Soft sculpture, waste, artistic cooperation, cultural differences, healing and spirituality – Danielle Reid spoke with current SomoS Artist-in-Residence, South Korean artist Wonju Kim about her soft sculpture/fiber art which will be presented in her solo exhibition Healing the Process at SomoS, opening November 21, 6-9pm.
In Healing the Process, Kim illuminates the journey of her recuperation from injuries caused by a car accident and its very tangible impact on her creative practice, embedding it in a broader discourse on artistic production, domesticity, disability, loss and recovery. The show highlights this personal recovery while simultaneously incorporating larger, previous themes that have become central to her identity as a South Korean citizen, woman and artist searching for a collective sense of healing.
Can you give a brief introduction?
My name is WonJu Kim. I’m from South Korea. I’m 29 years old. I studied Media Art at Kaywon Design and Art School in South Korea and Fiber Art at the University of the Art in Philadelphia.
Why did you choose to come to Berlin, and even more specifically, SomoS? Is this your first time in the city?
This is my first time being in Berlin. A major reason why I chose Berlin to pursue an artist’s residency was the atmosphere. Being here makes me think that this is a place where I can find myself more authentically as an artist. I can do more of my own thing than what I found I could do in Korea, as I encountered so many limitations in my home. In Korea, I’ve found that people often don’t understand my works or my choice of medium. When people viewed my installations for the first time, I would often get responses like, “What is that?” or “Why don’t you just paint something so people can buy your works?”
I have to remain honest with myself. I’m an installation artist; I want to create soft sculptures. In the USA, I found the public was pretty open to what I wanted to create, which, in turn, allowed me to feel more open and free to explore what interested me. This openness was really what inspired me to come to Berlin. I feel that I can channel my creative energy however I please here, without any judgement or misunderstanding.
What is your preferred medium and what factors contributed to its choice?
Mainly, right now, I’m using a lot of fabrics. I’m also quite influenced by the use of plastic. I studied Fiber under the Crafts Department at the University of Art in Philadelphia, which definitely was oriented towards a more fine-arts–versus technical–curriculum. I love soft sculptures so I’m mainly utilizing a lot of soft material such as vinyl, plastic bags, and fabric.
What are the techniques that you use for this medium? Are there any techniques that are unique to your specific practice?
Basically, I do a lot of sewing–both hand- and machine-sewing; for the most part, though, I do a lot of hand work, meaning tools are pretty secondary for me. I’m a very tactile person, and to me, soft sculpture means that you, as the artist, are able to convey the tactility of an artwork predominantly from its appearance. I really try to put a lot of energy and craftsmanship from myself into the art.
I became involved in medium of soft sculptures because they look simultaneously otherworldly and comfortable. Within my own artistic career, creating these works makes me, too, feel a sense of comfort. I want to share that feeling with other people. I want my works to focus on happiness, rather than sadness. Fabrics are able to convey these feelings because of their consistent proximity to everyone in their everyday lives. People are always wearing them, touching them, interacting with them; it’s impossible not feel some sort of sense of familiarity from the materials.
What, or who, is your inspiration for creating these works?
Do Ho Suh is one artist who has really inspired me. He’s really influential within the world of soft-sculpting. I was one of his assistants when I was 19 years old, and that experience definitely impacted the way I interpreted art. Suh’s need to hire external help came from the sheer scale of his works, which often tended to be at a real-life scale–buildings, landscapes–all made from fabric. It simply wouldn’t have been logistically possible for him to complete these on his own. Working for him was probably the first time that I realized that artists can hire people to realize their works. Before that, I had always conceived art as something that artists had to conceptualize and eventually create, all by themselves. Suh’s works also introduced the idea that an artist can create something life-sized but from different materials than what you would find in the actual, physical realm.
What themes would you say are central to your work?
I would say, currently, I’m exploring a very private narrative. Previously, however, when I was in the USA, I found myself mostly fascinated with ‘Waste Culture.’ The degree to which people are wasteful there was a shock to me, because in my country, we tend to lean towards being very conscientious of our waste; we conserve a lot. By contrast, in the States, they used a lot of disposables, a lot of trash bags on a day to day basis, and, honestly, it was extremely shocking to me. During my time there, I really felt like I needed to make a commentary on the problem and how it could be changed. I used a lot of plastic spoons, plastic bags, and then aesthetically re-purposed them, and gave them a new identity so that people could see them in a different light.
What are your intentions behind the works you currently create? Is it a part of a previous narrative? Is it something new that is specific to the time you intend to spend at SomoS?
The project that I’m focusing on during my time at SomoS is definitely unique to this experience. I’m mainly focusing on me, and people who are also searching for some sort of healing. I personally have been through so many physically trying things over the past two years. After I got into a car accident, I regularly feel my body becoming more and more ‘ruined.’ I used to be a really, really strong person. Once I broke my spine, it honestly forced me to stop a lot of the things that I had been doing. Since I couldn’t move much, and now I’ve injured my hand, I couldn’t do much else than produce work–slowly but surely–in my studio here, and try and capture the feelings I’ve been experiencing during this period in my life.
Does your work have a personal connection? If so, elaborate. How do you hope your work will be interpreted by a larger audience?
Creating these works is a sort of catharsis for me. I want people to holistically feel a sense of healing–through color, form. I want these installations to reflect a sense of heaven. I’m recently using a lot of colors in my choice of soft materials. I make these installations for me, through me. In doing so, I hope to convey some part of my life to the audience, which, ideally would allow people to know me more intimately through my art.
What do you hope to gain from your time here at SomoS? Personal growth? Artistic growth? Something else?
I think it’s a bit of both. I spend all of my money and all of my time dedicated to my creative process. That’s a major reason why I came here from South Korea. Coming to Berlin was probably one of the biggest decisions I’d ever made. I had to literally pack up my entire life and bring it here. The implications of that decision will definitely have an impact on my life that expands far beyond my three-month stay here at SomoS.
This residency, and now exhibition, was honestly my last chance. I was desperate because I knew once I returned to South Korea, I probably wouldn’t be able to continue to create art, since the art environment there isn’t the most welcoming in my opinion. When I’m here at SomoS, I really try and push myself because I’m always reflecting on the fact that this could be the last time for me to showcase my works. I keep pushing with every limitation I encounter.
I normally, in the past, would have defined myself as a passionate person, but recently, after encountering so many hardships, I just want to end this right. I really thought, before coming to SomoS, that this residency would be the culmination of my artistic career because when I go back to Korea, I have to go back to working an everyday job without any real sort of inspiration or artistic vibe. SomoS’ program has shown me how great residencies can be at revitalizing and re-inspiring artists such as myself, so now, after this, I hope to participate in many more residency programs all around the globe, so long as the opportunities present themselves.