In the interest of full disclosure, I ought to state right up front that Sook Jin is a friend. As she was making the photographs that became Elegy she asked me for technical advice. She gave me a copy of her book.
On to the review, then.
If only I could have many deaths. I would like to try my options. I would like to work up to my everlasting death; for it to be the best death. (How grossly bourgeois.) It would be like trying on a suit; does it fit? Perhaps another style would suit me better. I would like to ease into finality, into forever, into nothingness–absolute, as if I were inching one toe then the next into the ocean. We get no such courtesy. The reaper shoves us headlong into the deep blue black and we are gone. This would seem to me to be a cause for fear. And, I am afraid. It is a distant fear. I am yet young, though youth doesn’t guarantee death’s distance.
The light that falls across Jo Sook Jin’s photographs is austere, hard-edged and sharp. The sun is high. It falls across dilapidated grave markers and rakes the dirt with shadow–like a macabre sun dial. The grave markers hang this way and that. Wooden crosses are split and bleached; stones are broken; concrete crumbles. Plants grow thinly across the golden dirt. Tufts of grass anchor themselves in stone crevices. In the glare of the sun the grave markers are slowly being erased.
Jo Sook Jin does not seem afraid so much as contemplative in photographing these crumbling grave markers in the cemetery on Itaparica off the coast of Brazil. Here Jo spent several residencies making the sculptural installations for which she is known as well as photographing in the graveyard. Her approach with the camera is an extension of her artistic process. Elegy is as composed of found objects as any of her physical sculptures are. Her process of discovering and collection remains intact. The sequencing of the book is much like the stacking and interlocking through which she constructs her sculptures.
In her statement at the end of the book, Jo writes that she was drawn to the “somber beauty” of the disappearing wooden grave markers. In them and the dirt she feels peoples’ presences: “…not only those who were buried but also those who had buried them. They might be in a different time and space than me but it was as if I knew them. And so I traveled in a different time.”
As a reader, I’m not sure I feel like I’m traveling to a different time, but I’m certainly put into an appropriately contemplative mood. At the beginning of her statement Jo notes a line she found in a cathedral in Salvador, Brazil: “It is a true philosophy to meditate on death” which she mirrors at the end of the statement by quoting an old saying: “We come from the earth and go back to the earth.” The photographs contain both the marker and the abode of death.
Rather than a lament to the dead, Elegy becomes a catalyst of philosophic introspection. In feeling the presence of those who have passed and those who have mourned, Jo connects us to the inevitable flow of humanity. Elegy invites us to meditate on those who are lost to us and that we too will eventually pass on.
Sook Jin Jo
Essay: Richard Vine
Noonbit Publishing Co.