CULTURE- ART FEATURE- Salt of the earth: Young Kim's sacred elements


If you've walked by Second Street Gallery recently, its papered-over windows may have fooled you into thinking the gallery is closed. The obscured glass, however, is not meant to keep viewers out; rather, it's to allow viewers to fully experience Young Kim's current installation, "Elemental."

Stepping off Water Street into the darkened confines of SSG is like moving from the mundane world into sacred space. People automatically shift to hushed whispers as they walk among Kim's 10 symmetrically arranged 3' x 6' rectangles of white salt rising a few inches from the gallery's grey concrete floor. In the top third of each rectangle, an oversized photographic image of a face appears to lie in repose, illuminated from above by lamps that brighten and dim 365 times a day. At the bottom of the rectangle, a small white bowl holds a substance— water, oil, match heads, etc.— tied to a Biblical list of 10 elements essential for life.

Kim intends this somber installation to be, among other things, a "portrait of Charlottesville." He created the earthen faces on the sarcophagus-like mounds by sifting red clay through detailed stencils made from photographs of random people he met on the Downtown Mall. The eerie yet peaceful results look almost as if each face is surfacing from beneath the salt. (No word on how the living subjects feel about Kim's elision of meditation, sleep, and death in their portraits.)

In fact, the images are barely there, just a superficial dusting so light and fragile that Kim means for them to visually decompose over the course of the exhibition. Fascinated by this embodiment of transience and memory within the work, I waited a few weeks to write about Kim's installation in order to witness its transformation. 

Alas– or fortunately– not much changed between my first viewing at SSG's members' preview and my second visit two weeks later. Yes, the piece's pristine edges had been poked and prodded by the curious, and liquids had evaporated from the bowls, but– with the exception of one portrait stumbled through by a tipsy SSG board member the first night (no kidding)– the integrity of the images remains intact. Even the recent power-cutting windstorm seems to have stayed outside the gallery's walls.

Nevertheless, Kim's fascinating piece, overflowing with religious symbolism, will ultimately demonstrate earthly impermanence when it's swept away, like a Tibetan sand mandala, at the end of the month.

 Young Kim's installation, "Elemental," is on view at Second Street Gallery through March 1. 115 Second St. SE (in the Charlottesville City Center for the Arts). 977-7284.