(Sculpture) ILHWA KIM
Korean artist Ilhwa Kim creates highly detailed “Seed Universe” works consisting of tens of thousands of “seed units,” which are comprised of individually dyed and rolled sheets of paper. In this interview, she discusses her exacting production process, how an airplane flight inspired her creative approach, and the ways that her works truly come to life when they are viewed in person.
Interview by Isabelle Sakelaris
The form of your work is dynamic and multidimensional. How do you define the line/spectrum between sculpture and painting, and how do you conceive of your works in relation to those categories?
I take it for granted to categorize my work as a “sculpture,” not because of the appearance but because of the working process. In painting, basically the materials are given. However, in my process, all the materials begin from scratch and are ‘‘sculpted” from scratch in various ways.
The paper itself has our studio-specific formula — how the paper has to be composed during its manufacture. Every single thing has its own unique process regarding dyeing material, cutting processes involving heavy machines, custom frames, etc.
Your artworks are highly intricate. About how long does it take to complete each piece? What is the value of time spent hand-dying and hand-rolling each paper seed?
Depending on the dimensions, the work takes from three weeks to three months. The idea stage can be either a rough sketch or just throwing up tens of thousands of paper units on the canvas. However, the idea has never been about final forms or the final destination. Once started, sculptural aspects dominate. The movement of paper units and color flows throw light into possible new routes separated from the idea stage. Listening to the internal logic of what’s been piled up must be the most important guide of the work process.
Material preparation for the works are like making my own personal tubes to paint them with my hands. The color paper made in factories has very limited range of color. So, from the beginning, the dying process was required and has been developed constantly. As I said, it’s like making my own personal customized color tubes.
All paper is originally white and dyed in diverse kinds of colors for each work. Since hundreds of works have been made so far, there is now a vast library of color paper units in our studio. Another good thing: dyed paper has its own unintended gradation and irregularity, which can be found all over nature. It helps create the different texture and contrast of colors that are quite distinct from the mixture of paint.
After the dyeing process, a combination of different paper sheets are rolled and cut by the required various sizes for each work. Rolled paper becomes extremely durable and you cannot cut it even by a knife. Heavy paper cutting machines are used for the cutting process. People regard paper as fragile, but rolled paper becomes quite close to tender wood.
After the cutting process, the inner parts of each unit are pulled out to make the height of each paper unit. Now, you have ready all kinds of color paper units in different heights.
Regarding glue, all everyday chemical glue becomes very hard right away and begins to crumble after ten to fifteen years. Due to the limit of the chemical glue, our studio developed our own non-chemical glue, which was developed from traditional wheat-based glue. That is why the regular drying process takes ten to fifteen days until completion.
The works change, as if moving, as we view them from different angles and distances. For example, in “Space Station 4.” What is the role of movement in your work, and how does it relate to perspective?
The changes happening in diverse angles and distances relates more to how the work can embrace all of the change happening over time. When you can see multiple perspectives, it clearly questions one dominant perspective you are taking. However, for me, it becomes more crucial how the work can embrace the time-based fluctuation or vortex inside the work and space around the work.
I recall one of my experiences: there was a very curious flight when my airplane passed the exact same region in the morning and in the evening. The same landscape of the region looked completely different due to light, air, and temperature changes. It instantly made me imagine what happened to the same landscape between morning and evening. The stimulus to calculate or imagine the big contrast fascinated me.
The flight experience was applied to the paper relief I was working on at that time. When collections of paper units were piled up on the canvas in our studio, the sunlight used to come through the windows and disappear after one or two hours. The mass of paper units kept showing different looks all day long. I loved how the paper units were able to reflect and embrace all the changes over time within the space.
Some of your works, though abstract, are called "portraits" — here I am thinking of, for example, “White Portrait 22” (2018). What does "portrait" mean to you?
I’m not portraying a person’s figure but the senses between the figure and me when I encounter the person for the first time. For me, portraits of the otherworldly but also very earthy senses come out at my first encounter and they remain memorable. Although the meaning of the senses can change, they remain as they originally were for me. The portraits are not about “him” or “her,” but about me and the senses they created for me the first time.
With the ways that your work changes in response to space and time, what is the role of the viewer in the process of world-building? Are we implicated in that act?
When the viewers and I admit that our current vision and current thoughts are not the only inevitable ones in a particular moment, I believe we are able to make our lives more fluent and flourishing. However, I try to achieve my work not just by pointing out “your vision is not the only single one,” but by focusing to build an experience embracing all the changes over time and space. This can influence viewers to take a more relaxed, naturally immersive approach to the work within the space, and to build his or her own version of the experience-world.
There is another interesting contrast I would like to build: when standing in front of my works, I’d like the works to feel and look as different as possible from the photo images of the work. We are surrounded by so many channels of flat images, now up to unprecedented levels of image transaction. However, making bigger distances between the image and actual work can be another quite interesting challenge. I’m very curious about the issues around this challenge. My gallerists are often surprised when looking at the works in person after choosing them based on images.
What is the role of revision in your process, and how do you conceive of your work going forward?
Many paper or textile artists finish their works in gradual steps based on the initial sketch. The process cannot allow sudden bold turns in the middle steps. My studio runs the process in a complete opposite way. In order to give complete freedom during the middle stages of production until completion, all paper units stay unglued until final stage. They can be rearranged or removed or height adjusted whenever needed. The process allows bold changes to be made even when we are very close to final stage.
This freedom remains very important. If the work does not surprise me, it surprises nobody. Then the working process has to encourage it. The work has to betray the artist’s practical intuition — in a way it has to achieve a bold “this is it.” I keep the process open until the last second, while I listen to the whispering of the paper units.
You might also like our interviews with these artists:
Isabelle Sakelaris is an art writer and aspiring poet who lives and works in New York City.