Art

Contemporary East Asian Photography Through the Lens of Time

The individual visual narratives in Time Frames make up our collective human history.

Kenji Nakahashi, “Time (B)” (1980, printed 1983), The Baltimore Museum of Art, Gift of Erika White, New York, BMA 1983.64 (© Kenji Nakahashi)

BALTIMORE —  Time may just be an illusion, yet humans have the need to mark time in order to make sense of our lives. In Time Frames: Contemporary East Asian Photography at the Baltimore Museum of Art, works by contemporary East Asian photographers explore time through both subject matter and creative processes, as the artists grapple with their cultural and personal histories.

The exhibition highlights around 40 photographic works by Asian American artists and artists from Vietnam, Korea, Japan, and China that are rarely seen in the US. The photographs represent five ways that the featured artists have engaged with the concept of time: through individual and collective experience, reflection, duration and labor, progress and place, and displacement.

“Time (B)” (1980) by Japanese artist Kenji Nakahashi starts off the exhibition on a cheeky note. The photo depicts two alarm clocks on a scale, with the clock at 12:15 heavier than the one at 12:04. Although the imbalance is laughable and impossible, it introduces the indisputable truth that time is subjective.

Lê Van Khoa, “Night” (1974), The Baltimore Museum of Art, Gift of the Artist, BMA 1978.16.1 (© Lê Van Khoa)
Bae Bien-U, “snm5a-012h” (2015), The Baltimore Museum of Art, Julius Levy Memorial Fund, BMA 2015.333 (© Bae Bien-U)
Lê Van Khoa, “Rescue” (1974), The Baltimore Museum of Art, Gift of the Artist, BMA 1978.16.3 (© Lê Van Khoa)

Time’s subjectivity is perfectly embodied in the exhibition’s strongest theme, “Individual and Collective Experience.” “Night” (1974), by Vietnamese-American artist Lê Van Khoa, presents a river scene captured in Vietnam in 1974. But what first seems a serene vignette of domestic contentment, with the fishermen and their families settling in for the night, ultimately serves as a metaphor for a country weary from war. A war refugee, himself, the artist here suggests that the passage into night can feel like an embrace or like an encroachment.

The theme of “reflection” includes images that seek to capture timelessness. Some artists achieve the effect through manipulations of environments. For example, Bae Bien-U’s “snm5a-012h” (2015) portrays a pine forest, created by photographing different parts of the same landscape in various seasons or times of day. Bae symbolically addresses the theme of timelessness with the pine tree, which represents longevity across East Asia. 

Hiroshi Sugimoto, “Arctic Ocean, Nordkapp” (1991), from the series Seascapes. The Baltimore Museum of Art, Gift of Suzanne F. Cohen, Baltimore, BMA 1994.90 (© Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)

This section also boasts a haunting and awe-inspiring image by Hiroshi Sugimoto that focuses on the timelessness of the sea. In “Arctic Ocean, Nordkapp” (1991), Sugimoto used a large-format camera and long exposure to eliminate the sea’s motion to capture the barely perceptible separation between sea and sky at night. The physical proximity of Sugimoto’s nightscape with Lê’s in the previous section — each anchor one side of a shared wall — enhances both works. Whereas the former celebrates nature’s grandeur, the latter captures man’s humility.

Noh Suntag, “Red House No. 01‑13” (2007, printed 2011), from the series Ephemeral. The Baltimore Museum of Art, Gift of Brenda Edelson, Santa Fe, BMA 2018.93 (© Noh Suntag)

As the saying goes, “time flies when you’re having fun.” Conversely, time crawls when you’re bored. The “Duration and Labor” section captures the results of such time spent practicing or performing a task. “Red House No. 01-13” (2007), by South Korean artist Noh Suntag, presents a group of North Korean dancers arrayed in a striking conformity. Alike in appearance, the women are performing a patriotic dance that is intended to project a uniform and orderly society. Although the work is a critique of this level of conformity, Noh manages to humanize the dancers — the variations within each dancer’s posture are little rebellions against the hours of practice that undoubtedly went into this performance.

Masaru Tatsuki‘s image “Tenkamaru in a Tunnel, Tochigi 2005,” from his Decotora series, refers to “Tenkamaru,” the name of the decorated truck in the picture. It represents Japan’s decotora subculture that celebrates transport vehicles by embellishing them with colorful lights. This photograph commemorates the 10 years that the artist spent within the subculture. He explains his involvement in the accompanying text, stating, “it simply takes time to really understand something.”

Masaru Tatsuki, “Tenkamaru in a Tunnel, Tochigi” (2005), from the series Dekotora. The Baltimore Museum of Art, Gift of Brenda Edelson, Santa Fe, BMA 2015.54. (© Masaru Tatsuki)
Yao Lu, “View of Waterfall with Rocks and Pines” (2007), from the series New Landscapes. The Baltimore Museum of Art, Gift of Brenda Edelson, Santa Fe, BMA 2015.52 (© Yao Lu)

Yao Lu’s “View of Waterfall with Rocks and Pines” (2007), in the “Progress and Place” section, exemplifies the oblique criticisms that many Chinese artists have raised about China’s path toward “progress.” This work demands that the viewer look closely: what appears to be a scene of a mist-shrouded mountain, waterfall, and trees — a nod to traditional Chinese landscape painting — is actually a landfill or construction site draped in green mesh, which helps prevent erosion and the spread of harmful dust. As the accompanying text notes, the work poignantly contrasts China’s present endangered environment with its rich artistic past. 

As a refugee myself, I can personally attest to the challenges of making sense of one’s life after forced displacement. A standout work in the exhibition’s final section is “Lost Child 2” (2011) by Kikuji Kawada. A sad-looking child sits alone among layers of dapples and splotches of various colors that blur both the child’s form and the landscape around him. The lone child in this image could have been me, when I left a Thai refugee camp, where I was born, and came to my new home in America. I had no clear memory of my environment then, just impressions of sights and sounds. The layered composition and colors simultaneously and cleverly represents me now, 34 years later, reflecting upon this experience. The artist describes the work’s appearance, resulting from water damage, as “a form of archaeology.” It’s a fitting description for a traumatic experience that requires me, and other refugees, to dig deep, through many layers of filters and memories, to reveal the lost child within.

Kikuji Kawada, “Lost Child 2” (2012, printed 2016), Collection of Brenda Edelson, Santa Fe

Each of the photographs in this exhibition could easily stand on its own. However, the time framework nudged me toward some deeply personal connections to the images, and through them, I feel more connected to the artists than I originally imagined. Perhaps time is an ideal framework for photography, as photography captures the immediacy of a moment. With the profusion of selfies and Instagram snaps in our modern age, this exhibition can inspire us to take advantage of the little cameras in our hands and capture our own personal moments of time. Together, these individual visual narratives make up our collective human history.

Time Frames: Contemporary East Asian Photography, curated by Frances Klapthor, Associate Curator of Asian Art, continues at the Baltimore Museum of Art (10 Art Museum Drive, Baltimore, Maryland) through March 24, 2019.

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