It is hard to imagine Mi-Yeon producing art prints of such emotion and refinement amid the familial clutter of her apartment, but maybe this is the mark of the true artist: beauty can be created against all odds. “My daughter’s at kindergarten,” she offers as explanation.
Mi-Yeon’s fourth solo exhibition, “I was born . . . in Seoul, Paris and Tokyo,” which will run from July 24 to August 5 at the Kobun Gallery in Nihombashi Hamacho, coincides with the publication of a book of the same title. This contains six essays that describe moments of passage in her life, illustrated with some 50 monochrome prints.
“The photographs (in the book) are not placed to illustrate the text,” she notes. “Rather they stand alone, offering atmosphere and sensation as the reader turns the pages.”
Mi-Yeon was born in Seoul in 1963. “I was a quiet child but very sociable, with lots of friends. Sporty, I never liked playing with dolls.” Even at high school she was undecided about the future. But her father, who was a keen amateur photographer, and often asked Mi-Yeon to model, implanted the idea that creating images was interesting.
Initially she studied graphic design at the National Seoul Polytechnic University. Then she found a book by French critic Roland Barthes that discussed the nature of photography and introduced early European photographers.
“I was so moved, so excited, that I decided to go study in Paris,” she explains. “Korean photography is more abstract. In the European tradition, the camera looked at people, and people looked back. I really wanted to explore this new philosophical relationship between the camera and the subject.”
Korean society being very traditional, she had a bit of a fight to be let go. “My father would have been OK, but he died when I was 20. My mother was not happy at all. I guess I got my way because I’m strong-willed.”
In Paris she struggled to find herself: “If there was a Korean community, I never found it!” So much was truly shocking: the cosmopolitan mix of people in railway stations; the visibility of the homeless; her lack of language and any familiar icons.
Her camera got her by. “As a tool of communication, it allowed me to venture into Black areas, Muslim areas, every ethnic community imaginable. Most people are flattered to find their lifestyles considered interesting. They love being photographed.”
She met her Japanese husband in Paris in 1990. He was studying Vietnamese language and culture, and since neither spoke the other’s language, they communicated in French. “Deciding to settle in Japan, well, that was my third rebirthing.”
While visiting was one thing, living here is quite another. Yet Mi-Yeon (whose names mean beautiful and, even more aptly, go) seems to have made the transition with relative ease. “Tokyo is very different from Paris and Seoul. But I like it here. I can truly say I’m happy.”
She regards the book and her exhibition as the natural conclusion to her first decade in Japan. The essays are episodic, and like the photographs included in the book, bear no obvious relation to one another. And yet the links and associations are clear.
The first story, for example, concerns a friend she knew in Seoul. A Japanese-Korean, he struggled all his life with his double cultural legacy, and its complex historical and political implications.
When Mi-Yeon explains that she has taken Japanese nationality, I wonder whether her friend’s problems so resonated that she decided to simplify matters. But no. “It was just for convenience sake. Even my mother doesn’t mind. She knows it’s only a paper formality. I’m still Korean. But I’m also open to change and movement.”
The images scattered throughout her book have no captions. “They speak for themselves.” Typical of her unique point of view is the picture used on the cover: she took it from the back seat of a car with the front window in frame. There is the mirror, and reflected, a tuft of hair: Mi-Yeon’s own, and looking just as it does now (before combing it flat for my shot) dragged up by her fingers to form a parrot-like crest on top of her head.
Not all are as whimsical, but the image serves as a pointer to personality. Her body language highly expressive, she chatters in Japanese at breakneck speed, while loping around her apartment in Sakura Shinmachi with easy grace. On every side, piled in profusion against the walls are books, toys, the stuff of everyday.
Also exhibited from Tuesday next, are cityscapes and more intimate scenes of Seoul — a way of life fast disappearing as traditional districts give way to development. Unique glimpses of Paris: a row of benches in a park, with people seated and so surrounded by pigeons that it’s hard to tell the difference. “People as pigeons, pigeons as people,” Mi-Yeon laughs.
People look upstream from a boat; in the forefront, a fist holds a smoking cigarette. Two men sleep, angled in long grass. Highways provide geometric sweeps of pattern. A coat hanger hangs from wires.
This last image is Mi-Yeon’s own favorite — except for those of daughter Kaya (an old name for Korea), whose presence in her mother’s work suggests the passing freneticizm of a four-year-old.
Mi-Yeon’s view is quirky, always interesting and her sense of composition often breathtaking. There is a fascination with shadow, with some pictures sharply defined, others impressionistically open to interpretation. “I’m not thinking when I focus. I’m feeling. It’s an unconscious thing.”
Her work investigates themes of daily life: the sky, the street, weeds growing precariously at the roadside. Little wonder her first exhibition was called “Katachi no aru Machi” (Breath of my City), and the two subsequent shows, “Existence.” “In my piled faint memories,” reads her latest press release, “past loving is recalled.”
Where her work goes from here she has no idea. “I’m in a void. Being a wife and a mother divorces a woman from herself. I need to find myself again. In the meantime I’m living my life as it requires to be lived right now, with no goals, no emotions, no feeling. I guess I’m waiting . . .”
Waiting for her next rebirth.
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