THE TIME OF THE SUBJECT
Story By: Michael Tweed
While Korean artist Heeseung Chung was in New York as an artist–in-residence for DOOSAN Gallery, Imagista took the opportunity to visit her at her studio in Chelsea. There, New York photographer and Imagista’s own founder and editor-in-chief Michael Williams took portraits of Heeseung, which are presented together with her two series: The Reading and Still Life.
In The Reading, Heeseung seeks the most fleeting of expressions while actors read from a script of their own choosing. Isolated in a black void, the subtle emotion lingering between the lines takes on a presence which, outside of the photograph, would in most cases be imperceptible. While in Still Life, she investigates the fleeting states of objects depending upon their position, the light and the very perception of the perceiver herself.
As revealed in the following interview, Heeseung’s work is less about “capturing” an image than about the nonexistent instant of becoming and dissolution, as well as the heretofore untapped potential of photographic representation itself.
Let’s start with a little about your background as an artist. When did you start doing photography? Did you try any other artistic mediums first?
I started painting when I was very little and it was always natural to think that I was going to be a painter someday. Undoubtedly I studied painting at university in Korea; it was then that I got my first 35mm Pentax film camera and started to take photographs as reference for my paintings. That was my starting point. Then after a couple of years, I was no longer satisfied with just taking photos, so I bought a second-hand enlarger and transformed my tiny studio apartment into a darkroom. Even though I still wasn’t seriously thinking about photography as my main artistic medium, certainly I started to be more engaged with it than with painting.
What attracted you to the camera as your chosen tool of expression?
I am attracted by the fact that the role of photographer as an artist can be reduced to an observer or a witness. Painting, for example, is a more physical medium than photography. Painters have to physically fight with the canvas and even a single brush stroke can say a lot about the artist. Even though some interesting paintings are made by assistants or in factory nowadays, I think this fundamental idea of painting hasn’t been changed that much. On the contrary, a photographer can keep a certain distance from the subject. There’s always a camera in-between (except in the case of photograms). I like to play this passive role within my work and leave some space for the viewers to participate in the observation and investigation.
Do you prefer digital or film? Has new technology affected your art in any way?
I mainly work in digital, which has more to do with efficiency than preference. In myReading series, I used a medium-format camera with a digital back, and normally took more than 1000 shots during each session. I had to record nearly every second rather mechanically because my subjects in this series were the subtle emotions and facial expressions of the actors and these are successions of moments that you can neither predict nor control. Then I edited all those shots down to one final image and enlarged it up to 70 inches wide which is approximately life size. In this way, I could get a faithful portrayal of the indefinable moments of the sitter. It would have been impossible to work in this way with film. So I definitely think that new technology affected this project in that it enabled me to look at the human subject in this particular way.
To what extent is your art incorporated into your daily routine? Are there any creative principles or rules you live by?
I try to work on a regular basis. I can make good progress in the work only by doing it regularly. But living as an artist involves a lot of distractions as well, such as meetings, exhibition openings, parties and so on. I enjoy them, but sometimes they can be quite draining. For me personally I think it is important to keep life as simple as possible to be creatively productive.
You studied in London for several years and recently completed an artist residency in New York City. How has the experience of living in other countries and being immersed in other cultures affected you and your art?
I think changing your living environment provides you with a good opportunity to see yourself from a different perspective. I was born and raised in Seoul, and until I was 30 years old, I had never been anywhere else. So when I went to London in 2003, it was the first time that I lived in a foreign country and only the second year of my marriage, and then I was pregnant in the following year. So in many respects, I was a beginner and made a lot of mistakes. I think it was nice to have all that experience in my early thirties. I was young enough to be generous about my stupidity and really enjoyed that learning process. It was also a process of casting doubt on everything that I had taken for granted for 30 years and re-establishing my way of thinking, which was definitely a big part of my art practice and study in London.
Several of your projects, including The Reading, examine the relationship between the notion we have of our own self and the face we present to the world, or perhaps the play between one’s own inner narrative and how one is read by others. What attracted your interest to this relationship and, by doing this series, what have you learned about the psychology of both the individual and human social interactions, as well as about photography itself?
I have always been interested in portraits, especially 19th century daguerreotypes and the early portraits of Nadar which were made before the industrialization of photography. I was drawn to their unique sentiment and nostalgia. However, I had a little problem making portraits as my own project: I myself didn’t like being photographed. It seemed to me that having my photograph taken was an intrusion on my personal boundaries. It seemed like a violent act and I didn’t want to do it to others. I had delved into how to deal with this issue for a while and then came up with the idea of working with professional actors while they are performing. It really worked for me as I didn’t need to force them — “give me your naked face to make an interesting portrait!” — and at the same time, it was conceptually intriguing. When you look at this portrait of an actor performing tragedy, when you see the grief and sorrow in his tearing eyes, how can you distinguish the staged from the authentic, and the mask from the face? I found it interesting to ponder that even though it was initiated by my personal issues regarding portraits, this project is dealing with a wider realm about the psychology of photographic portraiture.
Could you please explain a little about your shooting process for this series? What are the actors reading?
I invited actors individually to my studio where I built a set for this project. It was a 2.5 metre black cube with one side open for the camera. Then the actor was supposed to read a script he/she had chosen for this project inside this set. I didn’t give them any criteria about the script, but we would have a meeting beforehand and have a good enough conversation about the project and their own ideas or philosophy of acting through which we had a mutual understanding about what we would explore without pinning down or knowing the specific meaning of this project as a whole. The actors tended to choose a script that they had some personal attachment to. Then as I mentioned earlier, I photographed the whole procedure shooting at three to four second intervals. From a thousand shots I would then have to edit down and chose a single one. This kind of process is not visible in the final outcome but I truly believe that it plays an important role within this project.
What are the criteria you use to decide which specific image to print of each actor?
Editing is always interesting. For The Reading, it took many days to closely investigate all the images of each actor. Their faces were nearly identical but at the same time all different. It is always surprising to discover that we have so many different faces, while we believe that we have only one.
I didn’t have any specific criteria and really didn’t know what I was expecting, so the editing was a kind of a process of endless questioning about what am I trying to find from their so many different faces in undesignated moments. In this respect I think this project is, in the end, about what does it truly mean to look at the face of the other within photographic representation.
For Imagista, you have decided to present The Reading alongside selections from the ongoing series Still Life—why did you choose to present these specific series? Are they related?
Still Life was initiated while I was doing the shoots for The Reading. At the beginning, I didn’t have any ambition to produce a new body of work. It was more like a drawing process, making images of everyday objects by responding to the shape, changes of daylight and my feeling at the moment, without any preconceived idea. It was a very intuitive process and gradually this body of work started to take shape by itself. I then began to consider this extemporaneous working process more seriously as a method of expressing my subtle emotions and psychological responses to things. Even though the subject matter and working process are quite different with these two bodies of work, I think the way I deal with the human subject, more precisely human emotion in The Reading, has certainly been affected by the way I look at objects. Even though what they represent cannot be pinned down precisely, the objects inStill Life sometimes allude to the human body latent with anxiety and exhaustion, at other times they are suspended in mid-air as if they cannot decide if they are floating or falling. This idea of undecidability or liminality has always been important to my practice since my early portrait works. So I think these two bodies of work loosely, but very intimately work together and communicate to each other.
The portraits in The Reading are anything but still, while in the series Still Life not only objects, but even usually gesticulating hands seem to have found a moment of rest, enveloped in an aura of silence. What are your thoughts on portraiture, traditional still life and the contemporary photographic image?
You used the word silence as opposed to stillness, but I think they are closely related to each other. In The Reading, the actors are reading the script in front of the camera, but the portrait itself actually doesn’t convey the text or speech. They are all just still and silent images. In the portraits, the human subjects just helplessly present their existence to the viewer like the objects, and in that sense, the subject and the object are not clearly distinguished from each other within my practice.
In the gallery context, I also like presenting the portraits and still life works in the same space, as this kind of arrangement seems to have an effect of blurring the boundaries of genre, and even of the subject matter. I feel that the ways in which photographic meaning can be created outside the photographic frame is becoming a more important issue within my recent practice.
While looking at the series of photographs comprising Still Life I am reminded of the Japanese aesthetic term, mono no aware, which refers to the sensitivity to a thing’s ephemeral or transient nature, the pathos of passing. What are your thoughts on photography, duration and perception?
Photographic time is always an interesting one. When I think of a “frozen moment” in photography, I instantaneously recall Cartier-Bresson’s famous image of a man jumping across a puddle behind a Paris railway station. It gives me a sense that the flow of time of the scene has abruptly stopped and been embalmed in the photographic surface like a fossil, disconnected from the time and space of the viewer; this might convey the general idea of photographic stillness. But within my practice, I am more concerned with malleable time. It is not a fixed and measurable time but more to do with subjective time, which can be contracting and expanding. It is not only the time of the subject of photography, but also the time of the viewer interacting with a photograph. Therefore, in Still Life, “still” implies an aspiration for “duration” to overcome “stillness” as a generic meaning of photography.
Lastly, what do you feel is the role of the artist in regards to the viewer? And the relationship of the viewer to your photographs?
I just make works and exhibitions. If my works can create critical dialogues then that’s a good thing. But I don’t want to direct viewers to read my works in a certain way. I’d rather my work be experienced than interpreted, then it’s the viewer’s own personal and authentic experience, by which more meaningful questions can be created.