Portraying ways of living: places, people and paintings.
“We can understand each other better through the domestic spaces we inhabit.” Brixton-based artist Sooyoung Chung told me about her fascination with homes and everyday objects and what she learns about individuals and their communities when painting their possessions and personal spaces. The artist thinks of the domestic as a ‘common language’, and she uses it to portray people without them actually being present in the work. While at first glance, the objects depicted in Sooyoung’s paintings look true to life, the artist adds abstract elements and unusual perspectives in order to portray the emotional energy of a place. Her ongoing series of everyday objects serves as a diary that documents her life and that of others. In this interview, Sooyoung talks about the reason behind the formative change of her work when she moved from Korea to the UK, the commonalities in the spaces of people from different professional backgrounds and how painting helps her overcome prejudices.
How did you first get interested in domestic spaces? Whose room/home did you paint first?
I came to London three years ago. It took me only a week to set my “everyday space” when I ordered necessary household items from Amazon. It was very quickly sorted out even though I moved to a country on the other side of the world, 8875km away from the country in which I had lived for 30 years. My living space functions as a space for storing products that relate to me as a user, and it was interesting that it was not that difficult to recreate these when moving to another country. Dealing with domestic spaces is similar to using a common language to communicate with people. Thus, people from various cultures, in a way, similarly share contemporary everyday life with their use and archival of products.I began to explore people’s living spaces, starting with my own space. At first, I started with my living room, my bedroom, my sister’s living room, and then expanded to family, friends and others. Each space reveals intimate details about personal taste, so its objects allude to a person being in it without their actual presence. Furthermore, it reflects the community, which they belong to. Painting a space filled with someone’s autobiographical objects feels like painting a portrait of them as well as their community. As we have a common language, we can explore and understand each other through objects and spaces, and we can also describe our personalities, using this language.
At your studio, you showed me your past works completed while you were still studying in Korea. They are very detailed, with elaborate backgrounds and patterns. However, your recent paintings look a lot different – can you tell me more about this transition in styles?
My past works were initiated in hopes to relieve my deep but unclear anxiety. Decorative elements in religious art satisfied my desire to resolve uncertainty and also provide the viewer a sense of spirituality. I found that repetitive patterns in temples and churches that expand in geometric infinity do provoke sublime emotions. The symbolic elements used in my works are tools to evoke spiritual feelings embedded in the mind and soul beyond visual abstraction. Also, drawing repetitive patterns itself was a meditative process for me.However, one day, I felt both relief and anxiety at the same time from the surface of my painting filled with patterns. I felt the thirst for empty space and for breathing space in my painting. Nonetheless, since I was uncomfortable with the white canvas itself, leaving blank space in my work was challenging for me. It was the starting point for a formative change in my practice. I was seeking an empty but not-completely-empty surface and I found it in raw linen materials. The linen fabric’s texture itself is enough to convey that something exists without any expression. Furthermore, It gives a full sense of stability without the need to add anything. It was a moment of liberation from the anxiety of both the blank canvas and the patterns.
You pointed out that while the paintings look very realistic at first glance, if you look closely, you can see that the objects are depicted from different perspectives. This is really interesting – how do you choose the viewpoints from which to paint them?
When we look at something, we have different perspectives in time. That is because our physical and psychological states are not always the same. And also when one thinks of objects, they cannot be depicted from the same viewpoint, but each can be depicted from a viewpoint that represents it in the best way possible.What I want to say is that my painting practice cannot be the same as a photograph of a domestic place asI usually focus, one by one, on objects in the space and they are represented in slightly different viewpoints. It allows each individual object to breathe in the space.
You mentioned that you reach out to people with various professions to talk more about their personal spaces. Who have you interviewed so far and how has this informed your practice? How do you choose your interviewees?
I am trying to meet people from various occupations. I want to cover a diversity of people and so far I have interviewed an architecture critic,a hip-hop musician,a violinist,a food researcher, a soccer player,an interior designer and a chemist.I painted the spaces of the architecture critic and the hip-hop musician so far.I try not to let my prejudice about their occupations get involved when seeing their spaces. It is not easy but the whole process is very enjoyable.
How is it different to paint the spaces of people you know well than depicting the homes of people who have commissioned you?
When I am exploring the space, the environment of a person who I do not know well, it can be observed without any prejudice. When commissioned, I see the space and the objects first before I know of the background of a person who commissions the work. This allows me freedom for interpretation. I can get to know the person, observing only their space itself.
We talked about your ongoing biographical objects series. You mentioned that it functions as a painting diary for you. When did you first start? How do you choose the mundane objects?
I started from the beginning of 2018, when I made a list of things. There was no criteria set out for this list, and I just wrote down the things I had seen that came to my mind. Then, I started painting them. It’s like a child’s desire to draw everything they see, everything they like. I did not start this series with any special context. I enjoy simply documenting my daily life and my surroundings and the audience’s various ways of interpretation are also interesting for me. It is very important to keep this series on for a long time.
I am curious about the abstract elements in your works, the small ‘blobs’, as you call them. Why do you add them?
They are simply my signature marks. They express the energy that I feel that is not visible in space.
You recently completed a residency at the Elephant Lab, where you created a new work responding to the “Me Too” movement and a news and drama Korean podcast. Can you tell us more about it? Is it this the first political piece you have made?
Next to the residency studio, there is a Jiujitsu place, and it has very big sign “Self-defence.” As I was looking at this ironic phrase that does not match with the place where muscular men work out, something uncomfortable came to my mind. The ‘Me Too’ movement was a very big issue at that time in my country. There are many situations in which self-defence is not possible at all. Inspired by the sign, I expressed my personal opinion about the movement. Political and social issues were not very much related to my practice until then. However, since the ‘Me Too’ movement was a major topic in South Korea (and worldwide), I was naturally exposed to it. Even at the university that I graduated from, students held a demonstration against sexual harassment by a male professor, and a few professors were fired. Therefore, my recent paintings deal with the issues that I observe around me.
It is interesting how you number the works from these series: they’re more than 320 at the moment! Do you think these series will ever be completed?
I want to keep doing it!
Is there anything exciting coming up that you’d like to share (new shows, commissions)?
Participating in a group show and an art fair in Korea.
Who are you planning to interview in the future?
I hope to interview a fashion designer and a dancer.
Words by Victoria Gyuleva