From HAIR + NAILS presented Mouth-Space, a solo exhibition by South Korean-born, Rochester MN-based artist Sophia Chai. In this series of photographs, Chai draws inspiration from her mother tongue – Hangul – a Korean alphabet of lines and shapes that mimic mouth shaping for the speaker. In her studio, Chai creates these alphabet shapes in architectural scale accounting for the bending of lines through the lens of her analog camera.
This is Sophia Chai’s second solo show with HAIR+NAILS.

When I think about photography I go back to the time long before the chemistry of photography was first invented and gave us a way to fix an image of an ephemeral moment. I go back to the time when people were huddled inside a darkened chamber and would watch the light coming in through a small opening and making a projection of the world on the outside on the inside wall and floor of the cave.
A camera obscura is essentially a darkened room. The first written account of a camera obscura was by an ancient Chinese scholar named Mo-Ti (470-391 BCE) who described it as a “collecting place”.
The Mohist scholars would sit together and make observations about the relationship between objects and the corresponding images and shadows. They noted that although shadows and images are known to move with their objects, the speed, size, and movement of a given shadow or image do not precisely match those of the object itself. This observation had a significant implication on the relationship between seeing and knowing as it pointed to what lies outside a definition.
With my previous exhibition at Hair+Nails, Interpolation, I wanted to insert a photograph into the gallery space to expand the photographic frame onto the gallery’s physical space.
For Mouth-Space, I returned to my mother tongue, Korean. While being carried on the back of my mother in our neighborhood in Busan, I would point at the signs and repeat the words that Mom would read to me. Soon I was able to read without understanding all the words.
The Korean alphabetic writing system, Hangul, was invented in 1443 by King Sejong with a team of linguists to make a phonetic system that can be easily learned by anyone. It is comprised of simple visual geometric elements and vertical and horizontal lines. Each orientation of the stroke in a vowel indicates whether to open or close your mouth. The shape of each consonant illustrates the way you would shape your tongue in making each sound. The logic of the system makes it easier to learn but also the letters show you how each syllable is pronounced.
Hangul was my first education in a visual language that taught me how the geometric shapes and lines in a given space can be embodied inside the mouth and projected outwardly as a sound.
The studio corner has come to mean to me a space where two-dimensional planes come to meet and create a three-dimensional volume, a space that holds a choreography for the body, akin to a space inside of the mouth.
The simple lines and shapes have given me a way to remove things, to take away things, to look at what is elemental. In photography, that would be the act of seeing itself. And in this instance, through translation from the eye to paper via the analog camera.
The impossibility of fixing a permanent perspective, despite the camera suggesting otherwise, is what drew me to photography. In that space created by dissonance.
— Sophia Chai

Sophia Chai is a Rochester-based artist who was born in Busan, South Korea, and immigrated to New York City as a teenager. Chai showed her work in group exhibitions at venues in New York City, including the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Knockdown Center, A.I.R. Gallery, Tiger Strikes Asteroid, and Marinaro Gallery, among others. In addition to her solo exhibition at 106 Green (Brooklyn) in 2016, Chai mounted Sight Lines at the Rochester Art Center and Interpolation at Hair+Nails Gallery, both in 2020. Chai is grateful for the financial support she has received from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council (2019), the Minnesota State Arts Board (2020, 2022, and 2023), and the Jerome Foundation (2019-2020). Chai’s first permanent public outdoor art
project, Punctuated Asymptote for Discovery Walk, commissioned by the city of Rochester and Destination Medical Center will be completed in early 2024 as well as a solo exhibition at Light Work in Syracuse, NY. Mouth-Space is Chai’s second solo exhibition at Hair+Nails.
Instagram: @sophiachainyc