The fish tank glowing in an empty room at night. The seabed passed over by the diver’s torch. The quiet beach after the holidaymakers have gone home. These are places full of liveliness and intentions – even when we’re not looking.

For her first solo show with Lychee One, Minyoung Choi presents a series of new paintings capturing underwater or seaside scenes inhabited by animals, fish, and a littering of manmade objects. The paintings offer momentary glimpses into the lives of other species, which are entangled with human existence but so
often remain unseen by human eyes.
In one work, an octopus on the ocean floor raises a traditional Korean ceramic vessel, a relic of human culture that has made its way to the seabed just like the plastic triceratops and dolls house kitchen furniture. The octopus is lit from behind, as if by a diver’s lamp; implicitly, the diver gains a glimpse of the octopus’ back while the full scene in the painting is visible only to the viewer.

Choi’s reference to the octopus and its tentacular intelligence hints at alternative, nonhuman ways of interpreting the world. The evolution of human and octopus eyes diverged around 750 million years ago, and although they function in surprisingly similar ways, the eyes of the octopus are more adaptable, reliable, and energy efficient than ours. The painting is part of Choi’s investigation into types of perception, building on the exhibition’s thematic tension between looking and not looking, the discernible and the invisible. In another work, mops of silky hair cover the eyes of two dogs, their faces marked by their shining black noses. By highlighting the dogs’ acute sense of smell, Choi further draws attention to the intense animal sensations being used to map out environments all around us. Choi’s paintings include several references to coelacanths, an endangered species of fish known as living fossils which evolved into their current form around 400 million years ago. The fish were thought by western scientists to have become extinct in the Late Cretaceous period until they were rediscovered in the 1930s. Coelacanths have existed out of human sight for millions of years, carving out a marine existence that has only very recently become threatened by human pollution.

An image of a gleaming fish tank sits at the heart of the exhibition, evoking ideas of visibility and
containment, living and artificial. Choi sees the fish tank as a metaphor for our contemporary relationship with the more-than-human world, and for how our anthropocentric viewpoint colours how we perceive “nature”. Many of the scenes in Things that happen when we are not looking occupy a liminal uncertain space, suggesting how both aquarium and ocean are shaped by the combined forces of human and nonhuman lives. Imbued with a fleeting and faintly sinister sense of calm, Choi’s paintings capture traces of the passing of time, from the fossils of prehistory to the relics of contemporary petrochemical capitalism.

Text by Anna Souter

Date: July 2 — August 62021
Photography: Corey Bartle-Sanderson