I Swallow the Description
Sung Eun Chang
Sung Eun Chang’s photographs primarily feature people. Even when a person does not appear, her photos show something that can be equated with a person. Upon returning to Korea from her long study in France, she held an exhibition introducing her Space Measurement series. One of the photos from that series is Rue Visconti, which shows nineteen people standing in a tightly packed line, blocking the eponymous road. In this strange performance, people’s bodies are located somewhere between objects and signs. They could even be replaced by phrases such as “to block the road,” or “obstruction blocking the road,” or maybe even “something going through the wall from right to left.” Then what exactly is a photograph?
This question unveils many fascinating characteristics of Chang’s photography, which records exceptional scenes in which bodies, objects, and language intersect. In Space Hamilton, inflated plastic bags are stacked on the back of someone who is bending over in a large empty room. Hence, the bags seem to be pressing down on the person, or using the person as support to reach towards the ceiling. This exceptional scene epitomizes photography as a cross-section of time, capturing the precise moment in which countless past and future possibilities intersect. Caught between these possibilities, photography reveals the unknown cross-section of a world filled with infinite meaning. As such, it raises the fundamental question, “What does this cross-section point to?”
Because Sung Eun Chang chooses to present staged photos, the photographic cross-section can encompass anything: objects, signs, sentences, etc. In her recent exhibition In the Still Is a Fierce Creature No One Sees (2019), “the still” refers to both a photographic cross-section and photography as an unprecedented object or situation. Titles have great importance in Chang’s works. For example, the singularity of an image of a person wearing a straw hat and standing in a greenhouse only emerges through the photo’s title, Underwater Swimming. Hence, the realm just beneath the surface of water becomes impossibly interconnected with this place filled with blue light and smoke. The scene is thus presented as the intersection of signs, like “greenhouse-water” or “blue light of the world seen from the water.” In her various photo series of “arranged” figures (e.g., Bubble, PomPom, and Empty Room), people covered with objects occupy the purgatorial space between “body-object-title” due to their standing posture and straightforward reification.
For Sung Eun Chang, photography is the process of visualizing this very space. Devoid of people, the works in her series Unrealizable Scenery may be categorized as “landscape photography,” but they are elaborately edited or arranged landscapes. For example, the present exhibition includes a work from that series in which a group of trees are gathered in the foreground around a narrow space, just like people. The somewhat impious aura emitted by the photos in this series may in fact be illusory (except for the series title). The title of the present exhibition—I Swallow the Description—recalls idioms like “swallow your tears” or “swallow the words I want to say.” Photography represses representation or description, while at the same time expressing something else. What we are left to stare at is how “la chose” (the thing) becomes a photo.
Chang explains that while her works “inquire about things that are abstract, they don’t try to completely deconstruct abstraction; rather, it’s a way of approaching it in a more clear way.” This means that her work does not interpret and explain each abstract sentiment stirred up by concrete life, but that it reinterprets the abstract as yet another abstraction by detouring it through a symbolic or metaphorical poetic language. This makes me question: How can abstraction be captured through the photographic medium, which is essentially figurative because it captures the subject rather than creating something that doesn’t exist? Chang’s answer is, through staged photographs.
from “Position of Loneliness” (2019) by Hye Jin Mun (art critic)