Figures from the imaginary: The Loch Ness Monster

Images of a legend more real than reality

Curated by Christine Enrile and Viana Conti

OPENING Friday february 18th 4 pm – 9 pm

6.30 pm a Talk introducing the exhibition with the artist present

On view until 10 May 2022


Milano – Opening on Friday 18 February at 6.30 pm is the South Korean photographer Shinwook Kim’s first solo exhibition in Italy:  “In Search of Nessie/In cerca di Nessie”. Spanning a striking array of more than fifteen photographic works and videos, it paradoxically encompasses the documented reality of a legend: that of the Loch Ness monster, set in the fabulous Scottish highlands.

The exhibition’s introductory talk, in which the artist having just arrived in Italy will be joined by the curators and the naturalist science populariser Willy Guasti, will familiarize the audience with the unfolding of this uncanny myth, told through the medium of photography.

Commonly regarded as the medium that most objectively reflects reality, photography is the one favoured by Shinwook Kim and which he exploits in masterly fashion to capture the subtly sliding associations between the real and the imaginary. Born in Seoul in 1982, he has lived in London and has also been active in Milan. The winner of  international awards, he receives numerous invitations to exhibit at public and private venues in cities both eastern and western. Works by him are held in collections in the United Kingdom, Japan and Korea.

Both visionary and analytical, by reconstructing the mythologies of places and non-places, Shinwook Kim manages through this exhibition to make the invisible visible. Investigating the historical sources of a legend, he has been on the spot, visiting research centres and tourist sighting beaches. Talking to local inhabitants, he gathers impressions and examines any available evidence. And only afterwards, when the phantom monster has taken shape in his mind, does he finally decide to take his photos. Exteriors laden with inner tensions, they lend images to his Weltanschauung, to visions of a world inhabited by a mysterious monster. Elevated however to the status of local icon, the elusive creature is first conveyed by a black silhouette in the famous “Surgeon’s Photograph”, taken in 1934 by Robert Kenneth Wilson and later notoriously revealed as a genuine fake.

Having by now entered mass culture, the mythological beast sparked a media resonance that continues to draw a million visitors a year, dreamers from all shades of cultural folklore and ethnic backgrounds. Accompanied by a plethora of merchandising, it has aroused the curiosity and inspirations of writers, cartoonists, designers, film directors and ski-fi documentarists. It even gives children  nightmares. Plesiosaurus or giant long-necked serpentine salamander, seal or abnormal otter, elephant-squib or outsized eel, the dark grey creature, allegedly spotted on grey rainy nights under grey skies on a grey lake, continues to nurture the myth of truth and fable, terror and desire, archetype and stereotype. A widespread propensity for pareidolithic illusion (from the Greek èidōlon, image, and parà, near) helps to relate the monster apparition to known familiar figures of human faces and animals, skylines of magnetic and mysterious landscapes, rock carvings and tree profiles, cloud linings and ominous silhouettes of light and shade. With his mind and his gaze, in a silent, contemplative and sometimes ironically critical, often empathic approach, Shinwook Kim moves between Eastern and Western culture to render photographic visibility through his art to visions of the imaginary.

Since childhood Shinwook Kim has been deeply interested in water and the creatures that inhabit it; as witnessed by his work in progress where four series of photographic, video and pictorial works are currently on view to classify and analyse the breeds of freshwater fish existing in South Korea.

It was his focus on aquatic fauna that kindled the photographer’s interest in Nessie, the unfathomable creature that may or may not dwell in Loch Ness. It was first mentioned in the year 565 AD, in a biography of Saint Columba, the Irish monk who brought Christianity to Scotland. An anecdote in that biography may be considered the earliest reference to the Loch Ness monster.

The story goes that Saint Columba had reached the Highlands and witnessed the burial of a person who had been attacked by an aquatic beast. Having taken up the situation, the saint crossed himself to save another potential victim from the monster, which duly retreated. And as a result the saint also managed to convert all those present.

The lake setting is likely to cast its spell on visitors. At 6 m above sea level in the Scottish highlands, it was hollowed out by the melting of ancient glaciers. 2 km wide and 36 long, the loch reaches a depth at some points of up to 200 m.

Back in 1840 Loch Ness was already a tourist attraction, with steamers available to explore its waters.

On 2 May 1933 a Scottish newspaper reported that Mr and Mrs Mackay, who owned a hotel on the lake, had sighted weird humps protruding from the water. And later that year, George Spicer and his wife were driving through the Highlands when “a giant slug with a long neck” crossed the road in front of their car.

There followed a flurry of sightings of Nessie, as the monstrous creature came to be nicknamed. And on 12 November 1933, the first photograph of the beast was snapped by Hugh Gray. His picture shows a serpentine figure churning the water as it moves. And later, in December, Malcolm Irvine, a film-maker from Scottish Film Production, shot the earliest reel of Nessie, visible for a few minutes and swimming at a speed of 15 kmh.

Then, in April 1934, came the iconic shot of the Loch Ness monster, known as “The Surgeon’s Photo”. Taken by Robert Kenneth Wilson, the image ended up on the front page of the Scottish Daily Record, under the headline “Mysterious Object in Loch Ness”.

60 years later, in 1994, that photo was debunked by the Loch Ness Centre as a fake. In fact, far from being a genuine photo of Nessie, it was actually falsified from a model constructed by Doctor Wilson’s godfather. Nevertheless, sightings continued right up till the 1980s, while still more have been declared since 2000.

According to the scientific community, the monster is non-existent. The legend however is so entrenched by now that every year thousands of people come to the lake intending to meet the beast. Among these visitors, Shinwook and his camera have rendered the Images of a legend more real than reality.