French theorist’s photos examine roots of reality

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French theorist’s photos examine roots of reality

During an hour-long group interview with journalists, French postmodernist thinker Jean Baudrillard seemed to lose the group of journalists who were interviewing him.
About half of the reporters enthusiastically nodded their heads as if they were college students taking a class with a celebrated professor.
The other half, however, wore bewildered looks on their faces, murmuring, “What on earth is he talking about?” Not that the clueless reporters were not smart enough to understand Mr. Baudrillard.
The glib French master of modernity and postmodernism, who visited Seoul late last month for the International Forum for Literature in Seoul, remained true to his reputation as “the best French theorist in existence,” as he was introduced at the press conference by organizers.
The 76-year-old critical thinker has gone back home, but Mr. Baudrillard’s photography is on display at the Daelim Contemporary Art Museum in central Seoul under the title, “A World That Does Not Exist,” which runs through July 17. It’s Mr. Baudrillard’s first exhibit in Asia.
In 1981, Mr. Baudrillard published “Simulacra and Simulation” (simulacra means signs), a book that analyzes how the media creates ideas and concepts that are not rooted in people’s everyday reality.
Mr. Baudrillard explained at the press interview that in this world, there is no more difference between “the original and the reproduced images” as far as people’s perceptions are concerned.
His main point is that today’s world is composed of nothing but floating simulated images ― primarily promulgated by digitization ― where the reality is lost.
To the scholar’s eyes, therefore, today’s world is not something positive and optimistic. Mr. Baudrillard has been somewhat hesitant over the years to express his reflection, which has sometimes led to criticism of him.
Asked how he takes criticism for being too pessimistic and radical when evaluating the world, Mr. Baudrillard said, “I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist nor a nihilist,” adding that “too much optimism for a utopia is in itself a total dystopia.”
His theory can come across as dense and challenging. But Mr. Baudrillard’s 1981 book may be more familiar than you think: it made a brief appearance in the now-legendary 1999 science fiction film “The Matrix.”
As viewers with shrewd eyes may have noticed, the character Neo kept his secret hacking discs in a hardcover version of Mr. Baudrillard’s book.
But the best way to be introduced to the world as Mr. Baudrillard views it would be to look at his photo exhibition rather than to dive immediately into his challenging book.
Witnessing how the scholar plays with the images is a unique visual representation of some of the complex concepts found in Mr. Baudrillard’s theory on perception and reality.
Mr. Baudrillard said he is “far from being a professional photogrpaher” at the press conference, but there’s no argument that he can use the camera as an effective tool to deliver his messages and illustrate his theories.
He did not quite imagine that he would be holding a photo exhibition when he was first given a camera by his friend in the 1980s, yet he says he became absorbed by the act of taking photographs, and now he carries his camera wherever he goes.
“Photography means utopia to me,” Mr. Baudrillard said. “I take photographs in order to express the specific characteristics, while making my very self lost from the scene.”
The 70 photographs on display taken during Mr. Baudrillard’s voyages around the world for the last two decades well reflect the world of the postmodernist critical thinker.
For one thing, there’s no romantic gondola in his photographs of Venice, Italy. For his version of the aged city of water, Mr. Baudrillard ventured in its back alleys, photographing scenes such as a cracking old wall where a painting of the sea is fading away.
Likewise, no signature image of the Eiffel Tower appears in his photograph of Paris. Instead, in a photograph that he titled “Bastille” after the Parisian prison, Mr. Baudrillard shows an upside-down reflection of the historic fortress on glass.
As he eludes the representative images of the world, he also challenges the standard definition in a series of photographs titled “Self-Portrait.” In his self-portraits, spectators only see a reflection of Mr. Baudrillard in a mirror, with his face hidden behind the camera.
Around the gallery are a series of quotes in Korean and English from Mr. Baudrillard: “Through the image, the world asserts its discontinuity, its fragmentation, its artificial instantaneousness,” one reads. “In this sense, the photographic image is the purest, because it does not simulate time or movement and keeps to the most rigorous unrealism.”

by Chun Su-jin

The photo exhibition runs through July 17 at Daelim Contemporary Art Museum in Tongeui-dong near Gyeongbok Palace, central Seoul. By subway, the museum is best reached from Gyeongbok Palace Station on No. 3 line, exit 4. For more information on the exhibition, call (02) 720-0667 (brief English service available). Small jazz concerts will accompany the exhibition on today, June 18 and July 2 and 16 at 3 p.m. at the gallery.
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