Kyungmin Sophia Son
Rendering new possibilities through the process of collective assemblage.
Hailing from South Korea, East Asia, Kyungmin Sophia Son thinks that making art is an energy-event discovered through process and imagination. The creative positions a multitude of absurdly miss-scaled and miss-placed mediums, both fabricated and found, into dialogues with one another. “I find it poetic when things overcome their positions and in the moment of touch, transgress boundaries”, she explains. This process of complex contrasts not only introduces new readings into the materiality of the work, but also resists notions of order, anthropocentricity and hierarchy. Her absorbent sponges, protecting pockets and translucent tear drops combine disparate aspects from her many sources (bio-politics, mythology or non-living material) into one balanced circuit system, allowing the viewer to relate to the works’ inherently human qualities of fragility and vulnerability. But it’s her ruptures of these harmonious relationships that extend symptoms of the post-human and bring us back to the threat of unpredictable outcomes. We met the artist to discuss her interest in the ‘quasi-surface’, why she intends to achieve the feeling of fear in her work and how, through the process of making, she finds out the mystery behind certain materials.
Would you say that the cultural differences between South Korea and the United Kingdom have opened up an opportunity for you in terms of experimentation within your practice?
Yes, working in London has opened up a lot of opportunities for me to experience cultural diversity, which impacts my practice for sure. Not to mention the geographical advantage of being able to travel around Europe! Also, meeting and working with people from different backgrounds and varied ideas is always fascinating. Museums, galleries, streets and landscapes are all excellent learning materials for me.
With an assortment of curtain tiebacks, safety pins and beads, the delicate materials that you use are heavily associated to those of crafting accessories. Considering your background in fashion design, are you inclined to using decorative materials in your process?
The materials that you mentioned from ‘If you are lucky you will see it’ (2018), are normally used to join, tie and hang: they connect one or more things together. They are absurdly miss-scaled and miss-placed within the work. They are not functional but they rather function as metaphorical objects. For example, the beads are objects that mimic real gemstones, which are compressions of time and mineral. Here, they are placed in relation to a platform which mimics the historical remains of Ancient Agora in Athens. I assembled various forms and sizes of materials using this methodology. I try to bring multiple directions to the work and interact with it as a fictional object as a way to speak about a reality. This installation was made in Athens while in residency at Snetha. It was an attempt to reflect my experiences of living in a historical city that juxtaposed ancient residences with the street vendor markets.
For your RCA final degree show in 2017, you made a work titled “Believe Me/Life Attitude”. By creating a machine orientated environment, did you attempt to shift the perspective of the role of technology in our modern world or create associations with a post-human existence?
My MA degree show exhibited ‘Believe me / Life attitude’ (2017), which was an object- oriented environment that juxtaposed different materials with an image of a dentist chair. This machine held multiple functions, including arms that connected to the circulating body. I selected the dentist chair because it is a familiar apparatus that we can relate to easily: it touches the most sensitive area in our body while we are awake. I presented this with an array of different situations, using fabricated materials as well as found objects. Technology is developed to fulfil specific functions for human convenience and need, but, the failure and misuse of machines is also our responsibility. Confronting highly advanced technology comes with an inherent fear of failure and the threat of unpredictable outcomes. These complex subjective relationships between humans and machines are challenging to describe. They affect our behaviour and way of thinking, which brings more complicated physical and emotional challenges between them and us. The installation contained a collection of poetic and sensual feelings and emotional fluctuations. The work suggested intimacy through pastel colours. There was an image of a smiling face, but there was also a few hanging teardrops and a print of flames at the same time. The piece was both celebrating and mourning simultaneously. I think that these multiple positions regarding the emotions and materiality in the work extend symptoms of the post- human, which are already within us. The work as a whole was about the feeling of becoming post-human, developed through a semiotic circuit system.
You mentioned during our studio visit that you assemble materials to “generate a conversation, like a new visual language”. How important is the notion of an aesthetic dialogue in your practice?
When I started to work with objects, I became interested in how these transform their meaning and create new visual forms when situated in relation to each other. Through the process of collective assemblage, I try to convey new meaning and shift their conventional position in the world. I find it poetic when things overcome their positions and in the moment of touch, transgress boundaries. I often use commercial objects. It makes sense to me that by shifting an object from its original context, I can render new possibilities. The materials that I use are very varied: fabric, building structure, casted material, print, small objects… They can reflect one another through a process of construction and deconstruction.
Images attached on your mood-board include satellite temperature maps, magnetic field vibration plans and diagrams of domestic products. Are there specific connotations associated with the references used to create your works? Is there any particular correlation or do you create links between them at a later stage?
I collect a lot of images from the Internet and from everyday scenes. When I produced the mood- board, I was interested in meteorology, the status of matter, and how things transform, transmit and transgress in a particular area. I started researching this from both a scientific perspective and a fictional perspective – statistics, graphs, diagrams but also smoke and insects. I read them as visual forms and tried to find a connection with other existing materials. Recently, I’ve been collecting sentences from broadcasts, newspapers and magazines to discover how common language is shifting. For example, I found in the news this quote: ‘the winds are so ferocious, this massive dust storm is sweeping through where we are, huge clouds of dust and ash.’ This sentence conjures up an image, and demonstrates how the landscape and shape of the natural world is shifting.
What mood are you trying to emote in the viewer with your severe contrast of materials?
There is both humour and seriousness in my work. I like to invite the viewer to see the playfulness and absurdity from the contrast and juxtaposition of the materials. I hope that the viewer can read the political narrative of the work. My practice questions subjectivities. The research placed in between everydayness and consumerism, also science and technology. I am interested in the word ‘rupture’, which holds the meaning of an occurrence and a clash in-between. I hope that the viewer finds the poetic relation from the materials that I use, their placement, and the way that they approach other elements. By juxtaposing them as a polyphony, I try to achieve non-anthropocentric and non- hierarchical pieces that can be accessed and open to multiple subjectivities. I hope that the viewer can experience this by looking at the complex contrasts and compositions through the installations.
I couldn’t help but notice the use of penetrable or permeable surfaces like cut-outs, mesh or perforated sheeting alongside chains, fences and barriers in your work, objects that allow either exclusion or access to places. With this, do you want to achieve a feeling of discomfort, where the viewer is allowed to peak-in but not to go through?
I am interested in the ‘quasi-surface’, which is an unsettled surface that is not quite fitted or fixed, it has openness and potentiality. It can also be a barrier or restriction. Also, I think of webs, dimensions, and illusions. It has ambition and flexibility in scale where each wire can convey the information and direction. Also, to cut out or make a hole is for me, a gesture of penetration, rupture, or entrance from one space to another world.
Your ‘Inhale and Exhale’ (2019) work is composed by a squared sponge sitting on a reflective sheet of aluminium that absorbs black ink. Considering that liquid has no exact shape, why did you give it a clean cut form?
In ‘Inhale and Exhale’ (2019), the big sponge cube saturates a significant amount of liquid through its entire body. I wanted to express the energy of the sponge which holds the liquid as it stands up still in a solid shape. I think that the sharp angle helps the impression and gives the feeling of intensity as this cannot have an angle without a container. The sharp cut of the line is elevated when it meets the cold aluminium surface on the floor. I want to intensify the energy of the liquid that constantly fights gravity and evaporation to the atmosphere, also with the material of the porous sponge. The status of materials and the energy between strata is definitely a theme in the work, they continuously affect each other when the viewer is looking at the stillness of the object. I wanted the sponge to become a breathing machine.
At what point did you recognise the relationship between your work and the human body?
The moment of recognising the absence of the human body is also the moment of realising the human body. I only use the traces, parts, and symptoms of the human body, such as the gesture of scratches, scribbles, marks or objects that reveal the human scale, such as gloves, fake nails, or shoes. Also, I find it interesting if non-living material mimic human gestures or resemble a living creature. I am searching for the moment beyond the human body.
Suspended, covered, joined, hung and fitted into gestures… The different compositional elements in your works are often connected to each other. Do you feel this allows you to explore moments of becoming and evolving?
I investigate how to compose objects with each other In the form of relationships. I think that the ways that these elements are suspended, covered, tied, hung, or fitted are a natural mode of forming relations between them, rather than turning them into a permanent physical structure. I find that this composition it quite sensual and emotional. I wrote my MA dissertation about non-human touch. It is not only a physical or chemical sensation but also about a semiotic relation, the invisible energy, and psychological consciousness. I read Jane Bennetts’s ‘Vibrant Matter’ (2009) and Timothy Morton’s ‘Hyper Object’ (2013), which encouraged me to think about the relationships between objects.
With a characteristic meme feel, you have recently collaged an antique Chinese sculpture against a very modernist high-tech baby carrier. With this collection of elements, are you aiming to deconstruct and reconstruct the status of both objects? How do you express ideas of power dynamics with your work?
The image is a creature, seemingly a dog with spikes on its back. I juxtaposed it with an image of a baby seat attached to a climbing backpack. One is an object with a highly ergonomic design, and the other was made thousands of years ago. However, they are weirdly similar to each other. The backpack looks like the animal and the animal looks like the backpack. So with this, I attempt to flatten the hierarchy of value between museum treasures and commercial products. I find it funny.
You often work with pockets and the concept of protection and vulnerability. In terms of conveying interpretations between artwork and viewer, are you inclined to expose the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally?
I made a knitted pocket in part of the work ‘Believe Me /Life Attitude’ — this work exposed different materials to various forms of vulnerable situations and tried to convey complicated emotional changes using materials as well as emphasising on the emotional vulnerability and sensibility of the viewer… For this, I placed a small ceramic piece made of the colour of gum inside of the knitted pocket, covered a platform with bubble wrap and a standing pillar with cotton fabric that was then protected with another layer of PVC. In contrast, I tied the metal structure with a fabric string and the big wooden frame was supported by a thin metal string.
Previously, your work explored ideas of daily existence, now these comment on the future. Questioning human desires, our social relations and the invisible powers that influence our perceptions of being in the world. When and why did this shift occur?
Human desire and social relations cannot be separated from commodity products. The idea of invisible powers came from bio-politics but also mythology. It is a crucial question for me to think about future possibilities, material ontologies, ‘space’, and non-human existence.
‘Dune’, 2019 incorporates fake nails attached to a plastic pipe, highlighting the idea of fake-ness and artificial man-made products. Is this also an exploration in the trans-species? At what point did the notion of the manufactured become such a big part of your practice?
The work ‘Dune’ is a part of the project ‘How To Sense The Invisible’ (2019). I wanted to explore the invisible energy in the atmosphere. The work contains images of an organism that can exist in very different environments. There is a vast scale of difference between those spaces. I want to question the unknown life-forms that form the earth and our atmosphere. The fake-nail set resembles an animal’s backbone or a creature that has many legs. I often use domestic plastic materials that are mass-produced, cheap, as well as materials that quickly fade away but are also shiny and attractive. In this work, they resemble crawling creatures that move around and under the surface and travel through the hidden areas.
Is it vital to your practice that the objects in your work display a personal undertone, an intimate examination of the world around you?
Yes – I understand the world through the process of creating my work. Of course, my experiences matter, but I try not to personalise the work. Instead, I try to observe and convey the world through my vision. The material that I collect doesn’t only come from my own interest but its also part of shared knowledge and information. I work with it until I find out the mystery. I think that making art is an energy-event discovered through process and imagination. I hope that my work does resonate with others.
Moving forward, are there any artists that you look up to?
My all-time hero is Isa Genzken. When I started to use everyday objects, my tutor recommended Genzken. At that time, she had a show at Hauser and Wirth, London. Her use of shifting scales and intensity between materials fascinated me! Also, using consumer culture and commodity products as a way of building a connection. It helped me to shape my practice and understand its implications.
I understand that you’ve recently moved to Bow Arts in Canada Water. What do you hope to get out of this new creative space?
I moved my studio to South London last year, and I definitely enjoy working in a new place. I used to live in South London before I moved to East London. Also, I spent time during my BA around this area, so I feel at home and comfortable here. Most of my friends are living in the area, so I often invite them over to my studio so we can spend time together. I like the proximity to the lake and Decathlon. At the moment, I am into making peculiar creatures and landscapes exploring the process of becoming and bio-morphism.
Words by Vanessa Murrell