by Seujin Shin, Ph.D., photo-psychology
Dreaming of a Butterfly
Bohnchang Koo’s world has always been a fragile, faraway place. Koo, by capturing in his photos that which will soon disappear and that which leaves its traces long after it has disappeared, has us contemplate eternity in one arrested moment. His photos don’t capture melodramatic sadness and gaiety, but, instead, project, through the artist’s keen observation of each moment, a mutual sympathy between the viewer and the silent object. Perhaps Koo’s artistic goal is to transcend the feelings of joy and anger that we experience in daily life. This is perhaps also why the feelings that his photos’ communicate to us are so precise. Instead of touching our hearts, they clear our consciences and invite us to take a fresh look. The voice of Koo’s photos is always soft, like a clear whisper.
The beginning of a photograph is the head-on meeting with an object. In a sense, the world of the photographer is decided by the kind of relationship he maintains with the object he sees through the camera lens. For this book, Koo’s photographed objects are crumbling walls, dried-up plant stems, waves on the sea. What kind of story does the photographer want to tell us with this kind of nature or objects that are so old they seem like nature itself?
Although photography is at its origins based on a direct representation of an object, it must not stop there, but, as an art, be a window onto a remarkable imagination. Koo’s way of responding to this problem is to transform essential elements found in the visible into photographic tools. In controlling tone or framing a composition of visual elements, he seeks to reveal another aspect of his discovered object.
A wall is not just part of a building, but clouds floatingon the horizon. Ivy stems are the Milky Way or the body’s arteries. Water and rock become sky and mountain. Koo’s photos are completely open to the viewer’s interpretation, beginning with the names of the objects presented.
What then is the difference between what we feel while looking at a Koo photograph that evokes a mountain or a cloud, these universal natural objects, and someone else’s photograph of the real objects themselves? The more the artist distances his work from concrete, realistic elements, the more the viewer is free to interpret it. In front of a photo of what is clearly a cloud, our imagination is limited by our experience of real clouds. But the discovery of a cloud in an unrelated object such as a wall covered with dust can be inspired simply by the act of describing the image that the artist might have intended.
In the photos “White,” “Portraits of Time,” and “River Run,” the difference between foreground and background is ambiguous, because Koo confronts reality by minimizing their spatial depth and employing a very flat composition. This intentionally obscures traditional perspective and makes us concentrate on a photographic texture represented on a two-dimensional surface. The result is that the photos communicate a calm, meditative experience, a part of a floating surf ace taken from the world of consciousness of those who contemplate nature.
Our understanding of this process comes from Koo’s careful control of the particular contrast and sharpness of each series — important expressive elements in black and white photography. The artist, by controlling contrast in “White,” with its emphasis on lines and dots, or the series “River Run,” which presents the shape of a giant hill, diminishes descriptive middle tones and evokes a painting made with Chinese black ink. “Portraits of Time,” in comparison, expresses detailed middle tones through less sharp contrasts among traces of dust. The deli cate gray tones of contrasting and subtle sharpness, like clouds floating on infinite space, play a decisive role in making us feel that the more we look at them the more we see their gradations in the revelation of dust accumulated over a long time.
Another originality is how Koo decentralizes and balances our way of looking at the entire surface of the work through the general exclusion of large objects whose presence would have served as weighty fixation points. In their visual compositions, each of the photos’ elements remains in a carefully separated position. This mechanism is essential to our emotional reaction to the work’s void or languid ease, and what I foresee as a significant theme in our understanding of Koo’s future work. The artist, by forgoing the presence of a remarkable object and minimizing systematic relationships among forms, is perhaps venturing a bold interpretation of a Western approach to form. What counts is that by abandoning a formula for beauty, he chooses to adhere instead to a sensorial experience and an echo of his own inner world. This change reflects his attitude confronted with the object and his pursuit of an existential change in one’s essential self.
The process of perception in accordance with one’s most cherished values and of reaping, one by one, the shining promises of youth is the natural responsibility bestowed on middle age. In a period when concepts of the world and of values are in harmony, the artist, more mature now, creates his own expressive style and unique subject. Koo’s photos express the process and act of discovering sources of stories and dialogues with objects whose function of perceiving each step comes into play. It is completely natural that this changing attitude toward the world and the self is immediately reflected in his work.
The most important introduction to a dialogue on this change in his work is the idea of moderation. In previous works, Koo demonstrated more than anyone else his ability to create a breathtakingly beautiful photo in its balan cing of form and element. It’s easy to imagine how hard it was for him to eliminate a dominant visible object, when he could have so easily photographed one. The goal of his work this time is to resist the call of beauty and to concentrate instead on a dialogue with the object.
Perhaps Koo seeks to establish an aesthetic of moderation through self-control because of his long held attitude toward nature. The Korean or Oriental collective subconscious, which consists of values that admi re and fuse with nature, begins to unfold on the surface of the artist’s world. Koo’s photography, by minimizing or denying the existence of the self, extols zen experience and thus attains the summit of an unbridled liberty. His photographed objects are part of a nature whose name is clear, yet detaching the photo from reality are dust, the leafless stems of ivy, and the infinite space of an imagination opened by a sea of waves. Bohnchang Koo’s photos offer us an experience of the oneness of existence that freely transcends the reality and unreality of photography, like the ancient Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu’s dream of being a butterfly. They open up a dream world where dust is cloud and space is sky, and where the self and the dust of the universe become one.
by Trine Rytter Andersen
Watching photographs is a flexible dialogue that has in its inner being very much in common with the flowing nature of the water…
In the mechanical development process, the photograph receives its final rinse in clean water. Through the water, the photographer views the first blurred contours of the subject that appears gradually, and while the pincer carefully shifts the picture about, it is as if the consciousness interacts with the subconscious here.
Everyone who works with this process knows the magic that lies in these pregnant minutes, where the gradual appearance of the picture decides if the conception has been a success. If something unnoticeable has snug in like a magical wedge between intention and the reality that the subject in the picture comes from.
Thus, the water is closely linked to the work in the darkroom. The pictures in the water tray confirm experiences of other pictures seen in nature s mirroring water surfaces, faces, skies, animals and plants, colours, light and sh adow. Intense moments that we must struggle to retain in the dwindling light of recollection. These strongly visual and more often almost unspeakable experiences that we can hardlysh are with each other, receive a language through photography.
At the symbolic and psychological level, we speak of the tranquil surface and the huge unknown abyss below. In photography, we even talk about its surface, but it is not like the water surf ace, it is but a thin membrane that we are able to ph ysically penetrate: It is and will remain a surface and all that hides below it, all th at attracts and challenges us, originates from the depths of fantasy and recollection. Apparently, this is exactly what animates us to penetrate the picture surface on a mental level in order to use ourselves to elaborate on its expression and thus wring the hidden meaning from the photograph.
When photography has its ties in reality or in things that are recognisable, it also has an ability to initiate a flexible dialogue between exterior and interior experiences, a dialogue that does in its inner being have very much in common with the flowing nature of the water: Its flexible flowing into and out of all available holes and spaces.
Openness, and not only towards art, is characterised by mental and emotional flexibility? much like water s flexibility ? and this seems natural when the language with which we describe waters motion: trickling, streaming, flowing, rushing, and rocking quietly, is also very matter-of-f actly description of human feelings and expressions. Language is full of water metaphors that describe moods and emotions. Water is the element of emotions, motion, and openness, and thus it seems obvious that it also describes artistic creation and experiences in relation to being occupied with art.
Water has an intoxicating and spellbinding property which makes us feel comfortable in and by the water, and this is why we recognise the feeling as a trickling or rushing when we experience things that move us.
The 6 photographers who display their works at the Watershed exhibition are from widely differing backgrounds and places in the world. They all have international careers, and from each their own place they explore the possibilities of photography, both silver based and digital, as a visual art expression and proposition in our contemporary society. Here, they gather around a theme that no person can avoid having a relationship with. The artists relate to water in each their own way and more or less directly, but they all contribute with their works to the examination of what water is, what it does, and how it affects us physically and mentally.
Here, the photographs convene under the common title of Floating that underlines the visual and mental potential of the medium, where the dialogue flows back and forth between the works and the spectator and thus naturally takes place on waters premises.
A Mirror Without a Reflection
The sea and the se a view are closely linked to the blissful feeling of physical and mental freedom th at accompany the escape of the eye and the thought across its endless surface. An experience that is almost too immense for our body and which brings us into an excited and attentive state.
In Bohnchang Koo s Ocean -series, the slightly rippled sea surface is extended to the entire picture format. It is not sea pieces in the traditional sense, but a well-defined perspective space from the beach to the dramatically rushing waves of the beach and towards the outer limit of the horizon line. It is the tranquil sea that covers the picture surface. Each photograph h as a specialised character, and at a formal level the Ocean -series is a small alphabet over the way in which the wind gently manipulates the heavy sea surface.
As a natural phenomenon it is non-dramatic and beautiful, but you sense an underlying intensity, and our imagination of the gentle wind that blows on the sea surface is affected by our knowledge to the f act that immense forces of nature are held back here.
In the pictures, the water surface could be said to resemble a finely ornamented silk veil: Impenetrable to the eye and strongly animating to the mind.
At the conceptual level, Bohnchang Koo challenges our curiosity and ability to mentally go further into the sea. To conquer the very idea about the ocean because the pictures hold only the essence: at the same time, the detail and the complete picture. They are everything and nothing, all up to us.
The nature of water as the intangible matter that vanishes between our fingers when we attempt to grasp and understand it reflects our individual efforts at understanding ourselves. Bohnchang Koo uses the empty sea picture that we can have a hard time maintaining as a metaphor for this eternally challenging process.
He shows us that it is possible to mirror yourself in the sea without actually being able to see you r own reflection.
The Light of the Water Surface and the Darkness of the Scenery
The romantic natural experience has long since been deconstructed and post-modernised, but still there are probably many of us closet romantics who secretly get carried away by a greater sensation when we are out and about in nature. It is difficult to decide if it is longingly retrospective or merely a confirmation of a sensory and satisfactory present. At any rate, it is difficult in such cases not to feel a sting of sadness because the future seems to develop at the cost of the nature as we know it today.
In Floating , Ewa Andrzejewska works with the deserted scenery. She captures and amplifies the impressiveness that occurs in the clash between the light of the water surface and the darkness of the landscape.
The endless potential of the water, its over-flexibility, challenges our fear of becoming overwhelmed, sinking down, and of drowning. The troubled sea is the most frightening, but even small bl ack pools and lakes can give rise to the darkest fears of the subconscious.
The landscapes here do not represent exoticism or an idealised beauty, and in this connection the water acts as an underlining of our suspicions. Ewa Andrzejewska works with her strong intuition as a guide. The pictures present themselves with great intensity that seems bound to the character of light and a lyrical sensitivity toward the development process that opens to possible variations in the surface s character of soft and hard, darkness and light.
The nostalgia of the black/white tradition is inescapable, but Ewa Andrzejewska still challenges the ideal of the genre in that she consistently refrains from cropping her pictures. Thus, all her photos are framed by the imprint from the f rame that holds the photographic film in place in her heavy old camera. This hold shakes the authority of photography as a sublime truth because it states that the picture is a manipulation, a place of interpretation for the impressions of reality.
Surrounded by Water ? Imprisonment or Freedom?
Anthony Haugheys five colour photos are from a large series about Ireland: The Edge of Europe , has been published in book-form and describes the condition that those who remain live in out there in the small depopulated island communities. In the book, he also touches upon the longing of the emigrants, and thus the sea that separates people becomes synonymous with the dreams th at they direct at each other, each from their own side.
The sea becomes an ever present frame and limitation. Man has always, for better or worse, been dependent on the climate, the nature, and the sea that surrounds him. This fact has affected him everywhere, and in the roughest of places it has even provided him with a greater sense of destiny.
Anthony Haugheys has an eye for clashes and paradoxes, and he describes the islands with a poetic realism that balances challengingly between endless emptiness and endless free space. This makes us ? probably much like the inhabitants ? have to think the situation over, as an expression of a barometer that endlessly fluctuates somewhere between the sense of captivity and freedom.
The pictures on Floating are focused on the conflicts that occur in man s struggle to achieve a modern way of living in spite of nature and isolation. How they succeed and how they do not where nature gets the upper hand and rejects man.
Martine Mougin has created a series of colour photographs, Bath Play, that use opposed expressions to problematise our imagination of the clean water in connection with bathing and hygiene in relation to water in nature. Particularly polluted water that is transformed into a murky, foul-smelling substance of nourishment for algae and trees.
She shows us the bathroom and the body in a fragmentary self-staging that leaves only feet and hands visible in a displacement of perspectives. Body parts float without blood in the water rooms on equal terms with taps and fixtures. The amputations occur when the photographer uses herself as an object in the composition of the picture. This makes them suggest a lack of coherence or general clarity of vision, and the cleanness in the lifeless bathing rooms are also countered by close-ups of turgid algae clusters and lushly moist landscapes.
Elsewhere, the shadow of the photographer staggers on the edge of a crystal clear, chlorine-blue swimming pool, and next to this she focuses on a brightly lit and murky green soup of duckweed.
Martine Mougin s photographs are contemplative over water and its connection to the human body and nature. At the formal level, they are examinations of nature s space and humanity s space. They suggest conflicts and dependence without providing an answer. The pictures have the light character of playing, but their content move very close to incompatibility. Thus, they are probably very accurate in expressing an ambivalence that holds most people captured in connection with their relation to and consumption of water.
Song of the Siren
The water is spellbinding; it symbolises unrestrained hilarity and looseness. These clich? are used and combined with others in Daniel Blaufu ks video Teach me tiger from Think of your ears as eyes . Here, he combines the sensual Marilyn Monroe evergreen with recordings of the elegant swimming of a jellyfish in the dark ocean. The video is black/white, which partly makes a connection to the glory days of Monroe and partly provides the work with a graphic quality that makes it resemble a cartoon in a way that lends support to the very commonplace and slightly comical content. The gliding and pulsating drift of the jellyfish through the water is like a dance carried out by a ballet dancer not worthy of the tittle. For good reasons, it does not know what it does, it merely follows its instinct; it does not pretend, it just is. Marilyn knew very well what she was doing and she probably even followed her instinct too, but in each others company both she and the jellyfish become slightly comical. It is not a malicious form of comedy, rather an affectionate kind of teasing. We do not know if it is a toxic jellyfish, but as in any love affair their is a risk of getting burnt. In this way, it is the classic siren song that lours into ruin.
Daniel Blaufuks video is a subtle waltz for two incompatible figures: One is the indisputable symbol of female sensuality and the other is the symbol of gender, reproduction, and homosexuality. So, even if the song, the music, and the images seem compatible, it is not completely obvious what is going on before the gender identification seems to get confused in the multiplicity, and in this way the video may not be as straight-forward as would appear at first glance?
The image flows in recollection
The water as an image of a state of mind and a metaphor for recollection and floating consciousness is expressed in Birgitta Lund s installation ….my heart is a boat ahead of me . On the floor of the room, we can see large pickling jars filled with water. The glasses hold pictures and other personal things, and between the glasses on the floor are two ordinary dining room chairs like islands or rocks in a scenery.
Birgitta Lund s work is a stream of consciousness that uses images and words in an attempt at finding and maintaining the essential moments of existence. The installation is a picture of a mental scenery where the jars have the function of memory containers that team up to form a sea of fragments. Together they form the pattern in a life in full splendour. The chairs are islands from where you can take a breath and grasp the greater picture ? they are symbols of deep roots and security.
The installation asks about the space and initiates new spatial connections. It is a picture in which you can move around. Here, Birgitta Lund stages the outer space in a way that me and that aside from being a picture of itself it is also a picture of the inner
space. With the glass jars we are back at the point of departure, by the picture in the water where the consciousness crosses blades with the subconscious to give birth to new thoughts where forgotten pictures become visible again.
‘화이트 연작’ 과 ‘시간의 그림’
In recent White series, the world of his works enters the new phaze. He explains the reason of such changes as follows.
“I can say a lot without adhering to objects. As I grow older, I get more generous. My attitude about the world is more contemplative.”
“Also, forms and shapes that I had tried to express concretely before have begun to be deconstructed as if simple strokes were painted repeatedly. Working with this series, I wanted to show the temperate beauty expressed only with a few strokes like in Korean traditional paintings. Also, I wanted to simplify images with dots and lines which are basic elements in art. “
This minimalistic attitude expressed with basic form, color and presented in an impersonal manner can be read through his comment as follows.
“Since I began with Portraits of Time, I became absorbed in the beauty of the simple. The ivies in winter that cling to white walls lose their leaves and get dried and wrenched as result of being cut off their roots make me feel the traces of life and the passage of time. When I saw that scene first, observing it for sometime, I experienced the remains of ivies turn into not only small parts of a plant but also a thin blood vein and a last cell in a nervous system or stars in the infinite universe.
At the moment when I felt like that, I was thrilled… I wanted to express all living things and the traces of life with smallest and least elements. Even though those limited factors are marked with a few dots and lines, I hope they are showed as living and breathing forms.”
Portrats of Time’ series is photographs I took the traces made by microscopic, tiny dust particles and accumulated with pigeon’s droppings on concrete walls and cement floors for a long time. Images are so closed-up that they lose concrete, specific forms. The planes of the photos are divided into two parts. One is the dark side crossed over the bottom part. The other is the bright one of the uppper part. They give the effect like the sea and the sky. White series expressed dried ivies on a white wall and Pencil of Nature showed fallen pine needles on snow look like abstract and delicate drawings. After Portraits of Time he took White, Pencil of Nature straightly. But their works don’t give any precise clues about what are taken and what they are. I think that he leaves the personal, narrative world and heads for the world of pure beauty, concentrating on it.
by Park Joo-sook
professor of art history, Kwangju University
Bohnchang Koo’s “Flow”
A Minuscule Tremor Amidst the Calm
Yesterday Koo Bohn-chang looked with melancholy at disappearing objects, and made them reappear in his photos. Today he presents “Flow,” new work which is, as always, impeccable in its execution, inexorable in its sadness. In 1995, for his exhibition “Breath,” he wrote in the accompanying catalog that he “tries to honor things that must disappear.” Today, the works in “Flow” movingly express his emancipation from those things. Yesterday, the photos in “Breath” embodied one final gesture in the struggle against death, a homage to the momentary sound of nature’s dying breath. Today, in an atmosphere of seeming stillness composed of water, earth or a tree, the slightest movement becomes visible.
I wonder what city dwellers, raised among concrete and metal, feel when they look at Koo Bohnchang’s photos of earth, water and a tree? As someone from the countryside, I know earth, water and trees, and know landscape painters and photographers from the countryside who capture the powerful beauty of earth, water, sky and trees. But I was unprepared for Koo’s keenest of eyes for the hidden detail of a given object in nature. What landscape painters and photographers capture is not nature itself but a certain concept of nature. Instead, Koo captures through calm observation the unremarkable in nature.
Earth, water and trees can be found at the edge of every city, and as such are usually not visually striking. Koo photographs the unphotogenic: a leafless tree in winter, eroded earth, a small part of the sea surface that would fit the description of one French writer for its “surprising unsurprisingness.” A cynic would wonder about so much austere artistic effort: such a simple point of view, water below, tree above; and what, no color? no spectacular waves? no horizon? no visu al excitement?
Yes, none of that. Yesterday, Koo Bohn-chang made us appreciate the shadow of death. Today he makes us see things with a different attitude. He demands even more of us, not that we appreciate the talent of a visually provocative photographer, but that we appreciate the barely audible voice of an artist who presents us with a few common sights for profound contemplation. Yesterday, Koo Bohnchang created a world of visual, thoughtful pleasure. Today, he puts aside this talent to instead make these few common sights speak directly to the spectator. And in doing so, he shows how much he respects the common. His choice of paper, frame and developing method all go to capturing and making audible the minuscule tremor of tree, water and earth in the listener’s ears.
He says “Flow” is a process of tranquilly observing and photographing the minuscule tremor of nature. And he adds that this slight movement is nature’s visible breathing, or the moment when a new life is born. My first impression is that his photos of earth express a solitude that soon a slight crack will disturb. His photos of water express a calm assurance that ignores the slight ripple that will soon become a big wave. His photos of a bare-branched winter tree are really a network of blood vessels in a fetus. I exaggerate, yet this is what I see. Earth, water, tree–each has its own voice, solitary and confused, quivering to be born. “Flow” is Koo Bohnchang’s voyage into tremulous silence.
His subjects are the essential components of nature. All symbolize life. The tree symbolizes prayer, abundance, fertility. In Korea, according to the myth of Dan-geun, the first place that the son of the god Hwan-woong came to on earth was under the Shindansoo tree at the top of Mount Taebek, which is today sacred. Under the Shindansoo tree, Woong-nyeoh had prayed that she might have a son, Dan-geun, who then became the king, or Dan-geun Wanggum. Which is why even today the tree is seen as having a magical vitality. The West has the Biblical tree of knowledge, whose fruit, when eaten, gave everlasting life. And in Greek mythology, the tree symbolizes spiritual energy and life’s meaning.
Water, in most cultures, is the source of life and creation. According to a myth originating on the island of Cheju, the king of the earth and the sky rained down dew from the darkness and chaos of the sky, mixed it with the earth’s water and created life. In Western cultures, water is the source of life. The ancient Greek philosopher Thales maintained that matter is composed of water. In Christianity, holy men baptize with water to symbolize rebirth. Earth, also, in many cultures, symbolizes chaos, the womb which gives birth to and takes back life, and the harvest. Koo Bohnchang’s photos of earth, water and tree evoke philosophies from the Chinese yin and yang to back-to-nature supporters to environmentalists. Nature is silence and immutability, yet nature gives birth to all changes in life, is always close to us and always has power over us. According to the psychiatrist Carl Jung, nature is the subconscious and the source of creativity.
Yesterday, Koo’s obsession was disappearing things and dying beings for which he expressed pity. His photos of his dying father’s last breaths were his farewell to solitude and death, without which the photographer would still be hovering around death’s bed. It is in his voyage into nature, today, his minute observation of and attachment to it, to the silence and friendship of earth, water and tree, that he has found new photographic meaning. His is a natural “flow” toward life that moves away from the stillness of death, as if in the calm silence of his photos an imperceptible tremor could turn into an ever growing flow.
All people live with hope and a tenacious attachment to life, while thinking about and experiencing the closeness of death–just like Koo Bohnchang. The artist’s job is to put first and second hand experience into creations that move and provoke ideas in and maybe even change the spectator. Koo Bohnchang is this artist. Yesterday, in his superpositions and sewing of photos, he was a photographer. Today, in “Flow,” the photo itself, with its minuscule tremor in the calm of nature, meets the spectator directly. This is the way of the true photographer.