April 2-August 7, 2022
Jin Lee’s photographic body of work deliberately lends itself to misunderstanding. It would be tempting to explain it via the trite art-historical cliché that the artist elevates the mundane. The problem with this lazy approach lies in the hierarchization of the world that it implies. Over a century and a half ago, the Realists and the Impressionists had already taught us that everyday life matters just as much as, if not more than, grand events such as the battles and coronations that we read about in history books.
The French knew a thing or two about the power of the working classes and the impact of their rebelliousness. Their discontent arose from the daily grind of Parisian streets, the deafening noise of steam-powered factories, and the relentless chatter that filled the bars and music halls. They understood that the mundane is never meaningless; rather, it is the restlessly ebullient matter from which our ideas are formed. Only the snobbish aristocracy denigrated the mundane to aggrandize itself and quell the indomitable and unsettling vibrancy of the everyday.
The seemingly banal, the commonplace, and the trivial are the invention of a bored upper class obsessed with elitism, power, and money. The rare, the expensive, and the exuberant became the palliative to the stultifying constrictions of that class’s privilege. Unfortunately, our modernist aspirations led us to inherit this malaise. In reaction to this dazzlement by the sublime, this enthrallment by the unique, “reclaiming the banal” is a political form of cultural rebellion. In the everyday always lies the germ of a cultural revolution—an opportunity to reconsider the value of all things around us from a personal perspective, to write our own mythologies, and once again to enrich our impoverished world beyond the capitalist drives that far too often define what is worth and what isn’t in our lives. Jin Lee’s photographs at the Chicago Cultural Center are a portentous example of this vital cultural reclamation process.
On show in the exhibition Views and Scenes are four bodies of work that closely examine landscapes and built environments around Chicago. Lee deliberately avoids the tourist attractions and local landmarks—the Chicago that she portrays is unrecognizable. The resulting fragmented urban portraits are deeply personal and yet simultaneously grounded in the city’s tumultuous past and complicated present. On a surface level, her photographs are factually obvious—they engage with the vernacular of the documentary, they radiate impeccable clarity. But just beneath that surface lies their metaphorical, iconic aura. Mostly, people remain absent, but the social commentary runs deep.
Great Water shows views of Lake Michigan taken from a single location on the South Side of Chicago. At first glance, the series looks like an objective study of water and atmospheric effects, and yet each photograph implicitly refers to the land it omits. The lake is cast as a witness to the vicissitudes of a restless city fighting for social justice and constantly finding itself smothered by financial speculation and political corruption. It is hard not to read these images, at times still and at others simmering, as hermetic portraits of the city’s unconscious.
Salt Mountains brings together photographs of piles and mounds of salt and dirt found in construction and storage sites around Chicago. Simultaneously epic and trivial, these human-made miniature geologies—temporary sedimentations of relentless unnatural, industrial processes—question our conception of the urban landscape within the cityscape. The anthropogenic views are lunar or glacial, arid and desolate, at once remote and near. They poetically question the nature-culture dichotomy, its outdated separatism, and the usefulness of its persistence to how we think about the urban environment.
Weeds is a photographic herbarium of wild plants that grow in alleys and empty lots. Symbols of resilience and strength, Lee’s weeds are pictured against white-painted walls that ironically evoke the purity and scientific objectivity of eighteenth-century botanical illustrations. On one level, these are individual portraits of unsung city survivors—these plants are the antithesis of the lush cultivars that grace The Magnificent Mile in the summer months. On another level, it is hard not to read this series as a commentary on the social disparity that pervades the city.
Lastly, Train View comprises images taken during Lee’s weekly two-hour Amtrak commute between Chicago and Bloomington/Normal. As she notes, the series captures “in-between spaces, not accessible from the streets or highways.” An old prison tower; the limestone quarry where the prisoners once worked; junkyards, graffiti, and self-storage units—this photographic series metaphorically works as an envelope for the others on show. Lee’s photographs question our engagement with changing American social and natural landscapes—and, in the process, they redefine the very notion of what landscape might be and what roles we might play within it.