Transitional Apocalypse

Todd Hido’s unpeopled photographs reveal a kind of post-collapse, as much political as it is ecological.

Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum

In the wake of every horrific event — including last week’s mass shooting in New Zealand — journalists, analysts, and scholars rush to understand the tragedy’s lead-up. What precipitated it? What were the clues, whether online or somewhere else, that foretold the shocking event? Personal tragedies mirror this same kind of deep soul-searching, as do tragedies around politics, the environment, and other global affairs.

In separate San Francisco exhibits, two artists reveal the intense soul-searching they undertook to come to terms with a loss that felt overwhelming — and still does. In the video Lifting Barbells at the Asian Art Museum, Kim Heecheon muses on and reconstructs the last moments of his father’s death in a Seoul bicycle accident — a tragedy the elder Kim inadvertently documented with a smartwatch that recorded everything about his demise, including the exact, second-by-second whereabouts that preceded the mishap. In “Bright Black Worldat Casemore Kirkeby Gallery, Bay Area photographer Todd Hido muses on the man-made environmental upheavals that are happening around the world — displaying images of vistas shrouded in darkness, haze, or an otherwise disjointed isolation that suggests a foreboding collapse or a post-collapse. 

Hido is a minimalist. He doesn’t give his images bona fide titles or announce their locations. (Many shots in “Bright Black World” were taken in or near Kristiansund, a town in northern Norway.) And he doesn’t articulate the project’s full backstory. Instead, the exhibit notes that Hido took inspiration from Nordic mythology, “specifically the idea of Fimbulwinter, which literally translates to ‘the great winter,’ ” and that Hido’s photos offer a “warning of future natural disasters.” But the future is now. It’s happening in real time, and Hido’s images — taken between 2013 and 2018 — are a visual archive of epochal change. We don’t see glaciers losing their mass or hurricanes destroying people’s homes. People, in fact, don’t appear in Hido’s images. They’re lifeless that way. They’re like visiting a kind of transitional apocalypse, where the shadows of life are evident in a lone street light or a blurry neon motel sign or — in a photo called Untitled 11389-3087 — a roadway that leads to a horizon of electrical lines and skeletal buildings.

While not Hido’s intention, his images are reminiscent of post-World War II photos taken of Hiroshima’s Genbaku Dome (the building that survived the devastating atomic bomb and stood out amid acres of rubble and destruction). Hiroshima rebuilt itself after 1945. Hido isn’t sure what will happen in a post-Fimbulwinter world. One thing he does know, though, is that politics is tightly connected to environmental inaction, and he saw this political fracturing during the time he photographed “Bright Black World.” Donald Trump’s ascension, which began in earnest in 2015, is an embodiment of that fracturing and is essentially embedded into the Casemore Kirkeby exhibit. Without saying it, “Bright Black World” is partly a political excavation.

“Even though the current administration was not in power back in 2015, the generalized state of affairs and the direction that allowed it to overflow ‘the swamp’ the way it did — beyond many of our wildest fears — had the stage set already,” Hido tells SF Weekly in an email interview. “Even as I write, at this very minute, the President of the United States has stated that nationalism is not a rising threat around the world.”

People who know Hido’s body of work, including his acclaimed “Homes at Night” series, will recognize similar themes of light and darkness, and of stillness and aloneness. A foundation of Hido’s photography, he says, is “a mood and sense of longing and loss that is present in many of the things I photograph.”

This loss is also present in Kim’s Lifting Barbells, which opens with a bleak urban scene of factory smoke and power lines nestled between two tall residential buildings as Kim narrates a letter to his Argentinian girlfriend. The scene is practically an Asian counterpart of Hido’s Untitled 11389-3087, but Kim puts his voice and his thoughts into an art project that pieces together poetic black-and-white images and odd video segments.

“There’s no end to this winter,” Kim says in Lifting Barbells, speaking in lyrical Spanish that’s translated into Korean and English subtitles. “My father passed away this summer. Summer should have reached Buenos Aires by now, right?”

By employing this kind of narrative structure, Kim distances himself from his father’s death even as Lifting Barbells begins its 20-minute ascent into the details of his dad’s last moments, through maps that show his dad’s bicycle route — he started in Seoul’s Cheondam district, by the Han river — through cardiogram rates that show his dad’s heart condition, and through graphs that pinpoint when the ambulance arrived and how long it took to speed to Seoul’s Sungshim Hospital. Kim’s dad died at age 56. The accident occurred in a tunnel by the Olympic Bridge. At one point, Kim’s dad was bicycling at a speed of 23.8 kilometers per hour. But all the numbers that Kim found on his dad’s smartwatch didn’t reveal why or how his dad died. Technology has its limits.

“Nobody hit him,” Kim says in a Skype interview from Seoul. “Some witness says he was trying to avoid something and he mishandled something with his bicycle, and suddenly he flew off the bicycle, and I think he fell badly.

“He was a surgeon, so he knew how to check his status with numbers,” Kim adds. “He always had a watch and cardiogram monitor to see how he’s improving his skill or how he’s improving his cardio ability. And he was an amateur programmer. So he was trying to make something out of his data.”

Besides being a narrative of death, Lifting Barbells is a commentary on the intrusion of technology into people’s lives, and the way the virtual world is using fear, enticement, and other means to drive people’s habits. In a crucial segment of Lifting Barbells, Kim has an army of virtual characters — adult men and women — walking through video footage of an actual subway car. Many of the real subway riders are looking down at their phones or talking on them, so we see these passengers distracted as virtual figures traipse through the car.

Kim, who’s now 30, was studying architecture at the time of his dad’s death. The tragedy prompted him to pursue art more seriously, but he’s avoiding watching Lifting Barbells again, which he finished in 2015.

“It’s hard,” he says, “to see what I made.” And Kim doesn’t wear smart technology like his father did. “I don’t,” he says, “because I think it’s horrible to see the last moments in the data.”

“Bright Black World” through April 2, at Casemore Kirkeby, 1275 Minnesota St. Free; 415-851-9808, casemorekirkeby.com.

“Lifting Barbells” through May 12 at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St. $10-$15; 415-581-3500 or asianart.org.

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