Thursday, October 8, 2015

Review: The Idea of Man from Ming Thein

Let me begin by acknowledging my prejudices here. I have them, they're real. I shall attempt to set them aside, and I probably shan't entirely succeed. Such is life.

Why review this online version of Ming's Chicago gallery show? I've been working on this thesis that you can't assemble a powerful body of work ex post facto and here we have an attempt to do just that. Ming's going big here, with a big idea, a big theme. I refuse, flatly, to deduct points for the bigness of the theme. If you're going to do this sort of thing, if you're going to take a swing at a serious body of work, props to you for going big. Sally Mann took a swing at "Death" and she's awesome, so there.

It's a big idea, it's a strong theme, I say bloody well go for it. I will root for you, regardless. And I do. Go Ming, Go.


The three facets of the show, interstitial text, photographs, and titles (captions?) all appear to me to be only vaguely supporting one another, often fighting, and in one notable instance working very very well indeed, about which more anon.

Ming mentions that the captions are important (I assume here that he means the titles, but possibly I am missing something on his flickr account). The titles, to my eye, often contradict the interstitial text describing the group the picture belongs to. In a couple of cases, the title is necessary to make sense of why a picture is in the group at all. In many cases the title appears to be irrelevant, and in at least one it's simply pointing out the not-very-obvious visual joke (which joke appears to be unconnected to any of the larger themes). If I could simply dismiss the titles, I would, but they're necessary to make sense of a couple of the pictures.

Reworking the titles to either consistently point the way to an interpretation of the picture that makes sense in context, or to more consistently contradict the context to provide a contrapuntal voice, or really any sort of organizing principle would be a big step up, if you must have titles. Also, making the titles be thought bubble instead of DSC_0127817.JPG thought bubble copy.jpg would be a bit of a step forward right there, but that's sort of a nit.

The interstitial text speaks of really quite universal themes of conformity, rebellion, self-discovery. It's a big idea, and a good one. On close inspection, though, this text describes a sequence so specific as to feel personal. Ming appears to be simply talking about himself. This work would feel more universal organized as un-ordered groups, rather than a sequence of growth.

Many of the photos are simply filler. Strong leading lines pointing to a lone silhouette. Ok, I get it. A Human, How does this particular lone silhouette relate to this idea, when the very similar lone silhouette apparently relates to a different idea?

In general, this whole thing comes across as an essay about a personal journey, presented as a sort of allegory, illustrated by stock photographs. In some cases, very well chosen stock photos. He does do some interesting things with color, and the relative size of the subject in the frame, things that really work quite well. The larger, out of focus figures in the fifth group, about Self, really works pretty well here.

The exceptional picture is the shadow of the violinist. By itself, this is a pretty standard shadow play picture. Loads of idiots have shot a million variations on this thing. In context, however, I am willing to declare it excellent bordering on genius. As an expression of We know our new identity, but we must persevere to fit in and find our niche, our community, the 7th group, it's simply outstanding. This is a picture which, in the context of the greater body of work, is elevated in precisely the way I like to see, in precisely the "greater than the sum of the parts" way that exemplifies a strong body of work.

Overall, if you deleted all the text, the show would work OK as an expression of isolation, of separateness. This is largely because the point of view is, in virtually every frame, one of someone who is separate. Note that most of the figures are back-to the camera, and many of them are very far away. These are pictures taken by a guy who is physically and psychologically separate.

Without the text to give the theme, though, the stellar violinist photo becomes boring.

I don't think this could be reworked into an important show, in any meaningful way. It could be enormously improved by culling several of the more redundant pictures, re-titling everything to make sense, and re-organizing the interstitial text. Still, it works better than I expected, and the violinist was almost shocking to me.

If this were mine, I'd throw out everything but the violinist's shadow, I'd rewrite the interstitial text to be about three universal themes in no particular order, and then I'd go shoot them hell out of those three themes specifically.

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