Illustrating the Transience of Individual Identity

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The New York Sun

Atta Kim’s photograph “ON-AIR Project: Monologue of Ice, 25 Hours” (2004) presents the audience with a visual paradox. Depicting a brilliant band of light with yellow sparks shooting in all directions, the image looks like a flash of fire, but its subject is actually a block of ice slowly melting over the course of a 25-hour exposure. Here is ice as its own undoing: the hard, solid object reduced to a self-destructive molten core.

Mr. Kim is best known for “The Museum Project” (1995-2002), a series for which the Korean photographer placed human models in Plexiglas display cases and took pictures of them in various settings. This highly conceptual project sought to locate the individual nature of each subject while also exploring basic functions of the museum such as preserving, collecting, and categorizing.

As “The Museum Project” ran its course, Mr. Kim initiated the “ONAIR Project,” an extended meditation on the transience of physical existence and individual identity. Some 20-odd, large-scale examples of this newer work (a typical size is 8 feet by 6 feet) are currently on display in the artist’s solo exhibition at the International Center of Photography. Like “Monologue of Ice,” these photographs are for the most part visually spectacular and conceptually rich. The works can be classified into two basic categories: Either they are extended exposures that track the movement and disappearance of objects, or else they are composite images in which individuals are subsumed into a larger collective.

Mr. Kim explores the inability of humans to leave a lasting mark of their environment in three photographs of New York. “ON-AIR Project: New York Series, 57th Street, 8 Hours” (2005) captures a day in the life of one of the city’s busiest intersections, at 5th Avenue and 57th Street. In this extended exposure, inanimate buildings look no different than they would in a typical snapshot, but everything around them – all that moves – is seen in various stages of transformation or disappearance.

Streetlights are simultaneously red, green, and yellow. The stripes of flapping Star Spangled Banners fade into the ether. The streets are carless except for vague streaks of gleaming hubcaps and headlights. An enigmatic blur, the only impression of passing pedestrians, clouds over empty sidewalks. In this haunting image, endurance and stillness become the very opposite of life, while evanescence and immateriality define the human condition.

The hazy concept of national identity is the subject of “ON-AIR Project: Self-Portrait Series, 100 Tibetan Men” and “ON-AIR Project: Self-Portrait Series, 100 Tibetan Women” (both 2005). Each photograph presents a soft-focus close-up of a single face. At first, this man and woman look like warm, approachable regular people, but the viewer soon discovers that each is a computer-generated composite of 100 portraits.

Hanging nearby are small collages that show the source images. Here we see distinct faces marked by hard, definite lines, which melt together in the composite works to form a foggier sort of identity representing the collective whole. Through this transformation, a new self is created; in Mr. Kim’s equation, 100 portraits become a single self-portrait.

In most of Mr. Kim’s other composite photographs, the various component images do not seamlessly merge as in the Tibetan portraits, but instead are conspicuously superimposed one on top of the other.These are the weakest works in the show; with their “trick” so transparently visible, they often feel gimmicky (one image even looks like a holograph). It doesn’t help that their conceptual underpinnings tend to be esoteric or inadequately complex. “ON-AIR Project: The Last Supper” (2003), for example, uses composite portraits to make the trite observation that there’s a bit of Jesus and a bit of Judas in each of us.

The most powerful of Mr. Kim’s works are also the quietest: the three photographs from the “DMZ Series,” which explores the 4-kilometer-wide stretch of uninhabited land that separates North and South Korea.The artist has described the shutter speed of these exposures as “8 hours/50 years,” but except for the presence of a blurry tree that must have rustled in the wind, they look like traditional split-second shots of a bucolic countryside of rolling hills and snaking rivers – one that is sadly interrupted by an impassable metal fence.

The political charge of the “DMZ Series” extends well beyond the depiction of this dividing fence. In order to make these images, Mr. Kim had to confront both the South Korean bureau cracy and the North Korean army. Securing permission from the South to photograph the DMZ required several years. And when the artist finally went to the site with his camera, Northern troops were suspicious.

These three photographs represent bulletless shots across the border – suggestions that time, rather than arms, will resolve the Korean cold war. In an exhibition full of images of impermanence, the patience implicit in the “DMZ Series” is a statement of profound hope. As with “Monologues of Ice,” the viewer witnesses coexisting opposites – destruction and permanence – but here the mixture feels stable. These subtle photographs simultaneously assert the eventual demise of the DMZ and the enduring beauty of the Korean land.

Until August 27 (1133 Sixth Avenue at 43rd Street, 212-857-0000).

The New York Sun

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