Stills from virtual movies
Ideas on perception and meaning in the work of Kumi Oguro
 By Jan Van Woensel


"Now even, and above all – if – the image is in a certain manner the limit of meaning, it permits the consideration of a veritable ontology of the process of signification.  How does meaning get into the image? Where does it end? And if it ends, what is there beyond?” (1)

Perceiving images is a complex activity. Although we effortlessly absorb hundreds of images daily, often we are hardly aware or even completely unaware of the mental strategies of perception. Contemporary image-dominated culture surrounds us with mainly simple linear structures, relaxing us and pacifying us. Popular movies and TV series project universal codes and collective imagination, serving to unquestioningly consume and erase the complexity of the incoming image. 

What happens if by means of fragmentation or suggestive elements our interpreting abilities become detached from the linear narrative systems such as those seen in traditional movies? What is the beginning or the end of an image, what is the background in front of which it is presented, what is the stage and which connotations enable which stories? Such a cut up storyboard activates a multitude of narratives to the extent that it tests the inventiveness of our thinking faculties. 

By nature we are accustomed to simplify everything into structures, definitions, or compositions in order to obtain proof of recognition, affirmation, and insight. (2) Failure of these cognitive skills doesn’t necessarily mean that chaos is the only remaining alternative. Dispersion and diversity are a form of confusion, a state of continuous movement and development.  

(The indecisiveness of the multiple meaning is characteristic of this post-modern worldview) (3)

From such a perspective the work of Kumi Oguro can be viewed as an existential prolongation of the present distraction; a drive for several scenarios subject to – and created on a basis of – continuous rewriting and reformulating. On the intersection of this process Oguro brings together elements and meanings, which unremittingly lure us into another level through connotations and suggestions. Her images look like stills of a fictitious and nearly un(re)constructible story. This (seeming) absence of a defined origin, the covering narrative and the sole presence of fragments of certain situations lead to a specific feeling of distance and deadlock. Upon first glance, the unidentifiable total concept severs the link between the viewing and observation that we take so much for granted. Through perception and integration we enable ourselves to reconstruct the original image, to contextualize segments of it and by doing so we add our own construction or presentation by means of interpretations and connotations. This proves that our perception more often than not leads to some sort of virtual postproduction based on or instilled by the work of art. This field of interpretation can be called the (apparent) freedom of perception.

(The viewer is actively involved because the narrative structure is revealed as fragmentary and elliptic. And thus the narrative structure allows for multiple interpretations.) (4)

The purposely-suggestive images of Kumi Oguro seem to invite this mental penetration. The situations in which the artist depicts young women simulate forms of manipulation, possession, violence, bondage and boredom, obscured by the subtlety of the reproduction, the use of colour and the composition. Fantasising further on the basis of these staged images reveals the potential perversity of the observation. The still hysteria of the fictitious meta-image as projected by the viewer, the fantasy, actually is the virtual film that comes to life somewhere between the physically present image and a multitude of privately construed imaginary images. (5)  

Angled from this mental movement, Oguro’s art can be experienced as disruptive and freakish. Joining a young generation of artists such as Ye Rin Mok, Alex McQuilkin, Sue de Beer, Alejandro Vidal, Elina Brotherus, Leopold Rabus, Cao Fei and Gunnhildur Hauksdottir, she develops an open, diffuse field in which references to popular culture, perversity, love, violence, frustration, and timelessness originate, but simultaneously refuse to act as autonomous elements. This atelier of the artist evidently is a knot of complex mental processes in which Oguro not primarily searches for the one and only true image, but plays with ways in which this ideal postpones or transforms itself. (6) The sublime image is the continuous process; in motion.  

Jan Van Woensel, Antwerp 2005
(Translated from Dutch)

(1)    La Chambre Claire, Roland Barthes (1980, Camera Lucinda)
(2)    Formulating and deciding such organisations and structures take place both on a small and on a large scale. Laws and rules were made by governments to accommodate the need for organisation in every society. Mandatory officials supervise the observation of this organisation. From: “The World is a Company: We (who) are the producers“(Douglas Fisher, 2003) 
In this context also see the exhibition “Short circuit”, curator Jan Van Woensel, June – July 2005, Amsterdam. 
(3)    From “Zin in Beeld (Sense in image)” Identity and meaning in contemporary films. Editing: Sylvain de Bleeckere. Chapter 3: Explosion of meaning, by Jos De Mul. Term borrowed from Derrida. 
(4)    From “Zin in Beeld (Sense in image)” Identity and meaning in contemporary films. Editing: Sylvain de Bleeckere. Chapter 3: Explosion of meaning, by Jos De Mul.
(5)    In this area the creative process of the perception of the viewer is situated, originally triggered by a first visual stimulus but characterised by possible aberrations, exits, deviations, and wrong tracks.  
(6)    In this context see the video-experiments of Kumi Oguro. 

Jan Van Woensel is professor at the departments of Curatorial Practice and Fine Arts of California College of the Arts in San Francisco, and an independent curator, art critic and lecturer, based in New York City. Van Woensel is the founder and editor-in-chief of New York Magazine of Contemporary Art and Theory. He recently curated the group exhibition Bad Moon Rising 3 at Boots Contemporary Art Space in St. Louis, MO, and he is currently preparing projects for PS1 and the Chelsea Art Museum. He is the curatorial advisor of Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth) and Leah Singer.