A few years ago, I visited an art critic professor’s lab whom I highly respect. What moved me the most was the inside of his lab; it was breathtaking.
It was filled with thousands of books, more than 300 Korean earthenware called Togi and numerous other art works. His bookcases created a maze-like path and were filled with various collectibles placed tightly next to each other on the shelves. It was incredible to see how many precious items he had collected and made me feel so starry-eyed for standing so close to the togis that would normally be found behind the glasses in museums.
Upon leaving his lab, I reminisced and dreamed of the things I saw for days. After much deliberation, I gave the professor a call. I asked if I could have the permission to photograph 300 of his Korean togis and with excitement and open arms, he said yes. He allowed me to take them back to my studio and I remember how anxious I was to move them in fear that I would drop them or create even the smallest chip. This process of obtaining and handling the togis was extremely special and pivotal to this photo series.
As we all know, all living creatures on earth will eventually face death; it’s something that every living being will experience at one point in their life. Togis in Korea dates back 1500 years ago, where they were used to companion the souls of the dead in the grave. Historically, these togis were buried with dead bodies in suk-gwans (stone-made tombs) for the nobles of the Silla and Gaya dynasty in Korea. The togis available now are those exact ones that were in the ground for at least 1000 years.
If you think about it, they were buried underneath the ground, in the dark soil with no light for over 1000 years; but they still maintained their color and shape until this day. The togis that have been found and dug back out are met with new light and a whole new era of people. There is a beautiful intersection between the old and the new that the togis bring out; they are soaked with the past times of ancient Korea, while also being welcomed to the new cultural and societal moments of our current times. Thinking about how long the togis were buried in the ground have put me to wonder what it meant to be under such darkness for a lengthy period of time, while being able to maintain such composure and persistence in its structure and vividness of color. These were the constant thoughts and questions I had as I was photographing them.
More importantly, I caught myself asking, ‘Are these togis real?’ ‘Couldn’t they have been fabricated and remade?’
At a time when fact and fiction are blurred and truth is extremely hard to decipher, these questions are inevitable to appear. Where does truth begin and at what point does falsehood end? These are the thoughts that worry so many people in this day and age and with the proliferation of advanced technology, the tracing of history and truthiness becomes even harder and more difficult to substantiate. For these reasons, it was challenging for me to come to terms with the togis true age as 1500-year-old items.
The technological advancements of a camera also make it difficult for the human eye to see the difference between what is real and fake. Even though the togis that I photographed are truly 1500-years-old, the mediation of the camera lens between the three-dimensional reality and two-dimensional image prints lead truth into a gray area. Ironically, the pursuit to depict a perfect representation of real life makes the truth look fake as well.
The togis I handled and photographed held indescribable colors and forms that were mysterious. That’s how I knew to my core that these were unique pieces. I validated their realness through my shoots. I remember every nerve and senses in my body feeling a sense of certainty. This mind and body experience I had with these togis are what makes them real. I placed intentionality in the way that they came out and experimented in ways of portraying them in both real and artificial ways. In order to illustrate the illusion of truth, I applied various technical changes to the photographs. The saturation of the togis were lowered and their colors were extracted and that brought out a sense of visual chaos. Additionally, the photographs were printed on special Korean paper called Hanji, which made the prints look outdated and to overlap the feelings of time that the togis carry.
This photo series made me realize that my very efforts to portray exactly what I see could actually be the product of illusion and doubt in itself. The world we live in today have conditioned us to look away from light shining directly at the truth and rather to find an illusion of light in a dark place.