Hyunmi Yoo: Dancing the Perceptual Edge

© Hyunmi Yoo ‘A Man Turned into a Painting’ [detail] 2009 from the series ‘Bleeding Blue’

An artist is a foolish bee!


In the same way that sounds have different qualities that make the same musical note perceptually different on different instruments or across different voices, so visual media each have their own ‘visual timbre’. Even if we do not consciously analyse why it might be, we can sense that a painting – however realistic it may appear – is not a photograph. And a photograph, however much it is put through computer post-production, retains some sense that it is – to borrow a phrase from the American writer Susan Sontag – “something directly stencilled off the real”. These are not merely pedantic divisions or categories, for, as Sontag goes on to say: “While a painting, even one that meets photographic standards of resemblance, is never more than the stating of an interpretation, a photograph is never less than the registering of an emanation (light waves reflected by objects) – a material vestige of its subject in a way that no painting can be.”

The work of the Korean artist, Hyunmi Yoo, dances along this tantalising perceptual edge in a new and novel way. She uses an aesthetic strategy to creatively confuse the eye by interposing paint between the reality of the object and the machine for capturing its emanations: the camera. What we see is certainly a photograph. The objects photographed are definitely solid, present things. But their surface has been covered with paint; we see brushstrokes and texture, heightened colours and painted shadows. They are changelings in magical world of flux caught by the camera, yet not quite of this world.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a widespread belief in the West that a photograph could capture the image of a ghost not visible to the naked eye. This process, known as spirit photography, invested the camera with special qualities that transcended ordinary human perception, and those people supposed to have a special ability to communicate with the dead were called spiritualists. Hyunmi Yoo is no spiritualist, but her images play with the fine line between our sense of authentic perception and artificial representation; of things real and things imagined. It is perhaps no accident that, in English, the word for a visual artform and the word for a spiritualist is the same: a medium.

Alasdair Foster

© Hyunmi Yoo ‘Easel and Radio’ 2009 from the series ‘Composition’


Alasdair: How did you first become a photographic artist?

Hyunmi: Actually, I don’t see myself as a photographer. I am an artist that uses a lot of different media: video, sculpture, painting as well as photography; but photography is one of my main tools.

How did you come to work with so many media?

I studied sculpture when I was in college. Then I went to the USA to study photomedia at New York University. I was interested in so many things – sculpture, painting, photography… – and I thought “why I should choose only one, why shouldn’t I choose all of them, all together at once?”

I began working with multiple media while I was in New York in the early 1990s. At the time I was working in black-and-white. But it was not until 2005 that I finally found a way to make successful images in colour. I had my first solo exhibition of that work two years later.

Why do you like to work this way?

When someone sees a very realistically painted picture they might say “Oh, it just looks like a photograph”, because it is really well done. On the other hand, looking at a beautiful photograph that person might say “Oh, this is a very beautiful photograph, it looks like a painting!” Photographs have certain qualities; paintings have other qualities, as do sculptures. I want to bring all these qualities together in one creative work and I think by photographing a painted installation, I can achieve that.

© Hyunmi Yoo from the series ‘Still Life’: [Left] ‘Two Balls’ 2007; [Right] ‘Small Galaxy’ 2007

Do you think that being a woman brings any particular qualities or attitudes or sensibilities to the work as an artist?

I don’t really think so. However, what is interesting is that, in Korea, academics are usually men. Artists don’t have money, so they need to have another job such as working in a university as an academic, while also working in a studio as an artist. This is much harder for women artists in Korea, than for men. Even so, this is perhaps sometimes a good thing, because then a woman must work a lot harder to survive as an artist. It pushes her to be stronger; to improve herself… And nowadays, we have more women artists than men artists in Korea… Except in the area of pure photography, where there are still more men… particularly in the fields of documentary and black-and-white photography.

How do you begin a piece of work?

When I start a new image I begin by writing… a lot of writing: this might be a poem or a short story or a screenplay. Through that writing, I begin to imagine certain pictorial ideas which I then create as an installation. I then paint the surface of these sculptural elements and photograph the finished construction.

What kind of response do you get from audiences seeing your work?

I think people find the work beautiful but also confusing, because they see something that looks like a painting but it is in fact a photograph. This can result in much discussion and even argument. I kind of like that! (Laughs) These days, I usually print my photographs with an inkjet printer, which gives a surface finish that is even more like a painting. Yet they also seem like photographs as well… so it remains ambiguous.

You have some very strange things that appear in your pictures, like the human ear growing out of the wall. What kind of story led to that image?

That started with a book I read that explained the differences between a woman’s and a man’s mind: it suggested that we cannot really communicate between the sexes… I thought that was interesting. I created a man’s ear in a wall because a man’s ear is like a wall; they never understand what a woman is saying. The chair is a symbol of woman … it is curved like a women’s body. And finally the yellow curtain and floor symbolise conversation.

© Hyunmi Yoo ‘Listening’ 2008 from the series ‘Still Life’

Perhaps even stranger, in ‘Bleeding Blue’, a living person is covered in paint.

Yes, ‘Bleeding Blue’ is a short video that began with a screenplay which I then shot as a movie.

© Hyunmi Yoo ‘A Man Turned into a Painting’ 2009 from the series ‘Bleeding Blue’

What ideas are you exploring here?

People always want something from an artist, but I think they are also afraid of artists. Artists are not like other people; they can be unstable and sometimes dangerous. People fear artists, but still they want something from them – they think that artists can change them… take them to another world or a different life. So, in my scenario, I imagine that artists would come into a man’s home. They start by looking at him and then they begin to paint him and everything else in the apartment. It is a kind of aesthetic rape. But, although the man is afraid, he still accepts what the artists are doing and, finally, he sees himself become a work of art.

Why do you think we find artists dangerous?

Let me put it this way: a bee will show other bees where the best nectar is by performing a little dance which gives directions to the location. So, bees should follow the instruction of others. But some foolish bees do not follow the instructions in the dance; they go to other places. A foolish bee is not a good bee; they do not work, they don’t collect nectar. But the foolish bees find another tree full of honey. So, by not following instructions, the foolish bee finds something important – something which will be valuable for the next generation. An artist is a foolish bee!

© Hyunmi Yoo from the series ‘Good Luck – Lucky Dream’: [Left] ‘Snakes’ 2010; [Right] ‘Pig No. 2’ 2010

Can you talk about the ideas you are exploring in the series ‘Good Luck’?

These ideas arise from traditional Korean paintings. When I begin to work on a new project I start by looking back to old paintings. These could be Western or Korean, but this time I looked back at our traditional Korean paintings. Many Korean people put up paintings in their house for good luck. We have lots of images that bring good luck by representing symbols from the outside world inside the home. These relate to the symbolism of dreams.

Could you give me an example?

If you dream of pigs you will have good luck. Snakes foretell of the birth of a child: a big snake means you are going have a baby son. Large fruit also signify the birth of a son.

You also use traditional symbolism in the series called ‘Longevity’.

‘Good Luck’ was about the things we dream of, but ‘Longevity’ is quite different. It is about the traditional Korean symbols of a long life [the sun, mountains, water, clouds, rock, pine trees, the mushroom-of-immortality, turtles, white cranes and deer]. But I take a new approach to these traditional symbols by setting them in the context of the current era. So, for example, in these works you can see there is also an Evian water bottle – a latter-day symbol of long healthy life.

How are these works received outside of Korea?

I have to say that, overseas, this is not a very successful series. (Laughs) I don’t think people quite understand what I am doing. Even for Koreans, this work is perhaps too traditional. These days, many young Koreans don’t even know what these symbols stand for. So I don’t think it is too successful in terms of people understanding.

But, I don’t really insist on anything through my work. I accept other people’s opinions. If you see my work and feel nothing, then that’s fine. If it makes you happy, that’s fine. If you have different ideas from me about my work, then that is also good.

© Hyunmi Yoo from the series ‘Physical Numerics’: [Left] ‘2’ 2014; [Right] ‘The Fourth Star No. 2’ 2014

The ‘Numbers’ series seems to be much more timeless and interculturally ‘legible’…

A number is a universal language. Everyone understands numbers. We can communicate with numbers. Money, time, counting, computer language… almost anything can be described in numbers, yet very few artists use numbers as their subject.

When you are young you think of a number like a picture: for example the number 2 is like a swan. I wanted my numbers to have a physical presence, a character, so I created them as sculptures which I then arranged in space as an installation.

Numbers are fixed but, in your work entitled ‘Cosmos’, you appear to address concepts of the infinite.

One day I noticed some dust in my studio and I thought that it looked like a galaxy in outer space. Long ago, people thought that the earth was the biggest thing in the universe, but now we know there are many planets and stars and that earth is very small in comparison. Then we learned about galaxies: the universe became larger and larger and the earth became smaller and smaller until it is like speck of dust.

If the world is so small then people must be even less significant. But, in Buddhism, each person is said to be the centre of their own universe. I realised that my studio is a kind of universe. Here, I am the earth, I am the world; other people are like planets or, if more distant, stars. In this work I painted the whole of my studio – my world – and made a sequence of interconnecting pictures.

The work of an artist is a journey of exploration. What is the most significant thing you have learnt through making art?

Mmmm. Simply: chaos! I thought that as I got older I would come to understand life. But I was wrong. I am fifty-one years old now and don’t feel I understand life – I just feel even more confused by it. Life seems just to get more chaotic the more you find out. I mean, what is art? What is ‘Art’? I thought I would definitely come to know what art is; but it’s like life… life and art, I simply don’t know.

Does creating art make you feel more at peace or just feel more anxious?

Both, I think! When I was twenty, I knew quite definitely about art and what Art was. I had no doubts! But now I really do not know. I want to make great Art, but I am not even sure what that is any more.

© Hyunmi Yoo Hyunmi Yoo painting an installation for ‘Physical Numerics’

Biographical Notes

Hyunmi Yoo was born in Seoul in 1964. She has a BFA in sculpture from the Seoul National University (1987); an MA in Fine Art from New York University (1992); and an Advanced Professional Certificate, also from New York University (1994). She has exhibited extensively across Asia, Europe and North and South America including participation in the Liverpool Biennale (UK), Asian Art Biennale (Bangladesh), Busan Biennale and Daegu Photo Biennale (Republic of Korea). Her works are held in many public and private collections including the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul;  Seoul Museum of Art; Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art; and Ilmin Art Museum. She has won a number of accolades including the Amos Eno Gallery Award (1993), the Moran Sculpture Grand-Prix (2001) and the Ilwoo Photography Prize (2012). Her published works include ‘Hourglass’ (Korea 2015), ‘Cosmos’ (Germany 2013), ‘Walking Tree’ (Korea 2012), and ‘Artmap’ (Korea 2004). She lives and works in Seoul.

photo © Eeran Park

This article was first published in Chinese, in the December 2015 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was Women Photographers.

First published in English at Talking Pictures June 2020.