Hearing of the work of Jun Ahn in her solo show On The Verge at Photographic Center Northwest, my fellow severe acrophobes might shy away. As Seattle Art Museum puts it:
Ahn Jun is a South Korean artist working in photography, known especially for her self-portraits taken at the top of tall buildings that speak to the strength, ambition, and fragility of women in the 21st century.
First, I can assure acrophobes and acrophiles alike that there is nothing at On The Verge that will make you weak in the knees. (A few pieces gave me a little vertigo when I stared too long, but that’s on me.) Second, while one can certainly look at Ahn’s work through the lens of gender theory, it succeeds more as a query of the built environment and our place in it.
Builders And Passersby
For the sake of not dismissing the gender question, I’ll at least point out two things that make the gender perspective worth considering. The first can be applied to all photography by women: The medium itself of photography itself, from ads to fine art, has always been dominated by the male gaze. Subverting that gaze doesn’t come across as a critical point for Ahn, nor does she indulge it. Not exactly.
Second, early photographs of riveters at work on skyscrapers have become 20th century icons, and these images visually established those spires as the domain of men. Those men traversing girders were not the owners of the buildings, nor were they the men who would later occupy the offices. Still, they were an extension of the mythic male tekton of the modern age. Taken further, one might say that this, too, is an extension of the male gaze, which needs to see the masculine image as active agent and the feminine as passive object. In a somewhat ironic twist, the riveters in those old photos now appear more ornamental than Ahn does in her own works.
This is in part because Ahn is rarely the focal point of her images. We almost never see her face. Her legs dangle into the abyss, which is turned upside down at times, further distorting our own perspective. The human form is not the subject of her works, but rather a marker of scale for the environments it inhabits.
A Non-Human-Scale World
The show at Photo Center Northwest is just the right size. It has about a dozen large prints by Ahn, and too many more would have felt repetitive. To see Ahn’s work properly, you need to see it in small doses and large scale. The work only exists because the world that Ahn documents is so out of scale.
Despite the yawning chasm between buildings that fill the frame to the edge, things feel claustrophobic. Despite the mildewed evidence of human presence and antennae cluttering the rooftops below, the dusky cities below feel lifeless, uninhabited beside the bare flesh of Ahn’s legs.
One might still call it a bird’s-eye-view, but we are conscious that it is now also a drone’s-eye-view, seeing the world from above this way. And yet, it is much more personal and precarious from where Ahn perches. It is not so voyeuristic…but this is so because, again, it doesn’t often feel like there’s anyone left to watch. That’s what’s more disorienting than the heights: the isolation within a built maze.
Not everything lands in On The Verge. A photo of Ahn running through a valley, leaping upward among crows is…well, only on the verge of being mistaken for a stock photo. I’d sooner expect to see it at the top of a listicle (10 Places to ____ Before You ____) than on the walls at PCNW. Other interior shots that feature scraps of Ahn in a nondescript apartment or office are a nice visual break from the towering chaos around. They belong in the show, but they aren’t as strong compositionally, and on their own they would be more akin to those men on the girders: ornament.
As our own city grows upward and cries for more density, the bewildering perils of quick urbanization are on everyone’s mind. That makes Ahn’s On The Verge timely viewing. Because the impact of the photos is so diminished on device screens and prints, it’s important to see them in person before coming to any conclusions.
But on a final note, all of this leads one to question where Ahn goes from here. Part of the popularity of her images is rooted in the very fetish for urban environments that came with industrialization (and which these photos might be turned to critique). As compelling as they are at first glance, they can wear thin before long. The more intimate images beside her top-down cityscapes don’t mitigate this effect much. Perhaps Ahn is on the verge of another project entirely. Perhaps she will secure a coveted art world niche and double-down on her formula.
Whatever the case may be, On The Verge is a start, and maybe an end, too.
Jun Ahn: On The Verge is on display at Photographic Center Northwest through March 24. The artist will be at Seattle Art Museum to present an artist talk on January 31, 2018. Get more info and tickets online.