Portrait, Still Life, Landscape, 2023
Portrait, Still Life, Landscape
Hyun Jeoung Moon (Independent Curator)
1. Photography in the Era
Before delving into fine art photography, we should understand that photography exists in and of itself. The nature of photography has become more versatile through the apparatus held in everyone's hands, the smartphone, and it has turned into a constantly floating image with its own informational value, wandering in a state of betrayal to the traditional photography it once represented. Nevertheless, photography's status as a record, evidence, and archive is still perpetual and continuously generates technically reproduced images. The information that surfaces within a photograph, along with the indicative images that it generates, serves specific purposes and initiates diverse explorations into what remains and what dissipates.
Then, what does today's photography reveal? Perhaps this question does not pertain to a discussion about the role of photography but rather reflects on how photography, as a medium of this era, is evolving and what it is preserving and losing. All photographs serve different purposes. Even easily distributed digital-based photos hover around, carrying informational value that projects desires as being subjects. The remaining photographs may be, at times, unrefined or smooth, each possessing a unique presence, raising various questions about the inherent nature and purpose of the medium of photography.
Seulki Ki has been engaged in artistic work centered around fundamental contemplations regarding the medium of photography. Lately, she has been exploring the relationship between the nature of photography, the spaces it encompasses, and the illusions derived from it. In her current exhibition, Portrait, Still Life, Landscape, she unfolds a narrative concerning the essence of the medium of photography, particularly the reality that today's photography can encompass and the layers hidden within it, as well as the illusions acquired in the process.
The artist focuses on the reality that only photographs adrift in the lightweight hierarchy within the digital pixels, captured from the ever-changing everyday scenes, can reveal. She delves into uncovering hidden layers that indicators represent, traces that emerge by chance, rather than presenting photographs that yield technically excellent results. She questions various concepts that can exist within the conditions of photography, such as how the inherent reality that already exists on the outermost layer of the image and the latent layers concealed in between can be revealed on the surface. Consequently, instead of erasing the reality that was once dismissed as secondary information, she seeks to bring it to the forefront, unveiling the illusions that photography can attain.
Photographs considered art, which play a role within the realm of art, have been expressing themselves in various ways regarding their approach and representation, constructing their own presence. However, the photographs captured by the artist reject the traditional concept of “well-taken photographs” and, instead, distinctly reveal the environmental conditions in which the subject is situated, displaying a heightened sense of reality. The photographs revealed by the artist in the exhibition are structuring reality and illusion, which have been excluded from the history of photography in pursuit of “being well-captured,” through a more candid approach to photography.
2. Painting as the Subject and Its External Elements
The exhibition presents photographs that clearly capture paintings as the subject and the external elements experienced when appreciating them. As the title Portrait, Still Life, Landscape suggests, the works showcasing figures, still lifes, and landscapes, which have historically been used as subjects in modern Korean abstract painting, are prominently featured. These painterly materials have similarly appeared throughout the history of photography, encompassing the material themes of photography in a broad sense, including figures as living subjects, still lifes as inanimate objects, and landscapes as spatial subjects covering the interior and exterior.
The reason she wanted to photograph paintings is, first, it challenges the phenomenon of paintings emerging prominently in recent local art, especially in contemporary art museums, as a medium that serves as the birthplace of volatile photos disseminated by a wide audience. Photographing paintings displayed in exhibitions implies symbolically encompassing the images of the current era. It also suggests that the way artworks of this era are circulated and consumed as images is subject to different conditions than before. Secondly, the artist seems to be hoping to describe how the illusionist essence inherent in traditional paintings, such as illusion of painting achieved by faithfully imitating the external world, is lost as it is distributed as images.
Therefore, the artist does not view paintings as specific artworks but rather chooses them as subjects to capture the essence of their surfaces. Artworks installed in exhibitions reveal a raw sense of reality, imbued with the environmental elements that surround them, including reflections and shadows caused by frames or lighting, figures, objects, and landscapes incidentally illuminated by the surrounding environment on the glass. Thus, paintings exist as both works within exhibitions and surfaces that encapsulate the environment. The photographs taken by viewers, driven by their desire to capture them, might seem to depict actual subjects, but they inadvertently capture the reality while floating.
In this process, the artist deliberately incorporates elements that disrupt the viewing of the artwork into the informational value, which captures the moment when the multiple layers hidden within the photograph surface in a compressed state. If we consider this as the latent reality that a specific subject captured by the photograph possesses, we realize the point at which it can be revealed again through the photograph. The moment when the layers concealed by the photograph become visible paradoxically contradicts the situation where paintings lost their illusions, as it enables photographs to gain illusions.
The image revealed in modern paintings positions the subject within a specific frame through a historical idea, and the method of implementing certain form and structure it adopts leads the medium towards illusionism. However, the photographs captured by Seulki Ki create blotches to obscure actual paintings, thus excluding the illusions inherent in the subject's reality. Instead, they visualize the contemporaneity or reality that the photograph reacquires.
3. Illusions of Painting, Illusions of Photography
Seulki Ki argues that the so-called “well-taken photographs” lose their reality. Photography as a tool of documentation is crafted to make the subject stand out prominently. Digital post-processing steps like adjusting color temperature or removing unnecessary elements make photographs look ideal. According to the artist, the photograph goes through a series of processes to attain a smoother state, ultimately losing the reality surrounding its original environmental conditions, in other words, its existence.
Portrait, Still Life, Landscape captures the environmental serendipity that functions more incidentally and externally during the phase of photographing pieces at exhibitions. The exhibition is loosely divided into three sections: figure paintings, still life paintings, and landscape paintings, revealing different realities in various scenes through clusters of photographs that exhibit similarities even within their own sections. Elements that might disrupt the viewing of the artworks, such as the frames of paintings, the texture of the works, artificial lighting, natural light, shadows, figures and objects reflecting on pieces both inside and outside the exhibition space, and landscapes, are vividly exposed. The images concentrate the reality as how it is, which deliberately avoid what she referred to as “well-taken photographs.” The photographs, displayed as flat prints on the wall, reveal the information value that has been stripped of its physical volume and thickness, exposing multi-layered information value on the condensed surface.
In this process, the original images within the frames of the paintings lose their significance and become secondary subjects within the new frame of the photograph. As a result, the illusionism of modern painting, which was rooted in the representation of specific subjects, is deconstructed. Photography, by revealing the multiple layers hidden beneath its surface, acquires its own essence of illusion. The flat surface consolidates all the layers that the image encompasses into a single, shallow plane, seemingly urging the audience to critically penetrate its surface.
Seulki Ki's photographs exhibit self-referential symbols that reproduce the images held by the original subjects, while also reproducing images that encompass the allegorical representations it contains to revisit the floating images of the present era. As subjects, the paintings regain their latent quality as actual entities with inherent properties and the reality of their surroundings through photography. The actual values bestowed upon paintings through their exhibitions are heightened through photography, granting them a higher status than mere images. Consequently, contemporary photography has acquired illusions.