Self-portrait as a man-love
oil on canvas, 120x100cm
Narcissus in front of a digital camera - self-portraits of Ung-Pil Byen
A generation that uses digital camera as if it was part of body, is familiar with one's own features. On the street, in a café, or even in a lecture room he/she is addicted to taking pictures of his/her own face. Not unlike the enthusiasm and the rapture of a child who's given a new toy. Series of self-portraits of Ung-Pil Byen, painted after his own images taken pictures in various poses in front of digital camera, seem on the same line of this tendency and sentiment.
Traditional self-portrait before the advent of photography used to be, of course, a representation of an image reflected on a mirror. Digital camera, however, is not simply snapshotting but also mirroring, in the literal sense of the term, one's own image: it captures one's images on a confronting viewfinder like a mirror so that allows us to check the taken image on the spot and to choose to take or reject it. Differences between the self-portrait of the digital age and the one produced earlier emerge, in the first place, on this condition. The odd circulation of objectifying oneself in front of one's own gaze, records of this autistic play make the path of so-called self-camera. In that we joy like an infant who, for the first time in its life, synthesizes its own image on front of a mirror.
In a series of self-portraits the artist appears to pinch and distort his face verging on self-injury, which evokes a certain video work by Bruce Nauman in early 90's. As if those poses confirm his existence, the level of the violence on the face keeps rising to such an extent to bring into play things like string or tape. Nevertheless what is ironic is that the image we are looking at, the original of the painting is by birth a simulacra, a digital image. Of course there is no such a thing like a self-portrait painted after the real. But especially in this case, we have several good reasons for suggesting that the presence of the camera and importance of the very digital image are decisive. Firstly there were works among his earlier canvases in which the gaze looking into a camera lens -not a mirror- is emphasized. Secondly such an image is doubled, but reversed, and paired with the original one as two mirror images: infinitely reproducible and manipulable digital images. Moreover the way his immensely magnified faces are painted layer upon layer with horizontal strokes like contour, reflects the pixel smear observed often when a digital image is magnified. In short, what is reflected in these images is not only the gaze of the artist but also, and even more strongly, the gaze of a machine, camera. It must come under this case that the medium and form of expression dominate the contents of the expression.
No less interesting point lies in those self-portraits where the artist is pushing his face onto a surface of canvas, or a mirror in the picture. This type of paintings seems to show us the fate of an image faced up to the never-penetrable ontological field of painting. The surface of canvas as the last impossible distance, or the eternal border between us and the image under our very nose is being visualized as the visible/invisible mirror in the picture. Thus the painter bumps against the plane by destiny.
Narcissus did not come to die because he accidentally fell into the spring on which he mirrored his face. What he actually could not free himself from is the intoxication with the act of looking at the image of self. The problem these intriguing series of self-portraits of Ung-Pil Byen encounter now, appears also to groping for how to avoid or escape from such an intoxication.
Yookyung Chung(Art History)