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Exhibition of works by Soon Hak Kwon on view at Union Gallery
Soon Hak Kwon, Ecce Homo, 2014. 280 x 230 cm. Giclee print.

LONDON.- Soon Hak Kwon’s work is like staring at a blank wall. Which is not to say that it’s boring.

Rather, it is to say that this artist’s work has much in common with a Buddhist meditation technique in which practicing monks focus intently on a spot of unadorned wall for an extended period of time (while it may seem like a clichéd tactic of an outmoded Orientalism to frame a discussion of a contemporary Korean artist in such terms, Kwon readily asserts the similarities in conversation). As the practitioner progresses through the meditative states, his cognitive processes typically shift away from internal stream of conscious thought toward a heightened awareness of the external fine details of the wall he faces. This state of heightened awareness set against the minimal visual stimuli provided by the static, monochromatic wall offers the sitter — eventually and ideally — conscious access to the faculties of perception that normally function outside of conscious control.

An almost identical process underpins Kwon’s ongoing project History Of. Since 2009, the artist has been photographing the white walls of gallery spaces across the world using a close-up, multiple-image technique that renders the surface in extremely high resolution. He then mounts the resulting images on large aluminium panels and installs them in either their original venue or other galleries.

By making the gallery wall — a tabula rasa designed to neutralize its own presence in deference to the artworks it supports and surrounds — almost excessively visible, History Of sets the conditions for a mode of viewing that Kwon refers to as “pure seeing”; an encounter with the work and space that is both infant-like in its absence of visual hierarchy and perceptual directedness yet highly refined in its awareness of how we construct our reality through learned habits of perception.

Put another way, Kwon’s technical craftsmanship and utilization of the quasi-sanctity of the gallery environment effectively short-cuts that wall-staring meditation process. Quite an achievement.

This creative strategy stems directly from Kwon’s personal experience with the so-called Isakower Phenomenon; a type of hypnagogic state characterized by a sensational revival of the infantile visual and sensual experience followed by auditory/visual hallucinations and confusions of scale or orientation. Much as the infant with an undeveloped ego and limited motor skills apprehends the world through the details sought out by his grabbing fingers and suckling mouth, History Of invites its viewers to extrapolate macroscopic concepts from microscopic details.

Kwon’s newest piece in this series —History of UNION Gallery IV— pushes this conceit even further. While retaining the blank gallery wall photographs as the work’s pictorial component, this work is divided into 42 discrete panels arranged in configuration derived from the image sensor array of the Kepler Space Telescope.

The objective of the Kepler mission is to seek out and study distant, habitable planetary systems using photometry as part of humankind’s ongoing effort to understand the origins and future of life.

What Kwon poetically suggests here is a synonymity between two situations of wildly different scale; much as he considers the gallery wall a beyond-perception nothingness (in terms of our learned perceptual habits) that must be (re) apprehended by a heightened focus on its details, the infinity of outer space is quite literally beyond human perception and must be apprehended via the Kepler’s recording of the universe’s details.

As the Buddhist monk must stare at the blank wall in order to uncover what his consciousness conceals, so too is the viewer urged to see nothing in an effort to find everything. For Kwon, the micro and macro view is never an either / or proposition, but an always - both one.

This impulse to conflate seemingly disparate concepts is also at the heart of Ecce Homo, another new work presented in Truth is in The Detail. While the piece is constructed using the same meticulous, multiple-high-resolution-image technique as the History Of works, Ecce Homo’s subject matter is far more easily recognizable at a glance; a traditional religious painting depicting the persecution of Jesus Christ.

The logic of such a move is easily grasped. By bringing religious imagery into dialogue with imagery relating to science via proximity, Kwon tempers the suggestion implicit in History Of UNION Gallery IV (with its cameras, grid forms and telescopes, all products of Enlightenment thinking and Renaissance technologies) and reference to the Isakower Phenomenon (which occupies the realms of psychoanalysis and neuroscience) that any discussion of perception should be framed in purely rational terms.

Following this initial glance, however, the eye registers a disparate element within this photographic re-presentation; a modern metal stepladder occupying the centre of the middle and lower thirds of the image. The artist explains that when attempting to photograph the painting (the altarpiece of London’s All Souls Church in Langham Place) he had to climb this ladder in order to position the camera close enough to register its surface details.

While initially intending to bring Ecce Homo into dialogue with History of UNION Gallery IV using only the strategies of scale adjustment, recontextualization and eye-level proximity, Kwon came to recognize his ladder as an ideal pictorial intervention. Its upward thrust towards the Divine and affordances for the human agent signify the same attempt that the Kepler makes; to apprehend fundamental truths, to know and see the unreachable. Again, Kwon refuses to occupy a dialectical position, and the typically estranged schools of the Rational and the Spiritual are conflated.

If it seems strange to articulate a connection between a wall-staring monk, developing infant, orbital telescope and Korean artist, it is testament to the scope and ambition of the artist’s practice. Some say God is in the details. Even more say the Devil lives there too. Kwon proposes that some Truth might be right there with them.

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