Hun Kyu Kim: “ I hope my work will entangle people’s brains ”
South Korean artist Hun Kyu Kim’s boisterous compositions have a caricature quality that belies their origins in the ancient tradition of silk painting. Stuffed with anthropomorphic animals caught in a jarring panoply of escapades that oscillate between fun and dark, the hallucinatory senselessness of these scenes can provoke extreme reactions of love or hate.
Before her solo exhibition with the Parisian gallery High Art at Art Basel, I visit Kim in her studio in London. He tells me about an old Chinese concept pronounced “wo you” which can refer to the sense of mentally entering a painting to enjoy its landscape. “It allows the painting and the public to work together and allows me to offer the public a new kind of experience,” he says. The studio is small, but with those surreal worlds stacked against the walls, it also seems to stretch out in endless directions. I gladly get lost for a while.
Born in Seoul in 1986, to enroll in the city’s College of Fine Arts, Kim opted for the traditional oriental painting course, with the aesthetic in double major. It took almost a decade to graduate because the required techniques take a long time to master.
For a student wishing to do contemporary art, this was an unusual choice. The restoration and faithful copying of Buddhist paintings from the 13th and 14th centuries of the Goryeo dynasty were at the heart of the program. Kim was nonetheless constrained by the art form. “It was just an instinct. Ancient paintings are from religious activity, so they have an aura inside and great beauty. The process is heartwarming and I loved the scent of the silk and black ink. However, he deplores a “very strict and very traditional” education. “I tried to get away from it to do what I really wanted to do,” Kim says. “I tried to borrow from the past to create a new kind of work.”
He did so by integrating a dizzying array of cultural references across time and place. Some of them are relatively local. Besides Korean silk painters, Kim admires Ito Jakuchu, from the Japanese Edo period, and Wang Ximeng, an early 12th-century Chinese painter. Other influences include the fables, theories of his favorite philosophers and the old Western masters, especially Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch. Viewers can also find parallels with anime and video games. “I observe everything in my environment and I mix them in my mind. I keep shaking it and then it comes out through the paintings.
Until recently, Kim also referred, obliquely, to political events in South Korean history. When he chose to start a master’s degree at the Royal College of Art in London in 2015, it was in part “because of the political atmosphere in South Korea, where it was difficult for me to show my paintings to the public” . After completing his Bachelor of Fine Arts, he became involved in activism but vaguely evokes this period. “I have a few stories, but I don’t want to mention them because it’s from the past and the former president is now in jail.”
A lasting effect of this period is Kim’s adoption of allegory as a form of communication he sees as non-violent and open to interpretation. “Allegorical painting is a kind of Trojan horse. With this I am hiding, but people can read it if they have similar experiences to me. His works end up getting so dense because “I have so much to say to people.”
Recently, however, Kim has been rethinking what exactly these things are. “I used to think of myself as a very political artist, but now I think the language of art is different from the language of activism.” Artistic language is something Kim speaks clearly, but her first answer to a lot of my questions is “How can I say?” Or “It’s hard to explain in words.” I feel that speaking is not his preferred mode of expression.
Rather, I can trace the complexity of his allegorical tales to the fantastic metaphors he uses to communicate his thought processes. Of this recent estrangement from politics, he says, “I feel like I live in a very heavily formed castle, shouting ‘I’m ready to fight! “. Nowadays everything collapses and melts like jelly. It’s very unstable, you know what I mean?
Before 2020 maybe not, but now I nod. “Our world is going crazy but our daily routine continues. In that we can see a kind of hope, ”continues Kim. “The castle in my mind is collapsing but there is light in the spaces between the rocks.” This basic idea of routine, familiar to many people’s experience of the pandemic, was at the center of the 12 paintings that visited Hong Kong. “Rather than specific current events, I have tried to focus on the fundamental things that lie deep in our lives.” Among the themes of these works are rituals, marriage and funerals.
Kim’s daily routine would shame many who claim the title of “workaholic”. He works ten hours a day, seven days a week and still needs a month to do larger jobs, starting in a corner and letting the details slowly trickle down. Dyeing silk with ink makes all mistakes irrecoverable, and Kim often threw in works. He reduces the risk by morning meditation to clear his mind.
As time-consuming as Kim’s practice is, it in return asks something of the viewer by rewarding contemplation in a time when we’re more used to instant gratification. “I see Hun Kyu’s work as an anomaly,” says Jason Hwang, a Korean-American gallery owner who co-founded High Art in 2013. He spotted Kim three years ago and was first drawn to the kindness to the surface. “But the work is so deep and gets very dark very quickly! This allows him to synthesize things that would usually cause a mess. “
This is the first time that Kim’s work will be exhibited in Asia, where he will be joined at Art Basel by a particularly strong exhibition of his emerging contemporaries from South Korea. Examples include the oddly shaped sculptures of Haneyl Choi, featured by P21 in the Discoveries section, and the solo exhibition of paintings by Youjin Yi at the Wooson Gallery.
It may also be interesting to view his work in the context of an older generation of Korean artists brought to Art Basel by Seoul’s Kukje Gallery, which showcases the abstract works of frequently associated Park Seo-Bo, Ha Chong-Hyun. and Lee Ufan. The latter, born in 1936, left Seoul College of Fine Arts to settle in Japan, where he continued to paint in a very traditional style. The political activism he participated in after graduating from a Japanese university in the 1960s led to his arrest and torture by the Korean CIA. After that, he led the avant-garde movement Mono-ha, or “School of Things”.
Some five decades later, however, Kim responds to the contemporary context with complex and illustrative art. He also feels like he’s hit something new. He is sad not to visit Hong Kong himself, but will make his presence known. “I hope my work will entangle people’s brains,” he says. “And I really hope people enjoy this instability.”
May 21-23 highart.fr