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the exhibitionist

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when jungmo first meets minhee, it’s in a psychologist’s waiting room. jungmo is waiting for his friend to come out of the office so that he can take him home, skimming the morning’s newspaper as he looks over his glasses to read the small print words. the art section headline tells of a new exhibition at the museum of modern and contemporary art. jungmo doesn’t read the article but grimaces when he spots a photo of himself next to a short description of his photography career. how had he agreed to such a horribly angled picture?

jungmo checked his watch, impatient from having waited a bit longer than he usually would like to. when the door to the offices open, jungmo looks up expectantly as if his friend will be there. instead, a man with red eyes and disheveled hair appears, one fist clenched while his other hand aggressively combs through his own hair. the man quickly takes a seat across from jungmo, paying no attention to the photographer. jungmo, intrigued yet still feeling the need to appear polite, makes quick glances every few seconds. the man has now turned to his phone, wiping at his tear-stained cheeks with the back of his hand. as jungmo continues to observe with worried eyes, the man looks up and the two make eye contact. the other man scowls and stands up. jungmo worries he has done something wrong, but the man leaves the room in one swift motion and everything is silent once more. that is when jungmo first meets minhee.

the next time jungmo sees minhee is when they’re first formally introduced. jungmo finds himelf arriving to the museum on a hot summer day, the sun shining so bright that he feels the need to take off the jean jacket he always wears. now donning a simple beige dress shirt and jeans, jungmo entered the museum and is directed towards the basement, where an assortment of people were waiting for him with anxious stances and ticking watches. come to think of it, how had he first been introduced to such a project? there was something about agents, connections, and debts. jungmo was pushed into the museum’s project without even stepping a foot into the art business world.

“ah, there you are!” jungmo was quickly pulled to a different side of the large underground warehouse, now facing his agent, byungchan. “i was starting to worry you wouldn’t show up. the summer traffic really is something, huh? it’s always like this in this part of seoul. hate it.” byungchan took a hold of jungmo’s shoulders and guided him towards another part of the room, this time a door. “i need to introduce you to your model now. let’s see… where is he?” opening the door, jungmo was now in an empty white room where in the middle stood a single person.

at the sound of the door creaking open, the person turned around. jungmo was almost shocked. he recognised the face from the psychologist’s office. it seemed that the man also recognised jungmo as his face contorted into an expression of disgust as his eyebrows furrowed and his mouth formed a slight frown. byungchan, maybe oblivious to their attitudes but maybe not caring, put on his best business smile and let go of jungmo.

“this is kang minhee, the model you’ll be working with. if i’m not mistaken mr. kang has been working with quite a number of impressive magazines lately. what was your most recent…?”

after a few seconds of awkward silence, minhee coughed into his fist. “vogue.” he plainly stated, throwing out the comment as if it meant nothing to him.

“of course! you were on the cover, i remember now.” byungchan exclaimed, snapping in the air as if that had solved all his worries. “yes, you’re right. i loved the backdrop of the scene- the chandelier that hangs right above you seemed so lifelike- were those real knives?” the older man seemed to make an observation each second, taking no time to breathe. “i guess i’m getting a bit sidetracked. i should explain your project in full, but i’m sure you both know by now.”

all the while byungchan rambled on, jungmo and minhee were staring intently at each other. while minhee refused to show any emotions, jungmo felt a mixture of emotions settle in his stomach. he felt nervous. it was obvious that they both remembered that day in the psychologist’s office. with ulterior motives, minhee pulled down his shirt sleeves to cover the majority of his arm. there was no need to create any more tension now.

“so for the next six months, you will both be situated in the main gallery with your own duet exhibition for a day each month. i’m sure the curators and directors have explained it to you, but jungmo will be taking mr kang’s picture in an enclosed space. the visitors will not be able to interact with you two- all of this relies solely on both of you. you will not be able to make contact nor speak during the entire eight hours you are here. the purpose of the exhibition is for jungmo to create a series of photographs that tell a story within these six months. at the end of the year, the museum will showcase it to the entire world. it’s more or less to see what can happen when you limit contact between photographer and subject. am i clear?”

minhee quickly nodded, taking a quick glance at his watch. “of course. i’m more than happy to be working with…?”

“koo jungmo.” jungmo smiled, extending a hand for the other to shake. “i’m sorry i never formally introduced myself. my schedule has been so packed lately, i’m afraid i got here a bit later than i would’ve liked to.”

“oh,” minhee blankly said, staring at the hand for a moment before taking it in his own. “well, it’s nice to meet you, mr. koo. may i call you jungmo? i realise that we will be talking for a while. i hope we can talk casually within these few months.” minhee let go of jungmo’s hand and wiped it on his pants. “yes, i hope we can.”

jungmo, pretending as if he did not see minhee do that, smiled. “of course! then shall i call you minhee? it’s a very pretty name.”

letting the corners of his mouth tilt upwards, minhee chuckled. “i guess so. thank you, jungmo, it was a pleasure to meet you. i’m sorry to be so rude but i do need to leave now, i have another schedule to attend to.” minhee tapped on his watch and pointed towards the door. “i’ll see you two gentlemen later. thank you for taking the time to collaborate with me for this project.” minhee gave one final bow and turned towards the door. the door finally closed with a single click and everything was finally silent.

“well, he was nice!” byungchan exclaimed after a while, his cheek resting in his hand. “this is going to be good publicity for you, jungmo. i’m sure you’ll get good connections from mr. kang too. be happy!” with a hearty pat on the back, byungchan left the room too, leaving jungmo to his own thoughts. perhaps byungchan was right. the next few months would be anything but a disaster.

it’s midnight when jungmo finally gets off work and he feels disgusting. the city air has made his hands clammy and sticky, his breath smells of cheap gas station gum, and he thinks that the sweat has evaporated off his skin, leaving only the salt to stick to him. overall, he wants nothing more than to sleep.

yet, as tired as he feels, jungmo decides to visit a bar. there isn’t much thought process behind the decision, more or less something he does on a whim. tonight, it’s a different one from the one he frequents, a place on the outskirts of the bustling metropolis yet still a good enough location that the bar is still in business. the neon sign that sits on the windowsill blinks with a sort of homey feeling that jungmo can’t help but smile like a fool. why was he so comforted by such oddities?

jungmo enters the bar with a drunken stagger despite being perfectly sober. this was his natural habitat, after all. it was almost as if he could get drunk off just the scent of alcohol. this eccentric style was displayed in his photographs. perhaps this is why he was chosen for the project.

taking a seat at one of the worn-down bar stools, jungmo signaled for the bartender to come and take his order. ordering a glass of whiskey on the rocks, jungmo was satisfied with what he had accomplished for the day. after meeting the artist he would be working with for the next few months, he had traveled to and from his studio, meeting with gallery owners and potential clients. though it was truly just an ordinary day, the man felt a sort of pride in his own work ethic and effectiveness.

after receiving his drink, jungmo picked up the glass and swirled the ice cubes around, watching as it slowly melted and mixed with the already cheap drink. today just felt normal.

suddenly, another man sat down directly next to jungmo. craning his head just the slightest as to appear nonchalant about it, jungmo was surprised to recognise the face. it was minhee, after all. how could jungmo forget such a unique, pretty face?

as if he did not care, minhee paid no attention to the pair of eyes that were now fixated on him. instead, signaling for the bartender, he ordered a single shot of vodka. downing it as quickly as it came to him, minhee wiped his mouth with the back of his palm. he sighed, then turned to face jungmo.

“fancy seeing you here.” he stated plainly, looking jungmo up and down as if to evaluate his fashion choices. “i’m surprised, really. i come here because there’s usually no one here. looks like i’m not the only one who thinks this way.” shrugging to himself, minhee turned back around to face the bar. lifting the empty glass to his lips, minhee mumbled something incoherent. then, with a sly smile, he turned to face jungmo again. “just kidding. i know why you’re here. there’s only one reason why people come here, anyways.” setting the glass down, minhee looked around as if there was something he was afraid of. “fucking idiots.” he muttered under his breath.

“come on,” minhee stood up and gestured to the back end of the bar. “just follow me.”

jungmo, confused yet somehow entranced by the slender silhouette of minhee beckoning him, complied. getting up from his seat too, he followed the younger man into the men’s restroom, a small single stall room that locked with a simple click of a button. when jungmo entered, minhee hastily locked the door.

“let’s get this over with,” minhee muttered, slamming a hand against the wall that jungmo leaned against in a sort of cliché style that jungmo swore only worked in books. with downcast eyes, minhee leaned in closer to jungmo, pressing his own body against the older’s. right before minhee’s lips came in contact with jungmo’s, jungmo pushed the younger away. with his heart beating fast and his cheeks flushed, jungmo was unsure as to why he had done so.

“what?” jungmo shakily breathed out, feeling everything inside of him convulse in a sort of grotesque, twisted way. “what the fuck was that?”

minhee rolled his eyes. “should’ve known you were one of those people. whatever. i wasn’t the one who followed a man they just met into a gross bathroom.” taking his hand off the wall and subsequently shoving it into his pocket, minhee laughed. “you’re cute though. i think it will be a pleasure working with you.” unlocking the door and pushing it open, minhee turned around one last time before leaving. “and if you ever want to try this again, ask byungchan for my number. he knows it.”

with those few words, minhee left, leaving jungmo once again to his own thoughts.