How did you become a photographer? Would you define yourself as such?
I consider myself a lucky person whose childhood dream – to be an artist – came true. When I was 7 years old, I was happy when I was creating, but I thought I couldn’t become an artist because I was afraid to show my work. In South Korea, teachers used to display the “well done class work” on the wall at the back of the classroom. A joyful moment, but one that made me nervous. I had a visceral fear that my work would be mocked. Later, I studied art history because I wanted to surround myself with art. In my first year, despite my worries, I decided to create. I see art as a kind of language, encompassing all kinds of perceptions, and I see myself as an artist who uses this language. So, I asked myself what medium would suit me best. I took courses, as many as I could – painting, sculpture, ceramics, drawing, etc. – and among them, photography was the one that best suited me, although the medium was in itself very paradoxical. I discovered that the act of framing is conceptual, while the process is mechanical. It was all of this that got me interested in photography.
The notion of performance is present in your work, how does it relate to photography?
Basically, I think every photograph is born out of a performance: with the intentional – or intentionally unintentional – action of pressing the shutter. I define my work as “a kind of performance without an audience, thought only to be photographed”. I have often thought of the image as a search for strong, even suicidal sensations. My first Self-Portrait project was born out of my fear of heights. I wanted to test or “see” how photography could capture the moment when the context is disrupted, like a direct shot. Therefore, I carefully planned the situation before I started photographing, especially the safety issues. I set the camera to automatically take several shots per second, with a high shutter speed.
The frame is made up of very short moments, made of coincidences. A series of tests. The moment when fear appeared could be replaced by a dynamic and spontaneous moment, through mechanical documentation. In my later work I captured surreal moments during the execution of a situation.
Like Icarus, just before he burns his wings, all your work captures the tension before the fall. Is this a way of reinforcing the emotion?
In my very first project Self-portrait, I tried to visualise the void. I chose the edge of skyscrapers because they metaphorically show how I see time. I think the present is the void – between the past that can never be changed, and the future that can never be reached. And we fill it. This filling in becomes the narrative of life. In Self-Portrait I compare our life to a “free fall”. It is born as a result of an action and is inevitably confronted with death. Therefore, in many projects, “gravity” is used as a metaphor for “memento mori”. With the inevitability of the beginning and the end, it is uncertain how it will happen. In my project One Life, I created an intentional randomness with a repetitive performance. I asked my family members to throw apples and documented the process of them falling with a high shutter speed, several shots per second. In my editing, I selected images that were balanced in composition and suggested that the apple remained suspended, halfway down – as if resisting its fate and gravity.
I also made a series of works after losing my grandmother, in her empty house and garden. Because of the social distance caused by Covid-19, our family could not say goodbye to her. In Korea, death is a “return”. The life of a person, thrown into the void for no reason in free fall through the air, ends when he or she touches the ground. The physical body returns to the earth, and the soul ascends to somewhere, the point of departure. So, it’s not a matter of amplifying the emotion when I take or select an image, but of questioning this phenomenon of free fall.
You take hundreds of photos before choosing “the one”, what is your selection process?
I always describe my working process as obsessive or repetitive. During the shooting, I try to make as many images as possible. For a project like The Tempest, I made about 2 TB of files in total, just in 2020. This project, initiated in 2014, shows the dynamics of water released from a dam. In projects about the structure of an invisible phenomenon, editing depends mainly on coincidence. Once I have found the right shutter speed to freeze the moment without blurring, I shoot until the memory card is full.
The rest of the time I stay home to review, select, and print my images. I may not leave my flat for a few days, sometimes more than a week. Once the selection is complete, I delete the rest of the images. I have a large digital printer at home, and I make most of the prints for exhibitions myself. I use this process for most of my projects.
Do you think there is a “female gaze”? Has being a woman influenced the way you work?
At the end of the 20th century, when the term appeared, the discourse was very appropriate. A century later, as I exhibit my work, the term “female gaze” brings with it a lot of prejudice. And this is because I am a woman. For example, I have seen many people surprised when they see me in an interview or at an exhibition. Lately, I think that the “gaze” may depend more on how people are represented, and how they interpret the idea of gender. At the end of the day, every person, regardless of gender, has their own “gaze”.
Being an Asian woman has influenced my work, of course. My Self-Portrait project was my very first experience. It gave me the opportunity to see how the female body is interpreted by others. Am I on a diet or am I anorexic? My body became the subject of detailed evaluation. I learnt that people who are aware of their own “gaze” or prejudices – depending on social background, education, nationality, ethnicity or gender – can better understand this subject.
Who are the artists who inspire you? Among them, are there any women photographers?
We are all artists of our own lives. For example, my family inspires me the most. My grandmother’s and my mother’s lives in particular. They have also inspired some of my work. They could have been artists if they had lived in other times.
I am also inspired by history. Works such as The Tempest came about in connection with Shakespeare’s work. I approach it as a poem. The author fed my imagination throughout my childhood. As far as visual artists are concerned, I like Jackson Pollock a lot. In fact, it was he who triggered my desire to study art history in the United States. His work has influenced my work a lot. In terms of process, especially, as well as the way of “tracing the performative movement”.
When it comes to women photographers, I love Claude Cahun’s self-portraits. Although some texts describe her images as surreal, they seemed so realistic to me: they embody an inner struggle. I would also mention Ana Mendieta in terms of the relationship between performance and photography, and the link between the artist’s body and nature.