Traditional Technique Meets Politics

Hun Kyu Kim

Our art editor, Mark Benton, recently had this exchange with Issue #36 featured artist Hun Kyu Kim. Here’s what he had to say about Korean folk tales, the intersection of politics and art, silk painting techniques and more.


I have already spent a great deal of time poring over these paintings/stories, and feel that I have barely scratched the surface. It is almost akin to observing the myriad of characters in Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.” How do you go about or even begin organizing such a comprehensive narrative into such a neatly packaged visual composition?

Bosch’s art works are my favorite and I always admire him, getting a large amount of inspiration. I try to follow his great achievement in many ways. However, unlike western oil based painting, one of the technical characteristics of ancient silk painting is that it is unrecoverable and  just one mistake can be so critical. Therefore, it requires a very specific plan for characters and composition in advance not to make any mistake. In my case, each work has a specific subject or base on political issues, and then, I make several stories surrounding a main theme. Each narrative works as an independent entity but twined together, making a new narrative.


You have brought me to my next question. I am very unfamiliar with the process of silk painting. How far does this tradition go back, and when did you decide to immerse yourself into this highly detailed world?

Silk painting has been handed down since the Goryeo period (Current Korea peninsula) (918~1392). The technique was used for making religious paintings such as Buddha’s portrait that you might see in an East Asia section of the British Museum. Due to its time and labor consuming nature, very few people try to inherit its tradition. In my case, I try to bridge between the traditional technique and contemporary political issues. Although it is painstaking and relatively inefficient in production, compared to other contemporary art work, I am deeply engrossed in its aura and beauty, which makes me believe that I am able to create unique images that might bring attention from both intellectuals in art world and general public. I personally believe that my artwork is like a delicious cuisine, and I consider ancient East Asia’s tradition as a cultural spice that make my political ideas and images flavorful.


There is a lot to be said for having patience. Your imagery has a crisp vitality rarely seen in contemporary art—the colors so vibrant and rich, they do look good enough to eat. How long does your typical silk painting take to finish?

Unlike some artists, it is totally impossible for me to hire some assistants due to its technical issues, therefore, I do everything from the start to the end by myself. Besides, my work is not a conceptually time-based work; as a result, its inefficient process of production sometime acts as a shortcoming from the viewpoint of an art creator. Lastly, I need to predict political issues not just depict or demonstrate them to catch up with our fast changing society, which requires a huge amount of research. However, I am a positive person and even enjoy it because I believe that it makes my work special and hope to develop it in an incessant manner. Generally speaking, it is known that it takes around three months, but, in my case, I’ve trained myself over a decade, which makes me create my work far quicker than others.


I’ve mentioned Hieronymus Bosch, but conceptually, the characters in your narratives remind me of personages like “Martin the Warrior” and his friends and antagonists from the Brian Jacques novels regarding his anthropomorphic take on western tales of chivalry and adventure. What is your reason for this character representation, or is it simply an “Orwellian” touch to spice up your socio-political message?

First of all, it might sound strange, but, around ten years ago, the Korean government used to monitor political artists who stood against its government. Many artists who once spoke out their political ideas were banned to present themselves in front of the public and the government cut their fund by making “Black List Artist.”

However, I tried to keep my political ideas and share them with the public in a continuous manner. Therefore, I started to hide my political ideas into animal images to protect myself.  Fortunately, Korea Candle Revolution 2017 was successful and I expect the Korea situation to be getting better than before.

Secondly, I think cartoon-like images are easily acceptable and shared with both intellectuals and the general public. Some artists are willing to use strong shocking effects to wake up people immediately, but I personally believe these kinds of attitude sometimes makes the public turn away from contemporary art. I don’t mean they are wrong. I just mean it is not my way. I don’t think my narratives and imagination would change our society immediately. It will definitely take such a long time, and I might not get the result I want for whole my life. However, I try to hand down my ideas to my next generation steadily and beautifully by sharing my works with as many people as I can. Regardless of gender, age, religion, culture and nationality, I hope my work to be joyful so that it is loved and shared for a long time.


As far as hiding messages in a painting, let’s take “You are always Welcomed,” for example. I want to know more about this piece.

I prefer not to explain everything about each painting to let my audience explore my works more freely. However, I also think the brief information below might be helpful for better understanding of the whole project.

“You are always welcomed” is a part of a project named “Over the barricade.” The project is comprised of five paintings and the painting you mentioned is the last piece. The whole story is about a village where frogs and mice lived. One day, a big snake suddenly appeared in the village and villagers decided to give up their children as a sacrifice. As time goes by, villagers managed to kill the snake but they decide to pretend they are like a snake, asking other villager’s children in a continuous manner. The whole story is inspired by old Korean folk tales and recent political transition in South Korea, which shows fragmented images of revolution and its lightness rather than celebrating its triumph.


I am familiar with that story as well as its western counterpart. It never ceases to amaze me how the same myths have been told all over the world, which is why this method of narrative-use is so effective in reaching a great number of people, and is often the perfect platform for a social statement. Do the rest of your paintings use folklore or myth, or are they predominantly your own narratives?

The previous project has lots of reference from old Korean folk tales but I also got a large amount of inspiration from contemporary culture such as movies, cartoons or even art works from another artist (you can see homages in my paintings). Therefore, I personally believe that my works are based on cultural eclecticism in that my stories are coming from not just old stories. For instance, this year’s project is about eight parallel universes. I can’t tell everything about it but I can tell it is highly inspired by artificial intelligence or multi universe theories from science fiction movies. Therefore, I believe my stories are not my own ideas. Instead, I resonate with cultural references and they are naturally revealed through my work as a historical entity, depicting our contemporary world.


Could you give an example of a contemporary homage from one of your paintings?

In “Homage to Bill Viola,” the painting borrows an image from Bill Viola’s work named “Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water)”.


Ah, yes…the martyr of water. So Viola has been an inspiration. Who else has influenced you?

As you might see, I got a large amount of inspiration from some films or animation. Especially, I admire Mr Miyazaki Hayao from Ghibli Studio because I really enjoy how he builds up his imaginary worlds. Secondly, I also got inspiration from some products such as snacks or candies. I usually draw the products into my paintings as I play Hide and Seek like a cookie credit in movies.


I very much appreciate how even the most mundane subjects catch your eye, and even more so with how you incorporate these things into your work. It explains a lot about your thematic process. I would like to hear more about the evolution of your overall conceptualism.

At first, I started my work with my personal memories. Child abuse under an excessively strict education of South Korea and various social and political irrational phenomena have nurtured me as an artist, [into someone] who is deeply engrossed in curing himself through artistic practice.

However, my works have changed a lot in theme and concept after “Sewol ferry Accident in 2014.”

In 2014, a ferry sank under the ocean and 304 innocent people died, and most of them were high school students. A previous Korean government tried to hide it and interrupt investigation by using national power. The accident made the Korean public politically wake up and the previous president was impeached and went to jail because of what she did. I am one of the artists who tried to speak out their political voice after the historical tragedy, considering his artistic practice as a political movement. The accident let me know the critical fact that every single social member is closely linked to political situations, and there are always inevitable factors that provoke historical tragedies. Therefore, I extend my personal memories to group and national history to show where we are and what we need to know through a visual element with subtle narratives.


I’m very glad you see your artistic process as a therapeutic one. If you had something diplomatic to say to the powers that be without the visual element, what would that be?

I personally believe that the powers don’t indicate a certain social or political class. Instead, the real powers mean the general public, who has made unbelievable miracles throughout history. Therefore, I have lots of things to say in my mind to encourage and console them. One thing is everything that we have done and what we are able to do keeps reminding me of the myth of Sisyphus. I think a historical term, Progress, is like rolling a huge stone up toward Mountain. It is incredibly harsh to move it up, moreover, it must fall to the bottom when people stop or give up to move it up. This is the reason I feel like I have a huge debt to my previous generation and try to hand their spirit to my next generation as well. Therefore, my work, titled “Don’t be afraid of my love” is exactly what I want to tell them.


Hun Kyu Kim studied MA painting in Royal College of Art in London where he currently lives. His paintings are delicately painted on silk with traditional oriental pigment used for ancient East Asian religious paintings. Kim makes fables by creating a contradictory situation and metaphor from a history that takes place at the point where the time and the space cross each other and the gazes of the individuals who belong to it. The stories get converted into the visual images; they cannot be regulated clearly, and they reveal the life, itself, of the human beings, which is like a puzzle. Through the device called the “fable,” they compressively show the whole process in which the history of the human beings and the barbarism that is inherent unceasingly circulates without any regard to the east and the west. Through his paintings, we can peep into the appearances of the storytellers of the 21st century.

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