New contributor Federica Ionta meets the artists behind Rendered Reality, the exhibition currently in suspended animation at the KCCUK.
Thinking of Korean art, one might recall, for instance, pottery of exquisite quality, such as the iconic moon jars, or beautiful ink paintings. However, not all Korean artists stick to traditional shapes, materials and techniques. Artists Joonhong Min and Shinuk Suh, through their art practice, investigate what life is like in the world we live in, creating artworks that, rather than displaying a strong Korean visual identity, reflect their own experiences as citizens of contemporary cities and individuals who are part of the contemporary society.
Both born in the 1980’s in Seoul, South Korea, artists Min and Suh have been living, studying and working in London, UK, for the past few years. After receiving a MFA at the Slade School of Fine Arts, UCL, and completing several residency programmes, the two artists are currently showing their works at Korean Cultural Centre UK. The show, Rendered Reality, has been put on hold due to the nationwide lockdown shortly after its opening reception, which took place on the 9th of March.
The exhibition, organised by Korean Cultural Centre UK in collaboration with Koppel Project and Unit 1 Gallery | Workshop, offers the visitors a chance to question what influences our lives and how we experience the urban space in which we live and work. It embraces a complex and far reaching interrogation about our existence as inhabitants of the city and members of our societies. A performance written by artist Min in collaboration with artist Ziad Nagy was presented during the opening reception, addressing the themes of the exhibition through sound and movement. Artists Min and Suh create works which are imbued with such sensibilities, perhaps asking questions rather than providing answers, and leading the viewers to reflect on what reality is to them. Interestingly, the two artists address these themes in two different yet complementary visual approaches.
Artist Min’s visual world is rich in detail and shows a meticulous approach. It can be appreciated by observing it closely as well as seeing it as a whole. It’s a visual language that tells a visual story with no sound. Black ink covers the waste material Min collected from the streets, evoking concepts of dismissal and repetition. Min’s works can be discovered a look at a time, revealing an overall narrative made up of individual pieces. Perhaps, just like that very narrative belonging to the cities the artist has at heart when creating his works. Min’s documentary approach culminates in a video-recorded chat with the artist’s own mother who recalls painful memories of her youth.
Artist Suh works with colourful illustrations, movement, juxtaposition and mediation. On the one hand, still sculptures made of daily objects are both presented as physical objects and represented, hence mediated, on a screen. On the other hand, kinetic sculptures, featuring the human figure, move repetitively, as if there is some stronger force guiding them that they are unable to oppose or resist. Some kind of irony seems to be present in Suh’s works, and the use of daily life objects as they are normally seen in a domestic or work environment gives a sense of immediate familiarity and recognisability to the artworks.
The themes investigated in Rendered Reality are complex and the different approaches adopted by the artists fascinating. I had the pleasure to ask some questions to both artists Min and Suh, who kindly shared some insights on the exhibition and their art practice.
First of all, congratulations on your current show at Korean Cultural Centre UK and completion of the residency programmes you recently took part to. Would you briefly introduce yourselves and your art practice?
JM: I am a contemporary artist who lives and works in London and Seoul. I received a BFA and MFA in painting from Seoul National University (2014) and an MFA with Distinction in Fine Art Media from SLADE School of Fine Art, University College London (2016). My solo exhibitions include: ‘Future’s Present’ at SPACE Gallery and ‘Urban Camouflage’ at Stone Space Gallery, London, UK (2018), ‘Embellishing Ephemerality’ at The Flying Dutchman Play Space Gallery, London, UK (2017) and ‘Urban Methodology’ at The Consulate of South Korea Project Space, Milan, Italy (2016).
I recently had a duo show ‘Rendered Reality’ at the Korean Cultural Centre UK, London, UK (2020) with the artist Shinuk Suh, finished the NARS foundation AIR programme in New York, USA (2019) and completed The London Summer Intensive Residency Programme at the Camden Art Centre, London, UK (2018). In 2016 he participated in the Jerwood Drawing Prize and in 2015 the Ashurst Emerging Artist Prize, London, UK.
The city is my subject matter and the place where I make art. Born in the city, having lived in different cities and destined to live in the city, I am a citizen whose subject matter ranges from objects and sceneries found in urbanity to personal memories formed in the city. The gaze I cast upon the city gains a form through diverse media. This gaze expands itself once it is relocated back in the city alongside these forms.
Facing what has been in need and now discarded, I unfold my impression of the city with the pen drawings and waste paper. Simultaneously, I am interested in ‘memories’ from urban life and constructing a narrative. The narration is enacted on moving images and delivered to audiences as installation and film, which are my personal ‘reassurance’ to what has been left out in today’s urbanized society, under the name of efficiency and development.
Although each work bears a different form, at the core of my works sits an individual both isolating oneself and been isolated by one’s surroundings due to the fierce competition in contemporary society. The act of drawing repeatedly is for the feeling of achievement with which I suspend anxiety temporarily. By collecting what has been left out of its usage, I embrace what has fallen behind the competition; be that objects, sentiments, or individuals.
SS: I am a Korean artist based in London. I recently graduated with a MFA Sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art. My artistic practice is to exam the ideology that my family, the media, the political party, the religious organisation, the educational system, the law, the unions, and the communication and culture infused in me.
Both of you collaborated with London based galleries and joined some residencies: Joonhong, you worked with Hanmi Gallery in the past and recently joined NARS Foundation residency programme in New York; Shinuk, you worked with Daniel Benjamin Gallery and recently with Unit 1 Gallery | Workshop. Would you guys give us some insights about how these collaborations happen and share some highlights from these experiences?
JM: In case of the Hanmi Gallery, I used to work there as a translator and a technician. We participated in various art fairs and art projects together. Then, the gallerist Haeshin Kwak became interested in my art works and developed into a relationship between an artist and a gallery. We participated in the London Art Fair in 2016 and are planning a new project afterwards.
London Art Fair, which was very impressive to me, was the first art fair I participated in abroad, and I was able to see various impressions of the viewer. In particular, it was the biggest income from collaboration with the Hanmi gallery and art fair that allowed me to devise ways to improve continuously in my artworks and to enhance aesthetic perfection
The NARS Foundation is a residency program for international artists. The institution is located in New York, US. In 2018, I wanted to experiment with my artwork in not only London but also another city. Berlin and New York, the centers of modern and contemporary art, were on my list of cities of interest, and I became interested in the NARS Foundation during the research. I developed my artwork there for three months and shared each other’s art world with 12 artists from Canada, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands and the US. Also, I participated in the group exhibition ‘The Process of Calculating one’s Position’ later in the program.
New York came to me with a different feeling from London. Its grandeur and majesty have led me to consider my different approach to urban civilization. I look forward to seeing my impressions collected through cities around the world reflect on the next project.
SS: It was a coincidence that people from the Daniel Benjamin Gallery visited my studio. And soon after that I opened my first solo exhibition at the gallery in my life. In fact, the preparation process was not smooth. The number of works I had to prepare was quite large, and it was a very busy time since I was also preparing for my MA degree show at that time. However, I think I enjoyed the process very much as I was new to all of those experiences
After I graduated from the MA course, I participated in the solo residency programme at Unit1 Gallery for three months. During that period, I learned a lot from there. It was a precious time that I was able to develop my contact, which was not clearly arranged after my degree show. I was also able to study materials that I hadn’t used before. Looking back, I think it might be the moment I lived the most.
In ‘Rendered Reality’ you both reflect on the contemporary way of living in the city and in today’s society. Did these themes always catch your attention or did you develop these sensibilities later on in your career?
JM: I think both.
I liked that the title of this exhibition seemed to imply the role and meaning of the existence of “art,” rather than simply revealing Shinuk and my art world.
Of course, the exhibition title “Rendered Reality” has a close relationship with this world I live in, the city where there are creatures that live under capitalism society. I express in various media the materials, scenes, memories, and appreciation that I find in this urban space where I live. And, I believe, this whole process is a process of reinterpreting and editing reality: Rendered Reality. And this ‘Rendered Reality’ process is the way I’ve been doing it since the moment I chose my career as an artist.
And, if I replace the material of ‘city’ and ‘various media’ in my trials with the material and expression of other artists, I think this can be put into the creative process of all art.
SS: I haven’t revealed the specific subject directly to my work, but I always think it was related. I reckon it was an opportunity to discover the connection hidden in my work through this exhibition.
Joonhong, you collaborated with artist Ziad Nagy on a performance that took place during the Opening Reception of your show on March 9th, 2020: Dancers Die Twice. The performance featured a cello playing a distorted melody and dancers moving slowly and repeatedly across the venue. Would you give us some insight on the creative process behind the performance, your collaboration with artist Nagy and the visual and sonic aspects of the performance?
JM: The artist Ziad Nagy and I have been close friends since our previous school, The SLADE school of fine art, UCL. The artist expresses memories, emotions, objects found, and images through various forms of aesthetic results and performance arts. Not as a fellow artist, but as a fan of the artist’s works, I felt that the artist’s works had a witty satire and interpretation of the contemporary world.
We planned a performance that reflected the context and spatial characteristics of the real world in the exhibition,‘Rendered Reality’.
We imagined that the life of people in modern society was a meaningless exercise of repetition. We saw endless situations in which people go to work somewhere to live, constantly trying, and craving for new things continue to occur and disappear in our lives.
Once the overall concept of performance was established, it was easy to meet the rest of the conditions.
We hired performers to speak for modern people, all four middle-aged women. The reason why we hired middle-aged women is because we wanted to show in our work the various members that exist in “social” that we have not easily illuminated. We decorated them with clothes that were not fashion or purpose: large training suits, travel caps and yellow socks. As mentioned above, we directed them to walk through the exhibition venue of the Korean Cultural Center UK repeatedly. Then, we assumed the existence of imagination that governs these modern people and hired musicians to recreate the existence. In this part, Ziad and I thought of a bit of a mischievous joke, that it would be nice to decorate this being with a demonic figure or a look like Pan in Greek mythology: God of nature, the wild, shepherds, flocks, of mountain wilds, and is often associated with sexuality.
The idea began in a sarcastic sense of the demonic images of politicians leading the world and humans tainted with greed.
We dressed the musician in a red bathroom gown, slippers and goat horns and directed the musician to play the piece he wanted to play.
What the audience can see at the exhibition is the performers who follow the melody of the musician who makes a rather strange dissonance, inside the Korean Cultural Center UK and across the venue throughout the opening. We wanted the performance to melt naturally with the audience, and by the presence of people who visited the exhibition space with the performers, it was intended that the work of art, which symbolically depicts modern people, naturally overlaps with the daily routine of real life.
Both of you seem to have a preference when it comes to choice of colours. Joonhong, you seem to have a preference for black ink in your works. Shinuk, on the other hand, you seem to prefer pastel and lighter colours. Is there a specific reason behind these choices?
JM: In the fact that I used black as the main color, conceptual reasons are more important than aesthetic reasons. Drawing takes a part main role that reveals the image of the city in my installation works. The repetitive pen drawing is the visual form of the impression I got from the city. Unlike the various thickness of a pencil and infinite colours of painting pigments, the monochromatic and consistent thickness of the ink pen fills the surface in an even manner particular to this medium. Yet this monotony is disturbed with the vivid colours of loosely-shredded packaging paper, on which alluring images are printed to highlight their merchandise which represents the colour of cities I try to express. At the core of my works sits an individual both isolating oneself and been isolated by one’s surroundings due to the fierce competition in the contemporary society. The act of drawing repeatedly is for the feeling of achievement with which I suspend chronic anxiety temporarily.
Also, I think that the pen that is most used in the work environment, such as office, building site, and store, is one of the things that represent modern society, which is the main material of my artwork. As a result, black, the main color of most pens, is expressed in my work.
As can be inferred from the reasons I have explained so far, the main colors I use can change depending on the direction of the work I want to pursue. So far, if the black from pen-drawing has been my main color, I expect a new color extracted from the city objects I continue to collect and found will be used as another major color in my next project.
SS: Since I was a child, I was obsessed with the obligation that ‘men should be men’. I was treated as a strange person when I was a little bit ‘out’ of the ideal male image which the school, army and society wanted. This ideal can be found in the social consciousness that distinguishes sex by colour. Men must recognise that they should like blue or green, and women should like pink or yellow. I think this is one of the ideological products of various political and cultural ideas. If you add white to the primary colour, it becomes a pastel tone giving a soft feeling of saturation. Such pastel tones have given me a neutral image, and it was a feeling of refuting the ‘colourism’ that I perceived.
Both of you work on large scale installations. What practical challenges did you have to overcome in your art practice?
JM: So far, I have not found any problems in producing or installing artworks fortunately. However, preservation remains the biggest challenge in the future, as most of my installations are made of objects I found in the city, namely ‘trash’. Therefore, I am currently designing a structure that enables separation and re-combination of works and looking into materials that can be preserved permanently.
SS: It is the most difficult to secure enough work space when creating a work. Because of such space limitations, it is impossible to see the whole of the art piece while I work. So, during my production, there are a lot of anxiety factors. And, due to the weight and volume of my piece, it is very inconvenient when transporting and storing.
Some of your installations include videos. Joonhong, in what ways do the videos that accompany some of your installations add to the expressive potential of the repetitive pen drawings and collage made with found objects and why do videos have no sound despite the fact that they show a vibrant and loud urban environment? Shinuk, how did you get to this combination? Was this combination of sculpture and video the result of experimentation or did it naturally come to you?
JM: I think the video installed in my installation is also a good medium for delivering the image of the city. Video, one of the art of time, is delivered to the viewer in real-time or rearranged time the visual memories I have gained from my travels through the city center. I think the nature of these video works is a good component of my visual fabric, which combines drawing, installation, and sculpture. I’m not interested in sound yet. But, sooner or later, if I get interested, I’ll put it in.
SS: As technology develops more and more, we see more vivid, beautiful and precise images through screens. And interpreting this differently, many of the images we remember are those seen on screens. We now crave images that are more beautiful than they really are. And even if we don’t physically experience, we feel as though we have actually experienced through the screen. After I became interested in these social phenomena, I started using TV directly for my work.
How do you come up with the right title for your works? Has it ever happened that it was a title to inspire the work?
JM: I think I’m writing the visual diary by making my artworks. Therefore, I make a title by combining the ideas and sentences that I thought while making the work. I’ve never made a work with the title in mind.
SS: I usually select the title of my work after completing it. This is not to limit my intuitive ideas while I work. So when I start a new work, I start working with the overall concept of the work in mind without having a specific title. Then, when the work is complete, look again at the books, videos, photos, etc that inspired me. And I try to match the image of the completed work. I also sometimes parody quotes from my favourite philosophers to suit my work.
Working at this exhibition together you must have spent some meaningful time. Did you learn something from each other? What would you say is each other’s biggest strength as an artist?
JM: I like Shinuk’s cheerfulness the most. In producing or installing works, he always takes a different approach and tries various things. I think I need to have a more experimental attitude, so forget it easily. This exhibition with him gave me a natural but essential realization that my work can be developed only by designing and experimenting in a new way.
Also, his generosity was very helpful to me. Usually, artists can be sensitive in the process of collaboration even if they are not usually sensitive, but he always has an open attitude that accepts my opinion.
Of course, it may be because we were already close friends, but because of his communication and application, he and I were able to hold this exhibition without causing any friction.
SS: Joonhong has a number of advantages. In particular, I would like to say that his diligence and planned personality are the greatest strengths. It is also the point that I learned the most from him while preparing for this exhibition together. He does everything accurately and quickly. And also, through efficient time management, he completes his work on time. In fact, it is a really important part of an artist, and he has all of those advantages.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given for your career and what is your advice for younger artists?
JM: Since I’m a young artist, I don’t know the answer to this question. However, my personal motto is ‘One day at a time’.
SS: There is one thing that the tutors I have met so far have in common. They encouraged me to see and experience many images in any form. It does not matter whether it is an exhibition, a movie, or an Instagram image. This is because the scope of my thinking as an artist varies greatly by looking at a certain quality image. I have always kept it, and I want to recommend it to young artists as well.
To learn more about these talented artists and their art practices, check out their websites and follow them on social media to keep in touch.