On the Verge explores strength, vulnerability

Heidi Speck

Newly released exhibit at Photographic Center Northwest features photography from staggering heights


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Ahn’s photography challenges viewers to look inwardly and question their responses if placed in a similar situation. Her photographs may cause disillusionment or discomfort for some viewers. Heidi Speck | The Falcon

What is it like to stand on top of a skyscraper? Does it induce a feeling of vertigo or is it exciting being so close to danger? Does that make someone a thrill-seeker or self-destructive?

Jun Ahn’s exhibit at the Photographic Center Northwest ponders these exact questions. Ahn explores the balance between strength and vulnerability and causes viewers to look inwardly to how they perceive themselves.

In these evocative images, all of which were labeled as “Self Portrait,” Ahn captures herself balancing precariously on the very tops of buildings. She is captured on the corners, crawling on the trellis or hanging with one foot off the edge of a skyscraper.

The images cause the audience to take a hard look into the photographs, as well as into themselves, and think about what they would do if put in a similar situation.

Jun Ahn is a South Korean artist who started the “On the Verge” project in 2008 in the beginnings of her graduate education at the Pratt Institute. Ahn is currently studying at Hongik University, pursuing a doctorate in photography.

“On the Verge” made its debut in 2012 in St. Petersburg, Russia, and has been traveling internationally until the project made its way to Seattle this year.

Ahn has created many other works that focus on capturing a moment in time, most of which are not visible to the naked eye.

Some of her photography includes objects in mid-fall, waves creating pearls of foam or the tide drifting lazily in and out.

Ahn felt, while standing on the ledge, that the world below was the future, that she was standing in the past and that the space in between was the present. She believes that her photography captures a moment in time, suspending the present.

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Ahn had to wait months in order to obtain the proper approval to scale these buildings. Heidi Speck | The Falcon

The images themselves may cause disillusionment at first glance, provoking a wide variety of reactions from audience members. According to Erin Spencer, the public programs coordinator of PNCW, this response is typical for many, but the photographs may also prompt a sense of empowerment or fortitude.

“To me the photographs seemed very powerful, and then sometimes, a little bit vulnerable just when you start to learn the backstory. But I am not quite sure [what people feel]. I’ve talked to a couple of people and have received tons of different reactions,” Spencer said.

Ahn faced her own personal fears in creating her art. Spencer said that Ahn was very frightened to scale these towering structures due to her fear of heights as well as the dangers that came with it.

She waited months to get the proper approval from the owners of the buildings, which only increased her fears as time passed.

The process of capturing these images speaks volumes to Ahn’s determination and courage. She had to face her fear of heights without many safety precautions, with the exception of an occasional harness. In all of the images Ahn’s body is vulnerable to the elements because of the slip dress she chooses to wear.

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In many of the photos, Jun Ahn is seen with minimal clothing, showing her vulnerability. Heidi Speck | The Falcon

Though it often seems that artists and authors create in order to ask questions of their audience members, Ahn’s work resonates with herself. Ahn did not intend for people to see her work in a certain light.

The photos presented are self-explorative, as she translates qualities that she wanted to see in herself, or maybe that she does see in herself, into her photography.

For much of the audience, it is natural that they question themselves, asking what they would do in her position. The photographs teeter between courage and fear. What could be seen as brave curiosity in Ahn’s pose could also be timidity or caution.

Despite the challenges she faced, Ahn radiates empowerment and curiosity for what lies beyond the precipice, and then dares the world to challenge her.

The exhibit will be held at the Photographic Center Northwest until March 24, and an artist lecture will be held at the Seattle Art Museum on Jan. 3.