Portrait of Anxiety

Young-taek Park


The faces of people from Hein-kuhn Oh’s photos show a subliminal feeling of anxiety in some ways. It gives the strange, grotesque, or fretful feeling. I can’t distinguish whether it is their faces that show anxiousness or it is my mind that is disturbed from watching their faces. Hein-kuhn Oh mentions that he is taking pictures of anxiety on peoples’ faces. “Innately, I was used to looking at other people’s anxiety.” Eventually, he snatches the feeling of anxiety from a person’s face. Anxiety is not a clear visual object so it can be found in ill-auguring signs, facial expressions, and bodily gestures. Anxiety is often understood as nervousness. An anxiety which can be caused from an unclear feeling of apprehension and fear is differentiated from a fear that can be tied down to an actual and tangible threat. Anxiety is the result of unknown internal turmoil of emotions. It is hard to deny since it is shown clearly in psychological and mental ways, even though it is confusing because the causes are unknown. Freud defines anxiety as a symptom to be caused by the repression of painful and threatening experience, emotion, and impulse, which creates a process of internal emotional collision. However, the reason why people become anxious, out of many different reasons, is the external force that “stings me”. After all, this is about the gaze. The external force means the world of the other which involves their words, their gaze, and their actions. When I get conscious of how other people look at me, I become anxious. Also, people feel anxious when the painful life experience and all the worries from realistic life have been intricately accumulated, restlessly bothering their minds and frequently floating on the surface of their consciousness. That is only because the past, and dead time, is living in place of the present.


Hein-kuhn Oh believes that people’s face always contains a very specific story. Its portrait becomes an object of reading like a map. Face indeed functions as a text. Face is a book. It is a forest full of the person’s history and scars. Therefore, face cannot lie. It is a history book that cannot be written and has never been written in words. Thus, we read someone’s face. The word “looking” is not sufficient to express it all. Face is a book that needs to be read. Dense parts and traces that form a face make each sentence written by innumerable words. However, this sentence cannot be easily understood. It is neither written nor structured in a certain grammatical way. Face is a sentence without any rules. To live is to write a book on one’s face. People live by their face. Face is an entire reflection of one’s history, story and memory. So the face we show in our death bed is the last mark of inscribing our long life. It is the integration of everything that one has lived for. Hein-kuhn Oh reads someone’s face/book. And he falls into an unpredictable imagination. Then quite clearly, he comes across the person’s history and story to be suddenly and unavoidably engraved into their faces. He feels himself in touch with that moment. Then he takes photos of the faces: face that hovers around anxiety, face that spreads like a mist, face that bubbles up with unknown sadness. In other words, the faces of anxiety get closer to him like a stranger in darkness.


Over the period of ten years, he has taken pictures of men, women, Ajumma (middle-aged women), Ajussi (middle-aged men), and girl students. Consistently, his work has been portraying the anxiety in their faces. However, it is close to the anxiety that Oh imagined. As mentioned previously, he reads anxiety from the faces of other people and collects these anxious faces. Therefore, it is not clear whether people are actually in the state of anxiety. However, it is true that people look somewhat anxious and unfamiliar according to the photos. Did Oh read his anxiety in other person’s portrait and face? The helpless feeling of anxiety is not just confined to a specific individual. It is shared by everyone. Especially, people who live in the same time and place of Korean society will have similarity in their anxiety. He mentions, “Like a mild fever that is felt in drowsy spring days, I want to portray the mundane anxiety that is bothersome for a whole day.” Especially, he feels anxiety from the flashy faces of Ajumma with thick makeup and wrinkled pants of girls with careful makeup. For a long time, he has been taking pictures of his own anxiety with which he has cast his eyes on the anxious women.


The 1997 Ajumma series is a documentary project to take photos of Ajumma types, intervened by subjective perspective. In our society, Ajumma is represented in a fixed frame. He found an image of Ajumma that is typified as such and as a role model. Then, he asked around for casts and he found some models from extra association. Ajummas came all decked out in their best looks. They were trying to manage their feminine side with careful makeup and fashionable clothes. That is a point where there is a differentiation from the normal ordinary clothes that they wear around the neighborhood. They are wearing the signs that represent their femininity. He then looks into the appearance of Ajummas who have decorated themselves with makeup and gorgeous clothes. He makes an observation. A momentary inference is made and all kinds of imagination are at work. He captures the traces where Ajummas have tried to look like an idealized image to be expected as a mature middle-aged woman of appropriate behavior code and fashion. They wear almost the same kind of clothes, that is, the uniform-like clothes. Women (and men) think in the same way that they need to cover up their unstable identity by wearing what is considered to be the appropriate clothes in the society for their age. Why do they think so? It feels very sad when we look at a gaudy blouse and a jacket of quite old and faded seams, whose surface is all roughed up with the gaudy blouse inside it along with heavy makeup. They look ridiculous and somewhat strange. As the time passes, the puzzling texture that combines the clearly visible sweat pores with greasy, sweat dripping faces emits more flashiness. A black and white photo with dark background pushes the reality life back like a swamp and sinks it. And this photo makes us gaze only on the internal side of the oily face with fancy decoration and their saddening facial expression. The individual characteristics of Ajummas disappear and the stereotyped image of Ajumma is revealed in the photo like a piece of worn out paper as a sign of sadness. They look very helpless and lonely. The Ajummas use the “representing strategy” (politics of representation) to differentiate themselves from others in order to show their identities. Hein-kuhn Oh’s photos show in detail how their identity strategy is revealed in their appearance. Face, clothes, makeup, accessories and others shine light, revealing their own discourse. All the details portrayed in his photos, i.e., clothes, accessories, makeup, hairstyle, facial expression, and texture and flashiness are not different from the result of the representing strategy that Ajummas use for themselves. Therefore, his photos express their narrative through texture, tone and color. Details speak out. The details suddenly narrate the saddened face of Ajummas and their internal world. The photo which focuses on the Ajumma’s identity and her femininity carefully expresses its trembling of anxiety that the vanity and flimsiness of her shallow identity evokes through the garments and accessories that she is wearing on. 


Hein-kuhn Oh, who was looking at the bodies of Ajummas, soon moves his attention to girls. Girls in uniforms, girls in makeup, and the teenage girls are the ones. The girls, identical to Ajummas, uniformly wear a sign of uncertain identity, too. They also represent the symbol of women’s identity that men’s gaze imposed in our society. Every human being goes through the teenage years to become an individual in a society. It is a period when they are immature but hold an immense potentiality. Korea, as a country, society, and family, only presents one type of value to teenagers in a seemingly violent way. The endless competition to increase productivity makes them believe in the value that they only have to live for an individual competitiveness and accomplishment. Any other aspect outside of it is not asked and any other meaning and potentiality of life are ignored. They are never mentioned. Girls who are cast as models by Oh are the ones that are being burnt through the competitive system. At the same time, the sexual identity is forced onto them from the society and men around. Oh casts the girls from private actor’s institutes as models for his photos. It is because they are the ones that can act out the girlishness most naturally. Of course, other girls, apart from the ones from the actor’s institute, who dream of becoming an entertainer or a fashion model, can dress up and use make up to produce their feminine identity. They can act. However, their acting is standardized and forced collectively. It is internalized through the gaze of outer force and the true individuality disappears. As far as this issue is concerned, the teenage girls nowadays are like a huge group that is pressed out by a mold. They share the same hair style, eye makeup, short skirt, the same shoes, socks, bags, dance, and songs. Even curse words and personal interests are perfectly shared like machines. They are cultured by mass media and celebrities. The girls that attend actor’s institutes are frankly the ones that learn to act like girls. These high school girls are willing to participate in a certain gazing frame which is imposed by the mass consumer society in order to achieve the aspiration of success as a celebrity. They learn from male directors and producers to act like girls. They are playing over and over again the role of girls from man’s perspective. They seek to change to become the ideal and attractive girl that men want them to be. That is what they believe to be their identity reflected by their image.


Oh took a full body shot of a high school girl dressed properly in her school uniform. The viewers look at this uniform-dressed body in a voyeuristic gaze. Uniform is a device that politically, socially, and culturally represses and manipulates the girls, who are already adult physically. Korean society has always set the young girls in uniform as the object of sexual desire. High school girls’ uniform in that sense is a controlling device as a taboo as well as a device to reveal their sexuality. In addition, uniform is a double protection. Uniform protects these girls, who are not fully grown up, from the threats of the society. At the same time, it also wants to protect the society from “explosive and potentially deviant life force” of the girls. The society manages the school girls by keeping them under the policy of school and uniform. However, the surface of the uniform is like a battlefield where taboo and violation occur at the same time. Girls re-stylize the uniform to show off their body as a sign of sexuality. Sometimes, they act as the innocent and pure girls. The photos of the uniform girls are displayed hugely upright in the space on top of the photographer’s studio building. The full shot of the girls emerges as a monument. It functions like a huge icon. In fact, the identities of the girls lie in the façade rather than in their internal nature. It means that the girls we know only exist as a superficial image. Behind their body and legs, the scene of reality is portrayed in remote distance. They look separated and alienated from their own lives. The monumental feeling of their body which is portrayed as a huge giant apart from their foundation looks very estranged. Through the usage of their name tags on uniform, shoes, socks, their age and the proper nouns, they exercise their rights. The physical maturity which cannot be repressed by uniform is also exposed without their awareness. Facial expression, scars, and subtle traces of re-stylization in their uniform show their way of daily life.

They show a way of survival in resistance to the controlling society. Their body is where uncertain anxiety and expectation, discontent and desire are intertwined.


And thereby, some subtle cracks emerge from the girls’ pose. The pose is an actively coded one. It is a sensitively exposed one to men’s gaze. And it is an acquired one through mass media of our society. Where is the role model for these girls? Of course the mass media powerfully propagate it. Teenage girls that appear in TV series, commercials and entertainment programs standardize the role. The teenage girls nowadays as well as all the men and women are much used to the entertainment culture. They are tamed under the formation and shape of that culture. They are all celebrities. Well, they act like celebrities and simulate the fashion and body gestures. Therefore those bodies look strangely unstable and sad. They look in vain. The poses from the girls are the stereotyped ones to be adapted to what the men desire in our society (i.e., those of women who have internalized the desire of men’s gaze). The girls, in the end, act according to that expectation. Somehow the girls look like they are left out from the reality and society. Their position, face and expression show it. They are not fully adults but not girls any more. They stand in-between, somewhere in an uncertain and ambiguous spot. This black and white photo in a middle tone close to the grey is appropriate to show the feeble, tender, delicate, and ambiguous girl’s image. And thus, grey color functions as a metaphor for the girls’ unstable and ambiguous identity.


Quite evidently, we cannot know about a world without going through the signs or symbols. Can one fight against the temptation of media’s representative devices and many symbolic signs that are producing a false life? The world full of images represents an era when the view is separate from the gaze as in Lacan’s notion of subject. To what extent can one autonomously realize their desire in the huge system of the symbolic created by politics, capital and culture? Most people desire the signifiers that are produced by the system of the symbolic, and they take it in happily as if it were their own desire. The subject’s effect of identification with image shows how hard it is to take flight from the desire given by the system of the symbolic. It makes us question if the creation of desire can be done naturally without depending on the process of symbolic system. The gaze-ruling world that makes us an object of gaze without showing its presence is the one full of signifiers. However, it is also the world of lack in its nature, hard to take an easy flight from its boundary. Lacan’s perspective on gaze is not what I am trying to show to others but what is given to me by the realm of the other. In other words, it is the gaze to returns to the subject. The return of gaze which shows that I see what I am seeing promulgates the principle of subject’s desire in a society full of media and capitalism, as the substitutes of many signifiers. It is the desire of the other but it is ultimately a desire to return to myself. Gaze makes the gazing subject frightened and embarrassed by the fact that he is peeping. What matters is the presence of the other which makes me frightened and embarrassed.


In 2006, he published Cosmetic Girls. The models ranged from elementary school to high school girls and they were not the girls from actor’s institutes but from ordinary girls casted from the street. Their common factor is that they explicitly act out with the direct influence from entertainment culture. They all had (identical) makeup done with utmost care, attached hair, manicure, eye lashes, lower lips with Botox injections, and wore circle lens. The makeup, clothes, socks, and shoes looked all similar. However, they were all scattered in bizarre ways. The face in close up showed much soft hair, acne scars around spores, and the painted nails were partially peeled off to look ugly. The face had thick makeup on as an adult woman but the chubby cheeks gave them a young look and their socks had comic characters. Their legs were all bruised and untidy. This dissonance is shameful. Oh’s perspective is very cruel. He also focuses only on the part between body and leg where it is sexually sensitive to arouse the gazer’s fantasy. Girls will recognize the views of men on their particular body part and enjoy and feel anxious at the same time. In the end, the girls know what the men would imagine by looking at particular body part but act it out with nervous feelings. To make themselves look like an adult, they correspond to the gaze of the contemporary men, by taking sexy, sensual and cute makeup. But they still feel anxiety during their act. That is because it is not their true self to be portrayed. Disregarding men’s attention is hard as a women living in this society. After modernity, we cannot deny that women’s body was objectified by men’s gaze and accordingly to act as men’s gaze desires and requires has become a matter of survival for the women. In the capitalist society, girls already internalize such a gaze from a young age and work hard to cultivate their ways of survival as women.


Maybe that is the reason why they look as if they were performing a costume play. They are imitating the teenage singers, characters from comics, and celebrities shown on TV. Costume Play is a new culture of young generation to reenact the virtual comic and game characters by wearing the costume and props. This is a new method to find a subject to project their inner self into the pop culture and it also functions as an active way of looking for one’s self. At the same time, it pursues the identity enframed by the pop culture. It is a fantasy and a virtual self-image.


Nowadays, this is the era where the girls are the owners. Everyone goes crazy about girls and their bodies, and girlishness. Who? Men and the atmosphere of the society that favors young girls are the ones. Everyone loves baby face and work their hardest to look younger. The majority of culture and fashion revolves around the image of being cute, sexy and looking young. Girls wearing Ugg boots, rain boots, and wearing comic character costumes are the general trend. This explains the effort to look younger and the desire to stay as a girl forever. Why? It is because men desire that type of femininity. Therefore, if the girls find their identity from such a character, then it is also constructed by men’s gaze.


Most of the girls in this picture have similar makeup and fashion. They have no facial expression and they look somewhat nervous and sad. They were presented all in sad facial expressions. Emotional control was contrasted by the strong background color. The girls had no facial expression but their eyes says it all. I think the eyes are the real focus because they cannot hide the expressions of the eyes even with circle lens and eye makeup. The eyes are telling a story. Girls who have borrowed their identity from entertainment culture reveal the shallow aspect of their life. Cold and cruel close up shots of their faces show their sweat pores and unsettled makeup. It reveals the truth under the fake and ugly makeup. The details are only grasped because they are represented as a still image. This still image allows the viewer to observe and gaze for a long time. As the result, we look at even the tiny details and this act causes some emotions to be released. The details of Oh’s photos narrate in the end. His photo is not a work for a grandiose subject, but for an explosion of power which only the paradoxically still and calm photo image can create. It describes reality better and more in detail, and thus it is almost surreal. To be honest, it is more negative. The detail always configures a narrative! Finally, reading out the detail is what Hein-kuhn Oh actually wants to say. A good photographer, while reading the parts in detail, is the one who can let the cue speak for everything else and the whole.


Young-taek Park (Professor of Gyeonggi University, Art Criticism)