There’s a magnificent and sadly under-seen art film epic about flesh lumps becoming bodies at the College of East Asian Studies. The film in question is called “Body,” created by Youngho Kim, and it’s part of an exhibit at the College called “Light of the East, The Beauty of Movement in Silence.” The exhibit is comprised of five short films by two Korean artists: Jisong Lee, the artist behind “Moving Images” and “1/75’,” and Youngho Kim, who is responsible for “Body,” “live brilliant,” and “Wheelchair Level Eye.”
Lee’s work tends toward the reflective, observational, and time-based. “Moving Images,” a 16-minute work running in the second floor screening room, is a lovely, reflective, durational work, consisting of gorgeously framed images shot on video with color drained in the editing room. It’s an invitation to become absorbed in the landscape. The sheer accretion of time causes each cut to resonate. Each new image presented becomes something new and exciting.
The thing about art, entertainment, and what it takes to compel people is that we generally think of cinema as some sort of arms race of spectacle, in which everything must be desperately escalated in order to hold an audience’s attention. This really isn’t the case. This durational, sculpting-in-time type stuff can actually be quite diverting and compelling if you’re willing to devote 30 seconds of your time to getting acquainted with its rhythms, and before you know it you’re absorbed by every twitch of grass and passing bird. But this phenomenon asks the question—is “yoga for the brain” (as I call this) all you want or need? A good amount of this work is brain yoga, which certainly isn’t a bad thing, but is admittedly not very exciting.
The same principle of rapt attention paid to durational cinema leading to devotional reverie applies to the other film from Lee, “1/75’.” “1/75’” is a sustained ten-minute shot taken on an iPhone from the back of an Amtrak. Like “Moving Images,” it is rhythmic, beautiful, and sustained. The intention is not to trivialize or skip over these pieces. They are something experienced more than written about. The coolly unimpeachable visual instinct shaping the decision-making processes behind these works ensures that every moment will be visually engaging. The viewer feels time stacking up as Lee’s icily beautiful images glide by, and this stacking generates import, meaning, and sustenance. Kim’s work operates on this principle to an extent, while folding in a richer variety of narrative, thematic, conceptual conceits.
Lee’s work is directly, explicitly, and almost exclusively concerned with the passing of time, close observation, and the digital image. His piece draws our attention to the nature of the digital image. The iPhone sits, unblinkingly recording reality. This is a fundamentally separate form of translation than that undertaken by celluloid. Video lends the images it records an unvarnished immediacy, or, rather, we have been trained to respond to video as an unvarnished documentation of what it records, frequently serving as a delivery system for an image rather than as a medium with capacities for formal beauty and interest in its own right. Both artists, by giving the viewer the time and space to sit with the raw digital image, allow us to discover the quirks and accidental beauties and eccentricities of raw digital video, much in the way we have been trained to read beauty and warmth in ragged film grain.
And now, for the flesh lumps. Youngho Kim’s 26-minute odyssey, titled “Body,” follows a young girl in a stark white dress through a similarly stark white environment. She floats through blank spaces, accompanied by a soundtrack of varying amorphous tones and drones. She comes to an abstracted forest, replete with metallic trunks, and suddenly she has a butterfly net. The film slides into a stuttery stop motion at this point, as the girl discovers these curious flesh lumps attached to trees. The shapes, which she collets in a white-lidded box, are vaguely evocative of butterflies.
The film then fades to white, and then the camera tracks in on the girl from behind, sitting at a desk covered with butterfly-collecting devices. Again, the scene is entirely in white, aside from the flesh tones of the girl’s face and the forms she’s collected. She examines the lumps under a microscope, and it becomes clear that they’re little cutouts of naked people photographed from behind, squatting down, with heads bowed and arms folded in front of their chests. They become kaleidoscopic under the microscope, and the girl pins them and sets them on a white conveyor belt, which glides them out of frame. The piece fades to white again and moves into what is probably the best and most exciting portion of the Light of the East exhibit.
This absolutely transfixing shot, begun in extreme close-up, focuses on a loincloth-clad dancer squatting in front of a tree trunk. Over a grippingly long sustained take, the camera slowly zooms out, readjusting our perception of the space each time it reframes the scene, and the dancer performs a duet with the tree. We’re fixated on the musculature, the tensing, the immediacy, the life of this segment as it towers above everything else in the exhibit due to the immediate and powerful level it functions on, in sharp opposition with the yoga art or the allegorical symbolism of the earlier portions of “Body.”
The duet with the tree is sustained, visceral, and dreamlike all at the same time, as the rigid musculature and sheer toughness of what the dancer is doing in the woods is counterpointed by the coolly observant gaze of the digital camera and the eerie slowness of his own movements. There is nothing more transfixing and charismatic than great power and capacity bent, through tremendous will, to cool and collected calm.