An exhibition by the Korean photographer Ahae at Veletržní Palace seems to perfectly epitomize two of Henry David Thoreau’s Taoist-like paradoxes that the highest condition of art is artlessness and that he who stands stillest will get to the goal first.
“Through My Window,” subtitled “Along the Path of Passing Time and Changing Seasons,” presents a very small selection of the nearly 1 million pictures that Ahae took over the course of two years, almost entirely through a single window of his home in rural South Korea. The display of nearly 80 medium- and large-format prints offers viewers a contemplative stroll through the Korean countryside, and watching the responses of visitors on a late July afternoon, it is a well-appreciated respite from an unusually dreary Prague summer.
Ahae – who in addition to being an exceptionally prolific photographer is also an inventor and entrepreneur, a strong advocate of natural health and a longtime environmental activist – conveys his deep reverence for the natural world that is found in microcosm right in his own backyard. He rejects the paradox of setting off on expensive excursions to exotic locales to photograph wildlife. In keeping with his awareness of the carbon footprint such travel entails, accordingly he did not attend his exhibition opening in Prague, says exhibition assistant Hanka Bělohradská, though one of his sons was present. Ahae may be the ultimate “locavore” photographer.
This exhibition was organized for the artist’s 70th birthday by his children, and there are several details that infuse the exhibition with a personal touch. The calming music piped into the exhibition space – the airy Large Hall on Veletržní Palace’s ground floor – alternates Asian with European Baroque classical music and was mixed by the artist’s son. As viewers exit the exhibition, they are offered a cup of delicious organic tea, Ahae’s personal blend, grown on tea plantations he supervises in South Korea.
Then there are the images themselves. With sustained sensitive observation and Zen-like concentration, Ahae captures the world outside his window – deer, birds, trees, water and clouds – at all times of year and under a variety of light conditions. Nothing feels rushed, and he exhibits a well-honed instinct for when to press the shutter. There is little high drama in the images, but numerous shots are sublime in their simplicity.
There are multiple images of a family of Chinese water deer that regularly visit the photographer’s land, shown leaping, drinking from a pond and looking toward the camera’s long lens. There are many photographs of birds, perched solitarily and in flight: Chinese sparrowhawks, black-naped orioles, Eurasian jays, spot-billed ducks. A flock of magpies is like a musical partitura, while a lone egret in flight is like a tablature for solo instrument. A touch of humor is added by a couple of shots of birds releasing their droppings midflight: A gray heron trails a tendril of excrement behind it that looks like a slender white snake in pursuit.
There is a remarkable image of another gray heron stretching up on its toes as if in the midst of performing its daily Qigong exercises. Another beautiful shot captures dragonflies mating above a pond with a splash of colorful leaves floating on the water’s surface and also echoed in muted hues under the water.
Like Monet in his garden, Ahae observes maple trees through their seasonal changes, from a stark bareness in early spring to a cloak of autumn color to snow-laden branches hiding behind confetti of snow. Elsewhere, a shot of pond weed presents a symphony of greens; morphing clouds march across the changing sky.
There is a pervading sense of the here and now in these photos, a challenge for all – even confirmed urbanites – to closely observe the world around them, whether from the balcony of a concrete high-rise, a patio in a cottage garden or in some woods outside the city.
Traveling exhibitions of this type – beautifully produced photographs of the natural world with an environmental plea, have become increasingly popular in cities throughout the world. In Prague, Kampa Island hosted an open-air display of Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s show “Earth From Above” in 2004 – more than 100 astonishing shots of locations around the world photographed from a helicopter or hot-air balloon – and his show of animal photography “Alive” was held outdoors on náměstí Republiky in 2008.
This exhibition differs in several respects. Installed indoors with diffused lighting and atmospheric music rather than amid the bustle and babble of the center of Prague, it presents a microcosmic view of a remote point on the map, yet challenges audiences to contemplate the common beauty right under our noses.
This traveling exhibition debuted in New York’s Grand Central Terminal, a synonym for urban clamor, and concurrently with its Prague stop there is a short-term show in the gardens of Clarence House in London, the residence of pro-environment Prince Charles; in September the show moves on to the Vremena Goda (Four Seasons) luxury shopping and entertainment complex in Moscow, aside from its name an incongruous venue for this show. But perhaps Grand Central and Vremena Goda are where Ahae’s photography can do the most good.
This distillation of more than 1 million clicks of the shutter – more than 11 days worth of time just pressing the button apart from the countless weeks and months of focused looking – exudes a cocooning atmosphere of calm. Visitors will likely leave this exhibition with their senses of observation sharpened, and probably with their blood pressure a few points lower.
By Mimi Fronczak Rogers
Prague Post August 10, 2011