Ahn Sun Mi’s Supernatural Self-Portraits Reveal Sensuality, Uncertainty, Fears, and Dreams

The self-portraiture of Ahn Sun Mi fuses naturalism with supernaturalism, using digital collage to create evocative and emotive images to reflect her inner being. Sun Mi is showing a number of her c-prints (made in small editions) at New York’s Catherine Ahnell Gallery this month.

In her first New York solo exhibition, “Multifaceted,” the Paris-educated Sun Mi presents 15 recent works on paper. Although her earlier photocollage work often used still lifes and landscapes, her current work begins with self-portraiture and includes digital manipulation to create rich but spare allegorical images. 

Many of Sun Mi’s images depict her body fusing, breaking, in the process of metamorphosing, being in between one state and another. “My obsession with the theme of the ‘in between’ began while studying in France,” she explains. “Coming from another country, I felt alien. I was among people who were not like me, and had the feeling of floating outside of things.” This sensation of alienation can be seen in the many images where Sun Mi’s body is multiplied, layered, or mutated: Auto Portrait 1 and Auto Portrait 3 (both 2012). In each, her body grasps or covers itself, proliferating and metastasizing. But it can also be seen in the poignant Pink Dream (2007), where she curls alone, using the enormous, pink negative space of the image to heighten the emotional resonance of the picture. The various stagings of her own body resemble the work of contemporary portraitists such as Tseng Kwong Chi and Samuel Fosso.

Nature is important to Sun Mi, who says “Nature represents comfort to me... like the people who live in the city and dream of nature.” In many images she grows into, through, or from plants. In Coeur (2012) she exists among the ghostly, translucent branches of white cherry blossoms. Likewise, in Auto Portrait 2 (2012), Sun Mi stands nude within the stalk of a cactus, her body erotically mimicking its outline, and overlaid with the succulent’s fluted and spiny exterior. In Deux-Branches (2013), her body sprouts from two sides of a potted plant; on the left, she closes her eyes and lays on her back, while on the right, she leans over and stares directly at the viewer.  

Sun Mi sometimes even shows her body fighting against itself, as in her 2011 “Deux Bras” series. Here, she stands, lays, kneels, or dances in a white, ballet outfit. Her body has sprouted extra arms, which are sometimes covered in a craggy, rock-like skin, and bind her (as in Deux Bras 4 and 9), reach through her chest (Deux Bras 6), or clutch her tightly (Deux Bras 10). They resemble horror movies, but are also romantic images of a young woman full of deep emotion. 

And this is the central strength of Sun Mi’s work: it is richly sensitive. She is the only subject of her photos, and in them she expresses her sensuality, uncertainty, fears, and dreams. Her portraits are revealing in their imaginativeness, and imaginative in their revelations.


—Stephen Dillon


Multifaceted” is on view at Catherine Ahnell Gallery, New York, May 13–June 14, 2015.


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