Shyue Woon, Dark Cities

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2018 by the artist (here) and Invisible Photographer Asia (IPA). Three separate hardcover volumes (Carpark, Capsule, and Euljiro), each with exposed thread binding. Each volume is 96 pages, with various color photographs and black endpapers. Enclosed in a silkscreened folder. In English, Japanese, and Korean. Includes essays by Charmaine Poh, Kevin WY Lee, Kenji Takazawa, and Rachel Ng, and various texts by the artist. Design by Practice Theory. In an edition of 300 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: When a person trained as an architect picks up a camera, it makes complete sense that he or she might be interested in photographing how built spaces function. More than the rest of us, who can be forgiven for missing some of the design and construction details that are found in the everyday structures in our world, architects notice and understand the choices and tradeoffs that were made in built environments, and are better equipped to evaluate whether buildings have done a good job of meeting the obvious needs (and constraints) of both the site and the inhabitants. But beyond these technicalities, it also seems intuitively true that architects should have a deep interest in the more nuanced personalities of built space – how moods change depending on the light and the time of day, how a building subtly controls (or enhances) the behavior of the people that live in it, and how structures age and evolve over time as people use them. In this way, buildings can become venues for imaginative storytelling, the atmospheric rhythms they create open to ongoing interpretation.

Shyue Woon is a working architect as well as a photographer, and his integrated trilogy of photobooks Dark Cities clearly leverages his professional perspective. Lingering in a series of forgettable spaces (a parking lot in Singapore, a residential building in Tokyo, a warren of narrow streets in Seoul), he pays close attention to both physical surfaces and invisible dispositions, creating aggregate photographic portraits that feel like small self-contained vignettes. In each case, he brings us inside and up close, showing us overlooked details, fleeting moments, and formal arrangements that hint at something more complicated (or even more quietly dangerous) than we might have ever imagined.

The first volume Carpark takes us inside an anonymous parking garage at night. Woon’s images are dark and shadowy, the only light coming from glowing fluorescent lights that tint the scenes with seething blues and reds. Most of the photographs encourage us to notice the details we would normally pass by in a transitional non-place like this one – leaky puddles (some with eerie reflections), dried stains (left over from who knows what kind of human encounters), dirty scrapes and footprints across concrete, decaying walls, intensely scratched windows, and unidentifiable dripping goo coming through a ceiling tile. These grimy textures set the stage for a selection of fleeting connections, where people (or ghosts) walk away down lonely tunnels, wait in elevator lobbies, or are glimpsed in stairwells. We voyeuristically peer into cars as they pass below us, and we are in turn watched ourselves by security cameras, telescoping the observations into multiple layers of looking and being seen. But none of these connections ever entirely coalesces, and so the garage echoes with moody emptiness, our minds turning the drag lines across the floor and the scrawled messages on the tile into fantasy murder mysteries and other psychological anxieties. Woon has likened this aggregate portrait to “purgatory” and that characterization seems apt – his photographs deliberately leave us in a zone that encourages a feeling of being untethered and exposed.

The second volume in the set takes place in and around the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo. The futuristic pod-like residential building was built by Kisho Kurokawa in 1972 with the forward-thinking concept that it was entirely upgradeable. The catch in the clever architectural story is that while that may have been the case, at least theoretically, none of the units has ever actually been replaced, and so the structure has aged into a state of not-so-graceful decay. Once again, Woon’s photographs show us plenty of surfaces and corners, but this time there is a more overt visual dialogue between dream and reality. A shiny robot head, a transparent glass horse, fish in tanks, and a child wrapped in rain-averting plastic allude to the future that the building hoped for, and many of the design details (room numbers, sleek mail slots, stacked unit blocks with perfectly round windows) match this visionary optimism. But the building is clearly no longer what it once was. Woon photographically ticks off its many troubles: bubbled peeling paint, stained floors, worn handrails, buckets and plastic sheeting arranged to catch drips, tangled wires, creeping mold, and closed doors taped off to prevent discovery of whatever problems lay hidden behind. The cover image offers a look upward at the soot-stained building from outside, the structure drifting into gritty dissolving darkness; even though it is still inhabited, the Capsule feels like an alternate universe, where everyday life intermingles with a future just out of reach.

The third volume Euljiro is slightly less claustrophobic than the first two, if only because we find ourselves walking through the back alleys of Seoul as the city transitions from night to day. Woon’s nocturnal images pull us through the maze of narrow streets, the silence of the night reverberating against the shuttered storefronts obscured by steel security gates. Brightly lit signage and harsh street lamps provide a break from the gloomy glow, the grit and grime of the streets colored by the flares and tints of these light sources. But when morning comes, Woon turns his attention to closer in textures, and the mood changes from illicit to mundane. His surface studies in this volume are the most formal, his eye for the arrangement of a broom, a locked door, a cracked wall, or a gathering of tools creating order and harmony out of randomness. When the sun rises, the bustle of the streets invades further, and men with hand trucks get their work done carrying boxes.

The design and construction of Dark Cities exhibits the kind of rigor and meticulousness we would expect from an architect – it’s a tightly conceived and expertly executed photobook product. Each individual volume is intimately sized, with thick cardboard covers that give the book a sense of heft. Inside each cover, a soft ghost of the front image is printed on black paper, the reversed tonalities slowing us down and preparing us for the night that follows. The sequencing includes full bleed spreads, single side images, and multi-image sets that stretch across the gutter, and the way the images are presented against black, the colors simmer and ferment with satisfying eeriness. The three volumes are the housed in a very smartly folded cardboard box, with text printed on the various inside flaps. The whole object fits together neatly, encouraging us to see the three sets of imagery as one interlocked whole.

Woon’s pictures follow pathways other photographers have traveled before, particularly those in search of a contemporary version of cinematic and atmospheric noir or the roughness of the typical urban underbelly. But what separates Woon from that pack is his entry point of architectural thinking, and the way that vantage point manifests itself in his works. He’s interpreting and reimagining space rather than the more straightforward scene setting many have done, and his results draw the personality of the space out from within rather than applying it from on high. This mode unexpectedly takes him back to the traditional genre of architectural photography – he’s searching for ways to capture the authentic personality of a building or space, he’s just done it with much more flair and improvisation than we usually encounter.

Collector’s POV: Shyue Woon does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

Shyue Woon, Invisible Photographer Asia (IPA), Self Published

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