Oh Seung Hwan’s series, “Impermanence,” reminds us we have an expiration date. His muse is humanity: its proclivity for stratifying itself — class, religion, race, and the resulting precariousness and cruelty. His images evoke existential pathos, and read as a microcosm for the second law of thermodynamics, entropy — the movement from order to chaos. In each frame, he seizes a speck of his subject’s life and sacrifices it, making contact with the lodged compulsions that define humanity. Hwan’s practice embodies the plurality of contemporary photography. His process and concept are inextricable; he fuses photography and biology, asserting control over the medium and relinquishing it. The artist collects mold, deposits it on the emulsion side of the developed, medium format color reversal film, and places it in a homemade incubator. Before the mold can totally devour the film, he removes it to reveal the residual turmoil. The process is wholly unpredictable, and only 0.2% of thousands of images have been included in the final body of work. In his frames, mold obstructs complete view of the figures, but some visual clues are preserved and allude to who the subjects might be.
In “Yuna,” a curly-haired child in pajamas cradles a stuffed animal while posing for a portrait. The child is almost completely obscured from the right hand to the top of the frame. The stuffed animal, when viewed as a transitional object,
occupies an imagined sense of security — an illusion that begins to dissolve in tandem with the image. The frame highlights the tension between the reality of this child’s life and an innate compulsion to create security — both entities ebbing into disintegration. In “Boraam,” the subject appears like a boxer amping up for a match and pounding her fists together for theatrical display, compelling a nebulous explosion. It’s an inclination roused by her posturing and the semblance of a uniform. She appears robust, but her state cannot be maintained forever. The tear in time and space reels viewers into an extraterrestrial expanse, highlighting one’s own insignificance and fragility. “Ambre” is a visual liaison between the grotesque and the exquisite. A young girl hangs a hooked index finger from her lower set of teeth. Mold is scattered over the body with the most pronounced decay dissolving her eyes and the top of her head. Is she mocking the perceived sexuality of cover girls — a fetishized female identity? The image recalls Georges Bataille’s “base materialism,” an idea that eschews all forms of hierarchy, and considers what isn’t able to be classified, defined, or imagined. It parallels
the defining qualities of abjection: ambiguous, impossible to mediate and functioning beyond any “law.” The girl depicted seems precocious, exposed to the harsh canon of the patriarchy. Her open mouth is a defiant satire and an invitation to
investigate beyond the veil, to shed the devotion to appearances.
Oh Seung Hwan considers the human impulse to divide and establish hierarchical systems to be a collective neuroses that cannot be remedied. It’s a stance consistent with the theory of entropy: the chaos we cultivate only increases. Modern weaponization, social conflicts, and the localization of power corroborate the idea. His work makes humbling statements about the lives and ideals we desperately cling to, particularly in a world with excessive competition and notoriously high beauty standards. The obsession with beauty is a vow an individual makes to mask the reality of the body: it’s abject, fleeting and teeming with myriad life forms separate from our own. Though the artist destroys images of his subjects, the act is not exclusively violent. “Impermanence” is a collection of exquisite frames that can help us contemplate our delicate and temporal existence.