Houses Seen at Night
By Park Young-taik (Kyonggi University Professor & Art Critic)
Son Eun Young has consistently captured small, flat houses located around Korean cities such as Seoul and Gunsan. As if taking photographs of figures, her work seems to record houses one by one because the houses at night are brightly illuminated by artificial light. Given personality by this, these houses stand on their own feet. Old and shabby, these low houses that look like someone’s portraits make one’s nest look graceful and dignified.
These houses displaying only their facades without any kind of adjustment reveal their most basic outer appearances and structures like skeletons. These are seemingly plain homes made up of only roofs, walls, and windows with little decoration. These houses that are adjacent to streets or roads and exposed defenselessly show only bland walls, hiding their entrances. There are only a few windows and the structure that works to protect its dwellers from external gaze and contact forms a sort of a protective wall. This clumsy, unstable structure works as a psychological mechanism rather than playing its functional role. The wall painted in uncanny color unfolds extremely thinly and flatly, in stark contrast with that of the roof. The wall calls to mind its resident’s back. Or, it is cringing and voluptuous like flesh exposed to the other’s eye.
Photography represents already existing objects but Son keenly captures subtle visual force such objects have. This structure or house, as a readymade, is modest yet has an amply intriguing form with an appealing color and appears as a work of painting. This also seems like a color-field painting composed of collages of hues. Thus, her ability to lend vividness and density to an object marked by its own artistic magnetism stands out. This picture is a showcase of her discerning eye and her subtle sensibility for beauty. So, I think what comes first in this photograph is her viewpoint, discerning eye, and artistic sense rather than just the object in it.
These little houses are unavoidably sandwiched in between high-rise buildings or haphazardly studded somewhere. The images paradoxically engendered by beautiful and somewhat offbeat colors and bizarre forms bring about a sense of beauty breaking away from stereotyped order. This is the glittering appearance of the alienated and marginalized, and this allure is further reinforced when warm lights emitted from houses and windows overlap. Only the roof, walls, and a few windows placed between the walls make a house look like a house. These houses have structures rarely found presently in a crowded city. These are gradually vanishing houses that are far away from the glitz and glamour of apartments and high-rise buildings. These are not only weirdly kitschy buildings but also desperately made houses under the given harsh circumstances. These houses seen from pictures probably appear less realistic and feel like part of a film scene or a TV drama set. They look like surrealistic, dreamlike scenes rather than a real space that people inhabit. This sensation is further enhanced as it is a photograph taken at night.
This photograph simultaneously documents the moment that an ordinary scene is transformed into something special. The artist encounters and observes the moment that somewhat uncanny clap is generated in the reality we come across daily. She discovers or senses some unfamiliarity, weird desire, and shock in the outer appearance of a house we might see in a familiar space. She intends to represent the moment that something is suggested in photography, going beyond any visible sight. That approximates her nostalgia for an instant. Son feels the visible and the invisible coexist in her photographs, capturing some particularly special moment at night. We always look at a scene in reality but seldom see a unique landscape of the moment hidden behind the scene. In this sense, artists enable us to see the scene or those who show it. That is to see or let us see the non-everyday in the everyday, unreality in reality, dream in thing, and another world in a scene. In this way, they discover something hidden in reality.
All objects in an urban space are silent and immovable. A thing is not able to utter as it has no mouth, even if it has its own body. All the same, the thing speaks to us with words different from those of humans through its surface and texture. Uncanny characters like hieroglyphics in which grammar and rule are removed are coldly and stubbornly rubbed on the skin of things. A variety of traces and wounds are kept on the outer wall of an unfamiliar home. Entirely imbued with the past and present, this wall has a layer of a low-relief made up of the body odor and fingerprints of someone who existed with it. If turning our eyes on the skin of a thing, its life and history is cradled in us without any intermediation. In this respect, a city filled with a host of things is an enormous text or a voluptuous body. This is a landscape as a text read by the eye and envisaged by the mind. Residing in a city means living among things or becoming a watcher who observes them. It is also asking a question concerning one’s surroundings and environment.
Son observes and finds something, aggressively infiltrating the city. What she has discovered are little houses nestled in the dark. These houses encircled with the walls like a castle and emitting modest lights like a lighthouse show only the back of one’s absolutely ungraspable, unidentified life. The view from the back helps viewers evoke their imagination. This is more truthful than any other scenes with their own diverse persona. We can discover something more truthful in the walls of a home rather than in its interior scenes or household goods. The artist hears inaudible voices in front of the wall and sees invisible gestures of those in the house. Or, she imagines or envisages this. She simultaneously sees its skin and somewhere beyond this skin, facing the boundary of its outer wall laden with silence.
Placed in this strange scene where there are no traces of humans are only windows that bring gently glittering lights from a weird building and house. This scene feels like a cold, explicit still life rather than a landscape. Viewers are able to envisage the traces of household goods and the places for its dwellers with its brightly expressed windows. The windows that attract sunlight during the daytime radiate inner lights again at night. These lights are like signals sent by houses isolated in an absolutely dark space. On reflection, every house is really unique and exclusive. The final destination of people is one’s home but it is extremely private and lonely. Thus, the one’s house is more other than the other himself or herself. Since a community, in which the boundaries between the public and private spheres became blurred, has collapsed, a city signals its reservation about and wariness of others and reflects it through the structure of houses. Typical of this is that of an apartment. An apartment takes the look of a functional complex like a machine.
In contrast, the houses Son has captured in her pictures are detached houses considered to be dilapidated and backward, and some structures in her paintings still keep the traces of poverty-stricken bygone years. The flat houses encircled with walls reveal the windows suggestive of interior rooms. And light escapes through the windows, hinting that people are living inside. The artist stresses the fact that such houses are still in our surroundings, people manage their lives, have dreams, and plan for tomorrow in such houses. We hark back on one’s life or the course of his or her life through the houses she displays and their outer appearances that are lonely standing upright against the backdrop of the night. Probably with this, the artist says she hopes that people fraught with wounds will find consolation in her photographs.
In fact, the artist brought light to windows through post processing after photographing such empty houses. These houses are illuminated from the front, thereby bringing about a fictional image that looks like real light spreading through a space. Their walls and roofs are protruding from the dark. These houses seem isolated or pushed out from their surroundings. These houses with outer appearances foreign to and awkward in their surroundings stand in for portraits of such persons and their lives.
The artist forges interesting landscapes and still lifes using already existing cityscapes and little houses as objects for her work. Involved in preexisting readymade aesthetics, these show unexpected beauty and form brought about by an exquisite composition in concert with uncanny images and attractive colors in weird combination. Photography is a work of sticking firmly to the skin of a preexisting thing and peeling away this skin, but presents visual images that cut across the borders between photography and painting, unconsciously generating an unfamiliar, peculiar beauty. As Walter Benjamin mentioned, it is possible to demonstrate some surrealistic power with a mechanical view different from humanity’s tamed eye. Starting from the most universal and familiar, photography thus enables viewers to sensitively perceive enigmatic aspects. Some subtle sensation and atmosphere that are hard to elucidate and define seem to rise through the layers of dense air in the dark like mist. I think Son would like to photograph ‘that’.
Under · Ground: Subway Line 2, Either as an Open or Closed Space
Kim So-hee (Independent Curator)
Son Eunyoung has been taking pictures of the Seoul subway for the past year. Her work especially focused on Line 2, out of the nine subway lines, which circulates in an oval shape right in the center of Seoul, and passes through all 50 sections between stations that are running above and below the ground. As someone mentioned, "The subway is like a blood stream in a city’s body," and her photographs, which depict the scene viewed from the front of the subway, generate an impression of exploring “cold veins that are made of concrete.“
Through the exhibition, she will also present a work of video that seems like running toward a vanishing point which constantly resets itself from a faraway distance. The spatial relations that keep changing based on the speed of the running railway are experienced through a process involving both the disappearance of the existing space and the expectation for a future space that has to come. A new visual experience and the sense of space that we were not able to acquire although we have been traveling by subway for so long, are made possible only when we get the privilege to sit “next to the engineer.“ The unique feeling of slipping from the underground to the ground or the other way around, could be compared to the feeling Persephone (a character in Greek mythology who was carried off by Hades for picking up a daffodil, who had to live one-third of the year in the underground world, and two-thirds on the ground) had when she was passing through the cave (tunnel) that served as a gateway to the two worlds, couldn’t it be?
Son also emphasized the sense of alienation and loneliness of modern people who are exhausted by the pace of life through a series of her work titled ”The Underground.” The pieces of portraits remind us of the paintings of Edward Hopper, who illustrated the solitude of the urban people in public places such as trains, hotels, and theaters. The implication of her exhibition is thought to be associated with the attempt to visualize through photography the psychological space, in other words the visibility and the invisibility of the city, that we did not observe, or could not observe in the subway, which is a space that symbolizes the daily life of modern people.
<About the Artist>
Graduated from Ewha Women’s University, Department of Occidental Painting, organized the solo exhibition “City Wall Painting” at Gallery Lux in 2011, and participated in numerous group exhibitions including “Wild Herb” at Topohaus, and “Shooting the Today of Seoul” at SeMA warehouse in 2017