March 11th

On the Cruelty of Light

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On the Cruelty of Light

Suejin Shin


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 is the remnants of the villages and the names on a map. The existence of all forms of life has 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 appear 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