A tremendous quiver
Mark Amery on the recent moving image photography of Jae Hoon Lee. The results of a recent Indonesian residency, Lee finds fresh power in the depiction of landscape.
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It is no more than a static camera trained on a landscape for 12 minutes and 53 seconds. Yet, what we watch up large on a wall at Robert Heald’s blacked out gallery in a lane off Cuba Mall is absorbing and remarkable. A magnitude contained in this small space. Time slows down, and the only sound, importantly, is the soft meditative roar of surf breaking in an accompanying work. We watch the earth shimmer, slowly transform in the warmth of the early rising morning sun, as if we are watching it breathing.
This moving image work is Bromo. The landscape before us the scenic wonderland of the giant Tenggar massif in East Java, a group of overlapping volcanoes and caldera offering a remarkable array of topographic shapes and textures, and strange cloud and mist formations. Principle in frame is Mount Bromo sitting in the middle of a large plain (apparently called the ‘sea of sand’). A land very much alive, eruptions are common here. It’s a place where the constancy of change in the very fabric of our land is made very clear.
The artist is Jae Hoon Lee. He is known himself for his ability to carefully rend the fabric of images - the subtlety with which he morphs landscapes using digital technology. Yet here (at least I am told) there’s no need for such digital trickery. Moreover, the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park is a major tourist attraction, the view recommended like this for its beauty at sunrise. Would we see any differently perched atop the same rock looking over this expanse? Is this any different than National Geographic footage? Even writing here I feel like I take on the style of the nature documentary scriptwriter.
Well, often times it’s not what we look at but how. In Lee’s most affecting work I find he stretches us out within a space with nature. This sees us quieten and find rhythms that transform the way we look. In this and the work its paired with (‘Ijen’) the state I’m brought into, the displacement of normal scale, and the value placed on spare objects, rich textures and patterns reminds me of the Zen garden. I don’t pretend to have a deep understanding of Eastern philosophies, but it feels central here, Lee’s work harmoniously soldering together culture and nature to express some kind of natural essence.
In Bromo we watch the land slowly miraculously transform as the light begins to move it. From two different craters smoke slowly transmutates in shape and tone. Between them a dragon’s tongue of mist slips through a valley in the far mid distance (it’s some expanse). The surround itself is slowly transforming, from dense vapour to plain. Sea and sky beyond are a creamy rainbow strata from vanilla, orange and green, escalating up into blue.
Has Lee slowed down the footage? Any such subtlety with such a scape is difficult to detect. Time has changed. The work tests out our addiction to the wonder of the digital. As I turn away I think I can detect a digital shunting out of the corner of my eye, a tremor - as If I almost caught the artist out. I didn’t. The scene sucks me back in again.
Nature proves hard to believe. In the film, Mount Bromo emits one perfect mushroom plume. Watching it slowly, gently dissipates into a puff of nothing, at one point leaving what looks like cigarette stain yellow smudge on the gallery wall, it’s as if the artist has taken a rubber out and erased it.
Ijen is less engrossing but still hypnotic. We look down through constant mist on what appears to be an enormous crater lake, separated from the sea by wall-like giant cliffs. A cauldron, which after a while of looking starts to pulse. Or is that the camera moving?
As if in a Chinese scroll painting the black silhouette of branches enter the bottom right frame. Out on a rocky crag we observe the ant-sized figures of people moving to and from the enormous edge. They are digitally inserted (again I have to be told), which doesn’t affect my feelings about the work one way or another. They stand in like the figures in a grand European painting of the sublime landscape, an indication of our place as part of an enormous other, rather than its masters. Lee makes us feel part of this place yet unable to control it. The camera is static, but the world is left to move its veils softly before it as one.
Finally in the gallery’s darkened space I turn to Cloud, an exquisite lightbox based on a layering of high formations of cloud you may experience immersion in flying. Here digital manipulation is clearly part of the weaving, but magically the clouds come to resemble any number of other frilly organic plant or life forms, the light of the sun (the backlit box) throwing the colours in the edges of the cloudforms into intense colourations, puce and green, like some crust edged geothermal pool. There’s an intense heat to the transformation that leaves the work pulsing between one thing and another.
Celebrated early work of Lee’s saw him photograph human skin employing a flat bed scanner. There remains a kind of scanning and flattening with the camera, exploring the transmutability and thin crust that is the earth and its environment. Its ever-changing delicacy and how it shakes down into patterns.
Collapsing the picture plane, the photograph becomes more like an encrusted canvas, Lee capturing movement with the camera in a way akin to the way time allows rich sedimentary layers to slowly build. Looking at Cloud I’m reminded of the little bottle of differently coloured layers of volcanic ash I bought as a child on my first visit to Rotorua. The beautiful earth bottled and magnified, that I found susceptible to change with the smallest shake of my hand.
- Mountainseacloud, Jae Hoon Lee, Robert Heald Gallery, Wellington, until 20 September