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Empty Quest

Some Reflections On Traveling Though Chul-Hyun Ahn's Uncomfortable Endlessness

Chul-Hyun Ahn's "Mu Rung Do Won (Infinite Garden)."

By Bret McCabe | Posted 10/8/2008

Chul-Hyun Ahn: Visual Echoes

C. Grimaldis Gallery through Oct. 18

Don't worry if Chul-Hyun Ahn's "Infinity - Pattern" makes you think of a really bitching Camaro with a well-used copy of AC/DC's T.N.T. already cued up in the tape deck. This wall-mounted, black-light box contains inkblot-like splotches of lava lamp pinks, radioactive greens, and Tron blues that, due to Ahn's impeccable box construction of mirrors and two-way mirrors, creates the optical illusions of extending to infinity this kaleidoscope of pinwheeling, glow-in-the-dark designs. The colors evoke velvet paintings, the designs evoke various generations of two-dimensional trompe l'oeil effects, and the neon black light supplies its computer-monitor-at-night glow. You could imagine Dan Flavin standing in front of "Infinity - Pattern" and putting a serious hurting on a family-sized bag of potato chips if he happened to be fond of smoking acres of reefer.

Much more is at play in Ahn's work, however, than mere optical illusions and considerations of the unfathomable. His pristine, carefully honed constructions are disturbingly reflective works, imagery that sparks a mental journey that leads to a place that feels cold, artificial, and inhospitable.

It may take a while to get there, though, as the 13 Ahn works here are so visually daft. His dexterity with creating the illusion of infinity is both seductive and playful. Ahn's floor-installed "Tunnel," which was included in this past summer's Grimaldis @ 405 exhibition, convincingly suggests a cinder block-lined passageway to the other side of the globe. A work that splashes a circle against lines--the woozy "Visual Echo Experiment - Stripes"--successfully conveys a sense of the beyond, implying a sci-fi mental journey through time and space, like the streaking imagery toward the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Elsewhere, Ahn creates that mirthful vertigo of first-person point-of-view movie footage in "Roller Coaster #1" and "Roller Coaster #2." A configuration of plywood dowels creates the roller-coaster track, and Ahn's mirror placement creates the illusion of said track extending out forever.

"Visual Echo Experiment - Coordinates" and "Visual Echo Experiment - Star-dust," however, calibrate the brain to Ahn's mission much more accurately. Both could be read as representations of some cosmos: "Coordinates" is a formally organized latticework structure of green lights extending to infinity that recalls molecular organizations; "Star-dust" is a randomized scattering of green dot particles extending to infinity that recalls various representations of deep space. Both are journeys into what the human eye can't see on its own, on scales the human mind can only hypothesize, not quantifiably measurable or directly observable.

It's important to note that all photographic and digital reproductions of Ahn's work fail to capture their total nature, and not merely in the usual ways that reproductions distort artworks. Ahn's pieces are reflective in both the metaphorical and literal sense of the word: They want to inspire meditative contemplations, but their glass surfaces also capture faint reflections of whoever stands before them, casting a ghost of your reflection onto what you look at every time you gaze at the imagery. It's not a distracting reflection, merely one that puts a shadow of yourself inside these bottomless chasms, inspiring sensations of mounting insignificance.

And maybe you have to obliterate the self to obtain any kind of enlightenment, but it doesn't make even mere hypothetical wanderings of infinity more welcoming. This queasiness is most articulated in Ahn's constructions such as "Branch" and the large "Mu Rung Do Won (Infinite Garden)," where Ahn positions limbs, plants, mulch, gravel, and branches into a peaceful arrangement that his mirrors extend back forever. Such gardenlike arrangements, on their own, do aim for creating a peaceful, tranquil environment for the human mind to cleanse itself of all thoughts; mirror-multiplied into an endless forest, serenity might turn to anxiety. And "Mu Rung Do Won" is one instance where Ahn's peaceful drift becomes downright intimidating.

This life-size construction feels more like a reptile habitat at a zoo, save one from which the animals have been removed or died off. Instead, you stand there looking at an untouchable, uninhabited natural world that extends so far into the distance you can't see its end. No wind rustles the leaves on the shrubbery. No lizard or bugs or birds crawl up the tree branch jutting out of the left side wall. No sound emanates from any nearby stream or far-off wolf. And your nearly whole-body reflection looks back at you, trapped inside this endless, elegant void.

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