The growing support for Korean culture in the United Kingdom and beyond has become inevitable. With its uniqueness and creativity, modern art rose to great popularity. A demand from art lovers has allowed galleries, companies and cultural centres to pick up the best of the best to showcase their work around the globe. The artists deploy art to explore the role of society, humanity and art itself; their work often crosses the barriers of understanding, becoming more complex like the world we’re currently living in. Modern art often offers a platform to the public to utilize their own influence on the world as well.
This year, the London Korean Cultural Centre and its curator, Cha Jae-min, carefully planned a modern art exhibition called Rendered Reality, where Min Joon-hong and Suh Shinuk, two artists responsible for the work, “evoke a very intriguing subject of surviving as an artist in the centre of the art world (London) and perceiving the reality in their own ways. When we organised the exhibition, our exhibition team and two artists worked basically as a team to create new works and to generate narratives”, says Cha Jae-min.
“This exhibition has been curated to stage the diversity of expressions triggered by encounters of contemporary urban life,” adds Jae-min.
We recently spoke to Min Joon-hong and Suh Shinuk about the exhibition, the creative process behind it, and art in general.
Photo © Dan Weill
Before discussing the scope of your artwork, was art and being an artist a path that always called out to you?
Min Joon-hong: Yes, I grew up with my father, an industrial design professor, and my mother, who was a fashion consultant. Due to their professional nature in the creative field, there were many books and materials related to art culture and history at home, and I was able to develop an artistic sense and visual interest since I was a child. And that kind of growth has naturally led me to a job as an artist.
Suh Shinuk: I went to university in Seoul, but I did not know my aptitude. In fact, my major in Hotel Management was not my will. I just chose it because it was a major that was popular in Korea at that time. I was not happy at all when I was studying at a Korean university because my major did not fit my aptitude at all. After a lot of trouble, I became interested in illustration, and I used to work as an illustrator for publishing companies. It is actually the moment when I started to consider art. I decided to study in London when it was recommended to me by my professor who I had grown close to.
How do you create your art, and what is the main subject of your work?
Min Joon-hong: 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 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 to the city alongside these forms.
Facing what has been in need and now discarded, I unfold my impression of the city with the collage, drawing, and installation. I find and collect daily life objects left on the streets. I disassemble the debris left or thrown away and make them lose their original forms and functions. I reassemble these particles into new objects, coated with my pen drawings and the wastepaper. The repetitive pen drawing is the visualization of the impression I get from the city. Unlike pencil that portrays numerous levels of thickness, or painting that provides an infinitive spectrum of colours, ink pen fills the surface evenly with consistent monochromatic lines which are particular to the medium. Yet the monotony is disturbed by the vivid colours of the loosely-shredded packaging paper on which printed images shed the alluring colours of the consumerist city – the colours of the city that I attempt to express. The finished outputs are refined pen drawings and solid pieces arranged in the installations.
Simultaneously, I am interested in ‘memories’ from my urban life and constructing a narrative. The narration is enacted on moving images and delivered to audiences as film and performance which are my personal ‘reassurance’ to what has been left out in today’s urbanized society under the name of efficiency and development.
Suk Shinuk: My work begins with examining the ideology that the family, the media, the politics, the religious organisation, the educational system, the law, the unions, and the communication and culture in South Korea infused into me. I felt a sense of deprivation in feeling the difference between my character and the ideological human image imposed on me. I seemed like a person who had fallen out of society. This ongoing sense of deviation often makes me flee from reality.
By analysing myself voluntarily, I could get a viewpoint from which I can see the situation on a macroscopic level. Furthermore, I wanted to express the ironies created by the ideology and the time period of those who have been contemporary with me in a visual language as an artist. For me, visual expression is a multi-dimensional area, and it is an infinite space within which I can express many repressed emotions.
I realised that the humorous and exaggerated behaviours expressed in the animated movies that I encountered in my childhood are extremely relatable to adult human behaviour, and so not just cartoon fiction. I have related many of these exaggerated behaviours to my own situation, and then expressed them in my work.
In reality, the cruel and tragic scenes in animation, which in life we wouldn’t find amusing, become a comic factor that induces audience laughter. Comedy in animation has a limited laugh allowed within it. However, if these same dark situations are seen in reality, they turn into a definite tragedy. Why am I accepting the misfortunes of others and finding them comic in animation? And why does the comedy become a tragedy in reality? I have not found the answer. These questions are key points that I am exploring in my practice.
The cartoonish imagination examined in my work suggests a deliberate avoidance of the untruthfulness and absurdity of the real world, and yet at the same time, is very much focused on expressing how difficult it can be to distinguish between comedy and tragedy in such a world… By portraying reality in an exaggerated and ridiculous way.
Photo © Dan Weill
You recently collaborated on a project called Rendered Reality (2020 UK Residency Report Showcase – the showcase will resume after the Coronavirus issue gets better) that’s taking place at the London Korean Cultural Centre. What was behind the project itself and what was the creative process like?
Min Joon-hong: The exhibition ‘Rendered Reality’ began with a proposal by Cha Jae-min, curator of the Korean Cultural Centre UK in London. In the institution, which shows Korea’s diverse traditional culture and contemporary art to people living in London, Curator Cha wanted to have the opportunity to introduce young Korean artists working in the UK.
Luckily, curator Cha contacted me and artist Shinuk Suh, who finished their residency at the London art group, the Koppel Project and Unit 1 Gallery, and proposed a duo exhibition. I was convinced that I could find similarities between Shinuk, who expresses interest in the system and power in society in video and kinetic sculpture, and my work in the city where I release personal interests through installation, video, and performance, and decided to hold this exhibition with Shinuk.
Cha Jae-min: As the Korean government body, I believe that the KCCUK is responsible for introducing various aspects of Korean arts and culture. Especially, I try to support Korean artists in different career stages. Each year, we organise the exhibition programme called ‘Artist of the Year’, which presents an established Korean artist, while also preparing the exhibition with younger or emerging Korean artists, such as the current exhibition, Rendered Reality.
This exhibition was conceived after talking to many Korean artists who are based in London. Quite a lot of them have been participating in the exhibitions and residency programmes in the UK, yet it’s challenging for them to have proper space and opportunity to present their research or works. Hence, I developed this new programme called ‘UK residency report showcase’, targeting these emerging artists who successfully finished their residency programmes and were ready to show their results. Thankfully, both residencies – the Koppel Project and the Unit 1 Gallery and Workshop, have been very helpful in shaping this new programme in the KCCUK.
When planning the programme, I immediately thought of these two artists – Min Joon-hong and Suh Shinuk. I’ve been to their studios and have known their works and careers. Although the two artists produce somehow different forms of visual expressions at first glance, both share similar backgrounds and artistic approaches. Their process of creating artworks starts from the simple act of observation within everyday urban life and develops into the questioning of larger socio-political issues. I could feel their struggle, tension, anxiety, and oppression within modern society, along with their confrontation and response to this reality. And then, I thought their works evoke a very intriguing subject of surviving as an artist in the centre of the art world (London) and perceiving the reality in their own ways (which could be an adequate question to start off the new programme, by the way). When we organised the exhibition, our exhibition team and two artists worked basically as a team to create new works and to generate narratives.
Photo © Dan Weill
How long did it take to create Rendered Reality and what materials did you use to make it?
Min Joon-hong: In my case, I participated in the Artist in Residence Program at the NARS Foundation in New York, USA, from October to December 2019. After returning to London, for the Rendered Reality exhibition, the artworks were produced in earnest from January. In addition, ‘The Past is not with you (2019)’, which was exhibited at NARS Residence, was airlifted from New York and released as part of ‘Rendered Reality’.
The installation work, ‘The Debris from the Future Past (2019)’ and ‘The Past is not with you (2019)’, unveiled in the exhibition, is made of objects I found on the streets of Seoul, London and New York. The video is also the result of my stroking through the cities, and contains the records of the past five months, along with the aforementioned installation.
Suh Shinuk: It was about two and a half months that I had to fully prepare for this exhibition. After de-installing my solo exhibition at Unit 1 Gallery in January, I started planning and producing new works. Most of my work is made of metal and silicone, and the kinetic movement is achieved using an AC motor.
What are some of the Rendered Reality project’s most important aspects?
Min Joon-hong: I think this exhibition is important because it can promote the themes and phenomena that young Korean artists in Britain are actually dealing with. I think that mine and Shinuk’s work contains questions about the social system faced by younger generations around the world who live in the present, the breakdown of virtual and real life, and the sudden change in a capitalist society, not the only subject of Korea.
And, I think sharing these themes with audiences in London can be an opportunity for young artists to show realistic views of the contemporary world, instead of just displaying artworks that have traditional Korean characteristics.
In other words, I think the importance of this exhibition is that by sharing the works of young Korean artists who immigrate to London and live in London with the public through the exhibition ‘Rendered Reality’, the audience can explore the real concerns and reasons of contemporary people, not ‘foreign’ art from other countries.
Photo © Dan Weill
When you created the Rendered Reality project, was there a deliberate message present from the very beginning?
Min Joon-hong: When we first started ‘Rendered Reality’, there was no deliberate message. However, Shinuk’s work and my work had a common interest in ‘what happens in the real world we live in.’ The curator Cha Jae-min and coordinator Kim So-hyun from the curators’ team at the Korean Cultural Centre UK understood this part correctly.
And, based on their understanding of our work, they could set an overall concept for the exhibition, and they were able to develop the basic theme of ‘rendered inspiration from the real world, creating a new one with art’ into the present exhibition theme.
Suh Shinuk: I wanted the audience to see themselves reflected in the human images projected in my work. And I tried to convey the question of what it means to be ‘real’ in this society.
Cha Jae-min: This exhibition has been curated to stage the diversity of expressions triggered by encounters of contemporary urban life. As mentioned briefly in Q3, we wanted to deliver the ideas of perceiving the real world and how each artist articulates and ‘renders’ the reality with their own voices. Keeping this aim in mind, we all continuously conversed ideas and organised the project in a more collaborative way, rather than setting up the curatorial message first and planning the exhibition toward it.
Looking at your art, which is more important to you: the subject of your art or the way it is executed?
Min Joon-hong: One of the mottos I have in my art practice is that in achieving 100 percent of art piece, the subject is 100 percent, and the execution is 100 percent at the same time. Basically, all works of art have a specific theme and form to express it: painting, drawing, video, installation, performance, etc.
I think every creator who has ever existed in human history expresses the reasons and feelings they see and feel about the world through the media they discover and polish. And when the reason, emotion, and media create attractive chemistry, I think the audience can feel moved. And so is my art practice. I think that in order to convey the subject, I want to talk about it to the people, I need the ability to express it well. Also, I think that in order for the results I express not to be just entertainment, I need a sincere topic that can touch many people. Here, I can hardly say which one is more important.
Suh Shinuk: I focus more on the context of my work. Otherwise, the subject of my work and its visual language becomes meaningless.
Looking at your past and present projects, when you complete your work, do you remain attached to it or is there a catharsis with detachment present at the end of the project?
Min Joon-hong: Basically, my works contain my unfulfilled sense of accomplishment and constant anxiety. The process of scheduling exhibitions at art institutions and galleries, and struggling for exhibitions, serves as an anaesthetic that temporarily ends the aforementioned unfilled sense of accomplishment and constant anxiety. In this context, I think that rather than being associated with previous works and past projects I feel more catharsis when I complete or finish an exhibition. However, the effects of the anaesthetic don’t last long, when one exhibition or project is over, it seems like another must be discovered, and there is a sense of anxiety that needs to be made. And I go back to the studio.
Suh Shinuk: My practice is not piecemeal research, but a comprehensive and continuous researching of ongoing social phenomena. So, I have never finished with my projects.
Photo © Dan Weill
To what extent do you think your surroundings shaped you, creatively speaking, and in what way?
Min Joon-hong: I often ask this question to myself. What I have concluded so far is that everything that exists in this world makes me. This world can be too abstract. However, I think that I am determined through the people who are related to the reality that I am in now, and through the things I consume. My motivation for creation also begins with the existence of this daily routine. In the reality of 2020 that I am living in now, the symptoms that I find in capitalism, the words and actions that I give and receive with people around me, and the advertisements and products in various media I see, I observe myself living as an artist and get inspiration for art activities.
Suh Shinuk: As an animal, a human being, my five senses adapt and change according to the surrounding environment. The social backgrounds I have had, where I live, and who I have relationships with are mostly revealed in my work as an artist. But beyond that, it is very difficult for me to answer this question. I think it is almost impossible to know the effect of my surrounding environment on a piecemeal basis, moment by moment, and it is hard to say quite how this organic environment shapes and influences me whilst it is happening. But certainly, regarding the past and my earlier life, I can see how South Korean society and its structures and ideology had a huge influence on the subjects that I chose to explore in my practice.
You both presented your art in different parts of the world. As art is perceived differently in many countries, what are the main challenges as an artist?
Min Joon-hong: The main challenge as an artist who lives and works in London is probably a stereotype about me as an artist from Korea. Since I am an artist who immigrated from Korea, there is a ‘Korean tendency’ that many people want from me. Not a few of the fellow artists and curators we met here suggest that I try to make an art piece with traditional Korean painting or craftsmanship. However, not only am I not interested in such traditional Korean techniques, I think they are expressions that do not fit my art theme. Also, to me, who grew up in another big city called Seoul, the characteristic of being an urban dweller is greater than that of a Korean. And as such an urban dweller, the appearance I have as an Asian and the Oriental stereotypes that people expect serve as main challenges as an ‘ARTIST’.
Suh Shinuk: The same work is interpreted differently depending on the region or person. In particular, the audience’s familiarity with modern art also has a great influence on it. When I first exhibited my work in Moscow, I was very worried about the issues mentioned above. It was because I was anxious about how people from different countries, with their own culture, politics, thought, and religion would accept my work. It was an unnecessary worry because art can be a visual language; I learned a lot while watching the audiences and felt that they understood my research topic and enjoyed and appreciated the work.
Photo © Dan Weill
The definition of art is open, subjective, and debatable. There is no agreement among historians and artists, which is why we are left with so many definitions of art. The concept itself has changed over centuries; how would you define art yourself? What does art mean to you?
Min Joon-hong: I think art is a way of recording the world. To be more specific, I think it’s an unrestricted recording method that observes the world and expresses it in its own way. As there is no fixed answer in the world, people can define the world they think of in the way they want and share it with others. I think art is the most undefined and unrestricted way of communication among such sharing methods.
Suh Shinuk: I fully agree with what Joon-hong has said in the above.
What is your most important artist tool? Is there something you can’t live without in your studio or while creating your art project?
Min Joon-hong: My body?
Suh Shinuk: My laptop. It is a significant tool for me. Perhaps without it, I couldn’t have completed recent works. It boosts my creativity in quite an extreme way and makes complex designs far simpler.
Photo © Dan Weill
Is there an element of art you enjoy working with most and why?
Min Joon-hong: This is a difficult question. All the elements of art are attractive to me. It is not easy to say which particular element is attractive because of my character in choosing a medium that fits the context when I have something to talk about.
In the present situation, I am interested in the performance that I participate in myself. The synchronicity that the media has and the chemistry with the audience is the charm of the performance that I am currently feeling, and I think that the next project I am thinking about would be the best fit for the performance format.
Suh Shinuk: Recently, I have done a lot of work with metal. I’ve covered a lot of mediums before this, but have found that metal has a lot of limitations, and is also very tricky to handle. It takes a lot of practice to get used to it. I am still practicing and I have a long way to go. However, the more I get used to the material, the more I am attracted to its unique characteristics.
How do you overcome creative blocks?
Min Joon-hong: I read many books that have nothing to do with art. I read many books about history, science, and politics. Of course, the field is all about art, too. But when you look at the events and achievements of people in different fields, there are times when unexpected inspiration comes to mind.
Suh Shinuk: I read the notes and sketchbooks that I have written so far. This not only reminds me of the ideas I haven’t explored, but also gives me the opportunity to look back on myself. In fact, it is very embarrassing to see some of my old works again… Another way is to go on a trip because the new environment always gives me great stimulation.
What’s next for you when it comes to the arts? Any new project in the pipeline?
Min Joon-hong: I’m not sure what will happen now because of Coronavirus, but I’m curating a group exhibition that Shinuk and I will participate in June. This is an exhibition of eight artists based in London to be held at the Koppel Project Central Gallery which I belong to. It will be an exhibition that will include painting, installation, and video, featuring various approaches by artists to the city. Later, an artist residency in Berlin was confirmed from September to November.
Suh Shinuk: In fact, many things are planned for the year ahead. Artist residencies in the United States and the Netherlands, two group exhibitions for June, and a solo exhibition for August, both in London, are also planned. However, it is unclear whether any of this will proceed as planned due to the current situation. [Coronavirus issue].
Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Julia Litwinowicz
Photo Credit: Installation view and Opening reception, Rendered Reality (2020), Courtesy of the artists and Korean Cultural Centre UK. Photos © Dan Weill.
Featured Photos: Min Joon-hong Photo © Anna Arigossi Solomon (Icon Photos), Suh Shinuk Photo © Martin Mayorga from Dateagle Art
* The public will be able to see the exhibition as soon as the Coronavirus crisis ends.