I Don’t Like Ajummas-Hyoungkuhn Oh’s Ajumma (Pictures)
Young June Lee (photography critic)
* Ajumma: the Korean term for mid-aged woman
Walter Benjamin once said that those who were unable to read their own pictures would be called
image-lliterate. In that aspect, Hyoungkuhn Oh is at least not an illiterate. For he knows what kind of text he is writing. He calls his own ‘ajumma’ pictures a system of illustrated guide book. Its contents are not plants or animals but an anthropology of ajumma. While attributing a types to each ajumma, Oh decides to what type each ajumma belongs. They are “sad ajumma” type, “scarry ajumma” type, “able insurance saleswoman” type, and so on.
To put ajummas in arbitrarily constructed frames is a strategy of taming ajummas. For example, in military post, they put small silhouette images of enemy aircrafts or submarines on the wall and call them by their names, such as ‘Yugo Class’ or ‘Shark Class’. Oh is doing the same thing to ajummas using photographs. Even though the military is using small silhouette images of enemy crafts in order to identify them, the bigger yet unconscious purpose of doing it is to tame the unknown, and therefore, scarry enemy. They tame the enemy by putting an image which is within the range of their visual control and console themselves that they know the enemy. However, the enemy is not tamed in such a manner. What is really tamed is their own fear of the enemy. Oh is also taming his own fear, pity and emotional distance toward ajummas by taking pictures of them and render them in a system of an illustrated guide book. Why? For Oh likes and hates ajummas at the same time. To him, they are not just ‘anybody’. The ajumma is scarry yet friendly. They are sad but strong.
One of the interesting characters of the ajumma is that it not only refers to a position in family relations, but is also used as an appellation. Along with a word such as ‘uncle’ or ‘grandpa’, ‘ajumma’ is used as anonymous appellation to call someone on the street. The moment we call someone “ajumma!”, she is constructed as a subject. This appellation does not only compels an ajumma to look back at us, but also has function of an apparatus that fixes her at a certain position within the society. So, the term ‘ajumma’ refers to an apparatus that treats, defines and fixes her as an ajumma. Though the concepts of appellation and construction of the subject come from the French philosopher, Louis Althusser, who theorized the subjectivity in a civil society, these can be applied to the ajumma.
So, the ajumma is a “name” given to a wide but ambiguous group of people whose boundary cannot be defined in a clear-ut way. Hyoungkuhn Oh is taking picture of that very name. Just as one builds an entirely new relationship when he introduces himself by saying “my name is Hyoungkuhn Oh” and shakes hands with another person, to know a name is as good as the whole relationship between the self and the world. Of things, we only know their names. But one knows everything when he knows the name. So, the name, ajumma. ‘Ajumma’ as an anonymous appellation. The ajumma who is not anybody but every woman.
As this is said, we can think of another French man Jacques Lacan, who theorized the concept of the name of the father. The name of the father refers to the position of the father who is central in founding the symbolic order within the hierarchical order of the family. It does not so much refer to the real father as to his position, and the ajumma seems to have the same status. The reason why not all the women are ajumma does not lie in their appearance or age but their very position in a society.
What Oh is taking pictures is the position of/as ajumma in our society and its culture. Such a position belongs either to a family relationship composed of mother/ father/ uncle/ aunt or to a social stratum among women that is composed of girl/ lady/ ajumma/ grandma. But such a position is not simply decided along a formal lineage of who gave birth to whom and so on. A mother is a mother because she is playing her role, speaks and dresses as one. In other words, a position within a family relationship is not automatically given but constructed according to a strategy of identity that renders oneself as a mother or an ajumma. We can call that rendering a strategy of representation. An ajumma wears and speaks her identity while employing a strategy of identity that differentiates herself from a man or a young lady. Oh’s photographs diligently displays how such a strategy is visualized by ajummas. So all the details visible in his works such as clothing, accessories, make-p, hair, smell and facial expression are significant since they are part of the strategy of identity for ajummas.
But then, the artist furtively intervenes in the scene. Rather than showing the position of the ajumma itself, Oh is showing ‘his own act of positioning her at a certain place’. It is just like an act of pointing at someone and saying, “there goes an ajumma.” Sometimes, such an act looks pretty playful. An ajumma he classified as an “insurance saleswoman type” might be a real Professor or a real doctor. Who knows?
The format of an illustrated guide book is the mark of such a play. Anyway, the position of an ajumma is determined by all the visually readable details carried by the image of an ajumma such as the pattern and soil on her clothes, material, texture and glitter of her ornaments, wrinkles on the face, and makeups that cover them such as lipstick and eyelash. That is why any ajumma does not share the same position with each other. Even though an ajumma belongs to a generalized category of the ajumma, the position occupied by each one in it is highly specific and individualized.
In this case, without veering into too difficult philosophical jargons, we can define the identity of an ajumma as constructed of “one’s own image that one is, consciously or unconsciously, willing to accept as one’s own.” Here, the element of ajumma’s identity is not limited to an image as visually perceivable sense data but can be expanded as wide as the voice, speech, behavior, and smell that she disseminates. For example, if an ajumma likes to wear a cheesy looking blouse with a flower pattern on it, that is her identity. One’s identity is not a reflection through a face or fashion of one’s essence deeply hidden inside one’s self, but something constructed by the representation itself and one’s own appearance seen from the outside and recognized by self and the other at the same time. Thus, when Oh takes picture of the representation―clothing, face, makeup, wrinkles and ornaments―of an ajumma, that is her identity. One’s own image is something exchanged between the self and the other and recognized in that process and the identity is dependent upon such a process.
As long as Hyoungkuhn Oh is not seeking for a true essence of an ajumma hidden beneath the identity as an exterior surface, but wants to see the surface itself, and enjoyes the surfaceness of that surface, he has no interest in such a thing as the truth of the ajumma. Indeed, a photograph is not a truth since it shows either too much or too little. A photograph never shows exactly what the photographer or the sitter wants to see or to be seen. A photograph always exceeds. Or, it is at odds with what we think is the ideal state of things photographed. The photographs of ajummas, who have a lot to boast of, yet a lot to conceal, reveal what they don’t want to reveal and conceal what they want to reveal. Such a circumstance renders a really nasty dialectics.
The problem arises here because the representation that is a makeup or an encounter on the street runs counter to the representation of Oh’s photography. More exactly speaking, the focus of the problem lies in the specificity of Oh’s representation of photography that uses the bare flashlight on a 4″×5″ film. In other words, ajummas’ strategy of representation comprised of wearing clothes, putting up a makeup and making a certain expression on their face contradicts with Oh’s camera that lays bare the strategicness of ajummas’ strategy. That is a hostile contradict. The fun of photography seems to lie in that point. While the peculiarity of the photograph produced in a commercial studio lies in that its strategy of representation tries to approximate that of ajummas’, Oh is plotting something totally against this trend. This contradict is entertaining to the viewer but is somewhat tragic to ajummas, the subject of Oh’s photographs.
For such deviation between the intention and the result, when Oh referred to his works as documentary, we can find new meaning of documentary photography. If documentary photography is still significant to us, it is so neither as a recreation of raw reality nor as a picturing that asserts as part of reality, but as an activity of collecting visual signs. Though Oh’s documentary photography is a far cry from traditional photography, it really functions as documentary. Oh’s photographic activity turns this world into visual signs and put them in his pictures. Ajumma’s disseminates tremendous amount of visual signs ranging from the material, style and kind of cosmetics to her overal style and mood.
In fact, such works have already been done systematically by Walker Evans in the 1930s. The unusualness of his vision is well represented by the range and characteristics of the objects photographed by him. Among many other objects found in 1930s’ America, he took picture of signboards, letterheads, worn out posters and photographs. Even though the work he did for the Farm Security Administration centered around the subject of the poverty in rural America, a closer look at his work reveals that he was collecting the sign of poverty rather than confronting the poverty itself as raw material of visual representation.
He did not only collect the facial impressions of people but also scavenged through every aspect of urban and rural life that could be turned into a sign. So Evans captured the interior of a house, its facade, furniture and so on. As if taking a police mug shot, he keeps a certain distance and angle when he takes picture of people in the subway or on the street.
But indeed, other photographers do the same thing. Instead of working whimsically, most photographers carefully construct their own archive. Here, the archive means a system of preserving and filing documents in police stations, government departments or museums. Even an archive of an individual artist has its own system of arrangement. What matters here is the archival system in which the photograph is shown. Instead of offering their photographs so that they could be legible as part of an archive, documentary photographers construct the scene so that they could be seen as the narrative of ‘reality’ or ‘truth’.
However, the documentary in Oh’s works do not render the activity of collecting the truth but that of collecting documents themselves. Exactly speaking, his photographs are not about ajummas but are the accumulation of representations that construct their identities. He does that with his camera and darkroom. The signs captured by the camera are revived in his darkroom as ‘works’. Spending considerable amount of photographic papers and chemicals in order to revive the detail of wrinkles on the face and minute glitter of ornaments, Oh re-creates ajummas. The clarity of ajummas’ images is the result of Oh’s photographic elaboration. The details in his pictures are the orphans Oh saved in his darkroom. The signs ajummas shed on the street are picked and polished by Oh. That is the image of the ajumma.
But Oh says that he is not very fond of the ajumma. What does this mean? Why does he so assiduously go around to take pictures of ajummas that he is not very fond of? Precisely speaking, Oh does not like the ajumma herself. What he loves is the very activity of taking pictures of the ajumma. That is an odd kind of pleasure that comes from the experience of scorning and disparaging ajummas. Men diatribe other men in the bar at night and women do the same to other women at home in the day. Nevertheless, wouldn’t they be the ones who miss their objects of diatribe most if they disappear? Isn’t it the case that Oh’s pictures embody the vision that disparages ajummas photographically?
While nineteenth-entury portrait photographs switched from portraying people in an honorific manner to rendering them in oppressive way, Oh’s ajumma portraits neither portray them in an honorific way nor oppressive way. Then, what kind of vision is embodied in his works? Let us tentatively call this the third vision. It is neither an honorific nor oppressive vision. I want to call it disparaging vision. It is at last vision of love and hatred mixed together. The object of disparage is hated but missed once it is gone.
By the way, a system is given to the vision cast upon Oh’s ajumma pictures. That can be called Oh’s archive. Compared to other archives, Oh’s archive has much smaller size of stock. However, just as a tomato is peeled off after it is parboiled slightly, the face in the archive undergoes a change in its system. In this process, an ajumma’s face in Oh’s picture is de-faced. It is also a de-hotographed photograph. Oh’s pictures are visual images of ajummas, yet they are not soley dependent upon the visual for their meaning. It does not mean that an ajumma’s face looks as something else. Rahter, it should be remembered that in order for an ajumma’s face to look as such, a non-visual, non-photographic support is necessary. The name of this support is archive. The archive itself is not a photograph. But there is no photograph which is not included in an archive.
Simply put, complicated elements are intervening in the process in which we identify an ajumma picture as such. The history of photography is a history of inventing systems for identifying photographs as well as a history of developing new techniques of photographs. Of course, such a history is not written. For photography conceals the fact that there is a structure that enables itself to be identified as such. That photography has a textual quality, that the vision cast upon a photograph is never naturally but artificially constructed one and that a photograph has meaning only when it is part of an archive: All these things are concealed behind the clarity and objectivity of the photographic image. This issue is addressed because Oh’s photographs are touching upon the problem of “how we can perceive an ajumma’s image as such.” They also touch upon the issue of how a de-aced face can be identified as a face. In consequence, what matters in photography is the dimension of identity and identification. In other words, it is the identification of the position of the ajumma. Oh’s method is to display ajummas’ images as if they were embedded in an illustrated guide book. But what is its characteristics?
An illustrated guide book has no conclusion. There can be no conclusion like, “such and such animals are more important than such and such animals and they will live longer.” The very form of an illustrated guide book has a function of treating individual things as equal units rather than establishing a hierarchy. But can there be conclusion in photography? In taking a form of an illustrated guide book, Oh seems to have wanted to produce photographs without conclusion. Since conclusion is a closure to meanings, it is not a very interesting thing. In some cases, a single photograph contains conclusion in its own right. As an instance, we can think of Eungshik Lim’s famous photograph, “Wanting a Job” in which the meaning of the man is fixed as a poor and sad being. More popular example will be an ordinary wedding picture which conclusively says, “they lived happily ever after.” The conclusion in photography is the fixture of meaning at a certain point that excludes the possibility of reading or interpreting it in any other way.
When several images are held together to form a story, the structure of conclusion is more decisive. Eugene Smith’s famous series, “Country Doctor” is such a case. In it, the conclusion is, “the country doctor who takes care of all kinds of medical emergencies ocurring in a small village finally relieves his fatigue with a cup of coffee.” But, while feeling secure and assured from this kind of conclusion, we also sense ourselves somehow becoming weary of this feeling. Security and assurance may be comforting but they are no fun.
How does Hyoungkuhn Oh evade conclusion? For this, he relies on the form of repetition. It is a wise tactic that lets one evade the closure of meaning by structurally excluding conclusion. It is an image of an endless tape. Western classical music ends with a magnificient coda that says, “this is the final end of the music. There is no more music, no more sound, no more world, no more universe.” But Indian music is totally different. It does not seem to end. It just goes on infinitely. Isn’t this a form of art that excludes conclusion?
In terms of the exclusion of conclusion, Oh’s works have no order of which image comes first and which comes next and last. They are just an accummulation of images. Neither of the ajummas is more important than any other ajumma. So it seems that Oh’s ajummas are sitting comfortably in an entirely democratic system. Is that true? That my image is treated in an equal manner with other’s image seems to be democratic but on the other hand, that my individual character is not recognized is less than pleasant. That is the conflict inherent in Oh’s phtographs.
What is the individual character visible in ajumma photographs? Isn’t that a sex appeal that resides in the ajumma but seems to run away from her? At what particular point in Oh’s photograph is ajumma’s sex appeal concentrated? First of all, when one looks at his photographs, one tends to think about whether an ajumma is pretty, ugly, young, old, sexy, or dull. But next moment, one’s gaze is fixed at her neck. Why are so many of ajumma’s ornaments concentrated around her neck? What elements are there around her neck that attract one’s gaze so much that ornaments are concentrated around it? How can splendid and gaudy ornaments around the neck be explained?
This circumstance also occurs in men’s clothing. Men’s formal suit contains a strange conflict in which the most important signified is ‘courtesy’, whereas it is achieved by tightening up one’s wrist with buttons. By doing so, bodily mobility is constrained and the suit is represented as an embodyment of a respectable and dignified character. The formal suit achieves the signified of courtesy by concealing sensual part of the body. However, it is also puzzling that the most sensual part of the formal suit is also concentrated around the neck. The only part of the suit where one can freely choose garish color is the necktie in which red, yellow or blue is allowed, whereas such colors can not be used in other parts of the suit.
Most of the ajummas photographed here are wearing formal suits that have austerity as its primary value yet boast of splendid color and pattern. Without exception, around their neck are all kinds of ornaments holding a feast of senses. It is a war of ornaments waged among such thing as: A pearl necklace, a steel brooch, a flower patterned ornament, a necklace with a brooch, double necklace, wide collar and narrow collar, and so on. Especially, as the significance of the breast in a woman’s body is different from that of a man’s body, the conflict between the signified of a formal suit and the sensual ornament around ajumma’s neck raises an enormous curiosity. Just like the fly in a man’s suit, the collar in a woman’s suit has a defensive connotation. But the collars in ajumma pictures seems to suggest all kinds of provocative messages. The collar in ajumma’s suit seems to invite the approach of a hand rather than repelling it.
For a somewhat young looking ajumma wearing a silk blouse under a coat with a similar patterned collar along with a gaudy necklace with many ornaments, all the meaning of her clothing is concentrated around her neck. For a cute looking ajumma who is grinning while she is wearing a suit with a wide collar, her healthy and active looking teeth are well suited with the wide collar of her suit. Even though the neck of an ajumma in a leopard patterned one-piece suit is prevented from evoking any kind of sexual association, she is still wearing a (fake?) pearl necklace. This circumstance also occurs in traditional suit. It is usually more ascetic than Western suits, though the collar of a white Korean traditional suit with flower patterns is still evoctive of some sensual association.
What on earth is the meaning of this signification? This question can be answered by those who study the history of fashion. But we may also be able to find the answer to this question while looking at the context in Oh’s photographs. For what we are looking at is the ajumma and her clothing taken picture in Hyoungkuhn Oh specific way: Upper half of the body exposed to a flat flash light. So we can not demand Oh for the answer. He just took picture of the ajumma and is showing the result to us. He does not claim to show us all the meaning of the image of the ajumma. Rather, the answer can be found interdisciplinarily at a point where the study of fashion intersects with the study of photography.
Now it’s time to leave the ajumma. We have to let go of ajumma’s hand and cease to cast a bold gaze on her face and neck. For to look at a person with a bold gaze is voyeuristc discourtesy. But when we have left the ajumma, another specter of photography haunts our vision. It is the specter of “the photographic”. Photographic details and senses that the ajumma pictures have drawn to us and exceed or fall short of the ajumma are filling the emptiness left over by the ajumma. At first, we were excited about the delicate details, textures, senses and the photographer’s faithfulness that enabled us to see the ajumma properly. But now, we are looking at the photograph of an ajumma rather than the ajumma herself. I wonder if the photographer is caught up in the idea of showing his skill of using his weapon of photography? The weapon that is the camera, lens, flash and photographic paper. I, the man, am anxious, for the weapon might point at me as any moment.