Strange beauty, from a familiar place

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Strange beauty, from a familiar place

Seeing “Glimpses of Iodo: Clouds of Bliss,” the exhibition by Kim Young-gap at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, is a perplexing experience.
To a casual observer, the exhibition, which brings together the artist’s panoramic photographs depicting scenes from Iodo, a smaller island off Jeju island, looks like a collection of calendar scenes.
The details of the artist’s works, whether in a field of autumn reeds, a sky covered in murky clouds or inlets surrounded by mist, reflect themes common to nature photographs.
Yet Kim’s photos have a mood that’s very unusual for landscape photography. In some photos, the feeling is not unlike that of a surrealist painting, or an image that’s been digitally manipulated.
His enigmatic photos present the pastoral beauty of a no man’s land; the dramatic palettes in the climatic spectacles of Jeju, which are the main subject of the exhibition, seem to transcend what you see.
Conceptually, Kim’s photographs focus on four subjects: snow, rain, mist and wind. But they seem unusual because the works question conventional images of Jeju.
While the photos do depict the island’s beauty, the sense of place in each image is somehow left vague, almost as if the images were meant to contradict the popular images of Jeju, which, as we know, has been greatly changed by tourism and development.
The photos are even more mysterious and timeless in that the artist neither dates nor specifically identifies the places he’s photographed. They are classified only by the weather.
Or perhaps there’s another explanation. Viewers may be seeing the photos differently because we know they were taken by an artist who stands on the edge of life.
Kim, 48, made news in the Korean art world five years ago when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neurological disorder in which the nerve cells that control muscle movement degenerate. The illness has left Kim mostly paralyzed and made it difficult for him to speak.
The tragedy of his illness, however, affects the viewer in a way that goes beyond sentimentality, because of how Kim treats his work as his life’s testimony.
(“Trying to explain in words my impressions of the mystical beauty I see every day in nature makes me want to find a place to hide in embarrassment,” he writes in his artist’s statement.)
The illness, indeed, becomes an important metaphor in his works. They have a strange melancholy and an aimless longing that is close to being spiritual.
Is this because people who stand on the cusp of death really see things differently? Or is it that our understanding of the art is being colored by what we know about the artist’s life?
Either way, the photographs leave us in a state of contemplation, forcing us to think about what the artist found in scenes that many of us, as tourists, have probably passed by without particularly noticing.
Does it have to do with the desperation of a man whose admiration for nature helps him endure pain? If so, can we experience any of these images the way the photographer did?
Maybe these are foolish questions, having nothing to do with the point of art. But how you answer them may affect how you perceive the ephemeral beauty to be found in these photos.

by Park Soo-mee

The exhibition runs through Tuesday at the newly opened Sejong Center Museum of Fine Art. Hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, except Mondays. Admission is 7,000 won ($7). Use Gwanghwamun station (line No. 5). For more information, call (02) 542-0286.
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