HaYoung Kim – Eat All You Can
31st August - 4th October
A discussion between Lara Wardle, Director of Jerwood Foundation, and the artist HaYoung Kim
LW - Thank you for asking me to curate your forthcoming exhibition. It is a pleasure to be able to be involved with your work and follow your career since awarding you the Jerwood Prize in 2010. This is your second solo since graduating from the Royal Academy Schools last year and I wanted to ask how you feel your work has developed since your previous show.
HYK – Thank you for accepting my request to curate my second solo show in London. It has already been very special and encouraging for me to have you as my curator. I am very excited about the character we will give this show together.
Since my graduation show in June last year, my interests have broadened and so my practice has broadened too, and somehow become more personal. After leaving the Royal Academy, I jumped into various opportunities. I went to New York for a two month residency programme and after that I joined another artist residency programme in Arlington house, Camden for five months. This experience outside of the academy allowed me to be an individual and to find my own way to communicate with the world. I felt as if I took off the royal gown and became the humble me again. Now I am trying to find the best way to expose myself to the outside world and this show will be stepping stone for this [process].
LW - When you mention that your work has in some way become personal, how much do you draw upon your experiences of growing up in South Korea? When I came to your studio, you mentioned that you had visited family again recently.
HYK - Yes, I did. I went to Korea last winter for two months to see my parents and close friends. I hadn't been back to Korea for two and a half years. I was surprised by all the fast changes that had taken place. The restaurants and places I used to go to had changed into something totally different like a hospital or a shop.
South Korea is a country which underwent rapid post-war development; the change is almost palpable in Seoul, which has been transformed from a pre-modern-looking town to a large city full of the latest architecture and amenities. One gets the feeling that the relentless work-ethic visible in Seoul is a direct attempt to assert freedom from a historical position of being caught between powers (China/Japan/USA). Yet this drive for independence has side-effects, and in Seoul it is the overwhelming level of information available on every surface that is the most noticeable. I felt disorientated by the mixture of all these unmatchable things that are all explicitly fully ready to be consumed. Pretty shiny high-resolution figures drive me towards a sense of futility. I made a number of sketches based upon this experience and transposed them into larger scale works.
Having been living in the UK for the past four years, I could observe my own country from a different perspective over the two months that I was there. What was particularly striking was how, in Seoul, there were so many advertisements for plastic surgery and restaurants juxtaposed in the same space. This ‘unmatchable scenery’ for me feels like a contrived outside and inside. The cosmetic surgery advertisements unabashedly depicted natural ‘before’ and artificial ‘after’ photos of girls. It was so bizarre. The girls’ faces looked as if they were made of plastic. And the nearby photos of well-presented food conveyed a similar feeling. I felt light and heavy at the same time.
LW - It is interesting that you write about ‘the overwhelming level of information available on every surface’ as you often crowd your works with a huge amount of different images and symbols. Is it important to you that the imagery and symbols are deciphered by the viewer or do you prefer your paintings to remain enigmatic?
HYK - I think my paintings are somewhere in between the spectrum of abstract and figurative and he images that I collect and use for my paintings are from my daily experiences. When I find an appealing image I take a picture of it and make a sketch of it in my drawing book, and then I transfer it to a bigger surface. The original image loses its initial information and figure. In this process of distilling, which I think is similar to abstraction, I try to trim down the details of the images and leave the essence of them there so that the viewer is free from the obligation of understanding. This idea is linked to the reason why I paint with a simple graphic style. When I was a kid, I was so into Japanese and American animation and comic books. After reading manga comics and watching numerous animations, their language and style become unimportant to me. They merged in my mind into something more abstract, the details becoming cut away and only the essential elements remaining, coming across like ‘codes’. With excessive repetition images become like signs that have no deeper meaning or reference beyond themselves. Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum is that which “bears no relation to any reality whatsoever.” Within our fast changing capitalist society, we consume images without trying to associate them with deeper meaning. Applying the Marxist critique of capitalist ‘commodity fetishism’, we can say that we don’t think about the human-related labour and history of a product any longer but rather we consume the objectified relationship with things. This is linked to the main idea of my practice, where I use images as code without notable reference or substance; this emphasising there is nothing between images and the viewer, only individual consumers consuming codes.
LW - I find your work very appealing and feel that part of this appeal for me comes from the references to animation. It has a joyful, brightly coloured side but there’s always something lurking underneath as you find in many animations and comics. Does it matter to you how the viewer perceives the balance between the seriousness and light heartedness in your work?
HYK - It is not always a successful endeavour to make the viewer understand what I am trying to do but I would like to believe that my work resonates with people, with an energy and certain feelings. Tactically, the cartoon style of my drawing can serve as a means of drawing the viewer into the picture. I use the language of cartoon so my work has a friendly appeal but can also hide a dark story underneath. The key elements with creating artworks for me are paradox and humour. I choose to express the modern human condition and its relationship with technology and human biology in a bright, cartoonish and humorous way. I do this because I believe this paradoxical way of telling a story emphasizes what lies behind what we can see. It is the viewer's choice whether they would like to jump into a lurking dark fantastical world or keep their distance and enjoy the bright side.
LW - I also wanted to ask you about your technique and why you use different layers in your works, including layers of acetate.
HYK - The process of painting on drafting film is strongly related to the subject matter of my practice. I paint on the matt side of the drafting film with acrylic and glass paint and once I finish this I turn it over so that the viewer can only see its glossy opposite side. The result is a complete reversal of the traditional mode of making and viewing a painting. The very first sketch that is normally invisible, hidden under subsequent layers of paint, is made immediately visible, while the finishing touches are known to the artist but concealed from the viewer behind the earlier furtive strokes. All of the strokes are impossible to change or fix once they are done. In this way, one can relate this process directly to the separation between the conscious and the unconscious mind. The gloss or ‘finishing touches’ that we subjectively put on our experiences, in order to construct our autobiographical selves, are most visible to us but hidden from others. All the while, others can most directly perceive our raw actions and guess their unconscious motivations without a distorting narcissistic lens. The aim of these paintings is to achieve that feeling of complete exposure and vulnerability.
The material I use is consistent with the idea of virtual reality as a reflection of reality upon a computer screen. Zizek has argued that the (post)modern situation under the influence of science and virtual reality turns the whole of reality into something which ‘exists only on a screen’, a depthless surface. I refer to the drafting film works as ‘screen paintings’, a term which attempts to capture the effect that is produced in the reversing of the original images.When approaching the work the viewer discovers that the paint is inaccessible, hidden behind a glossy screen, yet, paradoxically, the process is immediately tangible by virtue of the first stroke being seen first. In this sense, the drafting film works accentuate the fact that, despite our attempts to screen it, there is a traumatic Real we can’t suppress.
LW - Finally, I wanted to ask about the title of your new show 'Eat All You Can'. Firstly, did you choose this title? And also, presumably this is a reference to our relentless desire to consume? I wonder whether you see consumerism as a necessity of modern living or something we should be curbing our enthusiasm towards?
HYK - My interest in internet identity is linked to how digital images effect our body. I have been making a ‘dish painting’ series, putting a mixture of icons and signs (emoticons etc) from the internet onto plates so that they seem like food that we can eat. The idea of ingesting the information and images we see in daily life and then digesting them so that they become part of our body was inspired by seeing Judy Chicago’s ‘The Dinner Party’ at the Brooklyn Museum, New York. At first glance, my dish paintings seem to just contain fragmented signs and symbols that pose no potential harm to us, inert epiphenomena. However, these images are the source of various identifications and desires, they contribute to teaching us who we want to be and how we want to consume; in them, we are reflected. In the works, this digital food appears vulnerable and passively displayed, yet by making the association with food, I aim to show how after we consume them they become a part of us. The reason for the title came from passing a Chinese buffet near where I live in Clapham Junction. I saw a sign which said 'Eat All You Can' not 'All You Can Eat' outside the restaurant. I thought this was very funny as it sounded like a military order and that we have no chance but must eat all we can. I thought this was a perfect title for the show.