Memory, Origin and Breakaway Images: The Portable Landscapes and Self-Portraits of Lee Min-ho - Koh Dongyeon, art history
2011-04-23 02:38:32 , Tuesday

//La vie n'est pas ce que l'on a vécu, mais ce dont on se souvient et comment on s'en souvient.
Life is not what we have lived, but what we remember and how we remember it. — Gabriel García Márquez

People living in the modern age are surrounded by countless images. These images are replicated twofold and threefold, over and over, through various media. If this is the case, how accurately are modern people able to recall the numerous landscapes they encounter in their daily lives?

In the photographic art of Lee Min-ho, landscape images such as smokestacks, boxes of turf, flags and seashores are divorced from their original context in space/time and appear, repeated and overlapping, over various backgrounds. In this process, the viewers have no way of knowing precisely what images belong where. Like the countless images roaming around the Internet, Lee's "portable landscapes" wander about without a home. The "portable self-portrait" series also follows along the same lines, presenting an array of the artist's body parts—her nose, her feet, the back of her hand—along with accessories that she possesses. She also covers her face, or turns it away, so that the viewer cannot recognize her. What might be considered the artist's most defining feature, her face, is excluded, and only the remaining parts are highlighted.

As a result, the images of landscapes and self-portraits that have lost their origins reach what is referred to in literary theory, especially in France, as a labyrinth or mise en abîme. The images are repeated, copied and reflected countless times, making it impossible to distinguish the original from the reproduction, and even obscuring their sources.

Moving the Landscape
Various forms of boxes, which have transformed throughout the course of Lee's series of "portable landscapes," have performed the role of situating similar or identical landscapes within completely different contexts. Landscapes containing white sofas are placed on top of other landscapes, such as a surrealistic one of dried and cracked earth or that of a construction site. A box containing the image of a blue sky is placed in front of an image where another sky is visible beyond the frame. Thus, in the works of Lee Min-ho, the boxes are her principal means of transportation in creating mobile landscape images.

For example, when the artist lived in France, she would look at factory smokestacks every morning from her studio. These smokestacks are positioned in various spaces, from a field blooming with azaleas to an unidentified bench, or reflected in a mirror that has been placed in front of the roof tiles of a building resembling a warehouse. What is the relationship between these images of smokestacks placed upon seemingly unrelated backgrounds and the smokestacks that the author saw when she was in France?⑴

⑴Of course, the photograph has always been a record of the past and at the same time a representation of that which no longer exists. Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida (1980) could naturally be cited as containing a theory connected with this. But while Barthes had the meaning of the photograph transforming in accordance with changes in the perspective of the viewer looking upon the past, in Lee Min-ho's works the meaning of the photograph, or the changing quality of the image within the photograph, is intentionally determined by the artist herself through artificial means and photographic collage methods. Thus, it could be called a major characteristic of Lee's work rather than the result of some original property of the photograph.

The artist explains this separation of identical images from their original contexts and arrangement of them against new backgrounds through the concept of "alienation." The meaning of alienation here is not limited simply to an emotional reaction felt by an individual within a certain social group. Instead, the concept of alienation presented by the artist has to do with the state of being divorced from one's origins, what might be called "images that have lost their homes." This corresponds to the concept of self-alienation from one's own identity.

On one hand, images that have proceeded away from their origins and lost their particularity come to form a new narrative or meaning. The viewers end up focusing their attention on the meaning or the new symbolic qualities generated by a smokestack situated in a completely new environment rather than the state of the smokestack at the time the photograph was taken and the meanings or stories related to that. But on the other hand, the portable landscapes correspond to "lost children" or "orphans" who have lost any place to go back to. They are like landscapes without homes; they have traveled to so many places and transformed so much that have lost their origins.

Images of the Fragmented Self (Artist)
While the photographs in her portable landscapes are no longer able to perform their proper function of reproducing the original particularity of space/time, her portraits, and her self-portraits in particular, also reveal those limitations. In her "portable self-portrait" series, the fragmentation of the artist's body parts leads to a state of confusion: Do they actually belong to the author, or are they intended simply to show the typified body parts of an individual?

In Lee's self-portraits, images of the artist, consisting only of her feet, her profile, her neck or her hands, are highlighted in turn. Sometimes, on the other side of the box, there are the shoes and belts that the artist herself wears, or the light bulbs that she holds comically over her face. But in the self-portraits, her face is skillfully concealed, a choice that is all the more interesting because she has emphasized the importance of the face in the ordinary process of recognizing the individual. Based on her experience with a processing laboratory refusing to take her money because the people there believed that her photographs with faces—the eyes in particular—covered or cut off were shot by mistake, the artist is claiming that our method of grasping people is based completely upon socialization or the social contract. When she hides her face here, it is actually akin to concealing a core aspect of the individual portrayed. Thus, the self-portraits are realized through various parts of the artist's body or the items she has used, with her face concealed, and could ultimately be called self-portraits that are unrelated to the core or have lost an identity corresponding to their origins.

If the artist's internal self has been reproduced simply through outward-oriented things, the situation is the same for femininity. In her self-portraits, Lee assumes the red polka dot pattern as a social code to symbolize femininity and asks whether femininity can really be represented simply through the wearing of clothes decorated with red polka dots or through accessories. Her project is to investigate methods of truly representing femininity amid an inundation of images associated with it. But the polka dot pattern in Lee's photographs remains simply a pattern and is placed in a display case as decorative fabric rather than actually being a possession enjoyed by the woman.

Just as the landscapes broke away from their original contexts, and just as the author's self-portraits are no long able to function as a means of reproducing the artist's fixed identity, the polka dot pattern also appears to be unconnected with real femininity. This seems to be a natural consequence if "femininity" is said to be something understood, emphasized and inculcated through certain visual codes created by society.

Liberation from Memory (Origins)
The artist uses decontextualized landscapes, faceless portraits and femininity reduced to a mere polka dot pattern as methods of discussing the self-alienation of the image. But is it still possible to discuss the origins (original state or identity) of the images? Would there be any further reason for "alienation" to be viewed as problematic if the sources themselves were not originally complete?

In a sense, the artist calls to mind to words of the South American author Gabriel García Márquez, who said that life is ultimately not about living itself but about the issue of how to remember and what to remember among the events of life, and she immerses herself in nostalgia for the original state of the image, identity and femininity. But at the same time, she does not fixate on feeble memories, such as the so-called "original" forms of the images or their origins. Ultimately, memory itself is realized from a variable perspective, and the fluidity of memory can be an unparalleled blessing for the photographic artist pursuing diverse modes of representation.

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