Photographer Nina Chung explores hidden traumas through horses, dancers and portraits
The exploration of trauma and abuse through art is not a new concept but one that is still, even in today’s shifting political and cultural climate, a topic that many people tend to shy away from discussing. Shedding light on such realities, and spurring conversations related to this in New London, is photographer Nina Chung, a South Korean native and former New Yorker who moved to the Whaling City last fall after holding a showcase photography exhibition at Marquee Gallery. Before coming to New London, Chung had shown her work around the world, garnering several awards.
Chung, 49, uses her art as a vessel to analyze psychological trauma she endured growing up. She declines to elaborate about those experiences for publication, but says her photography has become a place for her to confront those aspects of her life.
Chung’s experiences in Jungian therapy, a form of analysis that emphasizes the importance of the individual psyche and the personal quest for wholeness, have provided a major influence on her art, bringing an unusual and compelling point of view into her work — some of which can viewed in her current exhibition, “Wind Spirit Speaks,” at Hygienic Art Galleries in New London.
The exhibit, which features composited photographs of horses taken in Stonington and North and South Dakota, with various background images, has acted as a throughway for Chung to explore and express her own inner turmoil. The idea behind these composited images, she says, is to “grip the imagination of the viewer” — a technique she uses to explicitly convey specific emotions relating to trauma, psychological drama and the human psyche.
In one picture, Chung has captured the profile of a striking mare. The photo, a composite of the mare’s face and of a brooding sunset orange sky in the background, elicits a feeling of rage, but also of freedom. The horse, she says, had been abused throughout its life, and the colors used in the photo are meant to express this. In another, the silhouette of a horse with its head bowed is juxtaposed with an image of twisting branches laid over the animal’s body. It represents a complex map of circuits and neuropathways — an allusion to the emotional complexities experienced by those who are victims of systematic abuse.
“This work is a visceral sense of the self-deprecating, horrific feelings of self-destruction. This brings the visceral sensations that I’ve been having internally to the surface. This is, for me, a cellular representation of myself, and a lot of people who have also gone through extreme trauma have reacted to this,” she says. “And on the surface, you can see these feelings through these composites, and that allows you to analyze these emotions in yourself.”
Many of Chung’s other works have also analyzed the darker sides of her psyche. In her series “Cold Breath of Spirit” and “Death Rebirth,” Chung explores the ideas of breathing and asphyxiation (inspired by a near-death drowning experience she had as a child) through photographs of professional dancers twisted into unnatural forms; silk scarves cover their faces, representing a metaphorical suffocation. Her photograph “The Scream,” in particular, plays with a haunting, almost horror-film aesthetic reminiscent of Francis Bacon paintings. But her work also clearly incorporates tendencies towards classical images from the neoclassical, gothic and renaissance eras. Paintings by Théodore Géricault, DaVinci and Baroque painter Caravaggio come to mind as her models’ bodies, with smooth pale complexions, are rendered to look statuesque.
Since moving to New London, Chung has become well known in the art scene and has photographed and formed connections with many of the city’s artists. After working as a commissioned paint portraitist in New York City for most of her career, Chung naturally fell into portrait photography — spurred from an instinct to observe people from a distance.
“I am invisible to myself, I have an invisible complex and a dissociation from my identity. But because of that, I am able to observe people for who they are,” she says. “Portraits are a way for me to observe and psychoanalyze people. In order for you to do a portrait of someone, you really have to observe someone for micro-expressions and shifts, and I always understood that.”
After growing up in Queens, New York, Chung completed her BFA at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts in 1993, with a concentration in classical painting and art history. It wasn’t until, at the age of 40, she started to seriously pursue photography after experiencing a lifechanging moment with Iceland’s wild horses.
Chung had traveled to Iceland to experience the country’s incredible landscape — one that she describes as the “meeting point of fire and ice, a fascinating duality in itself.” It was there she discovered the power and healing capabilities of horses after witnessing a black herd running across a black volcanic landscape “against a raging snowstorm.”
“It looked like a fairy tale scene,” she says. “And that scene was embedded in me because it was so shocking. I felt so many emotions that I hadn’t felt in a long time and I became curious again.”
From there, Chung’s fascination with these animals propelled her into a years-long photo exploration of horses, both in Iceland and in North and South Dakota. She photographed Icelandic horses for 18 months after that first trip, traveling back and forth from New York City. In one instance, Chung witnessed a herd of horses being rounded up and penned for their slaughter. Those photos (which are neither composited or on view in her exhibit but can be requested from Chung over her website) are also visceral, brimming with terror, entrapment and panic.
Alternatively, Chung then traveled to horse sanctuaries where hundreds of horses were living after being saved from slaughter in North and South Dakota. It was there, Chung says, she learned how to gain the trust of these animals — she would wake up at 4 in the morning to be with them, from sunrise to sunset, until they got used to her — and discovered that the horses had also undergone their own forms of abuse over their lives, something she could inherently relate to.
“There is a liberation with horses … and they forced me to get more serious about my photography and work with nature, and deal with my own unpredictable nature,” she says. “That’s what drew me in and kept me in photography. They spoke to that side of me where I realized that the uncontrolled emotions I was feeling from them were also my own emotions.”
If you go
What: "Wind Spirit Speaks" photography by Nina Chung
Where: Hygienic Art Galleries, 79 Bank Street, New London
Hours: 2-7 p.m. Tues.-Fri., 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sat., 12-4 p.m. Sun.
For more information: (860) 443-8001 or visit Nina Chung's websites at Ninachungart.com and Alchemyofspirit.net
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