Taehyun Kwon



Not everything in the world can be named. No matter how many words are created out there, some are inevitably left out from the circle of meanings. For example, times of day from the brightest to the darkest can be called in different names such as ‘day,’ ‘night,’ ‘dawn,’ and ‘evening.’ However, in between of those words, some dim moments of a day still exist that we could hardly capture with a word. Things that slip out from the world of segments that create meanings. Ambiguous things that belong nowhere. Things that overflow. In other words, things remain outside of the structure. Left Face series by Heinkuhn Oh is a portrait about these things that are “left over.” This does not mean that the figures in his photographs are useless surplus human beings. However, an issue arises as they cannot be defined with a single identity. Given the artist was used to working on portraits of subjects that can be named with specific identities such as ‘Ajumma (middle-aged women),’ ‘highschool girls,’ and ‘soldiers,’ it becomes even clearer that the figures in Left Face are hard to be named. Here are the portraits of subjects that could not be plainly categorized with any of the following such as gender, generation, and occupation.

What’s also interesting in Left Face is that it is hard to pinpoint when the photos were taken. The series presents portraits that the artist has been steadily taking throughout a long period of time regardless of their chronicle. It is notable that some photographs taken for other works were included in this series. Some photographs taken for Portraying Anxiety that started in 2006 are included in the series, and some are newly taken. In this perspective, Left Face makes us revisit Oh’s previous works. The newly threaded figures are conjured up by piercing the existing photographs.

The artist’s photographs of portraits may appear as typological at a first glance, but their formats are more complex than we may think. Of course, the part that he makes images function in some kinds of chains can be read in the context of typology. Or, we could also say that he has been doing something typological to some extent as he reveals conditions of perception and social environments, not a simple similarity in forms, through series and repetition. However, at the same time, it is important to focus on how he has been distorting typological issues. In particular, we need to take into account the fact that this portrait series consists of the pictures of the ‘beings’ that exist beyond typical categories. What is the flipped typology of Left Face, or the typological photo of uncategorized things doing?

What we need to look into first is that the artist has not only worked based on the typological method but also definitely recognized underlying immorality, inherent to portrait imagery. He did not conceal violence of defining identities nor an issue to objectify the subjects for photography. Rather, his portrait

photographs fully embrace confrontation between a camera and its subjects. In other words, he actively brings the presence of camera to the front while creating the portrait images. Camera never tells the truth. Once the presence of camera is sensed, ‘the potential of being photographed’ changes the way the reality works. Even in the history of documentaries, cameras capture the moment of truth only when we admit the fact that the lenses could never be objective and actively use them as a means to dig up the truth. Furthermore, smartphones and surveillance cameras have made cameras universal, thereby changing the conditions of the entire world. Almost everyone owns smartphones, and dashcams and surveillance cameras on the street literally show everything from everywhere. What’s more, some imagery captured through those means could be thrown into the Internet in real time.1 This shows where the ontology of photography nowadays stands. When this is the case, we don’t need to mention photographs that are taken in a studio where artificial lighting and stage settings that clear reveal objectification. On top of that, a photographer starts a conversation or asks models to put a smile in an attempt to capture ‘natural’ moments while subjects in front of the lens reflexively put a trained smile that they have been practicing while taking selfies.

While embracing these given conditions of portrait photographs, Oh does not conceal unnaturalness that his subjects objectified in front of his camera may feel. Also, his critical awareness on this issue is not limited at a behavioral or conceptual level, but rather, it seeps out on the surface of images he created. Facial expressions of the figures in his photographs are somewhat unsettling. Some seemed drained after putting up trained expressions on their faces and some had a subconjunctival hemorrhage while wearing contact lenses due to extended hours of shooting. They might appear to be dewy eyes, but if we look into them a little closer, we cannot call them sentimental. Mysterious or odd. As such, there are some indescribable things in his portraits. Even these facial expressions of the figures open up some spaces in between that could not be structured. Facial expressions that even emotion-reading algorithms would hesitate to not make a final call on what they truly are. A face that does not put on a bright smile nor frown at the same time is like a crossroads that bridges you to reach other emotional expressions. Oh captures the moment in the face when the spectrum of emotional expressions be- gins to mean nothing, while traversing faces that are with or without expressions. Those are not mystic moments easily observed in fash- ion photography. Rather, the photographs are genuinely ambiguous that they could not be selected as “A-cut photos.”

This issue of ambiguity can be put together with Portraying Anxiety, his previous series, for better reflection. First, let’s look into the overall trend in today’s culture that visualizes anxiety. A cultural form of revealing psychological status such as anxiety and depression was first seen in subcultures and its influence has expanded into an overall pop culture. The U.S. has seen a growing popularity of emo rap or mumble rap where the lyrics are mumbled as if the rapper were intoxicated by drugs since the 2010s. Billie Eilish, an artist whose works are derived from this trend shows a new version of goth, and in Korea, rappers like Woo Wonjae connect depression with different types of artistic genres. Furthermore, this trend can be observed in the East Asian culture in different forms. “Menhera,” for example, is one of the trends that depression and lack of affection come into fashion. It seems to take the opposite direction from the subcultures in the past which resisted existing systems, but its visualization strategy is worthwhile to analyze because the target of objectification is the people we often think of as normal or ordinary. This trend is visible not only in fashion. A chasm created by new colloquial terms such as ‘god-saeng’ or ‘god-banin,’2 while a ‘what-used-to-be-normal’ ideology being objectified, is notable.

Across the world, anxiety has become one of the important cultural scenes of our time. However, this does not mean that the artist has captured those figures who express anxiety. We have to focus more on the sensory mechanics that his works have where the portraits do not end up in one specific identity. Jacques Rancière said today’s artwork is about connecting imagery in portraits with actual beings, thereby maintaining aesthetical possibilities. A ‘dis-appropriate similarity,’ in Raciere’s word, refers to the random being which is irrelevant to the real being could be presented through an offered surface and this is one of the aesthetic possibilities that the portrait as an artwork has.3 This is why ID photos and portraits as an artwork are sensed differently. A face in portrait as an artwork functions between the facts it is identifiable and unidentifiable. The face is a place where the existence is revealed and a chasm where it hides.

Coming back to our discourse, we could re-contemplate the meaning of anxiety by comparing with fear. Fear is a reaction against something. Even though that something cannot be specified, as fear is triggered by that thing, it can be represented, and it could disappear when the thing is eliminated. However, anxiety is different, it is objectless.4 As it does not exist externally, we could not figure out where it comes from, thereby making it unable to be resolved fundamentally. If we could say that fear is a matter of meaning, anxiety is a matter of existence. That is why anxiety is often likened not as a being, but as a hole in a being. In this perspective, details matter in Left Face such as piercing holes, pores, stray hair, dots, hairs, scars, red veins in eyes and patterns of colored contact lenses. Tattoos on the surface of the photographs, in other words, on skins, caught our eyes. Each is unique in size and colors and some tattooed letters are readable, like “kiss me.” Letters that are swollen from the flat skins (the surface of photographs). We could sense the moment when the completely flat surface popped up three-dimensionally.

We often expect some truth that resides in the abyss beyond the surface. However, what we encounter after de-surfacing is not the hidden essence. It is just another surface. If something exists deep down in the imagery, it only permeates through an image on the surface. There, the flat surface of photographs represses, and pierces us. Instead of revealing something by stripping out, we think about a perspective that recollects residuals that are ‘left out’ on the surface. Oily and separating makeup on the face, a scar from cutting, imagery that remains on the surface like a tattoo but surges from the deep inside, or that could possibly break apart once again, continuously capture our gaze. The artist delivers the scars that arise on the surface/ front while piercing skins to the facade of photographs. Like an old tattoo that gets blurrier, or a ruined, swollen tattoo because ink went under the skin too much or too deep. Things that overflow on the surface. And materiality of large printed photographs with a huge format and high resolution also helps the details on the surface to overflow. They go way beyond the reality that our eyes can see. Then, why do the leftovers go over? Why do they overflow from a bowl of structure and make us rethink about everything that is already defined and settled? Why do they put all the existing rules in disarray? The world is shaken with wordless questions posed by the anxious and ambigu- ous left faces.

1 Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography (London: Verso, 2015).

2 “God-saeng” (God+Life) in Korean is a new term that refers colloquially to a superior and exemplary life. “God-banin” (God+People) is a colloquial term who live such life.

3 Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2008), 116.

4 Jacques Lancan, Theroies of desire, ed. Kwon Teak-young, trans. Min Seung-ki and Others (Seoul: Moonye Publishing, 1998).