Following sculpture and installation projects investigating women’s roles in society and the processes of birth, death, and decay, Koo turned to photographic and digital processes in order to explore new expressive possibilities for the representation of a woman’s identity. The series of digital prints accompanying the sculptural work in the installation Secret Garden focus on the reproductive organs. While containing elements of sensuality and eroticism, as a whole the images negate standard issue representations of female form and frustrate reduction of the forms to objects of sexual gratification. The images offer visual conundrums that are at once too abstract and too concrete. Their abstraction offers a transcendent beauty while their graphic realism points to the messy business of physical life.
To create these problematic images Koo used photographic materials without the intervention of a camera. She coated parts of her body related to reproduction with developer and pressed photography paper onto those areas. Multiple photographic images were made in this way and seven were selected for the series. After scanning the images, adjusting the color, and increasing their scale to 52 x 38 inches, she printed them on hand-made mulberry paper.
The resulting digital prints read simultaneously as abstractions and literal impressions. The abstraction stems from the dislocation of the relatively small portions of the body that can be transposed to a sheet of 8 x 10 inch photography paper. This abstraction is further enhanced by the incomplete impression of each portion of the body. This incompleteness is the inevitable result when a comparatively stiff piece of paper is pressed against undulating forms of the body. The paper cannot make uninterrupted contact. The viewer has to connect the dots, so-to-speak, in order to apprehend the body in the image. On the other hand, where the paper does make contact with the developer it maps the surface of the skin with a degree of sensitivity far beyond that possible in a camera generated image. Each image has a tactile physicality that contradicts its abstraction.
In spite of the difference in medium and subject, the work consciously acknowledges traditional Korean pictorial conventions. A similar synthesis, or simultaneity, of abstraction and representation can be found in sumi landscape painting. The sepia toned coloration of the images further supports this reference. Secret Garden, however, takes the poles of abstraction and representation and stretches them beyond the parameters of traditional convention to create an even more profound visual tension.
These dislocated, disembodied images seem to suggest the transitory nature of the body, its brief appearance in time, while simultaneously acknowledging the sensual intensity of that brief corporal presence. Beyond this existential statement, this series of images locates female identity in a secret, impossible to pinpoint, place that contains both the transcendent and the concrete.
Unlike Secret Garden, Invisible was conceived to stand alone, independent of sculpture and installation. Instead of mapping external forms and surfaces of the body, this second series of digital works focuses on the body at the cellular level, below the visual threshold. Koo wanted to suggest how fundamental elements, such as water, lymph, and blood, which we do not normally see or feel, have an essential role in our identity. As the resulting work reveals, these elements trump gender when it comes to our physical and existential identity.
While it was possible to carry forward some of the methods developed in Secret Garden, Koo adjusted her approach in order to create a more complete body image. To this end she joined multiple sheets of 8 x 10 photography paper to make a photographic matrix 70 x 32 inches. She then soaked bubble wrap in developer, placed it over the matrix, and pressed her body onto its surface. The developer and bubble wrap responded to the pressure of her form and produced an imprint on the matrix. Four images were created in this way and each time the matrix was disassembled, fixed, and washed. Back in her studio she recreated torso images from sixteen individual 8 x 10 “photographs” placed edge to edge in a grid, 4 photographs by 4 photographs.
Following the process developed for Secret Garden she scanned the photographs, reassembled the torsos on the computer, enlarged them, assigned a color, and finally printed them digitally on mulberry paper.
The resulting images, produced from photographic chemicals, bubble wrap, and her body, create figures composed from movements of fluid and faceted sparks of light. That mundane industrial materials combine to suggest the teeming effervescence of natural cellular life is a visible and essential contradiction in the work. As in Secret Garden, this visually apprehended tension, founded in a contradiction or paradox, drives the expressive force of Invisible. This is a pictorial high wire act as contradictory elements, more often than not, nullify each other in an infinite loop. Yet, somehow, in both Secret Garden and Invisible, the inherent contradictions discover a resonance and synthesis from which a new vision of the body emerges.
Invisible seems to mark a turning point in Koo’s work. While Invisible Torso 3 and 4 are arguably female forms, Invisible Torso 1 and 2 cannot be identified necessarily as female or male. Further, Invisible Torso 1 and 3 make direct references, respectively, to primitive and classical representations of the body. These works shift away from gender specific questions regarding a woman’s life and female identity and suggest interest in a more universal human identity. Regardless of their gender, each of these images articulates a vital, yet truncated body that seems to represent what remains of a life. What is new here is a heroic aspect. In spite of their condition, each of these eroded, battered, scarecrow figures continue to emit a crystalline light.
This series of six digital prints was created with essentially the same methodology as that used for Invisible. There were, however, two significant points of departure. The first was the desire to create complete figures, and the second was the decision to replace the bubble wrap with a tinsel-like fabric. The visual result of these simple shifts in relation to the subject and the materials is dramatic.
Rather than revealing the internal life of the body, Markings 2007 focuses on the external, the relationship between the figure and its “ground”, or the environment of its being. While the torsos of Invisible form clear, if eroded silhouettes in relation to their ground, the figures of Markings 2007 struggle to maintain their physical identity in relation to a potentially engulfing ground. The edges and form of the figures are obscured or obliterated by the overall, irregular fibrous texture that permeates the whole image. As a result, the figure and its environment seem to be made of the same stuff. This identity of figure and ground, and the ease with which one becomes the other, suggests the transience and instability of the figure.
In addition, the surging unpredictability of the fibrous texture creates a somewhat dark and almost violent tone to the images. It might not be too much to say that the images convey a mood of latent desperation. The postures of the figures in Markings 7-3, 7-4, and 7-6 suggest some kind of movement or action, and yet the figures seem somehow frozen in place. Even the most explicitly active postures, those of Markings 7-3 and 7-4, seem to have trouble generating much, if any traction. It is not clear whether the figure in Markings 7-3 is putting a shoulder to the storm in the interest of maintaining balance, or if he/she is actively attempting to push her/his way through it. In each case, it’s as if the figure has been fought to a standstill by the weight of some sort of particulate storm. Locked as they are in an identity with their ground, one has to ask what kind of action such figures might be capable of anyhow? The answer to that question is not available, however, that there is something a bit desperate in the situation is without question. Ultimately, the figures feel heroic and achieve a kind of monumentality in spite of, or perhaps because of, the ambivalent conditions of their action.
Rather than working from the whole body, Koo chose the head and its physiognomy, which is absent or minimized in previous work, to be the focus of this most recent series of digital prints. Unsatisfied with impressions taken directly from her own head, she created a surrogate head with plastic bags, saturated it with developer, and used it as a kind of drawing tool to create hundreds of “drawings” on 8 x 10 photography paper. She then created each head image by selecting 16 photographic “drawings” that, when joined together, form a distinct physiognomy. In this manner, each head is improvised from chance conjunctions found in the drawings, rather than the dictates of a body impression. Unlike previous projects, this process of improvisation takes full advantage of the structural flexibility inherent in her methodology.
This project also distinguishes itself from the previous in the way that the pools, bubbles, and swirling washes created by the developer do not have a consistent underlying texture like those impressions taken from skin, bubble wrap, or fabric. The multi-layered movements of the liquid are entirely unpredictable. And their chaotic liquidity is only barely held in check by the grid. Yet, paradoxically, the rectilinear seams of the grid, while creating some stability, also destabilize the image by creating dynamic fault lines where streams and washes collide. As a result, each of the heads seems to congeal momentarily in a fugitive convergence of random, fluid components. Their physiognomy seems to be in a state of constant flux, pushed, pulled, squeezed, and drawn by invisible forces.
In spite of the complexity and subtlety of these images, the reference to Rorschach ink blots and psychology is inescapable. It is clear that the point of view has shifted away from the physical life of the body to the interior life of the mind and the emotions. Markings 9–5 seems to contain the forces of this inner life more or less successfully under a hat that is reminiscent of Magritte’s anonymous homburg-clad businessman. Markings 9-1, arguably a young woman, seems to be maintaining her integrity yet there seems to be heavy leakage on the left and the question of whether the whole will hold remains open. On the other hand, the individual in Markings 9–6, or what’s left of him/her, is almost completely overwhelmed and can only peer through the turbulent storm with tiny fish-like eyes.
While earlier projects focus on identity as driven by the physicality of the body and the resulting existential anxiety, this series looks at another dimension driving identity. Markings 2009 continues the gradual shift away from a focus on her own identity as a woman and individual, towards a more universal and outward looking vision. Invisible and Markings 2007 present primal, anonymous figures that stand, or struggle heroically in a condition of existential uncertainty. Markings 2009 presents heads whose distinct physiognomy defines individuals. And in spite of their scale, 56 x 30 inches, these heads do not, or refuse, to take on the monumentality of previous figures. These heads suggest a transition from a mythic and archetypal vision that situates itself outside of time to a one that feels more immediate and present. The figures in Markings 2007 all find themselves in more or less the same soup. Their posture in respect to that soup may vary, however, their situation is essentially the same. This is not the case with Markings 2009. The particularity of each head suggests a unique experience or struggle. The heads confront us more or less directly as individuals defined by distinct personality and psychological properties. In spite of the often monstrous ways in which internal forces have distorted their being, these images ask us to look at each individual with the same degree of sensitivity and compassion as we do for the heroic and monumental figures of Markings 2007 and Invisible.
In Koo, Kyung, Sook, 2010, self published retrospective catalog