The devotional experience of the Gothic cathedral is a masterstroke of stagecraft; the upward gaze darkening as it rises, airily tinted by the fading light from the clerestory; the stone columns, like great trees, of a diameter five men can barely encompass, the smoking censer, the glowing cassocks, the Ave Maria…all these are manipulations of the audience experience, all evocations of future memories.
The photographs and installations of Los Angeles artist Kyungmi Shin follow a similar strategy. From her elegant and wretched 2004 work WarCuts––that excises the images of military personnel from the print reportage (that itself is dying)—a lacework of newsprint that festively curtains from its perch upon wall, to her 2007 Rich/Yellow that gives us a color photograph, large and segmented, of a forested coastline vitiated with the hastily, hand-inscribed word “rich”, a cataloguer’s brief pause before moving on to the conquest of other costa ricas; her inventions have recreated, juggled, and restaged our essential relations to our cultural hallmarks.
The urge to remake our world is an effort, in essence, to remake ourselves, a drive as old as the fable of Adam and Eve willfully partaking of the fruit of knowledge. Becoming as gods themselves was the bill of goods sold them by the wily serpent and the urge has been with us ever since. Evincing this creation of an Eden of our own is New York’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace, completely contrived imitations of the natural world. They are utopian fantasies, egalitarian parks designed to reassure the wealthy and uplift the poor; as the rise of cities was accused of the coarsening of society such faux paradises were considered the antidote. These parks, and other works of Frederick Law Olmstead, godfather of landscape architecture, are, however, unabashedly romantic views of paradise; an arcadia of the people that never quite lived up to its promise.
Ms. Shin makes no attempt to appeal to the image of our ideal selves. Her works are an unflinching view of the world as we have made it, chaotic, relentless, and hostile to reproof. Her Babel, a two-storey cataract of photographs, refuse, and recycling is provisional architecture of the kind we are drawn to create. Confirming the gated community and the favela as diametric twins upon the circular architectural continuum, just as today’s McMansion is the verso of an A.M.E. church housed in a former synagogue, Ms. Shin’s is a fourth dimensional architecture. Valued items are eventually discarded, refashioned, then finally become fashionable again as a green commodity. The photos included in this construction (among many other ingredients) place, without judgment, the luxury construction in Dubai alongside images of Ghanaian shantytowns, as equivalencies. Her tower is the cognate object of all human endeavor, a jerry-built bulwark against obscurity.
Of Will Rogers’s famous and naïve pronouncement, “A stranger’s just a friend I haven’t met”, Ms. Shin’s view is the opposite, the currently valuable as future junk (and all of us eager packrats), a view comparable to the falsity of freshly picked flowers–– already dead but unwilling to admit it.
Max King Cap