Following is the English version of the article translated by the artist


A Deep-Rooted Tree


In Kahn J. Ryu’s work, [a naked body] is in the middle of thick forest, trying to express something. As someone who has transitioned from female to male, Ryu communicates in his photographic work that ‘there exists no essential meaning in the body.’ Editor | Yihyon Park



In Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818), Frankenstein’s work, or ‘The Creature,’ is portrayed as a monster who struggles with his identity. His suffering is attributable to the lack of linear causality which characterizes the monster’s life. Given that he has a body whose parts are taken from multiple corpses, one thus in which life and death coexist, the monster is presumably predestined to confusion. Since Frankenstein was published as an inaugurating work in the field of science fiction, Frankenstein’s monster has been cited as a side effect of [technological advancement], a symbolic figure of hybridity and otherness. Today, human society applies the term ‘monster’ to derogate those individuals ‘who deviate from rules of Nature,’ in attempt to overcome existential anxiety about ‘the outside’ or ‘the unknown world.’ It is in the same line of effort that the monster has become the popular insult of choice for the public to use on the transgender population who by and large entered social discourse in the second half of the 20th century. 


In his work TRANS/PLANT, which was recently on view at the British Museum, London, Ryu enacted the character of Frankenstein’s monster himself. His nude work unfolds against the backdrop of many strange sights in nature, primarily against those trees that proceed with stages of life and death in uncommon ways. And Ryu asks: ‘What may happen when those considered unnatural claim membership in Nature?’ Having transitioned, Ryu describes himself as ‘an artist who is delighted to be a monster that he is, as one face of Nature that he is.’ He finds varying cultural forces at play in his gender experience during childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.  For example, in South Korea, a young man wearing short haircut often brings strangers to the conviction that he must be a drafted soldier[—that personal preference cannot serve as a comprehensible or normal reason to try this hairstyle.] Compared to other cities in China, he noticed there is less expectation of traditional femininity on local women in Shanghai. In the US, Ryu felt each racial group is burdened with unique gender stereotypes. These multifaceted experiences have made it nearly impossible for Ryu to develop coherent identities including gender identity. 


Ryu says he visits mountains when the want of singular root leaves him mentally scattered. One may think he does so to project his envy for [trees, or] those who have a definite sense of belonging. But this feeling is said to have faded over time whence he came across the dead body of a fallen tree in which young trees laid roots. For Ryu, the sense of belonging first and foremost has to do with the body laying roots in itself, [that is, feeling grounded in itself]. Having seen his life mirrored in nature in the form of visual metaphors, Ryu says he could let go of the attachment to and admiration of certain lifestyles he once had. In particular, he finds solace in mangroves and figs, two popular tree species that develop aerial roots. Much like these that lay root in air, [in the obscurity of void], Ryu believes all things and places his path has crossed or will cross are to become his roots.  


Considering his personal background, it must be granted that nudity holds special significance in Ryu’s work. Stripped of the social skin that is clothing, the body may be interpreted in ways far more subject to factors that are born of the given situation, [those that lie outside the individual control.] So at times, Ryu takes photographs with his head plunged in the ground in order to minimize [in the resulting images the marker of] his own subjecthood. He mentions this type of work aspires to capture ‘the challenge of embodiment.’ Whether it is personally crafted or assigned by society, the individual’s self-identity is bound to change. The meaning of his work lies in demonstrating the shared frustration of humanity when transitioning between life stages. Furthermore, Ryu’s work highlights the vicissitudes of life and a wide spectrum of emotions that such [turbulent inconsistencies] attend. Indeed, his distinctive postures seem to materialize the very will to defy any [standardized] thought patterns. Ryu finds that the waves of change upon identity are as unstoppable as the ebb and flow of tides, and proposes that each individual enjoy the surf to one’s utmost efforts. 


His latest series Train of Thought is in the same vein. The idiom ‘train of thought’ often accompanies the verb ‘lose.’ For example, ‘I lost my train of thought’ is commonly delivered when the person forgets the bigger picture of speech [and expresses in mild embarrassment one’s regret over the inability to conclude the talk with major points successfully conveyed.] By the side of abandoned trains, multiple nude bodies lie on the tracks without particular direction or synchronicity in postures, suggesting that [consciousness suffers ill in the absence of concrete orientation]. This series [adds another layer] to Ryu’s main artistic statement that the body bears no essential meaning. With nudity and trees, Ryu clarifies his idea that there is simply no accurate or obvious body. This could hint that there is no one right way of life and that each person has the right to put down roots as one wishes. Following a path laid out by nature, or one enforced by authority, does not always bring about a desirable life. 

© 2020 by KAHN J. RYU