YEJI KIM’S FIRST SOLO EXHIBITION & WINNER OF THE KOREAN CULTURAL CENTRE’S OPEN CALL PROGRAMME:
Perhaps one of the most encouraging platforms currently out there for emerging Korean artists is the Open Call programme, organised by the Korean Cultural Centre as a springboard within the UK’s extremely competitive art scene. It is open to various forms of artistic expression and communication, and it aims to give UK-based Korean artists a stronger voice on the contemporary art stage.
This year, the Open Call jury – consisting of Matt Williams, Curator at the ICA; Kirsty Ogg, Director of Bloomberg New Contemporaries; and Aaron Cezar, Founding Director of the Delfina Foundation – awarded Yeji Kim and Jeongwon Eom with solo exhibition opportunities within the Korean Cultural Centre in London. Both awards are well-deserved recognitions for the artists’ unique potential and impressive creative maturity.
We had the pleasure of attending Yeji Kim’s first solo exhibition yesterday at the Korean Cultural Centre – as a winner of this year’s Open Call programme. The event is set to go on from 28th February until 18th March, and is a stupendous survey of Ms Kim’s artistic practice.
After meeting Ms Jeyun Moon, Curator for the Korean Cultural Centre for an introductory talk regarding the event, we were honoured with an exhibition tour alongside the artist herself, Ms Yeji Kim. In her late twenties and brimming with creative potential, Ms Kim explained her vision – the ethos behind the central structure of the show, and its complementing sections of childhood memories, flat landscapes and snippets from her life in Korea.
The core of the exhibition, titled “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things”, is a series of paintings that explore her personal understanding of “shallowness” and “flatness” with a focus on the articulation of images from social media. The “dead things” referred to in the title is borrowed from the 1971 eponymous zombie movie, a low-budget cult treasure of horror cinematography.
The painting installation format aims to further expand the artist’s method of investigating shallowness – Ms Kim thus presents this central part of the exhibition in a light and cheerful fashion while carving out the logical angle that makes for a flat world.
“Flatness”, another key component of the show, is explored across five different themes. Firstly, Ms Kim turns her sights on the Instagrammers of South Korea – rappers and “influencers” captured in visual debris and fragments collected across the social network, and recycled into paintings and montages that redefine their presence.
The artist explained that the subjects of her paintings and Instagram sources were “flat” through their use of lighting, camera flashes and their projection on smartphone screens. Depth was lost in the process and, in the end, we were left with mere figures, anthropomorphic ideas.
By using painted Instagram images in a gallery context, Ms Kim presents pieces that are simply detached from their original narratives, then given new life in her montage – leaving room for shameless evaluation and contemplation.
One recurring subject in these paintings is the relationship Ms Kim draws between Parisian flaneurs and hipsters. Much like the flaneurs of the Second Empire – mesmerised by the vibrant urban spectacle, today’s Instagrammers wander through online spaces, clicking precious Likes and time away following others and, in the end, feeling empty.
According to the artist, our eyes cannot penetrate the depth of images on glossy flat screens, but instead we perpetually slide down their surface, looking for more of the same.
A second essential theme of the exhibition revolves around “flat” landscapes, a series which she began when she first moved to London. The artist mused upon the fact that she was able to see everything differently in London – as if the atmosphere was structurally different from that of South Korea, and that light fell in a way that showed a different colour palette altogether, as opposed to the sunny and airy spectrum she’d grown accustomed to back home.
Thus, living in a new city and experiencing different surroundings, Ms Kim could feel the impact on her way of sensing the world – it also changed her visual experience of space. This, in turn, has helped the artist understand the traditional British landscape and also encouraged her to attempt the Western painting realism, using a one-point perspective system.
However, Ms Kim is “used to the world of flatness from photos and screens, and therefore I failed to create depth, as my works remain slickly slip and flat”. Nevertheless, where she saw failure, she also uncovered potential and integrated the paintings into her exhibition to a superb effect. Her images essentially pop out from the surface, as she cuts them and re-arranges them in real space.
In this second theme, the flat surface becomes a three-dimensional object – cut-outs of British landscape that seem to convey a different kind of depth. Of the entire series, which explores everything from outer space to parks and lakes, her sensible treatment of water reflections is a beautiful highlight and a flicker of quiet optimism.
The third theme explored in “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things” is based on images from children’s TV programmes. One will find familiar characters taken out of the television set and reverently painted as personal icons – it is a delightful and colourful trip down memory lane, filled with excerpts of narratives which have influenced Ms Kim throughout her childhood.
Most of these elements illustrate a world that has been created to attract children and grab their attention, rather than depicting a specific reality. In order to deliver such fantasy characters and worlds, various computer graphics, vivid colours and extravagant costumes are used in the process.
But Ms Kim steps away from such techniques, which only enhance the impression of visual trickery, and treats her childhood memories with fluttering brush strokes and limited colours to portray the textures of an old television show.
In the fourth theme addressing “flatness”, Yeji Kim collects various items and fragments of visual debris from online sources to create a dynamic montage, spanning the length of a wall like a nostalgic collage.
The lightness and flatness of her drawings and paintings forge a particular relationship when they’re combined with airy and depthless materials such as discarded snack packets and cheap plastic toys. The underlying idea is clear as it explores shallowness and, at the same time, celebrates the dynamic of such a montage.
The fifth theme is bound to draw out memories from anyone viewing this collection of paintings – childhood images from schoolbooks and encyclopaedias. These early works examine how one’s childhood memories are recorded through specific colours and figures.
For Ms Kim, these memories resurface in warm compositions depicting school days and empty desks, random scenes from the sports class and a stunning ensemble of zoology illustrations painted over the years.
All of the works in this section are recordings of images taken from literary materials of the early ‘90s, drawing focus to the artist’s curiosity as to how the world is immortalised and remembered. She has developed a personal interest in the low quality of CMYK prints in old textbooks from her childhood days.
Ms Kim also tells us that she is primarily taken with the lack of individuality in the children’s faces when depicted in group pictures, and in the seemingly endless array of dead fish and insects that are documented for the purpose of education.
Such illustrations have had a major impact on Ms Kim’s development and understanding of the world. “The butterflies are dead and pinned to a board, and we rarely get to see them outside in our city lives,” she says. “The same goes for the fish. We only see them in aquariums or on screens or in photographs, most of the time”.
As nostalgic and bitter as the central axis of this exhibition may seem in its approach of the shallowness and emptiness of Instagrammers, or the flatness of printed photographs and TV or phone screens, Yeji Kim’s “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things” is much more impressive through its treatment of colour and trivial impressions – layer upon layer of things that captured our attention as children, and shaped the way in which we view the world today.
We thoroughly recommend this exhibition as it sensibly draws focus to the superficial in our current lives while reminding us of the sweet, innocent purity of yesterday. In the future, we expect to see more of Yeji Kim as she continues her development on the contemporary art scene. We also expect to see more artists emerge through the Korean Cultural Centre’s Open Call programme – a much-needed platform on an extremely competitive art market.
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