ArtAttack Interviews Korean artist, Kyung Hwa Shon

After being drawn in by her work at the London Art Fair back in January, ArtAttack had the chance to speak with Korean artist, Kyung Hwa Shon, about her work, inspirations and advice for young artists just starting out.

‘The City of Fragments’, Kyung Hwa Shon, Silkscreen on paper, 2015

ArtAttack: Your studies have taken you to some of the most iconic cities in the world. Do you have a favourite place you’ve lived, or one that has especially inspired your work? If so, in what ways were you influenced by that space?

Kyung Hwa Shon: It is difficult for me to select a particular favourite city. Each city has its own peculiar culture, people, languages and history, which provides different inspiration and experiences. I think that I enjoyed all of the cities in different ways.

Chicago is a memorable city. After completing my art project, ‘Volumes in the Paper-cup’ at the Koyang mental hospital in South Korea, I wanted to explore the influence of physical structures on people and the environment in depth in the context of a larger society. In 2009, I decided to move to Chicago where I investigated the relationship of physical and social structures within the context of my residence. Just as Paris influenced Walter Benjamin and Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur, Chicago — the city where the underground dwellings of the homeless are literally beneath fancy skyscrapers — inspired me to research the coexistence of the wealthy and the underclass in the context of the Chicago Loop. By analyzing navigational patterns of the homeless, I constructed alternative maps and created an installation titled ‘Chicago City Maze’ to reveal the dark side of the world beneath Chicago’s shiny surface. In this project, I concentrated on aspects of the social problems, questionable notions of beauty, and hierarchical structure in the environment of Chicago.

Volumes in the Paper-cup.jpg
‘Volumes in the Paper-cup’, Kyung Hwa Shon

AA: Going off of that, cities are clearly something you are very interested in exploring as an artist. Why?

KHS: To me, wandering the city means without beginning or end, entry into an opaque labyrinthine expedition creating endless labyrinths within labyrinths because the city shows different faces of the landscape in every second. A number of unanticipated situations and experiences in the city unfold into extensions of imagination that oscillate between virtuality and actuality. Ruffles of the imagination heighten the sense of unpredictability, instantaneity, excitability, simultaneity, and disorientation. It opens out a space for the possibility of experiencing a rapid transition of both spatiality and temporality, as well as sensory experiences of fragmentation. It results in the moments of awakening out of familiarity and habit in banal daily life, creating peculiar relationships with the world of things and multiple perspectives about the urban circumstances. This is what I am very fascinated by, in the city.

AA: Your London Art Fair exhibition, part of WW Gallery’s SOLO Award you won, is comprised of two works from your ‘The City of Fragments’ series, which is based on Paul Auster’s novel, City of Glass. Can you tell us how you discovered this novel and what about it pushed you to create artwork based upon it?

KHS: I want to clearly mention that Auster’s book gave me artistic inspiration, but my two art pieces, ‘The City of Fragments’ and ‘The Trace of Stillman’ shown at the London Art Fair exhibition, are not about on the story of City of Glass written by Paul Auster. These text-based artworks are based on my own research-based art project that I have carried out since 2013. I have researched the notion of subject and object, the traces of gaze, the presence of invisible substance, memory and the interplay between imagination and accidental experiences of the psychological shocks in the context of the city. They are indispensable foundations for inquiry into the identity of city dweller’s perception, immanent desire, unconscious behavior and psychological connection in the 21st century. In addition, I have explored how art might give expression to personal psychological experiences of new spatial dynamics, and how my paintings and installations can deliver a particular understanding of the present by communicating sensory experiences and emotional responses and thus reveal new ways of navigating and adapting to surroundings. While conducting this art project, I have written my own text revealing personal impression of the city, records of instantaneous emotional responses, as well as contents of academic research. In fact, the stencilled and engraved text on the mirror and copper sheets are from my writings. Texts in the installations are significant for me because they are the reflection of my thoughts and work as visual languages. Also, they are the passage to create opportunities for the free exchange of critical ideas and share diverse conversation with viewers.

‘The City of Fragments,’ Text on paper, 2015

AA: Who is ‘Stillman’ and what does he mean to you?

KHS: ‘Stillman’ is originally from the book trilogy, City of Glass (New York Trilogy) written by Paul Auster. As a non-native English speaker, a person’s name being ‘Stillman’ was very interesting. The combination of two words, Still and Man, provides a variety of possibilities to interpret and imagine about the character. I reinterpreted Auster’s ‘Stillman’ and made it reborn within my art project as a city phantom. In my project, ‘Stillman’ is a figure-being. There is no gender, determined form, volume, or weight. ‘Stillman’ having the persona of the uncertainty and ambiguity exists in the circuit of reciprocal exchanges of the presence and absence like a ghost. I unfold my art project by chasing the uncovered, invisible remnants of ‘Stillman’, which make the city a field of excavation where everything is buried, hidden, and yet undiscovered. The city is transformed into an enormous surrealistic imaginary space for exploration of the feeling of newness and psychic ambivalence. The myriad ambiguous signs and letters in the street and fragmented specular images on shop-window displays are, for me, crucial elements in creating peculiar relationships with the world of things, implying the emergence of the imagination. Through these elements, the infinite boundary of the imagination unleashes the city as unaccustomed, disoriented, and reencountered. My work implies the opening of the urban landscape to a distinct poetics of the city in which mythology, sign, symbol, voice, text, and trace occur.

The Trace of Stillman:Engraved Mirror:2014.png
‘The Trace of Stillman,’ Kyung Hwa Shon, Engraved Mirror, 2014

AA: As a successful and celebrated young artist, what do you feel are the biggest challenges when it comes to breaking into the establishment and what advice can you give to aspiring emerging artists just setting out?

KHS: Just after graduating from art college, it was not easy for me to start my artist career immediately. Fortunately, I was accepted to the Artist in Residence program at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. At the same time, I received a lot of rejection letters from art competitions, artist in residence programs, and exhibition opportunities. Although the rejections made me feel frustrated, I never gave up, retrying and reapplying until I succeeded.

What I would like to share with other young artists is from an email message from Jerry Saltz (an American art critic): “You’ve got everything you need; you’re an artist; don’t look back.” This message always gives me a lot of energy and motivation to go forward. I always have it in mind, and I hope that the emerging artists remember it and keep working hard to achieve their dreams.

AA: Any upcoming projects from you in 2016 that we can keep our eye out for?

KHS: Recently, I participated in ‘UK/RAINE’ at Saatchi Gallery in London, ‘Mindful Mindless’ at Seoul Olympic Museum of Art (SOMA) in Seoul, ‘Uncovered Invisible Remnants’ at the University of Porto in Portugal, and ‘The Great Artist’ at Posco Art Museum in Seoul I have been invited to participate in several solo and group exhibitions for 2016 in Seoul and London. Among them, I am excited to prepare a solo exhibition titled ‘The surface of the city and the depth of the psyche’ at Alternative Space Loop in Seoul, Korea. Since I plan to exhibit the whole installation, ‘The City of Fragments’ (text stencilled on copper sheets) that I showed a fragment of, in the installation at the London Art Fair 2016.

– India Irving

For more on Kyung Hwa Shon, check out her website.


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