In any viewing experience, one can’t help but notice the conceptual jump from artist to audience—there is a kind of translation that occurs, shaped by a viewer’s reference points, experiences, and mood, just as the work itself is a product of the emotional/political/cultural environment the artist finds themselves in. In Jinwoo Hwon Lee’s exhibition //Tell Them I Said Hello//, a collection of 23 black and white pigment prints, these experiential layers build so indelibly that even the starkest of aesthetic contrasts crackle with a kind of charge that requires the “/.” It’s an energy which necessitates alternatives, additions, piling feelings until the print is humming with them. I can’t touch them, but if I could, a small part of me thinks that my body might jolt.
While the stylized marks around exhibition titles are common for Aviary’s online shows, the double slashes are imbued with new meaning in the case of //Tell Them I Said Hello//. In the coding language Python (and perhaps in others, I am already out of my depth), the double-slash, “//”, functions somewhat like parentheses do in other written text. It allows the coder to add in a kind of private, personalized note, either to other coders, or to themselves, reacting to certain lines. The “//”, from what I understand, tells the computer to ignore what follows it. That is, the human element is isolated, emotion at once included and also encrypted in the lines of code.
Lee makes explicit an insidious kind of coding in his own experience of immigrating to the United States—a furious scramble to type new commands in a language you’ve never used in order to execute tasks to which you have no cultural anchor. It is to employ, his work suggests, a kind of encryption of the self, a compartmentalization. In his artist’s statement, Lee describes his personal experience moving to the U.S. from Korea, writing:
“I did not speak what everyone spoke.”
Rather than confining this description to denote language, Lee, a poet as well as a visual artist, leaves open the concept of a larger sense of alienation.
Lee, who came to the U.S. once as a toddler, and then immigrated by himself at 19, speaks to the experience of having his internal complexity abstracted, all observation and connection rendered external. “I knew no one,” he adds. “People in the small town noticed me by my color.” One might imagine him having to flag his inner thoughts and feelings with that same //ignore// signal. Lee’s chosen title for the show is piercingly intimate, and made more so by this addition. It’s as if you were eavesdropping on a conversation you weren’t meant to hear:
//Tell them I said hello//
“The eclectic black and white photographs in the series reflect the never resolved physical and emotional distance between two homes,” explains Lee. “The images hardly show a full face of a person. This signifies the scattered and undermined identity as a liminal. Oscillating between a citizen and an immigrant, I never felt fully understood or wholeheartedly considered. Some nuances were always dismissed.”
When I came upon the print Non-protective Colors, I immediately closed my eyes. I didn’t even realize I had shut them until I noticed I had to open them again in order to continue looking. I have observed this same kind of stupor in the European hornets that stagger onto our front porch in the mornings. At night they make me flinch when they beat their bodies against the glass doors, drawn in by the porch light. In daylight, they seem drunk, almost. A kind of involuntary downgrading of executive functioning. Worker hornets, females (I think, anyway). They’re starting to die off as the sun cuts through colder and colder temperatures.
A few seconds into this moment of sudden and utter disorientation, I was able to start blinking back the glare of sun on snow that leaps from the photograph. Lee’s show invokes a discordant meshing of selfhood and socially-constructed reality. The prints themselves, though awash in soft grays and rich blacks, ignite the edges of the border between the present and the past, what is real and what isn’t.
I let my body recalibrate, feeling like a bit of an idiot. Even as my eyes adjusted to the print’s softness, the aftershock of my immediate, physical reaction reverberated under their lids.
In the wild, protective colors enable prey to camouflage themselves, or become otherwise unattractive to potential predators. Poison Dart Frogs, most notably found in The Amazon, are multicolored, often in dizzying, neon hues. Though this makes them stand out against the vegetation, this coloration acts as a warning to predators to stay away.
Where his other prints feature more greyscale, Lee leans into the harshness of a more definitive black and white palette in Non-protective Colors. The print evokes some feelings that viewers can share—the rawness of winter air on skin, the glare of light refracting off of snow banks. However, in keeping with his exploration of the forced reduction of nuance in the “[oscillation] between citizen and immigrant,” Lee also implicates the viewer in their consumption of the fractured, black-and-white narrative. The vulnerability embedded in the title of the print forces an acknowledgment of the power dynamics between those who are “in” and those who are “out.” Perhaps, even, between a predator and its prey.
“In a greater context,” concludes Lee, “the seemingly disjointed objects and people photographed in the series portray the alienated under different settings. The loose strings among the images are metaphors of many individuals’ firsthand testimonies. Joining this personal confession, viewers are invited to imagine their own version of alienation.”