This post come to us from Alexandra Nasto, Curatorial Intern.
Many modern-day artists are inventors of reality, bringing to life people and places of the past and creating new realms of experience through experimentation with traditional techniques and media. The contemporary art scene is ever ripe with innovative concepts and technologies that inspire artists to push the boundaries of their own work. Atta Kim (b. 1956) is one such photographer whose highly conceptual images have been shown in his native Seoul, South Korea and in international shows from Paris to São Paulo, Copenhagen to Kansas City, and Beijing to Berlin. Kim’s work arrives in Connecticut this summer, when seven magnificent, large-scale photographs will be displayed at the New Britain Museum of American Art. The New/Now: Atta Kim exhibition is the latest in the museum’s New/Now series for emerging contemporary artists, and will be on view from August 25th to November 25th.
The exhibition’s richly-layered, visually striking photographs highlight two series of Kim’s work, The Museum Project and On-Air Project, which explore human existence on a personal and collective level. In The Museum Project, Kim creates “my own private museum that displays very basic human elements – violence, sex, ideology – in a clear glass box” so that “the models become live relics.” Kim isolates the individual nature of each subject while displaying them as objects, conveying the tension between authentic self and outward image that humans wrestle with in discovering and cultivating their true identities.
The Museum Project #011 depicts a nude figure and a cat contained in separate glass boxes that lie on a road beside the ocean, creating a minimalistic, peacefully surreal scene. The introverted pose of the figure produces a quiet, private mood, yet every other element of the piece works against any sense of privacy. The clear glass draws attention to the box’s contents, which are exposed on the open road; beyond, the vast expanse of water further emphasizes the figures’ immobility. These living objects are encased like inanimate, untouchable pieces in a museum, an institution that displays items created for the aesthetic appreciation or contemplation of others. The Museum Project embodies the ultimate conflict of human existence portrayed here: “self-for-self” versus “self-for-others.” The figures, as paradoxical “living objects,” are torn between these two identities. Kim’s personal museum exposes the issue of how we preserve our true selves when we are constantly on display for others.
The haunting images of ON-AIR Project, the second series showcased in the New/Now: Atta Kim exhibition, further develop Kim’s ruminations on human experience on a collective level. Kim leaves his 8×10-inch large-scale camera open for long periods of time – an hour to photograph a couple, eight hours (the duration of sunlight in one day) to capture the crowded streets of India, France, and New York. This long-exposure in On Air Project #051, Couples, for example,breaks down the corporeality of the figures, their presence lingering only in their blurred and combined motions rather than in substantial form or discernible identity. Relationships are shared experiences, physical and emotional, between separate people who merge together as part of a greater whole, creating a new combined existence, as literally depicted in Couples. Individual existence breaks down even further in Kim’s city street scenes. Gleaming car headlights and rushing pedestrian silhouettes blend into an intangible haze, signs of life become ghost-like hints of movement, transcending the very space in which they were photographed.
An appreciation of Kim’s artistry lies not only in understanding the underlying concepts of his images, but the ways in which he has reinvented photography to elicit new ways of seeing. In discussing ON-AIR Project, Kim explains that he uses long exposure to “make things disappear,” creating acts of “unseeing” that are inherently at odds with the representational medium of the camera. “We need a new paradigm of photography…I always think of how I can convey the qualities of abstraction and inner energy that photography can suggest so effectively.” In taking photography from the representative to the abstract, Kim creates images void of form (save for the landscapes in the background) but full of new energy and movement, ethereal and fleeting. Endless waves of people melt into the minimalist abstract space; in ON-AIR Project 160-13, The India Series, Paharganj in New Delhi, the crowds accumulate into what appears to be actual sand and dust, conveying the Buddhist idea of “the impermanence of all existence.”
Closely influenced by Buddhist beliefs, Kim’s collective body of work illustrates the notion that “everything has its own value of existence,” but also that “everything eventually disappears,” two concepts that humans struggle to reconcile in living out their own lives. The existential contemplations of The Museum Project, “What is the self?” “Who am I?” open up in ON-AIR Project to a greater “How are we connected?” “What will become of us?” and “What will we leave behind?” Rebelling against the medium’s defining characteristics of representation and depiction, Kim’s photographs become studies in abstraction and disappearance, providing us with new ways to look at the very world we see every day yet are often too busy to stop and contemplate on a deeper level.
What other questions about life do Atta Kim’s images conjure when you view his work? Are you most drawn to the Buddhist undertones in his images, his unconventional approach to photography, or another aspect of his art? Have you seen Kim’s work in person before? Have you seen works by other contemporary artists who use photography in non-traditional ways? How have all of these artists influenced your appreciation of the medium?