Up against a wall: Mug shot aestheticsHow does one's sense of taste come into being? Can someone develop his own, "pure" sense of taste without being influenced by (or compromising with) outside factors, such as cultural environment, societal norms or social trends? A 26-year-old Korean-Canadian artist, Michael Euyung Oh, raises these questions in his photography installations at the Insa Art Space, in central Seoul. The exhibition is on display through this Sunday.
For example, in his "200 Sex Offenders" photography series, Oh arranges the mug shots of North American male and female parolees that he found on a Web site. The artist randomly selects these images, categorizes them into large groups and displays them on the gallery wall with the person's name or a number on the bottom of the photograph.
What is particularly interesting about Oh's working process is how the artist chooses to order the images. Oh ranks each image from 1 to 100 solely based on his "aesthetic taste," relying heavily on instinct, emotions and perhaps sympathy toward the criminals in the photographs. Instead of ranking the offenders based on moral judgments, such as by examining the parolees' histories and giving them numbers based on the weight of their crimes, Oh dismisses the photographs' social context entirely and faithfully follows his own artistic appraisals.
Also in choosing images, Oh is unconcerned with the characters' stories behind the photographs, so much so that some viewers to his show criticize him for being too "egotistical."
In order to concentrate solely on his own sense of taste, Oh says that he resists reading any materials related to the people in the photos. Instead, he pays keen attention to the small details, such as the angle of their heads, the position of their eyes, the way they respond to the camera and his general impression of their faces.
In his other works at the Insa Art Space exhibition, Oh takes a similar approach, ranking the photos of death row convicts, missing children, diamond rings and burial caskets. On one wall, there is a work called "50 Percent Rapists, 50 Percent Sperm Donors," in which the artist mixes the images of rapists and sperm donors in one picture and confuses the viewer's perception as to who is who.
In another piece, he ranked the appearance of the flags of the various countries in the United Nations. Many years earlier, while in his freshman year at a college, Oh collected high school yearbooks and ranked the female graduates in order of his sexual preference.
Conceptually, the artist says he is influenced by what he sees as the values of positivism and capitalism as reflected in contemporary society. He believes these values often rank, categorize and give fixed definitions to things, distorting how we perceive and think about them.
When he talks, Oh likes to use the word "arbitrariness" a lot. In his artist statement, Oh asks how one's "emotional judgements" intersect with "intellectual judgments," or whether the two can compromise at all. Perhaps this question is the key to Oh's concerns, as he tries quite tenaciously throughout the show to concentrate on his emotions and dismiss everything else - quite the reverse of the usual societal values.
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