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.