Korean artist Ina Jang was born in Seoul and studied in Tokyo and New York. She is based in New York when not traveling and working around the world as a photographer. Her unique artworks, with photography as the main medium, have been shown in major international exhibitions, festivals and museums. Her works often explore the contemporary uncertainty of female identity in this complicated time. As seen in Utopia (2017) and Mrs.Dalloway (2017), the collaged female figures that appear in her works have their faces often hidden in the sophisticated composition of shapes and distinctive color palettes. Her latest work Radiator Theatre, builds on a similar theme with “staged” abstract shapes in the resemblance of female figures: round bodies, ribbons, masks, legs, and heels.
Radiator Theatre, as the name implies, was created from a small set made by the artist on top of the radiator in her modest apartment in New York. Each of the abstract figures are imperfectly hand-cut, hand-colored, and suggest narratives of their own. They would float listlessly against the background, if not for the shadows created by the sun that shines through the apartment’s window. Their dark shadows root the figures to the ground, creating a sense of space and a new language for relationships between moments in the photographs.
Our own shadows have become ever elusive in a rapidly changing world where we have developed the ability to use multiple languages everyday. In explaining and describing Radiator Theatre, Jang refers to the idea of “language” and the work more specifically as “a range of wordplays, rhymes, misinterpretations, exaggerations, and lies through lyrical shapes and colors.” In our daily lives, language has its complicated nature as well; we’re fluent in different ways of speaking and ways of being in different spaces, in online corners or in the physical world. Our individual linguistic atlas is larger and also more digital than ever. We are learning how to ride this digital ocean, while feeling slowly washed away by its uncertainty. In the digital world, we are flattened into a two-dimensional existence, and our body’s very own shadow, a sort of proof of existence, is slipping away. This new insecurity is a perception we have to live with now. How can we keep ourselves attached to the ground in this liquid digital world?
In Radiator Theatre, we find a response to such a complex question in the whimsical humanity created by brush strokes, colors, and hand-cut shapes as a result of Jang’s vigorous act of making her own small theatre sets. Each piece required Jang to shoot while following the sun’s transitions in the room during the day’s progression, and she responded to the sun’s path by physically crouching or lying on the floor, back aching and forehead sweating. Such literal physical combinations push back against the fact that every single grain of a photograph can be made digitally in the present-day. It is a reflection and a resistance towards the digital environment that we live in. Her work shows a graceful choreography of imaginative shapes and their traces, and utters quietly but powerfully, “We are still here.”
In this contemporary world where the definition of survival has changed completely, Jang’s work tells us how essential it is to play and speak with our own language. Unlike Peter Pan, we don’t have our Wendy to reattach our shadows to us, so in an attempt to survive, we need to find our own language in order to establish one. As a way of navigating the chaotic contemporary world, we need to put our phones down, get on the stage of our little theatre, and gracefully dance under the sun with our own shadows.
Ina Jang was born in South Korea, and has lived in both Tokyo and New York. Her multilingualism and constant travel between three countries underlies her lens-based practice. In Radiator Theatre Jang creates a visual lexicon of her own, describing the series as “a range of wordplays, rhymes, misinterpretations, exaggerations, and lies through lyrical shapes and colors.” We all know the feeling when a word is on the tip of our tongues. The scientific term is lethologica, or the failure to retrieve a specific word from memory, combined with the feeling that recovery of the word is impending. Jang’s poetic and ambiguous photographs channel this sensation.
Some of Jang’s cut paper shapes are familiar—shrubs or rocks, perhaps—but more often it is difficult to identify and name a specific object in the photographs. This elusiveness does not, however, detract from the expressive and animated quality of the abstract shapes. Each uncanny form seems to have a distinct personality in Jang’s perceived two-dimensional world. Her choice of color is similarly intangible. She is drawn to the challenge of mixing hues that are difficult to name or describe—colors on the edge of other colors. The complexity of Jang’s paint choice inserts another layer of ambiguity to her dreamlike scenes, denying viewers the ability to assign specific cultural or psychological connotations to her alluring color schemes.
The title of the series partly refers to the circumstances of Jang’s practice, which is in a corner of her small studio apartment. Jang observed that the path of light from her south-facing windows prominently illuminates the large radiator a few feet away from her bed. Using the top of the radiator as a blank stage, Jang builds small three-dimensional sets out of paper that she paints and cuts, and shoots the tableaux with natural light from the nearby window.
The act of shooting is rigorous and physical. Jang prefers to shoot during winter because the shadows are longer. Of course, this means that her shooting is limited to cloudless days. The radiator is dreadfully hot, but the window must stay closed to protect the fragile structure from gusts of wind. Malleability is crucial to Jang, who must be able to edit, cut, and reposition the pieces many times before arriving at a final configuration. She never adheres the paper permanently; the delicate fragments are barely held together with blue tack, and collapses occur frequently. The temporary sculpture must follow the sun as it moves across the room, and by sunset Jang often finds herself shooting on the floor, covered in sweat with an aching back.
The results of her immense effort are photographs that appear effortless. Jang’s clever compositions call to mind the masterful interplay of Matisse’s cut-outs, while her enigmatic de Chirico-esque shadows play supporting roles to the paper actors. In the piece Theatre Disco, Jang’s role as auteur culminates in a dynamic ensemble. The painted backdrop is a stage upon which a psychic drama is performed, and the audience hangs on her every word.