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Flight, fight, or see
At ODD-KIN, Lucy Kim considers how sight sets our realities
We tend to believe, and draw a thousand assumptions from, what we see, based on a set of societal expectations that may or may not adhere to what we’re actually seeing.
“When I can’t tell if something is dead or dormant, say a tree or a groundhog, it’s because appearance has failed,” writes Lucy Kim in her artists’ statement for “Dead or Dormant,” now up at ODD-KIN in East Providence through July 8. “Life and death are looking alike.”
We need the expectations – they’re life-and-death guidelines. If everything was constantly impossible to pin down, we’d live in chaos. But expectations can calcify to the point where we don’t see anything except our own projections and fears.
In “Dead or Dormant,” Kim disrupts the pat idea that “what you see is what you get.” Using sculptural painting and photographic printmaking, she jimmies open hard-sealed notions not just about what we see, but about who we are.
“Hormomorphy,” a series of paintings on cast resin, conjoins similar forms that have nothing, conceptually, to do with one another. A cast of several fish connects with one of baseball bats (above). Both oblong forms narrow, and when they match up, a bat suggests a fishtail. But Kim doesn’t force the issue; these are not hybrids, just similar. The eye is easily tricked, and the mind is thrown: Are we at Fenway, or the aquarium?
Kim leads us to in-between places of neither one nor the other, but still both. The difference between a fish and a bat is innocuous. We take other distinctions more personally – like who we belong with. Kim makes screenprints of photos using live, genetically modified bacteria from eumelanin, the pigment that colors human skin. The print develops over several days as the cells produce melanin. Because they are alive and reproducing, the image is never really fixed.
In a pair titled “Jon Sleeping” (above), a photo of the artist’s slumbering spouse fuzzes and grows from one to the next. The presumed reality here seems as ephemeral as whatever he may be dreaming. The haze recalls Sally Mann’s photographs of Black men and Civil War battlefields, clouded with emulsion and light – all we cannot see of someone else’s experience, or of history.
Visual art, and photography especially, carries a stamp of reality, but as Mann wrote in her memoir “Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs,” “photographs economize the truth; they are always moments more or less illusorily abducted from time’s continuum.” Time makes events, so crisp in the moment, blurry and elastic.
There’s more than one continuum to consider, as Kim’s images rise and shift and fade. Her video “Time-lapse Test (Hanna)” (top), a portrait of a baby, shows the process. The image darkens and swims; the story it tells moves along continuums of skin colors, understandings of family, of individuation, and of self and other.
Dormant is not dead. It’s rest before growing. There are other options along the life and death continuum – a possum, when faced with a predator, plays dead, freezing in fear, and for safety. We could call it a deepfake. In a time of burgeoning screen time and visual media packed with misinformation, we have to follow the lead Kim spells out in “Dead or Dormant” – looking critically, and embracing difference and uncertainty.
Because, in the end, not being so fixed helps us to be more alive.
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