Published in Panhandler Issue 4
Born in Seoul, Korea, Youngsuk Suh moved to the United States in 1994 to study photography. He received his BFA at Pratt Institute and his MFA at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. He had solo exhibitions with Clifford Smith Gallery, Boston, Jane Deering Gallery, Gloucester and Gallery ON, Seoul, Korea. In 2008 he was invited to Seoul International Photography Festival. His photographs are collected in Santa Barbara Museum of Arts, Iron Museum in Korea, Fidelity Investment Collection, and Wellington Management Collection. He has been Assistant Professor of Photography at University of California, Davis since 2006. He is currently working on the second part of the “Wildfires” project on prescribed fires in public lands.
The “Wildfire” series was initially started by my need to revisit and reevaluate some of the subjects explored in my earlier “Instant Traveler” project. The common thread running through the two projects is my perception of nature as a highly engineered and civilized institution. Through the images in the “Instant Traveler” series I intended to contemplate on the failure of the familiar nature-culture dichotomy. The human struggle to tame the ‘untamable’ has historically been rendered as a heroic victory of our civilization and brought us the concept of management in our relationship with natural environments. What used to be wilderness became remote memories petrified in national parks, the primary subject of the “Instant Traveler” series.
Wildfire and fire management are another aspect of the same interest. Despite the media saturated rendering of wildfire as a destructive force and firefighters as heroic individuals protecting our civilization, the modern firefighting has become a highly complex web of activities involving numerous government and private organizations. My interest, however, is in the position of individuals, often found in the fringe of this colossal system of ‘nature-management’. No matter how marginalized it seems, the desire of the individual subject is the primary focus of the new series.
It is the ‘anxious desire’ that drives us to nature, in which the desire to be ‘in nature’ is continuously prolonged of its fulfillment. Individual encounter of nature is often accompanied by illusoriness that perpetually defers the concrete experience. The smoke in many of the photographs mediates this very anxiety. It is the shapeless nature that we encounter in the thick smoke of our own anxiety. I am attracted and feared simultaneously by this airborne beauty.
The luminous tones and colors of the photographs are used ironically. Modeled after the 19th century American painters such as Bierstadt and Gifford, the picturesque sunset is enhanced by the haze of the smoke from a nearby fire. Like honeybees that are numbed by smoke before harvesting of honey, fire burns through the history of the representation of nature and tranquilize our senses. The romantic tradition also tells me that nature is as much an invention of the modernity as history.
The mundaneness that I depict in many images in this series also denotes a characteristic aspect of the modern fire management and disaster management at large. It is the result of a sophisticated social engineering that is aimed at total control of public psyche, which is achieved by careful control of the visibility of any disastrous events. Individuals are often ‘protected’ from the direct contact and left with mediated images seen on TV and newspapers. One’s own sense of threat is replaced by the color-coded ratings determined by the authority. Once this process is established, the wildfires are no longer a threat in a real sense. The thick smoke seems to transform the real event into a remote memory.