Photographer Ahae Adds to South Korea’s Cultural Revolution

Actually—and without even mentioning the established international success of the Lee Ufans and Nam June Paiks of the world—it’s been a banner few weeks for art in South Korea: First this guy assembled a functional satellite, for the equivalent of $500, basically in his basement, and will be launching it into space in the name of Achieving One’s Artistic Dreams. Then underground hip-hop artist PSY released what is, seriously, the best summer video. Ever. Now, septuagenarian businessman-turned-amateur-photographer Ahae is doing his bit for the Land of the Morning Calm. Having previously soothed viewers in New York, London, and Prague, his one-man show, Through My Window, has alighted in a purpose-built pavilion in the Tuileries Gardens, adjacent to the Louvre—the first such structure ever allowed there—where it will be on view through August 26th.
The selection in Paris has been culled from over two million photos, shot over the course of three years as part of Ahae’s effort to document the evolving sliver of natural grace that flew, hopped, and trotted its way past his studio window in the South Korean countryside: swanning herons, leggy deer, lapping waterfowl, maple trees in autumn, and shivering ponds of speckled blues and greens that recall Monet’s Water Lilies, coincidentally a stone’s throw away at the Orangerie. The images are serene and contemplative but also super-crisp, hyper-realist, über-detailed, and totally un-retouched, like visual haiku courtesy of David Bellamy. The subject matter’s initial preciousness is blunted by the archivist’s technical exactitude, the scientist’s insistence on reality, and the dreamer’s belief that he can make a difference.

Ahae is an entrepreneur, inventor, designer, environmental activist, Taekwondo black-belt, exercise guru, painter, sculptor, poet, and photographer. He owns an environmentally-friendly multinational paint-and-resin conglomerate, two organic tea plantations, and a lavender farm in SoCal; in his free time, he used to design small ships that still cruise the Han River. By his own estimate, he holds over a thousand patents, for everything from home-improvement gizmos to anti-radiation pigments. He might be able to turn lead into gold. But Ahae’s somewhat schizophrenic bio hides a serious commitment to conservation, evidenced through his organic farms, eco-friendly businesses, and wildlife protection efforts. This sincerity elevates Through My Window far above the dabblings of an ADHD tycoon with several thousand dollars worth of hi-tech toys.

With its literal opening that mimics both the camera’s limited aperture (emphasizing that the slice of life presented here is fragmentary and selective in nature) and the photo’s frame (underscoring the photographer’s actual and metaphorical remove from his subject) Through My Window places Ahae in a rich photographic tradition that stretches from the first print ever, Nicéphore Niépce’s 1826 View From the Window at Le Gras, through Stieglitz’s years-long series of back-window shots from galleries 291 and An American Place. But while Stieglitz shot modernity and the clear passage of time on a constantly evolving urban landscape, Ahae seeks to capture the natural world’s unerring constancy; and where Stieglitz’s work revealed his assimilation of the avant-garde, Ahae seems wholly uninterested in anything that might ever be reported in Artforum.

On the far outer fringe of a contemporary scene actively engaged with social issues and current events, Ahae’s Nat Geo imagery seems anachronistic: it represents the world as it might have been fifty—or 500—years ago. And that, actually, is Ahae’s very timely, super-current, and highly socially engaged point. The spot outside his window doesn’t look terribly different from what it did a century ago not because it’s representative of the world at large, but because it very much isn’t. It looks as it does only because the photographer has spent the last two decades protecting it. His images, then, enact a stillness belied by the rapidly changing ecology their maker seeks to protect.

On the surface, Ahae’s millions of prints sing the obvious and cyclical song of days and seasons, death and rebirth, nature triumphing in all her majesty. But in shooting only the multiplicity of life percolating on a small strip of land he’s spent years shielding and preserving, the Al Gore of the art world highlights a striking contrast with those unprotected lands he doesn’t photograph; in what’s missing, he tells the less obvious and more urgent story of global warming, deforestation, and ecological apocalypse, a story that isn’t cyclical so much as flat-lining—and potentially irreversible.

Through My Window will be on view through August 26th at the Bespoke Exhibition Pavilion at the Jardin des Tuileries;

By Gabriella Fuller
Travel + Leisure August 10, 2012