Thursday Spotlight: Yong Joo Kim

Tell us about your background.

To talk about my background as an artist, I really need to talk about both my experience in Seoul and also in Providence.

I was born and raised in Seoul, Korea, a city with a population of over 10 million. Seoul is an interesting city. On the surface, everyone seems to be enjoying themselves basking in the rays of metropolitan glitter. But, what lies beneath is the seldom talked about presence of the cutthroat competition that permeates the culture.

Immersed in competition, I was taught that recognition was the ultimate goal, and that scoring high on exams, and entering high-ranked universities were the only ways to gain recognition. For me and my female colleagues, competition didn’t end in academics. While I was too afraid to go under the knife, ten of my friends eventually went on to receive plastic surgery. They believed that beauty afforded greater probability of getting a good job or finding a successful husband: both effective ways to gain recognition.

A similar desire for beauty was the goal of my undergraduate artwork. I started each project with a clear vision of what each piece should look like. I then judged and valued my work based on how closely my production matched the design. I spent long hours filing, sanding, and polishing precious metals. I did not enjoy this process, but felt that it was a small price to pay to achieve the beauty I desired.

However, all this changed when I moved to the small city of Providence for graduate school. The culture shock, the language barrier, and the workload all came as a shock. And soon I realized that without the cultural restrictions of home, I was able to explore my environments more freely. I didn’t know what the social norm was so I wasn’t pressured by it. With nobody to stare at, and nobody to be stared by, I started to dress down. Day by day, I felt the longing for beauty start to dissolve. In its place was now a new desire: a desire to explore the new environment, to understand, internalize, and to empathize.

Through this process of exploration, I realized that the world is full of unnoticed yet beautiful objects. As I became interested in their potential, I began the process of evolving them into something new. Instead of my usual repertoire of precious metals, my choice of materials now came from the corners of our everyday lives.

By assembling, grouping, clustering, and piling these small and simple elements, I also learned something unexpected. No matter how mundane or insignificant a material seemed, as long as the process of exploration began with a firm belief in its special inner qualities, I was eventually surprised to discover that it possessed qualities that I did not know existed.

Name some people, artists, artistic genres, etc. that have been influential in your work.

It’s hard to list all the people that have influenced me, but the first that comes to my mind is my dad. I was surrounded by all sorts of different rocks my dad collected from traveling to rivers and mountains while I was growing up in Seoul. I also followed him on these excavations. I think these have helped me develop my own aesthetic sensibilities. I often find similarities between the aesthetics found in these rocky surroundings of my youth and my own work.

Where and how do you get your ideas?

I develop my ideas and get inspirations from my everyday. What I mean by everyday life is that I am inspired by common interactions with others as well as myself.

When I am walking around, I may observe others, be it leaves piled on the ground, or hardware objects stacked and arranged on shelves. They can inspire me to think of new ways of arranging my own work. And as I make my work, my materials now become the other that inspires me. Here, I am not merely observing them, but also engaging in a dialogue with them. Trying to understand what their physical properties are, for example. Often times, a new form emerges while simply trying to understand their physical properties.

Talking about how I inspire myself is more difficult. At first it may seem like an arrogant statement, but what I mean to is simply acknowledge the importance of reflection and memory. Everything I have experienced throughout my life seems to get automatically triggered throughout the process of making my work. They are subconsciously leading my hands to make the decisions I make. I am fascinated by how this works. Some may call this intuition, others taste, skill, or even aesthetic bias. I don’t know what it is exactly. What’s clear is that these are internal inspirations for me, and that I am grateful for them. And what’s equally interesting is that being able to witness the product of such sub-conscious decision making and reflecting on it is in and of itself another source of inspiration. I have often found myself saying, “How did I make this?” not in reference to the technical aspect of its fabrication, but in reference to the conception of the form.

Describe your creative process.

For the past 3 years, my creative process has been to push the limitation of one material (Velcro® Brand hook and loop fasteners) to create hundreds of complex forms.

I find that working directly with materials is the best way to be surprised. This moment of surprise is important for me, because I am constantly trying to go beyond what I know, and what I am comfortable with.

During this time, I noticed that this kind of exploratory process takes on a form similar to that of the evolutionary process found in nature. More specifically, there is a process called artificial selection, which describes intentional breeding for certain traits, or a combination of traits, by human.

Within my working process, I use my judgment, aesthetic bias, and imagination to continuously choose and select specific traits of my chosen material to be further developed and accentuated. This becomes the foundational principle behind how new form develops in my work. The artificial selection is generally much faster than natural selection, and it has been fascinating to realize that even in a climate of such limited resources, infinite possibilities can be brought to fruition through this process. In this process I use simple craft methods such as cutting, twisting, bending, rolling, gathering, attaching, detaching, assembling, and accumulating. How I use these simple actions in the context of the search develops and informs the structure of the form I am making.

What do you find to be the most challenging part of being creative?

I think the desire of being creative itself is very challenging. Because if I set up a goal of being creative, it is hard to achieve it. So I don’t try to think of being creative when I am working. Through the process of making, creativity comes naturally rather than intentionally.

It’s always interesting to hear people pointing at something I did and calling it creative, because they were rarely a product of creativity, but just a lot of hours of making.

What is the best part of being creative?

Through my working process, what I have learned is that no matter how mundane or insignificant a material seems, as long as the process of exploration began with a sense of attraction, and the creative process was fueled by a firm belief in their potential and imbued with the desire to empathize, I was eventually surprised to discover that the material possessed qualities that I did not know existed. Learning and discovering something that I did not know existed is the best part of being creative for me.

What advice would you give to someone seeking advice about being an artist?

I remember a paragraph from a book called “Art and Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland.

For art students, losing the destination for the work goes by another name: Graduation. Ask any student: For how many before them was the Graduate Show the Terminal Show? When “The Critique” is the only validated destination for work made during the first half-decade of an artist’s productive life, small wonder that attrition rates spiral when that path stops. If ninety- eight percent of our medical students were no longer practicing medicine five years after graduation, there would be a Senate investigation, yet that proportion of art majors are routinely consigned to an early professional death. Not many people continue making art when -abruptly -their work is no longer seen, no longer exhibited, no longer commented upon, no longer encouraged. Could you?

We need to maintain a strong sense trust in ourselves in order not to give up our passion. When we keep doing what we love, I believe that is itself the very act of pushing the boundaries as an artist.

Yong Joo’s Kickstarter
Yong Joo’s website
Yong Joo on Twitter
Yong Joo on Facebook

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