From Selfie to Story

Jiyeon Kim Interview


In this artist interview, we present South-Korean artist Jiyeon Kim who works between Seoul and Berlin. She speaks about portraiture in the digital era; the relation between online images and real life painting; and the unreliability of our digital memories. The interview was conducted during Kim’s artist residency at SomoS early 2020, and published at the occasion of her solo exhibition Meme Paintings, on view June 9 until July 18 2020.

Jiyeon, could you please tell us a bit about your background?
I’m from South Korea, but I worked in Germany as well for 3 years. Then I moved back to Korea again, and came back to Berlin to participate in the SomoS residency program. I studied Fine art in Korea, and finished my Bachelor’s degree there. Then I decided to study in Germany, but not Fine art this time. I wanted to experience new things while abroad, so I started in a small city in Germany studying Interior Design for 2 years. Then I quit because it was different than I’d expected. Studying Interior Design was nice, but it wasn’t for me. So I decided to go back to working as an artist again.

Can you tell us about your earlier work?
I originally painted portraits mostly. Then, when I came to Berlin, I had to find models for my portraits, but it was really hard. I found interesting faces on the dating app Tinder, however, and I started drawing them. Then friends started to tell me that I wasn’t allowed to paint people from Tinder. And I thought, why? No one knows if it’s actually illegal or legal, so I wanted to question that. I was curious how the visitors to the exhibition felt about seeing their Tinder profile somewhere they didn’t expect. So I did the Tinder project in Berlin in 2017. I made more than 100 portraits, then I realized that I could make new faces that don’t even exist in real life. I wanted to play with creating fake people, and creating their portraits with fake stories as fake news. So I did another legally questionable thing on the internet: my second project in Berlin, the “Fake News Project.” I made a website,, where I uploaded my fake articles using fake stories and fake faces. After that, I wasn’t satisfied with my paintings, so with the subsequent “Meme Paintings” I changed my painting method to focus not only on portraits, but also on collage, aiming to expand my style.

So you painted these portraits, like the Tinder Project, and you showed them in a real exhibition. I’m interested in the transfer from the digital world to the real world, how you took these digital images and translated them into the physical world.
The idea was very simple. I painted a picture from the internet. So the painting physically exists, but then it was presented online again when I was interviewed by German online magazines. So, these images which were found online and existed as paintings in the real world, were back online again. And by going online again, they started to influence the real lives of the people I had painted. I thought that was really interesting. So I actually focused on how I could control the interaction between the real world and the virtual world, within the medium of classical painting. Because I am a painter, but the world is becoming more online, but what I’m doing is more classical, and the material is really physical. So I wanted to find a way to expand my physical work online. I wanted to focus on the action and reaction within both the physical and online worlds.

The works that we see in the Meme Paintings exhibition are a new series, set apart from the Tinder works. Can you tell us about how you came to create these works?
Actually I painted a lot of portrait paintings, and I wanted to change and not focus on faces or the characteristics of models. Besides from that, I tried to change the composition to be more layered, covered, and mixed. First, I worked in Photoshop to see how it would look. Then I just put everything on the canvas, and the first painting in this series was not perfect because it was overloaded. I had to edit for better balance. Because there are a lot of techniques, elements, and materials involved, it was kind of a difficult task for me. It was kind of like a puzzle to find balance.

That’s kind of the theme of the Meme Paintings, that there is no relation between the depictions. But this is the incoherent format in which we save online stories or images in our heads.

I see the works in this exhibition as a kind of collage; there are parts of human beings, but only parts. And then there are plants, and products that you would find in the supermarket, so it has pop elements. And also very sharp lines, all the elements are floating in a nondescript abstract space, as if they are in motion, swirling around.
That’s true. I took these images from the internet, from Instagram or news magazines. So it is actually a story about memories, because I felt that I can’t remember every photo or story that I’d seen on the internet, they’re too jumbled in my mind. So the images don’t have a relationship to each other. The woman is actually a politician from the USA, but the other girl is from Japan. She committed suicide because she was raped by her father. So, actually they are just stories from the internet, but I couldn’t remember every story I read, and because there was too much information and images, they became broken and mixed and layered. So maybe you can’t understand why this guy is combined with stuff you might be able to find at the supermarket, and actually there is no relationship between them. That’s kind of the theme of the Meme Paintings, that there is no relation between the depictions. But this is the incoherent format in which we save online stories or images in our heads.

Can you tell me about the last 3 months that you spent at SomoS?
Actually I’ve been here for more than 3 years. So the last 3 months have not been so eventful for me because I’ve been working so hard on this show, and I stayed in my studio most of the time. But if you asked me how I feel about Berlin, I would say that it’s really liberating. Actually, if I had been in Korea or somewhere else, I couldn’t have come up with the Tinder Project, or even these new paintings. Berlin has an interesting atmosphere, and I love this city.

Portrait of Berlin-based South-Korean artist Jiyeon Kim speaking about her work, sitting in her atelier.
Jiyeon Kim in her SomoS atelier, March 2020.

You’re going back to Korea soon, what are your future plans?
It’s actually hard for artists to plan a future. But I’m hoping that I will have opportunities to show my paintings in Korea as well, because I’ve had no reaction there yet. I’ve never shown my projects or paintings in my home country Korea. So I’m really curious how Korean people will react. Because it’s quite confrontational, the Tinder Project for example. If I did it again in Korea, it would seem really aggressive to Korean society.

How is it aggressive?
The reaction that I got from Berliners was quite accepting. Although they found themselves in my exhibition, they weren’t upset. Most of the models weren’t upset, but I can imagine that Korean people couldn’t understand why I would do such a project. They might feel like they are attacked by the project. Maybe it’s just my prejudice. I want to know how Korean people would react to an art project in Korea. It’s my first plan in Korea. I also want to work not just in Berlin or Seoul, but also other places like London or New York.