Through the Darkness
For her solo exhibition seeing & Being seen, Jahyun Seo has constructed a body of work centered around the complex role that media plays in contemporary life. As an institution, the media possesses a unique power to produce and disseminate images, and it reaches every corner of a society. Now more than ever, we live in a media cycle that consumes itself: a self-sustaining and self-referential frenzy. Concurrently, our intimate relationship with technology means that an average individual will not only consume, but produce scores of images and media artifacts.
Seo’s exhibition adopts these media conditions as its subject, but also its process. While the bulk of the show is constituted of digital prints in subdued, dark palettes, all of these works began as drastically dissimilar handmade paintings. These originary pieces feature bright, gridded streaks and dashes that resemble skyscrapers or subway lines. They similarly recall the geometric patterning and urban fascination of a certain strain of Modernism, embodied in Piet Mondrian’s iconic “Broadway Boogie Woogie” (1943). Whereas Seo’s paintings draw from lighthearted source material – people’s dreams and inner desires – Seo subjects them to immense digital manipulation. The handmade images are reworked, twisted, and transformed until Seo reveals hazy images of dark, insidious forms that bear no resemblance to their source material.
In the exhibition’s prints, Seo brings forth ominous structures that emanate a subtle glow. Through what recalls the grain of surveillance footage, prismatic forms appear out of the darkness – their purposes and effects known. The overall effect is dystopian: in their misty light, these cubic spaces evoke Trevor Paglen’s photographs of the physical headquarters of various U.S. intelligence agencies. Rather than uncovering a specific architectural site of invisible power, Seo’s works attempt to reveal that power itself, however abstract. The result is velvety fields of black, punctured by red and violet beams, and clouded in a diffuse fog.
The centralized structures of Seo’s prints were consolidated through a process that isn’t itself apparent. The transformation can only be appreciated because Seo has made it visible, through displaying her source paintings in close proximity. The knowledge of this gap – the distance that separates Seo’s paintings from the prints – is crucial, as it is in forceful contrast to how many experience the mass of visual culture that is encountered daily. Because we understand the lengths Seo went to arrive at her final images, we must cast a critical eye on the rest, questioning their truth for ourselves.
It is significant that Seo’s source paintings – spread out, and seemingly viewed as if from overhead – could be interpreted as maps. A map suggests a complete understanding of a place, and as Seo’s works are transformed, that reference dissolves. Through her media interferences, Seo leaves us with a centralized icon viewed from the side. As such, the map is replaced with a series of landmarks: lights within the darkness that lead through the landscape of new media. In this new terrain, there are no clear directions, and the desire and need to root out falsity becomes more vital, but more exacting.