As recently as a decade or so ago, there was a prevailing sense that mass media images eliminated the weight of the real, engaging only in sign play with no exit. Today, however, as these images indiscriminately bombard us throughout our daily lives, they carry a far greater weight than the real, and are thus able to enact a more powerful penetration and resolution. The work of Kyung,Hwan Kwan associates itself with this era of change, while also serving as its foretoken. The methods Kwan applies in approaching mass media images show an attempt to deconstruct these symbolic properties and transform them through childlike play, thereby purifying their immediacy and brutality. But he does more than just respond or comment vis,à,vis mass media images. By reprocessing images once presented as objects for consumption into materials for production and play, he transforms passive trauma into active pleasure. In the process, he highlights a discord and distance between image and object, sense and perception, pleasure and meaning.
Kwan usually selects images of the most devastating events—death, disaster, war—but he excises the original traumatic content through a playful process of cutting, creating, and painting. However, he never leaves the original setting completely empty, so play and trauma share a peculiar coexistence. Kwan uses diverse processes to alter his chosen images; sometimes he removes backgrounds and colors, while other times he deletes forms or changes texture, adding a humorous quality through repetition and juxtaposition. In Untitled (2007), he removes the immediate context from a news photograph of an explosion, reproducing only the shape of the burst in an elaborate drawing reminiscent of classical works of Western art. In Standard of Death–Drawing Ruler (2009), he produces a series of stenciled “corpses” by cutting out brightly colored pieces of resin in the shape of a dead body from a magazine photo, and then overlaying them in an array of forms. And in Ghost (2009), he downloads photographs of dead bodies from the Internet, and then removes the bodies with Photoshop and replaces them with “connect the dots” puzzles.
Kwan’s process is one of the most significant aspects of his work, lending his pieces some of the qualities of a “game.” But he does not entirely eliminate the original object—some remnants are not transformed into play. For instance, in Ghost, the “connect the dots” puzzle forms an outline of the excised body, thereby restoring its traces. Despite these traces, however, the original context of the image is gone, eclipsed by a newly created secondary reality which reveals that the two extremes of play and tragedy are inherently inseparable elements in the production and consumption of images.
“I look at the complex images of the world like one of those puzzles where you have to find the hidden picture. To find them, I have to spend a lot of time looking, or slowly trace my way down the picture with my finger, from top to bottom. Sometimes I see it immediately, but these are usually mediocre pictures that everyone already knows. I can’t say that my pieces represent the ‘right answer’ to these puzzles, but they are just a few of the pictures that I’ve found so far. But the images I have to search are getting larger and larger, and the hidden pictures are getting smaller and smaller.”
Press release courtesy ONE AND J. Gallery.