Korean artist Kim Siyeon opens house on personal struggle


For her first solo exhibition in Tokyo, Seoul-based artist Kim Siyeon brings her home to Gallery Foil in the form of photographs of installations that she created inside her house. Though she is known as an installation artist, the delicate nature of Kim’s work and its location, which is an important element to her pieces, has meant that the public have only seen this “Barricade” series in 2-D form.

Photography, however, provides an aptly quiet and beautiful presentation of Kim’s very personal work. We see installations built in rooms of her home, constructed from everyday household objects such as egg shells, bars of soap, glasses, delicately composed blocks of salt, even birth-control pills. Intimate and fragile — one sneeze and each “barricade” would surely tumble down — Kim’s works convey a sense of anxiety, isolation and melancholy.

Most of your work is shown as images. Does this affect what you are try to convey?

I can’t move my house to every exhibition space I go to, so the photography is nothing more or less than just a medium for me. All my exhibitions are basically about story-telling my own private life through object compositions.

Out of all the objects you choose to make part your work, you keep returning to salt. Why is that?

Our tears are composed mainly of sodium chloride, which is basically salt. I started placing salt objects in my house in 2004 after I returned to Korea from studying in New York and after I got married in 2003. As a housewife with a baby on the way, I starting suffering from culture shock — a different kind to what I experienced when I first went to New York. I didn’t have the luxury of renting or creating an atelier and I had a hard time figuring out how to balance my lifestyle as an artist and a housewife. I suffered from anxiety and depression, which came from wondering what I could achieve as an artist in a situation that I couldn’t change or escape, no matter how hard I tried.

Does that mean your works have an underlying theme of feminism or refer to the status of modern-day Korean wives and mothers?

No, social issues or current political issues are not intended. This is a very personal story about my life and the emotions I go through. I don’t think the site of exhibition, whether it is in Japan or America, is relevant to what I’m trying to say. I’m just telling a story of my life.

Seoul, Tokyo and New York have been your main stages so far. Were there different reactions from each audience?

I don’t think so. I try to avoid social issues that could be indigenous to one country or a specific culture, and I concentrate more on humanity and emotions that everyone experiences. I want to go overseas more instead of remaining in the Korean contemporary art scene, which is too systematic at the moment I think.

In what way is it systematic?

Artists (in Korea) are very well educated; then they go off to study abroad. After that, most participate in a domestic art biennial of some kind and then they show in a reputable commercial gallery. I’ve gone through all those steps, but the fact that I won’t push social issues or create political controversy means that I’m categorized as a minority artist in Korea, and I don’t want to be that. I feel like I need to explore more cultures and get accepted as an artist who deals with everyday emotions. Once I achieve that goal, I’d like to go back to Korea to be a role model and tell young artists that it is OK to break away from the system. I think that is my long-term duty and mission as a Korean artist.

So what are you planning next?

I can’t say. I work with my daily emotions. The fragility and certain aesthetics of my work may continue; but then again, how can I predict what kind of emotions or situations will absorb me in future? One thing I can say is that I do want to go abroad more often. I think I’ll apply for a residency program for more funding. I don’t want to be the black sheep in the Korean art scene. I like Japan so far, and the aesthetics of the contemporary arts here. Next time, I want to bring my daughter and stay longer.

Kim mentioned that in the past, while she was still at school, most of her work fell under a theme of “fantasy.” Now, despite the anxiety and depression portrayed in her work, she expresses a hope of moving on to a different theme, marking this exhibition as her last showing of the “Barricade” series. Fantasy, it seems, is something that still keeps her inspired as an artist. There’s some kind of balance between the tear drops of salt in Kim’s house and her hope of being inspired by new stories and other emotional ranges. Without hope and fantasy, perhaps her life as a housewife, a mother and an artist striving to rejuvenate Korea’s contemporary art scene would be even more fragile than her installations depict.

“Barricade,” at Gallery Foil, runs till Sept. 11; admission free; open daily 12-7 p.m., closed Sun. For more information, visit www.foiltokyo.com