Weegee was the first photographic ambulance chaser, the first to get his hands on a police radio and follow its calls through the night to photograph broken bodies, sobbing survivors and fascinated onlookers. He was the first to understand that the victims of crime and disaster are celebrities, shooting stars in the chaotic dark sky of modern life.
Andy Warhol was the first to understand that newspapers and television are the vehicles of disaster stardom, that to multiply an image is to sear it onto the mind's eye. Thanks to the media, Warhol could do his ambulance chasing from the comfort of his own studio. He could choose the most thrilling newspaper photographs and amplify them with scale and repetition, his silkscreen canvases bringing suicide, riot and poisoning into the gallery and museum for the first time. Who knew that these spectacular casualties of modernity would have such an important role to play in elevating photography to its current status at the center of fine art practice?
The photographic postmodernists of the 1980s secured photography's place in the art market and institutions with images that they staged, stole, chopped up and reconstituted. Even death and physical decay seemed to be constructions of culture, as Cindy Sherman showed in seductively grotesque images of masks, prosthetic body parts and fragments of herself discarded on the oozing urban junk heap.
Born into a postmodern world, and self-cast as a nomad caught between cultures, Ayoung Kim returns to the scene of the crime. But where Weegee found human drama, Warhol found visual sensation and Sherman found layers of remove from human experience, Kim goes in search of herself. A dutiful student of Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard, Kim knows that the Society of the Spectacle is triumphant, and that we have entered an order of representation in which the copies have no original. And yetâ¦ Mid-20th century existentialism demanded that individuals face the meaninglessness of life squarelyâthat they proceed in full knowledge that there is no god, no heaven and no redemption. Kim faces the postmodern crisis of representation with a similar courage. She deconstructs and reconstructs a world of images to explore her own place within it.
Her dizzying angular perspectives provide sets for staging herself, a character dislocated and displaced, finding echoes of her own experience in disasters that happened just around the corner, or to girls whose experience as students abroad mirrors her own (until the moment they disappeared). Meaning emerges from Kim's fearless examination of the meaninglessness of these small catastrophes. She cannot unlock the mystery of Alexander Litvinenko's death or an anonymous city suicide; the construction of each dense delirious image is an opportunity for the artist to project herself imaginatively into a scenario, to probe its poetic and metaphorical possibilities. Wordplay, classical mythology and visual puns are enlisted in a dream-like logic that brings the stories new life. Each cityscape becomes its own self-contained world, drawn from world events, but ultimately autonomous of them. Kim is not the first to explore the urban crime scene, but she is the first to explore it in this way.
Ayoung Kim restages the crime with the cool logic of the detective and the gruesome fascination of the voyeur. Her cutting and pasting takes place in three dimensional space, yielding impossible spaces for the eye to penetrate. In the process of montage some of the original meaning of the images is lost, and other meanings accrue. There is a hopefulness to this project. The work argues that fresh discoveries can be made, even in the tabloid detritus of contemporary life. The work is also elegiac. Kim proposes that in pausing to look back at the settings of these sordid urban tragedies, we may rediscover something we have lost.
By Lucy Soutter (2008)