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Atta Kim’s Long-Exposure Photographs, Real Time Is the Most Surreal of All

there is the Buddhist belief in cosmic interconnection, that all things are linked to, are part of, all other things.

In the Korean photographer Atta Kim’s eight-hour photograph of the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, the buildings are crisp and life is just a shadow.

In the "Sex Series" (2003), part of the "On-Air" exhibition, a couple making love was photographed for one hour

In Atta Kim’s Long-Exposure Photographs, Real Time Is the Most Surreal of All

Every day, hundreds of tourists snap photographs of a crowd- and car-jammed Times Square. The average picture takes — what? — 15 seconds to shoot? The same picture of the same place takes the Korean photographer Atta Kim eight hours. And his Times Square ends up with only an eerie trace of a human presence, like a deserted movie set. 

Other pictures by Mr. Kim, who is making an outstanding New York solo debut in a show titled “Atta Kim: On-Air” at the International Center of Photography, have required less time. A photograph of a soccer game: two hours. Of a couple having sex: one hour. Still others go way beyond the eight-hour mark. “Monologue of Ice,” with its mysterious lozenge of pollen-yellow light hovering in the dark, is the product of a marathon 25-hour shoot.

And what is that picture of? A block of ice melting. Mr. Kim put the ice in a room and left the lens of his camera open to record the process of physical change as a solid form returned to fluid. Naturally, the transformation was slow. But who would have guessed that it would be so spectacularly photogenic — molten-looking and radiant?

Many of the large-format photographs in Mr. Kim’s show were made over time. His is an art of duration and of simultaneity. When he leaves his lens open for an hour on a couple making love, every movement made in that hour is in the picture, though condensed into an explosive blur. His view of Times Square leaves all the stationary elements — buildings and such — in crisp focus, but reduces traffic to a shimmering haze, a ghost of motion. Other famous New York intersections get the same treatment.

This technique is old. Early-19th-century pioneers of photography experimented with it. So do contemporary artists like Hiroshi Sugimoto, in his well-known shots of movie-house interiors taken while full-length films are in progress. What Mr. Kim brings to the tradition are new subjects — live-model Buddhist sculptures, for example — and dramatically extended temporal parameters, to create ever more complex compressions and layerings of time.

He has similarly pushed the boundaries in his extreme elaboration of a second traditional method of image-layering, one associated with double or multiple exposures. In several series of pictures Mr. Kim overlays different, semitransparent pictures of human figures, one on top of another, using digital editing. He piles up anywhere from a dozen to a hundred separate images to create a single composite picture, at once singular and multiple.

But while digitally savvy, Mr. Kim’s work is more distinctive for its ideas than for its technology. Born in South Korea in 1956, he earned a degree in mechanical engineering, but his interests were, and still are, literature and philosophy. He considers Heidegger’s speculations on time an important early influence, along with the teachings of the mystic G. I. Gurdjieff (which also shaped the work of the American photographer Minor White). Most important of all is Zen Buddhist thinking, although this thread has been fully apparent only in the last few years.

Mr. Kim’s earliest photographs were of patients in a Korean psychiatric hospital whom he shot during long, immersive, interactive sessions in the 1980’s. In the early 1990’s he created a series of cinematic performance-based pictures of nude models lying, as if asleep or dead, in desolate landscapes. The scenes looked like the aftermath of a catastrophe, but the bodies were meant to signify dormant new life.

His first New York appearance was in 2002 in the large group show “Translated Acts: Body and Performance Art From East Asia,” at the Queens Museum of Art. There he showed selections from “The Museum Project” (1995-2002), which remains his best-known body of work. (Excerpts from it are on view at Yossi Milo Gallery, 525 West 25th Street, Chelsea, through Aug. 25.)

That series centered on a single visual motif: one or more figures encased, as if on display, within a museum-style plexiglass vitrine. In the earliest pictures the figures were nude, often crouched in fetal position. Some of the vitrines were actually placed and shot in museums, others in natural settings or on city streets and in public buildings at off hours. The pictures that resulted were effective: quiet, miminalist, mildly surreal. They placed bare bodies where they would not otherwise be found, but also made the bodies as untouchably inorganic as antique sculptures in a gallery or expensive machines in a showroom.

Mr. Kim varied his basic format in several subseries to create what he referred to as his own private museum of cultural and emotional subjects. One series offered a compendium of Korean “types”: families, artists, workers and so on. Another was composed of erotic couples.

More interesting were a group of portraits of maimed and wounded Korean War veterans, and a “Holocaust Series” in which models lay in heaps or hung from racks like slaughtered animals. Then, in a radical shift in tone, came the “Nirvana Series,” shot largely in Buddhist temples or in outdoor settings with nude models, including young priests and nuns, posed as bodhisattvas and tantric deities.

“The Museum Project” was an ambitious venture. Parts of it were strikingly successful, though certain images bordered, intentionally or otherwise, on kitsch. This was especially true of the “Jesus Series” (2002), which had punkish young models chained to plexiglass crosses and wired with intravenous drips. I surmised that AIDS was a possible subject but wondered where Mr. Kim’s unsettled work might be heading.

As “On-Air” demonstrates, it was headed in a direction far less obviously theatrical. In the work in this New York solo show, organized by Christopher Phillips, narrative and overt symbolism are played down. Where “The Museum Project” often graphically illustrated ideas — of preservation and decay, corporality and spirituality — the new pictures subtly embody them.

And although Mr. Kim is careful to assert that he is not a practicing Buddhist, core Buddhist concepts shape the new work. One is the notion that change, or transience, is the only concrete reality, and that time as a quantifiable, linear entity is a mirage. All time and no time are the same. A couple making love for an hour is a cloud of luminosity.

Then there is the Buddhist belief in cosmic interconnection, that all things are linked to, are part of, all other things. In a series titled “Self-Portrait” Mr. Kim layers head shots of 100 Korean men to create one “Korean” face.

In a studio-made re-enactment of Leonardo’s “Last Supper,” the figures of 13 different models, each holding the appropriate pose, are combined to form the 13 figures in the scene. Thus, by implication, Jesus is also Judas.

Again, Mr. Kim’s use of such photographic techniques is not in itself novel, but the philosophical shape of his work is. And it is clearest in his most straightforward pictures. His “Portrait of Mao” (2006) series involves no layering or time compression, but consists of a sequence of still shots. In the first we see a lifelike bust of the Chinese leader carved in ice. In the second the bust has grown abstract through melting. In the third it is as smooth, attenuated and abstract as a Brancusi sculpture.

And in a similar series, “Portrait of Atta,” not in the New York show, the artist records his own features carved in ice undergoing a similar transformation. The sequence is a perfect, step-by-step Buddhist image of time passing and an ego disappearing, a process that some of Mr. Kim’s other recent pictures turn into mandalas of layered light.

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