One home, two worldsOne of the disturbing aspects of Kim Ok-sun’s photographs of interracial couples is the distance that seems to exist between the subjects, even when they are in the same room.
Their faces, turned away from each other, are chillingly serene. The women are always looking into the camera, while the men look away.
In “Hiroko and Ken,” the wife stands against the kitchen wall in the background; her husband is seated, in the foreground. In “Hiroyo and Michael,” the woman has stopped folding laundry to pay attention to the camera, but her husband, standing nearby, is kissing their baby and looking away.
Most of the couples in Kim’s photos consist of an Asian woman and a Caucasian man. For her most recent series, she has added gay and lesbian couples ―Caucasian men with Asian men, and Caucasian women with Asian women. But even in these images, only the Asian models confront the camera, looking alert, as if trying not to lose their sense of poise.
In her current exhibit at Marronnier Art Center in Daehangno, northeastern Seoul ― a series of photographs the artist produced during her residency at PS1, a program affiliated with New York’s Museum of Modern Art ― Kim captures moments of daily routine. A man peels an orange in the kitchen; another kisses his baby’s forehead.
But there is a disturbing tension, because the viewer senses a silence in the spareness of the rooms. That seems to contradict our usual reason for taking pictures: to memorialize moments that stimulate our emotions.
To the casual observer, the absence of emotion may suggest that the artist is pointing to a lack of intimacy among interracial couples. But the meanings in these images seem more layered than that.
Could the exhibit’s title, “You and I,” provide a clue?
“It’s a questioning of the perception in our society about interracial couples ― that we’ll never be the same, because we don’t look the same,” says Kim, whose previous exhibit, “Happy Together,” included a photograph of herself with her German husband.
“In Korea, we often say that when couples live together for a long period, their faces come to resemble each other. But for couples of different races, we always seem to exist as ‘you and I’ instead of ‘we,’ because we look different.”
Though these photos depict actual couples in their homes, they also leave the viewers room to imagine their own scenarios. This amounts to an interesting experiment, challenging our ideas about interracial couples, and how our ways of seeing are grounded in social stereotypes.
Gallery visitors are handed copies (in Korean) of the artist’s interviews with the couples, which add new meaning to the images; the subjects offer romantic anecdotes about how they met, and talk about the cultural differences and similarities they’ve discovered.
An interesting aspect of the interviews is that many of the problems the couples have in common ―whether visa problems, language issues, family dilemmas or decisions about children’s nationality ― come down to politics. But at the same time, the artist shows how these differences can become causes for affection in romantic relationships.
In the interview with Jackie and Javier, for example, the Argentinean husband dismisses cultural differences between himself and his Chinese wife as “a fact of being a New Yorker.” Jonathan, who is British, describes falling in love with his Japanese partner Tsuyoshi’s “Eastern sensibility”; the two are photographed in front of a painting of a lotus flower in their bedroom. Hilary, who met Lydia at a Brooklyn theater, says she doesn’t understand why her Chinese partner needs more than one soy sauce in their kitchen.
The focus is on the woman’s point of view, probably because of the artist’s personal experience.
“If I had used Asian-man-and-Caucasian-woman couples, it would have led to another meaning,” she says. “For Korean or Asian women married to foreigners, there is a very particular experience, with both psychological and legal problems that are different from those of men married to foreign women. This series is clearly seen through the eyes of an Asian subject, a woman.”
A compelling aspect of the exhibition is that these are personal photos that speak to the political subject of marriage as a social institution.
For an earlier series, “Living Room,” Kim visited the homes of professors at Jeju University, and took family portraits in the living rooms of their university apartments. The results revealed the idealized facades of families from the same class, whose styles of interior decoration turned out to be surprisingly similar. Her last solo exhibition, “Happy Together,” documented interracial couples living in Korea.
Though the photos in the current series, which were taken in New York, deal with an entirely different culture (and includes gay couples), it seems to touch on the same truths. Kim says that when the photos were shown in New York last year, many interracial couples told her that they, too, felt more aware of how others perceived them.
“Homes are interesting spaces,” Kim says. “They are so hard to penetrate. And once you are in them, every detail within the space becomes codified.”
by Park Soo-mee
“You and I” will be at Marronnier Art Center in Daehangno through March 10. The museum is a few minutes’ walk from Hyehwa subway station, line No. 4, exit 2; hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily except Mondays. Admission is free. For more information, call (02) 760-4603.