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Insecurity Complex

FotoFest 2000 tries to cover up its deficiencies with sheer volume

Houston is a city enamored of festivals, with seemingly endless imagination for thinking up subjects to champion. While FotoFest does not typically stimulate a thirst for either Miller Lite or electric guitars -- and, in this way, is more akin to Worldfest than to either the Westheimer Street Festival or the Freedom Festival -- it does share a common trait of the festival mentality: It is, underneath that extroverted loudmouth exterior, a bumbling mass of insecurities.

FotoFest, in its 16 years of existence, has staked a claim for itself as a major international photographic event; yet as festivals go, it's really a 98-pound weakling, unattractive and unwanted, compared to, say, the muscle-bound Houston International Festival. Likewise, as a barometer of contemporary photographic practice it doesn't seem particularly relevant, at least not in the sense of making or breaking careers, defining trends, or providing scandal or gossip for columnists. It does not, in other words, do for photography what the Whitney Biennial does for contemporary art.

Photography as a visual art has been insecure ever since a band of 19th-century romantics first dreamed up the idea. That the medium holds an uncontested place among the most culturally significant technologies of the last 200 years, right up there with electricity and dryer sheets, has only recently begun to boost its practitioners' confidence. While the verdict's still out on whether this flood of images has made us more aware or more numb, we can agree that photography has brought the world together in an unprecedented way.

Multipronged art: The forks in Mauricio Alejo's Tenedores take on a life of their own.
Mauricio Alejo
Multipronged art: The forks in Mauricio Alejo's Tenedores take on a life of their own.
runs through April 3.

Significantly, FotoFest founders Wendy Watriss and Fred Baldwin have consistently made a global perspective a top priority by bringing in photographers from all over the world, acting as something of a National Geographic with a more equal distribution of cameras. FotoFest 2000 continues this tradition and expands on it with the Festival of Light, a series of 22 photography events in 16 countries that launches with the Houston festival and runs through the end of the year. Each festival is linked on the Internet at www.festivaloflight.org.

FotoFest has come a long way from its dowdy days at the George R. Brown Convention Center; it has forsaken its over-the-top trade-show-style exhibitions of the early '90s for modestly scaled yet industrially chic spaces scattered throughout downtown. Radiating outward from its new home base at Vine Street Studios, FotoFest 2000 celebrates the "Eighth International Month of Photography" with more than 100 exhibits in galleries, museums, corporate lobbies, community centers, alternative spaces, department store windows and restaurants.

For all their impressive reach, FotoFest-curated shows actually constitute less than 15 percent of the exhibitions in this year's festival, making the organization more master of ceremonies than headliner. If any grand themes emerge from FotoFest 2000, it is up to the viewer to find them; the hunt can be plentiful or scarce, depending on how adventurous one is at navigating a path through the cobweb of shows clinging to any available wall space in the city. Despite the communal aura of Houston's emerging downtown district, the two essential elements of any successful tour of FotoFest are the finely printed exhibition guides and a car.

FotoFest 2000's premier exhibition, "Contemporary Korean Photographers: The New Generation" at Williams Tower Gallery, features the first generation of Koreans to practice photography as an art, free from the practical limitations of journalism and the ideological trappings of national identity. What distinguishes these ten artists' works from their predecessors' is the freedom with which they explore an individual expression that, the curators argue, represents a unique moment in Korean history.

While the 1988 Olympics in Seoul opened channels of communication between Korea and the West, many of these pictures display an ambivalence toward modernization and the creeping influence of Western thinking. Chuha Chung's Voices of the Earth series is a darkened set of prints, rich in midtones, that portrays a near-barren earth from a humbling bug's-eye view. In speaking of his work, Chuha aligns himself with John Steinbeck's salt-of-the-earth workers. He warns that "Now in Korea, we think of the earth as money, not as land for farming, but for capitalism and speculation."

Aiming his camera at the decidedly unnatural, Hongchun Park photographs unpopulated, grimly lit amusement parks, discovering surreal juxtapositions and sinister imagery, which provide a stark contrast to the intrinsic feel-good nature of the subject. In Museum Project (1995-1998), Seokjung Kim somberly reduces his environments to dehumanized museum exhibits, staging elaborate scenes of nude men and women placed inside plastic display cases, which are then set upon a Buddhist altar, or alongside a couple eating dinner (who not only are sharing an oversize helping of raw beef but are themselves encased in an even larger box).

Expressing their hesitations from a more contemplative viewpoint, Byunghun Min, Jungjin Lee and co-curator Bohnchang Koo portray the fragility of the natural world as manmade forces conspire against it. Lee's American Desert, Koo's A Portrait of Time and Min's Weed series evoke meditation through large-scale, hand-tinted prints (Lee) and through delicate approaches to traditional silver gelatin prints (Min), all of which seem to suggest that God, indeed, is in the details.

It's not surprising that a practice so new in Korea's history should yield so few truly surprising results, yet one can't help but feel the choice of exhibition space does little to enhance the work's uniqueness. The Williams Tower lobby may receive more traffic in a month than any gallery space in town, but the cramped partitions are far from inviting.

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