Project Series 1: Soo Jin Kim
As seen from the window of an aeroplane or train, the landscape is blurred, abstract, from things coming into view too quickly. This is when I feel at home, when everything is indistinguishable from other places in my mind, before being located in Los Angeles, or London, or Lumpur. When the scenery is all three and more places, unidentified, dislocated, an imaginary (home)land.1
"In-Between Places: Recent Work by Soo Jin Kim"
Soo Jin Kim addresses issues of the postmodern experience, the dislocation of migration and travel, cultural identity, and ideas of place, non-place, and placelessness in the body of work presented in Montgomery Gallery. Seeking the familiar in the unfamiliar, her work resonates on an emotional level, offering a feeling of comfort--no matter where you are in the world, you can find something to hold on to. People in flux--those moving for jobs, housing, and curiosity--and second- and third-generation immigrants may not have connections to a specific country of origin or to a place to call "home." In our unsettled culture and mobile society, questions of identity are paramount: where do we belong? how do we fit in? what is home? These concerns are amplified by today's global culture, apparent in the stripping away of individuality as seen in the omnipresent McDonald's, hotel chains, airports, etc; easier and faster travel; instantaneous Internet communication; and people moving, traveling, immigrating internationally. Kim responds to these trends by focusing on the idea of non-places and in-between places--places that seem the same everywhere.
Kim's work resonates now precisely because it addresses these issues in a non-specific, open-ended fashion that leaves room for the viewer to find personal meaning. Kim's images work on many levels and range from culturally pointed, to intimate, to purely aesthetic. Her hauntingly beautiful photographs raise larger social concerns while, at the same time, explore the relationship between abstraction and pictorial representation. Many artists now use photography to focus on the questions that Kim does. Whether examining documentary issues, mechanical and digital manipulations, or narrative or pictorial concerns, artists are turning to photography to question the self in relation to global culture and its impact.
With this exhibition, Kim presents new photographs from three series, Speed, Crowded Skies, and Air, Land, Sea, in addition to an installation seen here for the first time. While this body of work represents a new direction for the artist, it also demonstrates her commitment to many of the issues and ideas she has explored in the past. Kim's early work, predominantly installation and video that incorporated themes of the self and the home, raised questions about her identity, and particularly, her heritage. She was born in Korea and moved to California when she was six years old. Until she went to college, her family moved almost every year, establishing a pattern of relocation and displacement that is reflected in her work. To examine immigration and the adaptation involved in migration and travel, Kim explored ideas specific to the dispersal of Korean culture. In the 1993 video "Comfort Me," Kim looked at the rape of Korean "comfort women" by Japanese soldiers during World War II in order to explore both the history of rape in wartime and cultural and gender hierarchies. In 1995, Kim's work took a new direction. She had only worked in three dimensions before but now found herself tackling a new project which dictated a photographic approach. In the resulting exhibition titled 7,6, 16, Kim paired photographs of details of stamps from a variety of countries (Korea, Oman) with photographs of blue skies--generic images all taken from the "exotic" locales (Taejon, Rubidoux, Gardena, Castaic) from which she derived the titles. The postage stamp photographs recorded specific places and compared ideas of tourism and memory with the existing landscape, while the sky images referenced a banalization of exotic locations.
Instead of focusing on a specific place, the Speed series (1996-1997) represents a document of the artist/subject moving through an anonymous space. Reflecting her long-time interest in travel, and documenting the cultural exchange implicit in travel and migration, these photographs explore the idea of placelessness and movement. Instead of videotaping the countryside through the train window to convey movement, Kim wanted to take a moment of travel and render it still. Working with a long camera shutter and shifting from one point to another, the resulting photograph becomes an image of travel and motion. The image of "actual" movement, then, represents a sort of "in-between" space, neither here nor there, an invisible place that offers the viewer a sense of familiarity in the banal, the everyday, anywhere.
Space emerges from this lack of context charged with potential. Free of specificity, non- places arrange and re-arrange their coordinates in an infinite number of ways, becoming amorphous as well as ubiquitous, space becomes uprooted, unlocated, and interchangeable. Once it gains the potential to be more than one place, it has a freedom akin to the boundlessness of the imagination.²
For Kim, representing the "in-between" places of the everyday enables "the passive joys of facelessness or the more active pleasures of imagining." She expands on these ideas in the related series, Crowded Skies (1997-1998). As in the Speed series, Kim photographed the work during her travels. In this case, however, she actively altered them by layering negatives together; the resulting images of power lines are deceptively straightforward. Kim conflates the everyday with the imaginary, creating images that at first seem simple but, on closer examination, "off," not quite right. This layering and re-combining of images of electric wires comments on the uses of urban space and the ubiquitous nature of modern methods of communication. Power lines, seen in every city, are so common as to become almost invisible. Yet this "invisible"commonality is what reminds one of the familiar, and perhaps even "home."
Kim's most recent series, Air, Land, Sea (1998), again focuses on "in-between" places, moments of "invisible" commonality, and the action of traveling. Depicting neither point of origin nor arrival, these photographs portray people and fragments of people on trains, buses, airplanes, taxis, against the background of a passing landscape or reflections of the vehicle's interior. While anonymous, and with the same sense of dislocation that work from the other series conveys, these placeless images suggest a more human dimension. They appear representational and, at the same time, non-specific. This double-edged view offers glimpses of the extraordinary in the ordinary.
In contrast to the two-dimensionality of the photographic work, Kim's installation, Flight, carries ideas of travel and placelessness into three dimensions. Related closely to the Crowded Skies series in its graphic linearity, the installation projects an experiential, sculptural quality. Flight refers loosely to the travel diagrams found in airline magazines. These smoothly rendered drawings of journeys may clash vividly with the actual, often turbulent, act of traveling. By mapping abstract and invisible flight trajectories, Kim hints at the bodily displacement of travel and movement.
Kim's imaginary spaces and in-between places bear a strong affinity to the "any-place whatevers" discussed by Gilles Deleuze.3 Citing the impact of the French philosopher's theories on her work, Kim talks about places' being more than reminiscent of each other: they contain the possibility of being like other places altogether, or many places simultaneously. The in-between offers alternatives, different views of how things are and could be. Instead of merely referring to the place represented, Kim's work leads us to another understanding of our life and of what makes a place "home." She gives us the freedom to imagine and to determine our own visions of the places we inhabit within the world.
1. Soo Jin Kim, "Undoing Space," Art & Design, special issue, Art & the Home, Academy Group Ltd., London, England, 1996, p. 49.
2. Kim, "Uta Barth: The Space of Non-Place," Claustrophobia, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, England, 1998, p.29.
3. Kim, in "Undoing Space," cites Gilles Deleuze in Cinema 1: The Movement Image, University of Minnesota Press, 1986, p. 109.