[LUR article] Suwon Lee: when light penetrates darkness
By Sol Astrid Giraldo E.
The following article was originally published in Spanish on the virtual platform LUR and has been translated into English by Nathalie Stahelin.
Este artículo fue escrito originalmente en español y publicado en LUR. Aquí en mi blog solo publicaré la versión en inglés.
Le passé, still from video, 2015
"Death and Rebirth. Life and death. Birth and destruction. The present that quickly becomes the past and is consumed in a living fire to leave only ashes that demonstrate the impermanence of existence, of our fleeting passage through life, of the fleeting passage of all those whom we have loved”. Suwon lee
The most basic and technical essence of photography, as established in its etymology, is the manipulation of light (photo) until certain graphos or records are obtained. The photographic image then emerges from the surfaces impressed or not impressed by it, from the possibilities that extend between those areas burst by rays of light and those which are not touched, not altered, that remain in the deep black of what has not been revealed, of the image that has not been born.
Venezuelan artist Suwon Lee’s search revolves insistently around light, a matter that she places at the center of her formal and conceptual investigations. However, in her images she not only tries to technically calibrate the overexposed and underexposed, but through light modulations she visually approaches a core concept of Chinese philosophy: yin and yang, that opposite and complementary duality of cosmic forces that can be found in all beings and processes in the universe. In her images, as will be argued here, she manages to bring this ancestral thought to the contemporary, urban and digital world. Her careful and conscious treatment of light is what allows her to glide through the infinite mutations of the forms.
The dynamic flow between light and dark diverges here from Western symbolism. Both terms no longer represent two contradictory opposites, nor the struggle between good and evil as is the case in Catholic beliefs or in the dark images of the baroque chiaroscuro. Beyond this metaphor, the artist observes with unprepared curiosity the forms that are made and undone, the visible weaving itself with the invisible, the circular cosmic rhythms, the never-interrupted vibrations of energies. These visual meditations take place in the spectacle of wild American landscapes, but also in the sunsets of contemporary cities, in small rooms lit by lamps, in corners illuminated by the screens of electronic devices. Lee pursues all lights: evening, stellar, natural or artificial. And she dives into all darkness: twilight, abysmal, urban, or even in the politics of Venezuela, her troubled native country. Before all of them she stands in the most respectful silence.
Moonset, 2013, detail, 17 photos
“The sky: it is the primary, luminous, strong, spiritual energy. It is movement and time”. I Ching, The Book of Changes
In order to approach her photographs and capture their infinitesimal nuances, one must also remain silent as a spectator. The same silence with which she, as a consummate meditator, faces the real. Lee has polished her technique to the point where it is not a foreign body or a straitjacket of formats or concepts that can disturb the silence of epiphanies: that deep zone, beyond language, that opens when thought ceases. Her images do not freeze the water, the afternoons, the horizons. They witness without making judgments as the cosmic cycles pass, before they even had these names.
Her landscapes are desolate. There is usually not a human figure in them. Generally, these are wide, empty shots, without comments or emphasis. All-encompassing. Only the lens opens to the universe, as if the curtains of the theater (its shutter) were drawn back to allow one to witness the always unforeseen natural spectacle. However, despite the lack of a human mark in these images, there are always eyes in them that gaze (hers). And a minimal, invisible body (hers), which is what gives the monumental scale to what we see. It is not only about sunrises, lightning bolts in the Catatumbo, grooves of stars (atmospheric events that are usually both the protagonists and the anecdote), but also about the sunrises, lightnings, and stars that she witnesses. Natural events do not happen outside, as if the photographer were an outside spectator. On the contrary, they pass through and constitute her own body.
With the inevitable habit of aesthetic analysis to revert to the box of styles of art history, one would be tempted to see traces of the romantic pathos in her work. The one where the landscape becomes an extension of the artist's inflamed conscience, of her reinforced and talking I. In this code, what would vibrate there would not be the wind, but rather the burning soul of the artist. The whirlpools would not be those of rivers, but of the most impetuous intimate emotions. The romantic painter of the nineteenth century would exalt as the most important thing in their creation the trace of their own presence on earth, like Friedrich's man facing the abysmal sea of clouds in which he keeps on submerging himself. He would insist on his subjectivity by inaugurating a landscape that does not exist objectively, but that he has created with his exacerbated sensitivity. The work would then be the record of how wild nature has reverberated in him. An expressive and emotional landscape.
However, in spite of appearances and the undoubtedly sublime breath that her photographs share with the paintings of Romanticism, Lee's perspective is different. Hers is rather characterized by a "benign indifference" (as she names one of her photographs) to the outside world. And it is this disposition that distances it from an I that possesses the omnipotent romantic eye. Of course, the photography that she produces arises from the voluntary selection of a piece of the world, from her technical decisions, frames, compositions, from her comings and goings through the American and Asian geographies. However, when she shoots from silence, she strives not to interrupt the external fluxes, she tries to take a step back and erase herself so as to be diluted with no ballasts in the great cosmic poem. A gesture that the spectators of her photographs can only emulate. They are just a transparent index that briefly points out: "that happens." We could say then at this point that hers is a quest for extreme objectivity. But putting it like this, she continues to resort to categories outside her work.
Perhaps it would be better to listen to thinkers like DT Suzuki when he mentions in his book Zen Buddhism (2003) other paradigms beyond Western epistemological bars: “Some philosophers say that when we think we see a flower, we put our feelings in the flower. My action of thinking or seeing is projected onto the flower, and the flower comes to life”. This is how the romantic pathos described above would precisely work. But Suzuki clarifies that for Zen thought: "there is no transfer of my imagination to the flower." What would happen there is something that from the Western perspective is difficult to understand: “When I see a flower, for example,” Suzuki continues, “not only must I see her, but she must also see me: if not, there is no real vision. The vision is that I am seeing the flower and the flower is seeing me." And only in this way, "when my seeing is unified with the seeing of the flower", is there a real identification between the flower and the observer, between the subject and the object.
It is then this particular identification, then, that can give some clues to the power of Lee's landscape photography, at once so subjective and objective. There, the photographer sees the mountain, the electrical storm, the rising sun, while the mountain, the storm and the sun see her, giving way to the “real vision”, in Zen terms. An unprecedented alignment of telluric spectacles and that silent, brief photographer, without words, in her benign indifference. A diaphanous dialogue profoundly characterizes her photographs.
Catatumbo, 2011 (left)
From the Body of Light series, 2020
“When, at the beginning of summer, the thunder, the electric force, reappears roaring from the earth and the first storm refreshes nature, tension dissolves. Relief and joy set in. It is the return of the luminous”. I Ching, The Book of Changes
The self-portrait has been another of Lee's insistent themes. While in her exterior landscapes she seems to be absent, in her interior portraits, where there is a resounding insistence on her body, it is the landscape that seems to have been erased. However, both lines (landscapes and self-portraits) are part of the same inquiry, which again has to do with light and darkness in its particular handling.
Lee, the daughter of a Korean immigrant family in Venezuela, was presented at a young age with the problem of identity, the intersection of the culture of the country that welcomed her with that from which her parents came. This is a discomfort she has addressed in multiple self-portraits where she insistently wonders about herself, about her place in the world. An issue that she has recently updated in her voluntary exile in Spain. In addition, her reflections on identity are melded in these representations with her condition as a woman artist. And it is at this point that Lee must deal, consciously or unconsciously, with the Western and androcentric imagery that precedes her.
One of the problems that contemporary artists have inevitably faced has been that of self-representation in the midst of an essentially patriarchal iconic heritage. In this, women have had access to the image as long as they have accommodated or not to a pre-established and limited canon of ideal femininity, rigorously studied by theorists such as Griselda Pollock (2007). Or, on the other hand, if they met the parameters of the mass media and advertising of a sexualized and objectified body, which turned them into meat for visual consumption, now citing Laura Mulvey and her theory of The Male Gaze of women in cinema. They existed if a male eye inaugurated and consumed them. Outside of these exchanges of visual desire, there was no place for representations of them (2007).
How to represent yourself, then, without falling into these limits and traps? How to express other possibilities of a body without being idealized, fragmented, sexualized or, in certain cases, exoticized and racialized, by and for others? This proverbial dilemma has been faced by many of the artists who have turned to photography in recent decades. Some, in response to the abduction of the woman's image, have decided to disappear, as Francesca Woodman did in her photo-performances. Others, on the other hand, have sought an exit in an extreme viscerality, which rebels against the tyrannical interdictions of femininity. This is what Carolee Schneeman, Annie Sprinkle, and Valie Export have done and Erika Ordosgoitti in Venezuela itself, among many others, with their political and public nudes, of exacerbated femininity, bleeding, impregnated with sweat and bodily fluids, bordering on, not infrequently, the abject.
Lee's response, on the other hand, deviates somewhat from these two lines: she does not simply disappear in a wake of anguish nor appears aggressively and stubbornly. In her self-portraits, on the other hand, she decides on the Taoist breath that fertilizes her landscapes, a territory that is as spiritual as it is material.
The Darkness of Light, 2013
La ventana (The Window), 2006
Look at the ocean and the sky filled with stars,
manifestations from my wondrous true mind.
Since before time, I have been free.
Thich Nhat Hanh
Faded, out-of-focus, overlapping, undefined, erased, overexposed, underexposed images, where she strips so radically that she even ends up removing her own skin. However, although her body loses its contours and volume, it asserts itself in a powerful and enveloping trail of energy. It dematerializes, but only to be transmuted into movement, a luminous footprint, zigzagging fluid, the absolute protagonists of her photographs.
According to Chinese thought, "the same principles that govern the cosmogony giving birth to the cosmos work in the embryonic process" (Calpe, 2009). Thus, human beings would be one more of the multiple manifestations of universal energy, participating "in the nature of Heaven and Earth" and would contain "the Void, which is the potential space of transformation."
Very consistent with this thought, Lee seems to recognize the same cosmic, natural, energetic forces behind the auroras, the course of the moon, the stillness of the lakes -phenomena that she is concerned with in her monumental landscapes-, in the plot of her own body. It is no longer about the isolated and tormented individual (like the one that unfolds in Woodman's cornered photographs, for example), but about a body that is part of the great cosmic fabric. And in this sense, it is no longer "her body", with limits, nationality, surnames, biological destiny, but a mobile, fluctuating particle, an active participant in the great universal matter. Lee's body, thus recognizing itself in these images, frees itself, even from its geographical, historical and gender marks. Another image has been born.
No birth, no death, 2017 (left) The reflecting glass, 2020 (right)
This body is not me. I am not limited by this body. I am life without boundaries. I have never been born, and I have never died.
Thich Nhat Hanh
In closed rooms and in dim light, head becomes sun; bones, transparencies; flesh, tongues of fire. Her mutability is that of water; her height, that of the tree erected on the mountain; her weight, that of wood; her weightlessness, that of the air. A subtle plane, where everything is in constant transmutation, play and connection. Sometimes it is the everyday things that accompanied her throughout her life that after being burned turn to ashes, turn into a self-portrait of flames, darkness, dust and emptiness, with which she says goodbye to Venezuela and the affective environment that nurtured her. At other times, she escapes through the puff of light from a window without offering any resistance. It is again the dance of yin and yang, in their benign indifference, tensing a body between earth and sky, before gently disappearing. Emptiness and fullness, in an infinite chain of transformations: flesh, ash, fire, river, nothing ... everything.
Light and darkness; these two terms are resignified in terms of what they mean for photography, aesthetics, psychology or Western morality. Landscapes and bodies of light. The landscape is her, she is the landscape.
CALPE, Isabel (2009), Qi Gong. Práctica corporal y pensamiento chino, Kairós, Barcelona.
MULVEY, Laura (2007), “El placer visual y el cine narrativo”, en Crítica Feminista en la Teoría e Historia del Arte, CORDERO, Karen y SAÉNZ Inda (compiladoras), Universidad Iberoamericana, México.
POLLOCK, Griselda. “Diferenciando: el encuentro del feminismo con el canon””, en Crítica Feminista en la Teoría e Historia del Arte, CORDERO, Karen y SAÉNZ Inda (compiladoras), Universidad Iberoamericana, México.
SUZUKI, Daisetz Teitaro (1985), Budismo zen, Kairós, Barcelona.
How to quote:
GIRALDO E., Sol Astrid, “Suwon Lee: cuando la luz penetra la oscuridad”, LUR, July 14, 2021, https://e-lur.net/investigacion/suwon-lee-cuando-la-luz-penetra -Darkness
Sol Astrid Giraldo E. (Medellín, Colombia). Researcher, essayist and curator. Her line of research has been the body and its representation in photography and art in Latin America, revising its intersections with gender, race and violence. She is the author of the research paper Clemencia Echeverri: The burning image, From pious anatomy to political anatomy, among other books, curated shows, catalogs and essays published on various Latin American platforms.
LUR is a visual studies research platform based in Gijon, Spain. It is a virtual space for reflection, critical analysis and interdisciplinary study of the image and its uses and functions in visual culture. Online since March 25, 2019, LUR addresses an audience interested in the role of images and the interpretation of their possible meanings. LUR is a Basque word that means Earth.