The Palace of Versailles may seem a grand place in which to exhibit some photographs of a small plot of land in the middle of a Korean forest. But the Korean artist Ahae (as he is simply known) wants to dignify the trees, birds, rabbits, clouds, bushes, deer and snakes that live in his garden by showing his pictures of them in one of the smartest venues on earth.
Ahae is a 72-year-old billionaire who made his money from inventing a diverse range of products, from paper-like soap to a type of barge. Over the past four years he has taken some 2.6m photographs of the view from the study window in his disused aircraft hangar home, an hour’s drive from Seoul. Some 220 of them make up The Extraordinary within the Ordinary, an exhibition with a message.
The images are arranged down the magnificent aisle of the Orangerie, lit by vast arched windows. It is divided loosely into topics; there is one section devoted to birds, another to the ponds, a third to the moon, others to water and deer. The section on the sun has at its centre a large Bernini sculpture of Louis XIV; the Sun King looks still more resplendent surrounded by photographs of huge white, orange and vermilion orbs.
The scene that is the subject of Ahae’s images looks, on the face of it, pretty unremarkable. A couple of murky ponds sit in a field which backs on to a fairly uninteresting looking wood. But such is the focus of Ahae’s gaze that the viewer comes to know the fauna on the patch – from the fierce great tits who stare defiantly into the camera to the thuggish magpies and the beleaguered egrets and herons who bow to assaults by their neighbours like ageing professors hounded by skinheads.
There are the grasses and trees, too. A row of maple bushes changes from white to green to red as the year turns; foxtail grass nods its heads like drowsy caterpillars in summer, but turns thin and frail by winter.
Ahae is no normal eco-warrior: to accompany his show there is no pamphlet about sustainability, bio-ethics or the rising toll of lost species. He simply presents us with what we have now and, by implication, what we may soon not have if we continue bulldozing the countryside to build houses and factories and living the way we do.
In the past couple of years, the artist has taken his silent campaign around the world, exhibiting his photos in venues including the Louvre, Grand Central Station in New York and Clarence House in London. He refuses to be interviewed about his work, or even to attend his exhibitions, leaving his son Keith Yoo – who curated the show and printed many of the pictures – to explain what he is doing.
“This exhibition is a silent warning about global warming and our mentality,” says Yoo. “In the same way as developing wrinkles on your face is a tiny process that occurs daily and so you don’t see it going on – we don’t notice what is happening in our gardens.”
As you enter the show, you are faced with four light boxes showing the effects of changing seasons on Ahae’s land. “Korea has traditionally had four very distinct seasons but over the last few years winter and summer have become longer,” says Yoo.
There are shots of the smashed ice on the ponds that, grey and angular, look like the waves in Paul Nash’s painting “Totes Meer” (Dead Sea, 1940-41), while the same scene in summer has the turquoise and yellow blobs of a Monet. One picture of the ponds in the evening makes them look like oil wells – black and sinister – whereas in another, reflecting a sunset, they appear to be on fire. His pictures of clouds range from a single feathery cirrus in a cerulean sky to ones of full Tintoretto-esque majesty, with soaring cumuli pierced by sunbeams.
Ahae has not missed a single day since the project began. He uses 40 cameras, which he changes depending on the subject and fluctuations in light, but without filters, flash or artificial lighting – or even a tripod. The naturally dim lighting in some of the prints gives them a melancholy, elegiac edge. Others, like a picture of a heron poking its head tentatively over a bush like an old lady, are almost comic.
And the message is always clear. “A photograph does not speak,” writes Yoo in the catalogue. “Neither do the subjects within them raise their voices. Yet, as Ahae’s works pass through our eyes and into our minds, we hear the cry of the natural world.”
‘The Extraordinary within the Ordinary’, Palace of Versailles, France, to September 9, www.chateauversailles.fr
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