauma, but a way of facing and experiencing it.

Most of the photographs were shot at night using the moonlight as the source of light. While the human eye cannot accumulate light, the camera can produce a sufficiently bright image with even the slightest amount of light. Therefore, photographs can capture scenes of the night which are invisible to the naked eye. The sunlight during the day exposes a terrible sight, but the moonlight at midnight unveils both a fear and awe of nature as the artist experienced it. The moonlight creates a new landscape as it erased the traces of death left in wrecked ships dragged up on land, pine trees sprinkled with sand, and piles of broken cars. Jang’s earthquake scenes appear strange because his eyes are searching for beauty amidst the overwhelmingly evident fear. Just as in life, misfortunes do not only end as tragedies. Generic Landscapes stands witness for the cycle of human life,

which can turn sorrow into joy and despair into hope in the extreme of chaos.

 

After leaving behind the devastating scenes of the earthquake and returning home, Jang finds himself quickly forgetting about this fear. As he casually selects the photographs on the computer while contemplating what to eat for lunch, he finds himself in an embarrassing situation. In turn, he begins to reflect upon this psychological distance with fear. Plates, one of the three series included in this book, represents this psychological journey which begins with a photograph of a building destroyed by the earthquake and leads to the artist becoming estranged from (or insensitive to) the threat of this uncontrollable force. The wretched spectacle he first witnessed gets smaller and smaller through the repeated process: hanging

the photograph on the wall, shooting it again, printing a new photograph to hang on the wall, etc. The vanishing point appearing in the center of Plate 1, Plate(2011) is a result of the real ruins captured in a photograph to create a new space, that is, a reality, in time. Fear spreads across space and is embellished in a different space and in the memory of a different person. In some respect, what is more fearful than actual fear might be the

transformation of fear in the human memory. The artist chooses twenty works at his discretion among the photographs produced in the process of several reproductions and scatters them along the path which he takes in Tokyo, Seoul, and so on, as a clue to the fear and threat that no one paid attention too. Your memory is even more unfaithful than your eyes.

The fact that Jang’s work is based on a self-reflected observation is also established by the artist’s use of a wide range of expressive styles. Victims is composed of three-dimensional structures with photographs attached to their surface. The artist took pictures of the expressionless faces of Japanese people living in New York City with a large format camera and put them onto large wooden structures of various shapes which were specially designed to fit into the corners of the exhibition room. Needless to say, these Japanese are not the direct victims of the earthquake, but because their faces are put on the wooden frames which appears to be twisted as if by an earthquake, they look frightened, crying, or even smiling depending on the angle. This is a confession of the artist who was a stranger with only indirect experience with the earthquake scenes and simultaneously, a device which conjures up the fear hidden in all our hearts.

Natural calamities or unexpected disasters can happen to any of us in any place and time. It is impossible for an ordinary man to detect such danger and avoid it in his everyday life. We can live only by forgetting and repressing the fear within the limits of what we think is safe. In this sense, what Jang focuses on is the vague fear sweeping across our life, the invisible tragedy of man living day by day enduring the fear and pretending to be nonchalant, and the dread of the world which we cannot see clearly when it is fully lit with light and which we cannot understand wholly as we see it.

The tragedy of human beings originates in the fact that they cannot see and know what God sees and knows. Light and darkness belong to the realm, not of man, but of God.

There is a man who is walking out of fear

Wisdom gained through sufferings in darkness.

He who awakens to the world because of sufferings.

In his eyes, the world begins anew.