Taewon Jang: The Sun Has No Shadow
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 a subject’s (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.