Do You Know What’s Hiding Behind This Smile?

“In intense suffering the world disappears and each of us is alone with his self. Suffering is the university of egocentrism.”  – Milan Kundera, Immortality

Cry Baby

I don’t know about you, but I HATE to cry. I’m that person in the center of a crowded movie theater, gripping the armrests and biting my tongue to hold back tears while rolling my eyes at the Weeping William sitting next to me. With that said, the current exhibition at Show Room definitely took me out of my comfort zone.

As you walk into the immaculate gallery you are immediately confronted by and surrounded with raw emotion: photos of paid actors frozen in time, their faces showing desperation, pain, hunger, joy, hopelessness–pretty much any emotion you can think of in the spectrum of human feeling. By the time you make it to the rear of the showcase you feel as if you are a robot whose system has been overloaded. Artist Ok Hyun Ahn brilliantly takes something as simple as emotion, magnifies it, throws it in your face and makes us all aware of our shared human experience and ineradicable connection.  When you cry; I cry. When I laugh; you smile. This tit for tat and empathetic reaction is a clear sign that although we sometimes worry about the fate of mankind, we are not so far gone. There is still hope.

I care…until the next commercial break

While trying my best to keep my emotions in check and bite back tears, I searched the crowded room for the artist. For some odd reason, I had expected her to be extra flamboyant, colorful and boisterous; as it turns out Ok Hyun Ahn was very reserved, humble and could easily have melded into the wall like one of her photos. However, the moment you spoke to her you were reminded you should never judge a book by its cover. 

While my writing is generally inspired by artwork, I quickly found that Ok Hyun’s artwork is heavily influenced by the groundbreaking novels she has read over the years.  This exhibit itself was inspired by her musings on author Milan Kundera in his book Immortality regarding the term “Homo Sentimentalis.” Ok Hyun softly explained the general premise of this school of thought, “Emotion is the most fundamental thing…pain is the most fundamental feeling.”

It was difficult to even listen to these words. I am no stranger to pain and generally try to mask my painful past and private feelings; however with just these simple words my smile began to die out. I frantically fought to stay in the moment and not drown in my own bleak thoughts. She then went on to explain human empathy. Ok Hyun sounded very much like a scientist or psychiatrist of sorts as she explained our responses to seeing painful depictions on mass media. She herself admitted to seeing such images, feeling a deep sadness, then just moments after they vanished, so were the empathetic impulses. I nodded in agreement and shared my take on this: there were so many instances of global strife and tragic situations that put the worldwide community in an uproar and tugged at our sympathies. Yet the moment the media stopped covering it, these issues were swept under the rug, people forgot, went about their daily lives and yet the problems continue to exist. Apparently there is a time restraint on human empathy, clearly correlated with sensual stimulus.  How sad.

The Sweet Life

One of the most striking aspects of this exhibit (which in itself is like an ocean of emotion) is the section at the rear of the room with a large screen showing two videos; “Ma Non Troppo” (2011) and “Una Furtive” (2012) created by the artist and named after famous Italian musical numbers.  Each work displays actors lip-synching. The one which caught my attention and snagged at something in my soul featured a Korean man lip-synching to African-American jazz singer Nina Simone’s rendition of “Please don’t let me be misunderstood.” There are so many layers hidden within what could initially appear to be a simple act, but isn’t that life? If we move too fast or think too slowly then it is a simple experience. It is when we slow our movements, open our eyes, bare our hearts and share our souls hat life becomes more complex, yes, but tastes all the sweeter.

  • Show Room – Ok Hyun Ahn “Homo Sentimentalis” – January 4, 2013-January 27, 2013

Article by Haajar “Hajee” Johnson