Interview with Nanda Choo

Nanda Choo   photo: sitecited

Nanda Choo   photo: sitecited

Nanda Choo is the photographer of the series Modern Girl and The Day. Many here in Korea know her for her concealed identity, which is a mask of dark sunglasses and a typical bob haircut. However behind that stereotypical image is nothing so cliché. Nanda’s work is both glossy and raw. She draws us into her flashy images only to be repelled by their unpleasant content. Nanda Choo received her BFA (1993) from Duksung Woman’s University, Korea and her MFA (2009) from the Graduate School of Culture and Art, at Sangmyung University, Korea. She has had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Photography, Seoul (2012); Trunk Gallery, Seoul (2011); Boan Inn, Seoul, (2011); Kunst Doc Project Space, Seoul (2009); and Gana Art Space, Seoul (2008). She has been included in group shows, such as Landscape of Moment, Seongnam Arts Center (2012); Confession, Ilmin Museum of Art (2011); Cross-Scape, Kumho Art Museum, Seoul, JeonBuk Art Museum, Wanju, and Goeun Art Museum, Busan, (2011); Human Faces, National Museum of Singapore, Singapore (2010); On the Line, The British Council, London (2010); Aspects of Korean Contemporary Photography, National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts (2010); Art-Cinema, Seoul Museum of Art, Seoul, (2009); Sway in the Space, Daegu Photo Biennale, Deagu Culture and Art Center, Daegu, (2008); and Dong-Gang Photo Festival, Yeongwol-eup, Yeongwol (2007).

Nanda Choo’s work is both glossy and raw. Her flashy images draw us in only to repel us by their unpleasant content, which we cannot deny we are more than familiar. Many here in Korea know her for her concealed identity, which is a mask of dark sunglasses and a typical bob haircut. However, behind that stereotypical image is nothing so cliché. In fact her mask is rather subversive. By donning it Nanda Choo is not so much a persona but a figure for projection. Her mask dispenses with the earnestness often erroneously associated with artists and their trades and forces us to deal with the work she makes rather than the person who makes it. When I sat down with her last winter our conversation centered a great deal on depictions of women and the way media functions as a means of altering perception.

The following interview questions, which where answered via email, are based on the conversation we had in last year.

Julia Marsh: In the past your work has, been an exploration of the self, erased through repetition. Your more recent works eschew the person or self for more pointed material about the nature of consumer society. Can you describe how you came to make this more recent work?

Nanda Choo: In Modern Girl, I used repetition and duplication paradoxically to identify the anonymous and unified self in modern society. The black dress and the sunglasses (akin to erasing a person’s identity with a black bar over the eyes, as publishers did in the past) were devices used to make viewers read the figures as pictorial symbols. However, this use ended up going against my intention, because this figure was interpreted as self-portraiture, and therefore produced the idea that the persona in the images was the same as the artist. I wanted neither: to be fixed in a character, nor reveal my private self. As well, because I was physically limited in my ability to express various roles, I had to find another method of expression. To solve all these problems, I came naturally to use the mask, which underscores anonymity and fixes the character. As a result, audiences concentrated on the story in the artwork, rather than focusing their interest in finding out whether the character in the image was a model, or the artist, or the real face behind the mask.

As the matter of course, consumption is a very important element in the substance of my work. Precisely, I am dealing with consumption in the context of modernity, and westernization. As is known, westernization in Korea was suddenly instigated during the dictatorship of modernized Japan (1910-1945), rather than gradually formed in a natural progression through the interactions between neighboring countries. Politically the colonial period ended nearly 70 years ago, but to this day the introduction of systems, technologies, ideologies and culture from the West has continued to proceed at a similar speed and extent. If The Modern Girl series covered the general characteristics of the early period of westernization to the present, with The Day series I am concentrating on bizarre consumer patterns, which originate in western holiday culture, but appear in Korea in mutated and indigenized forms. This holiday culture not only demands material consumption, but also time, which accompanied with different ideologies. This recently adopted anniversary culture in Korea seems particularly accelerated by the wish to resolve a perceived deficiency through prompting memory.

JM: When we met we discussed the technical histories of photography. It also is obvious that your work is highly cinematic in effect. The history of these two mediums film and photography are intertwined, and in your work they also appear inextricably linked. From what perspective have these traditions and technologies informed your work?

NC: I think the most noticeable reason that my work looks cinematic is that it has a narrative, and is a condensation of images from different periods. Like you said, when I plan and process my work, I take hints from the characteristics of visual media, such as photography and film, or intentionally include them in my work. As a person who works with the photographic medium, I am especially interested in how visual media, which aims at reality and spectacle, has influenced people and society since the modern era.  Phenomena occurring through visual media such as propaganda; possessive desires substituted with images; creating self-images by showing daily life; surveillance and accusation; as well as looking at and being looked at, besides being very important materials for my work, are also questions and forms for my investigations.

JM: I understand that the connection you have with your process is involved and intense, and the outcomes of your recent works especially can be defined as sculptural. I am interested in how your knowledge of the phenomenology of making images has influenced what kinds of pictures you take and how composing these object/images occurs or happens in your work.

NC: Sometimes an artist has a unified form in his artworks, but I consider different forms on different artworks to find the most suitable method. Photography is a means of making objects into images, and in that sense, it is a kind of collection. My work is not reciting the collected images, but reconstructing collected objects into materials that express my thoughts on the subject. If the form of my earlier works were based on taking the several pictures of the action and recombining them, my recent works are photographs of constructions composed with humans and objects. Though you can see a massive change in the structural form and process of my work, the only difference between these series is whether the completed image is a combination of images, or a construction of objects, in they are made with the same intentional cut and paste, and are not any coincidental record of objects arranged by someone else. In Modern Girl series, I chose to mix the images to show the homogeneity and overlapping time in the most suitable way, and in The Day, I used staging to emphasize the theatrical acts of the various holidays. The difference between the two is that I wanted a more materialistic experience for the process of The Day. Through working on the various anniversaries I mimicked the rituals of those preparing the events, as well as the financial outlay and time spent visiting markets selecting, smelling and tasting the food, and the emptiness of discarding the used objects (like photographs). The exhibition didn’t include the records of the installation process or the actual structures, but this practice was very helpful to understand this anniversary culture. Additionally, the reason I chose the photographs over the installations for exhibition, was to fix the viewpoint, size, the expression of texture and color, the posture of the figure, etc., to match my intentions.

When I planned the work, I consider the capacity of the machine and the system’s manufacturing capabilities to determine the shape, size and details for each image. For example, in The Day series, I divided the structure into sections and took pictures of each; then recombined the images seamlessly to show the details of each object spectacularly. With this method, I also intended to draw a microscopic confusion between the distance that the eye recognizes and the actual distance to make the audience feel dizzy, like they are participating in an exorcism.

JM: Your works especially the Modern Girl series reflects awareness of consumer culture and its impact on images of women. Can you address how your constructions of objectification are critical of limits on personal freedom, as opposed to one informed by feminism?

NC: The reason I chose the female figure to project modernity and the people who live in, “the modern girl,” rather than “modern people” or “modern boy,” was to compare the empire to the male, and the colony and the imitating person to the female, and not to look at from the feminist view.

My work, Modern Girl obviously has multiple meanings. In general, the modern girl, especially in the Far East Asia, refers to the women who accepted the new lifestyle of the western urban culture. They embraced the concept of self-realization, which came through westernization, and thereby concentrated on revealing their own personality. Making the New Woman as the roll model, they wanted to raise their status by imitating it.  Modernity, represented in trends (Fox Fur Army, Fancy Movement), taste (Bean Café), choice of ideology (Pot), and capital (I Like Green, Tout of Mr. Charlie) are still applied in today’s society as an inheritance.* To mention the difference, the people from the early 20th century had a conflict between the given life from the traditional society and the modern life from the western world, but contemporary people have to live the life of constant choices to fit in the flow of fast and forceful changes. The character of Modern Girl series is the modern girl of the modern time, and at the same time, she overlaps with my experience, a contemporary person in this society.

JM: Your works 0303 and 0505 series signify a deep dissatisfaction with Korean culture. They are both highly stylized and layered with symbolism. Do you intend them to be seen as critiques?

NC: My critical view on the world comes from the order and system, which the human created for surviving and breeding, are violent, selfish and greedy, and the uneasy feeling of admitting that I am in the system and also carry that attributes, rather than the self-awareness that the human being exists as a vulgar and stupid expendable for the production and consumption in the consumerist society. With The Day series, I wanted to say that every ceremony and event, including anniversaries, are staged opportunities to express utmost desire within the rules and system created by human beings, only I show them in a transformed structure.

JM:  Can you talk about your concealed identity, or rather your public persona? And how you position that self in the work?

NC: The recognition and meaning is the most essential question of my works. Naming is an action to define a meaning, and in that action, the system, hegemony of the knowledge and public opinion are in the position to name, divide and organize the notions, and the object can be anything that the human recognizes, including a thing or a person to the abstract things like the time and the concept. Till now, my works are the results of posing the questions on the given name, from the point of the object which is named, divided, organized and formalized.

When the name and face function to distinguish and recognize the existence, choosing not to use the real name is a denial to the role which is passively given, and an act of narcissism to actively define the self. What is the real name? Why people try to reveal it as though it is the essence of him? We all are born without names. The name is a tag that the society gave us to distinguish, and a mark of the blood relation. By using a name that cannot prove the identity, I intentionally reveal that I am hiding behind anonymity, or a mask. And I want to remain in the fluid status that I can run to another name (a different identity) whenever I want.

I try to manage the whole working process by myself, because I want the work to be mine as a whole. The reason I act as a subject in the work is from this intention. In this way, the person who can best perform a director’s intentions is the director. But more importantly, I do not want to escape from the uneasy place of criticism through the work. I do not want to make somebody else the subject. The person in the work can be me, who proposes the problem, you, who watches it, or somebody else. So, I call the subject in the image Nanda, or that person, rather than me.

* Titles in parentheses are names of Nanda Choo’s artworks.