Intuitive Creativity: Interview with Yeesookyung
By Lauren Long
Seoul-based artist Yeesookyung is best known for her Translated Vase (2002– ) series, for which she transforms discarded ceramic shards into biomorphic sculptures, fusing the fragments with 24-karat gold leaf. Works from this series have been exhibited globally, including her five-meter-tall Nine Dragons in Wonderland (2017), shown at the International Exhibition of the 57th Venice Biennale. Trained as a painter at the Seoul National University, Yeesookyung emerged on the art scene in the 1990s as part of a wave of young Korean artists experimenting with a wide range of mediums to express personal experiences in a rapidly modernizing Korea. Yeesookyung has since worked across video, sculpture, drawing, and installation in her own study of individual and collective histories. On the occasion of Yeesookyung’s show “Fragments of Form” at Hong Kong’s Massimo De Carlo gallery, Lauren Long sat down with the artist to discuss her longstanding ceramic project, her introspective practice, and her reflections on Korea’s past.
What inspired Translated Vase?
I went through two phases. The first was in 2001, when I asked local potters to make vases in the style of traditional Korean pottery, inspired by Kim Sang-ok’s [ode to] Korean vases. During this time, I saw that Korean ceramic masters were destroying the vases they deemed imperfect, inspiring me to explore how to work with these broken pieces, which was the second phase.
Initially, I wanted to make specific abstract shapes from my imagination that were symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing, but they kept failing to hold. These were idealistic, almost perfect, shapes. Eventually I discovered that the pieces would guide me to shape their own forms, fitting together like a puzzle, and growing organically on their own.
My work is different from the Japanese kintsugi method,which is repair-focused, returning the objects to their original forms. Everyone always compares [kintsugi] with my Translated Vases but they are not the same, they arise from very different contexts.
Could you describe your process of creating these sculptures?
It’s very difficult and time-consuming to acquire the shards. I get my collection from all over the Korean Peninsula, including North Korea. Some of them are more than a hundred years old, some from the 1950s–60s, or during the Japanese occupation [1910–45]. Once, I even picked up a Song-dynasty piece. I don’t intentionally select shards from a specific period, I just accept whatever comes to me by coincidence, like fate. I am a taker; I do not choose.
Then, I clean them and touch them; the tactile part is very important. I organize them by color, size, and shape, and finally I look at my collection in its entirety, and that is when I start the assembling. I never plan ahead in terms of color palette or pattern; it is all part of my intuitive process. After I put one shard down, I then look for other shards that fit together. It’s not a thought-out process; the works make themselves—the forms, the colors. Just like life, things happen naturally.
I always think about the size of the base so it can balance the rest of the body. There is no specific meaning behind the shapes. What is more important for me is the size and the height. I make sculptures of all sizes but I prefer them to be human-sized, reaching to about eye level, easing their accessibility for viewers [and encouraging] them to connect with the pieces.
I have found that people react differently to my works. Once, at an exhibition, an elderly man told me that my ceramic works remind him of when he lost his family during World War II, when everything collapsed. But on that same day, a young boy told me that he had just broken his grandmother’s vase, and that maybe if I took the broken pieces then she would not be mad at him. These are two stories I treasure, and I believe these kinds of human connections are vital.
What does the materiality of ceramics mean to you?
The medium is not as important to me as its fragility and broken state. I am attracted to broken and failed states or objects, which is my main theme. Every ceramic object will eventually be broken, if not now then sometime in the future. When this happens, I find some kind of freedom—the broken states give me a chance to intervene, a chance to create.
You have two other ongoing projects: Past Life Regression Painting (2014– ), a monthly painting series inspired by your hypnosis sessions, and Daily Drawing (2005– ), composed of daily illustrations depicting various things next to a circle. How would you compare them to Translated Vase?
In these [other series] I explore my unconsciousness. They are all from the same context actually, the drawings, the paintings, the ceramic series—all different mediums for me to explore my thoughts. For all of these, I do not plan in advance; they happen naturally on their own.
When I first started the Past Life Regression Painting, I wanted to discover limitless freedom, but I realized that my mind was loaded with restrictions and prejudices. Like my vases, these drawings and paintings are fragmented, and do not have a connection. They end up having different narratives depending on the viewer.
They are all part of my ongoing journey of discovering who I am, and what I am doing; it’s a learning process for me. I have a huge urge to produce these kinds of things, I call it my mental disease. I cannot stop, new ideas are always appearing. It’s something that I enjoy doing. I want to leave the interpretation open to viewers. I am happy to receive people’s emotions and reactions, however different or negative they may be.
Your works exploring Korean history and politics do have specific meanings, for example, the video Cinema Silencio (2016– ), where you removed all the images and dialogue in Korean films made in the 1970s, during Park Chung-hee’s military dictatorship; The Crowning Project (2016– ), where you coronated statues used as nationalist propaganda in the 1960s–80s; and the public installation You Were There: DMZ Project (2017), which involved covering rocks in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) with gold leaf. What motivated you to create these?
These stem from my personal experiences and my nostalgia for my past, and are also reflections of my views on specific periods of Korean history. The sentiment of my generation is very fragmented for many reasons, such as rapid industrialization or economic developments.
The content of films made during the dictatorship period were quite strange. For example, in the movie Winter Woman (1977), the heroine was supposed to be a pure virgin but she became schizophrenic and began offering sex freely. Because of censorship during that time, the messages behind the movies were blurred and not shown directly to audiences. Cinema Silencio is about finding the hidden narratives.
The Crowning Project shares the same context of that era. The figure statues were removed from city centers when the dictatorship period ended in the 1980s, taken away by authorities who wanted to erase everything from that time, and erase the past. In their place, the officials put up contemporary, minimalist sculptures. But I found some old sculptures in rural areas. The crowning is my way of thanking the sculptures for their continued existence, paying homage to them. I have a personal connection to them because I was very young in the 1960s and ’70s, and so they are one way for me to link to my younger self. Also, through this work I want to provide a chance to re-think the statues, why they were suddenly gone without the public noticing. This project is to re-think our Korean past and also my own past.
For You Were There: DMZ Project, it is like I put a spell on those rocks, turning them into gold. For me, it seems impossible for North and South Korea to unite, and so I thought the effort required for the unification is like the effort required to turn rocks into gold. But at the same time, I did make the rocks change into gold, so perhaps it could happen someday. I put my innocent mind into this work, like a prayer. The unification of North and South Korea is something I want to see in my lifetime. Sometimes in the morning when I wake up, I am hoping to read news headlines about the unification. There are so many families who cannot see each other, it breaks my heart. I also have some relatives who I think live in Pyongyang, so I really want to visit North Korea. On another note, I sometimes acquire North Korean ceramic fragments through China, but if I could travel to North Korea directly it would be much easier to get the shards.
How do you feel after seeing pieces from your Translated Vases series in conjunction with the abstract paintings of the late Italian artist Carla Accardi in your show at MDC?
It is actually two solo exhibitions within the same gallery space. Although the gallery curated the show, I do think there is some connection between our practices. Seeing them together, I can envision a dialogue between the works. My vases have the property of paintings—they start from my hand gesturally while the golden cracks contain an aspect of drawing. Carla Accardi’s paintings are often described as calligraphic abstraction, and you can feel her intuitive energy. Similarly, my works were created from my intuition.
Lauren Long is ArtAsiaPacific’s news and web editor.
“Fragments of Form” is on view at Massimo De Carlo, Hong Kong, until January 4, 2020.
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