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TITLE : Shino Kuraishi, "Mirrors, Windows, and Constellations: The Art of Boomoon", 2013
DATE : 02/24/2014 16:27

In BOOMOON CONSTELLATION, Daegu Art Museum, 2013


Mirrors, Windows, and Constellations: The Art of Boomoon

Kuraishi Shino

 

Looking at a painting or a photograph is actually very simple.  If you decide that you do not want to look at it any longer you can close your eyes or turn on your heel and quietly leave the gallery.  If you want to continue looking, you can stay in the gallery until it closes.  You do not have the same degree of freedom in deciding to stay or leave when watching a film or play or listening to a concert.  The simple act of looking at a work of art, however, has been made into a complicated issue for the makerthe viewer, and the mediators of the art appreciation.  The people involved in the experience of art, including artists, viewers, curators, and critics, seem to consider this simplicity as a kind of curse that must be removed one way or another.  The designated arenas for these attempts to make the viewing of art as complex as possible are the institutional spaces of art – the museum, the gallery, and the market.  In the field of media art, for example, we have been forced to deal with far too many gimmicky works based on the idea of “interactivity” presented as a new value.  Various kinds of sensors and input devices have been built into the work to give the viewers the opportunity of varying the content of the imagery through small actions.  It never moves the work beyond the range of the artist’s original plan, so it always ends up reinforcing the authority of the artist.  Even so, such works are called “interactive” and they create the illusion of equality between the artist and the viewer.  With this kind of art, the artist can abandon any vestige of responsibility for his work while making a show of transferring his authority to the viewer.  If the result is pleasing, it always reflects well on the artist.  If the response is lukewarm, it is easy to make the excuse that everything is left up to viewers and their discoveries, enabling an easy evasion of responsibility.  In the worst cases, there is no opportunity for the sort of profound, silent communication that was once possible in encounters with works of art.

The extremely simple approach of Boomoon’s photographic work has the effect of quietly criticizing the dark side of contemporary art, its chronic tendency to follow the market and add unnecessary embellishments to the originally simple and unadorned phenomenon of showing art.  His work naturally encourages dialog and is presented to the viewer in a straightforward manner.  It is interactive in a way that is truly rare.  I have previously likened the experience of looking at Boomoon’s images of ocean waves, the sky, mountains, and masses of ice to standing in front of a mirror.1  By making his vertically formatted series of photographs of the sky, On the Clouds, and the sea in winter, Naksan, so large that they extend beyond the perimeter of the human body and  systematically arranging them to provide separate encounters with individual viewers, he creates sites conducive to a highly contemplative experience.  Whenever I stand in front of Boomoon’s landscapes, I am inevitably drawn into dialog with myself.

There is another aspect of his work that I became aware of only gradually.  In the act of observing Boomoon’s photographs, you are automatically put in the judgment seat.  Once in that position, you immediately feel required to make an authoritative statement.  You are not asked to testify as a witness at a trial but to make a statement as a participant in a case that is already decided with an obvious result.  Even so, you are not sufficiently prepared to make a judgment.  Even without having firm convictions, you are given the right and duty of bearing witness.  The important place where this testimony is to be given is the site where you encounter the work.  What testimony have we been summoned to this place to give?  I believe it has to do with nature, an issue that has been explored in art throughout the ages.  And nature obviously includes things connected to the real world of human society extending beyond the boundaries of art.  Standing in front of Boomoon’s work at the site of this encounter, I am not only engaged in self-examination but I also directly confront the outside world opened up through the work.  Old metaphors for photographic vision such as mirrors and windows shake off the accumulated dust that has accumulated in the process of their development as concepts and begin to take on a new appearance.

            

2.

             Boomoon, the book of photographs published by Nazraeli Press in 1999, is composed of three parts that show the changes of Boomoon’s images of nature during the 1990s.  Part 1 consists of varied landscapes that mix the natural and artificial.  The prosaic approach of the first section, which is like a commentary on current events, gives way to two magnificent themes, the waves of the East China Sea in Part 2 and views of the sky in Part 3.  They were photographed in the same year 1997, and they represent a clear break in the artist’s development.   This new departure, which had been definitely conceived by the late 1990s, had greater meaning than a simple personal decision by the artist to change themes.  It was a decisive act of leaving behind the retardation of thought and obstruction of judgment common to the theory of landscape at the time.  A transition to post-industrial society was taking place in the cities of East Asia during the 1990s, creating a situation in which the urban reality of high capitalist society could be found in the space of virtual information.  In the process, many spaces haphazardly scattered throughout the city lost their usefulness and were abandoned.  These unproductive, poorly defined spaces were described with the French term terrain vague.2  Terrain vague proliferated in Europe and the United States first and then spread to East Asia.  Natural and artificial spaces and the intermediate areas between them were scattered throughout cities, eroding and eating away at each other, in an erratic fashion that is only partially expressed by the term “urban sprawl,”.  Paradoxically, we can think of terrain vague as determining the contemporary quality of the city, particularly in its negative reality.  In the intermediate territory between nature and artifice it is possible to find a miraculous present characterized by sublimity and a beauty defined by its negative characteristics, in the same way that God may be defined, as well as the undesirable qualities resulting from ecological destruction.  The concern with such unproductive landscapes by photographers, which seemed like a major trend in the 1990s, had already been explored by Walker Evans in his American Photographs of 1938.   This book of photographs reflected a systematic attempt to capture the impoverished landscapes of small cities in the eastern United States and farm towns of the deep south following the Great Depression, and it can be seen as an early source of this tendency.  Evan’s puritanical and classical modernism/formalism influenced many other photographers and found its final flowering in the 1980s through the work of such varied photographers as Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, and Richard Mizrach, who all took a critical view of post-industrial society while simultaneously evoking the beautiful.     

             The photographs taken by Boomoon up through the early 1990s, which appeared in Part 1 of Boomoon, published by the Nazraeli Press in 1999, were rare manifestations of beauty in bleak, vacant spaces that might be described as terrain vague, intermediate spaces between natural and artificial realms[fig.1].  This attitude signified an attempt to maintain the greatest achievements of photographic modernism, and the places photographed represented the starting point of natural representation, a rite of passage that must be undergone by all serious photographers who wish to capture nature in present time.  By the 1990s, the traditions and customs that had been deteriorating in the agricultural villages of East Asia were completely swept away by massive waves of modernization.  Between 1975 and 1980 Boomoon documented the historical buildings and landscapes of Andong-Hahoe village, paying homage to the communal life of the farm villages[fig.2].  There is no doubt that he undertook this task with a prescient sense of impending crisis.

             Because of Boomoon’s interest in terrain vague and his approach to landscape, he could not stay at this stage, which was based on the sort of gaze typical of postmodernist landscape.  He broke away from the concerns to which he had been attached and and moved on to a new phase.  Boomoon’s new images seemed radical and unusual in the photography world of the late 1990s, when started working on On the Clouds and Use of the Horizon-Sea[fig.3].  It is difficult to think of anything from the same period that resembles the combination of expansiveness and severe simplicity in the prosaic descriptiveness of these two series.  There is something about these works that recalls the single-minded reduction of multiple expressive elements into a more unified expression in the Black Square paintings of Kasimir Malevich, created in the middle teens of the twentieth century, and the concepts of non-figurativity and non-objectivity on which they were based.3  In producing his Suprematist paintings, Malevich thought that it was possible to create a new kind of composition after reducing all forms to squares.  He saw the square was a basic form for structuring the world to come, a window opening toward new possibilities of depiction.

             It is impossible, however, to find a rigid pattern corresponding to Malevich’s square in this transformative period of Boomoon’s photographs until he began to create an indexical relationship with objects in the world mediated by the camera.  Because he was creating photographs that continued to accurately document and reproduce reality, he could not engage with the issues treated in abstract painting as the final stage of the gradual process of dismantling representational space that began with Cubism.  But even so, during the 1990s, he took on the difficult task of exploring the possibilities of photographic reductionism in the context of postmodern landscape expression, which had come to a dead end, as the core of his photographic practice.  In doing so, he employed the horizon line as a simple compositional device that produced a sharp division between sky and sea, the upper and lower sections of the photograph.  By taking the horizon as the primordial element of his work, he was able to capture new aspects of the image at each successive moment to create an art of ever-expanding richness.

 

3.

             What might be described as a northern quality in Boomoon’s approach to nature emerged as a literal reality in Northscape, a series of views of the frozen shore and floating ice in Arctic seas.  The sharp fragments of ice in some of these photographs recall the famous painting, The Sea of Ice (1823-24), by German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich[fig.4].  Of this painting, the American art historian Robert Rosenblum wrote,

 

In his now famous painting of this subject, which used to be misidentified with a lost painting of the wreck of a ship called the Hoffung (Hope), the poetic truth of the traditional but incorrect title still holds: man’s ephemeral aspirations are dashed against the eternal omnipotence of nature and her often malevolent forces.4

 

This picture, which shows a ship overwhelmed and broken up by jagged pieces of ice, is a good example of northern Romanticism.  It presents the primal conflict between man and nature, evoking the tragic fate of ultimate defeat for human beings.  The extremely harsh environment of the Arctic Ocean provides an perfect setting for this sort of Romantic vision.  Friedrich always presented small human figures in his paintings in comparison with the much greater and menacing world of nature, suggesting the unceasing round of human failures and renewed challenges to nature.  It contrasted the powerlessness and pettiness of human beings with the sublimity and magnificence of nature.  Other Romantic painters before Friedrich had based their work on this unchanging pathos in which humans continue to rise from defeat and do battle with nature over and over again.  The unquenchable human desires that form the background for these paintings transforms them into a stage for heroic tragedy.

             By way of comparison, Boomoon’s Northscape focuses on the crystalline purity of places where all traces of human action have been swept away.  In other series as well, he turned deliberately and boldly to the purest natural landscapes with no human presence, especially in the Arctic, in order to obtain this clear and crystalline quality.

             A major feature of the abstract impulse that emerged simultaneously in multiple places during the first 20 years of the twentieth century was the transcendence of Romanticism, a tragic condition based on discrete, individual elements, and the achievement of generality.  Most of the early creators of abstract painting were believers in mystical and spiritual ideas that allowed them to break free of the discourses of Romanticism and Realism that had dominated 19th century painting.  These 19th-century discourses, which had been the peculiar province of painting, were carried on into the late years of the twentieth century by the art of photography.  Boomoon chose to confront nature itself as a method of escaping from these discursive conventions that had been transferred from painting to photography.  When he photographed the sky and the sea, he was engaging in a project resembling that of abstract painting, which aimed at overcoming tragedy.

             Even so, Boomoon’s intentions had nothing in common with the mystical spiritualism or agnostic declarations of the early abstract painters.  His iconography, simple and clear to any viewer, conveys nothing beyond a marvelous tranquility. 

             The great stones in the center of the landscapes in To the Stones (2005-2007) and the centrally placed trees in Sansu, begun in 2008, arouse the imagination as material objects and at the same time can be identified with human figures.  These works create an interesting situation that suggests a Romantic mode of existence.  In Naksan, the series of photographs that brilliantly orchestrates fierce snow storms and violently crashing ocean waves, and Stargazing, which shows the stars scattered in a cold, clear night sky, Boomoon seems to be considering and reexamining the relative position of nature and human beings found in Romantic art.  These photographs definitely presume the existence of a subject standing in front of nature even if no human figure appears in the picture.

             I believe that Boomoon intends to criticize the mode of existence of modern subjectivity, which is positioned on the margins of nature in a state of confrontation or alienation.  In Boomoon’s landscape photography, the subject is clearly imagined even if invisible.  The locus of subjectivity is obviously in the position of the photographer standing in front of nature, overlapping with the subjectivity of the viewer who contemplates the photograph.  The bodies of the photographer, the viewer, and Everyone occupy an invisible position.  We are not superior to any of the things that appear in the photographs, whether the branches of a tree, stones, snowflakes in the wind, the spray on the crest of a wave, or stars in the night sky.  Each individual body exists “in nature” in a manner that makes it equal to any of the innumerable parts of nature.  We have nowhere else to place our bodies.  Boomoon’s photographs do not reflect an anthropocentric way of thinking.  They show how the existence of human beings is scattered among the many other components of nature.

             Walter Benjamin used the word “constellation” to describe the idea of joining scattered elements in this way.5  According to Benjamin,

 

It is absurd to attempt to explain the general as an average.  The general is the idea.  The empirical, on the other hand, can be all the more profoundly understood the more clearly it is seen as an extreme.  The concept has its basis in the extreme…so do ideas come to life only when extremes are assembled around them.6

 

This passage contains a clue to a better understanding of Boomoon’s art.  His photographic series are all living products filled with the kind of empirical knowledge that Benjamin describes as “extreme.”  With an incredible degree of resolution, Bookmoon observes and scrutinizes the edges and small corners of the world, gathering and assembling scattered natural objects like the stars to create photographic constellations/ideas.  These ideas are supported by the presence and arrangement of matter, which is of equal value.  The ideas or, to follow Benjamin, the general, begin to take form with a separate but equal presence.  In an age when most people have stopped believing in the flow of constellations/ ideas, Boomoon’s photographs send out a quiet invitation to bring back the kind of action and wisdom needed to form constellations again through extensive dialog with nature.

(English translation from the Japanese original: Stanley N. Anderson)

 

Notes

1.     Shino Kuraishi, “Snow, Sea, Light,” in Kwon Boomon, Naksan (Portland: Nazralei Press, 2010), n.p.

2.     On terrain vague, see Ignasi de Sola-Morales, “Terrain Vague,” in Dean Almy, ed., Center Volume 14: On Landscape Urbanism(2007), 108-121.

3.     Kasimir S. Malevish, Essay on Art 1914-1933, vol. 1 and 2, edited by Troels Andersen (London: Rapp & Whiting, 1968).

4.     Robert Rosenblum, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 34.

5.     Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, translated by John Osborne (London and New York: Verso, 1998), 34.

6.     Ibid., 35.                   


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