The Way that can be told of is not an unvarying way;
The names that can be named are not unvarying names.
It was from the Nameless that Heaven and Earth sprang;
The named is but the mother that rears the ten thousand creatures, each after its kind.
The opening verse from Laozi’s Tao Te Ching gives us a sense of the philosophical concerns that guided photographer Seung-Hwan Oh to delicately scratch, diffuse, and otherwise manipulate the plastic films used in his 2010 series, Camouflage. The shapes and figures, that by turns recede and advance from focus appearing at once rational and chaotic, suggest a visual response to humankind’s complex relationship with the ineffability of our origins and our place in the universe.
Oh’s Camouflage series maintains the Abstract Expressionist style successfully used in his earlier series, The Ruins of Pleasure, but the artist goes one step further in order to obscure the identity of his subject matter. While the viewer is inexorably drawn to make sense of Oh’s ambiguous imagery – consisting of amorphous and near colorless shapes, a recognizable object mired to a vaporous background, or a deceptively Precisionist pattern of nonsensical shapes or objects – the futility of this endeavor quickly becomes apparent. Through a careful process, each object is denuded of its individual presence and forcibly immolated to its environment. The twofold effect is to force the viewer’s gaze to focus on the wider field of vision while encouraging him to consider his own disposition within his surroundings.
Tonio, a.k.a. Seung-Hwan Oh, who studied film and theatre, and photography at Hunter College in New York, currently resides in his birth-city of Seoul. His work has been shown in numerous group and solo exhibitions, both in his native South Korea and abroad. The international venues where his work has been shown include London, New York, Milan, Bangkok, and Brussels, among others.
“Impermanence is about the idea that all matter including all the life forms would collapse in our spatial-temporal dimension we belong to.”
The philosophical underpinnings for Oh’s most recent works, the related series Impermanence_Unknown and Impermanence_Untitled, build on ideas explored in the Camouflage project. With Impermanence, the artist references cultural theorist Byung Chul Han’s assertion that society’s relentless drive to lay bare every aspect of both material and immaterial existence, to exercise and even to promote, pathologically self-referential behaviors, comes at the expense of our relationships; with ourselves, with each other, and with our environment. In a world where mankind is increasingly driven to discover, enumerate, classify, identify, and thus presumably to master the totality of universal phenomena, Oh directs our gaze to what we lose when we reveal all. Our ambition to discover the unknown represents the ultimate challenge to our relationship with the ineffable. In reducing space for the esoteric and the transcendent, we desacralize our very existence by losing the sense of mystery that beguiles us to other people, places, and ideas.
On the journey from Camouflage to Impermanence, the artist shifts from making gentle allusions about the natural order that lies beneath the surface, to vaunt the chaotic (dis)organization of our natural world to the forefront of his work. By encouraging mold to propagate the surfaces of photographic images shot on medium format positive film, the artist marries synthetic and natural processes and links human agency to environmental chance. When the biological elements react with films’ silver halides they create delicate whorls of pigment that ebb and flow across a landscape of human forms. The resulting images, such as the pink-suffused torso from Impermanence_Unknown, operate as memento mori by referencing The Second Law of Thermodynamics, entropy. The visually lyrical patterns that both decorate and destroy their subject remind the viewer that the trappings of our physical existence are a cipher, an empty signifier, bound to diffuse into the unknown and unknowable space that lies outside the continuum of human perception. Thus, the Impermanence series represents the maturation of an artistic expression where the constant focus has been to obscure the nature of his subject, through manual or biological processes, in order to create auratic images that encourage the viewer to reflect on the intrinsic ineffability of human existence.
When I first arrived at The Museum of Modern Art, in 2012, evaluation and assessment were processes the Department of Education regarded highly and had built into their everyday operation. My colleagues were open to experimenting, willing to test and tweak programs and resources, and responsive to the data gathered from participants and visitors. Since 2012 there has been more demand for (and interest in) qualitative visitor research from departments across the Museum, and we have expanded who participates in these research and evaluation efforts. On a regular basis, for example, an Audience Advocates committee made up staff from Digital Media, Education, Visitor Engagement, Membership, Information Management, and Graphic Design meets to discuss and test digital resources (website, app, digital signage, etc.) as part of the design process. I’ve come to more fully understand what a vibrant history visitor research and evaluation has at MoMA. It makes sense that evaluation is part of the culture here, as it is embedded in the Museum’s earliest days.
Last summer, we collaborated with artist Shellyne Rodriguez on the creation of MoMA’s new Night Studio program — a free, six-week art course for NYC residents currently in the process of passing the TASC (Test Assessing Secondary Completion, formerly the GED) and receiving their High School Equivalency Diplomas. Two years prior to that, we collaborated with artist Mark Joshua Epstein on the creation of Open Art Space, the Museum’s first ever drop-in art program dedicated to serving LGBTQ-identified teens and their allies. And this philosophy of reaching out to new groups of previously underrepresented audiences isn’t new here; over the past 80 years, MoMA’s Department of Education has found ways of connecting our collection and resources to a variety of audiences not previously served by mainstream museum education. Our departmental history includes engagements with a variety of New Yorkers who were, at the time, considered “new” communities to create programs with, including groundbreaking initiatives dedicated to serving high school students (1937), children and families (1942), veterans (1944), adults with Alzheimer’s (2005), and many others, regardless of their prior engagement with the arts. Through these initiatives and a multitude of other community-based partnerships (serving organizations working with incarcerated youth, alternatively-sentenced adults, homelessness initiatives, HIV/AIDS health services, and more) MoMA has continued to be an important entry point for New York City audiences that have been, and who generally remain, woefully underserved by museums.
What comes to mind when you hear the word “disability”? Close your eyes for a moment and pay attention to what images you see. In developing our disability equality training at The Museum of Modern Art, we asked our colleagues this same question. Most often, they mentioned wheelchairs. On the one hand this makes sense, as the international symbol for accessibility is of a person using a wheelchair. People are used to seeing this symbol in their everyday life — from parking lots to restrooms. Also, a wheelchair is a highly visible signifier of a physical disability.
Yet the term “disability” encompasses so much more. While physical disabilities are prevalent, as are physical barriers, especially in a city like New York, they are only one type. Less visible disabilities such as hearing loss, developmental disabilities, and mental health issues, to name only a few, were rarely mentioned among our staff. Often, unless a person knows someone with a particular disability, one simply never thinks beyond the generalization. This, in turn, creates barriers to full accessibility at the Museum.