Every once in a while, there is a body of work that takes things to another level. The narrative it offers can transport me through a rabbit hole of wonder and mystery. This is clearly the case with Hea R Kim’s current exhibition: Vomiting Flowers currently at the MAI until June 29 (Montréal, Arts Interculturels). The darkened room is reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland tentatively tiptoeing through the unknown, breath held, eyes wide open. As I meander through, I am expecting the White Rabbit, pocket watch in hand, telling me “It’s late, it’s late…”
However, in Kim’s world, there is no Queen of Hearts. Instead, her worlds are filled with phantasmagoric mystery and secret apparitions full of cheer and whimsy. Her mushrooms personified and rabbits plasticized are nothing short of magic. There is ambiguity in her underground dominion - or is it an underwater realm? – that is accessible through her use of ceramics, straws, and mass-produced materials.
In this brief interview, Kim offers us a glimpse into the woman behind these multimedia installations. A gem in our creative city, we expect great things for Kim as she reminds us that exploring playfully is very possibly the exact respite we need today.
Grace Sebeh Byrne: First off, can you tell us about the title of your current show called VOMITING FLOWERS?
Hea R Kim: There is a fictional disease in which the victim coughs up the petals, sometimes even the flowers when they suffer from one-sided love. It is known as Hanahaki disease. The trope was popularized in East Asian cultures (Koreans, Japans, and Chinese) before it was used in the West. The title of the exhibition borrows from the fictitious symptom of the Hanahaki disease. My solo show is about my visceral expression (a.k.a. action of vomiting) of the visionary illusion of my inner fantasy that has been growing for a long time. This is about the visual verbalization of dreamy nostalgia, whispering mythological animal creatures, and happy-eerie feelings.
GSB: Your work takes us to an imaginary world where little-girl fantasies meet ancient Korean symbolism; fairy tale stories imbued with contrasting harsher realities. Was there a narrative that played in your mind when creating this series?
HRK: The main colour palette of my installation is a pastel tone of pink. I think vibrant pink for some audiences makes a link to a feminine aesthetic. However, I use the pink as a dominant colour for my pieces because I like the fact that it is not a primary/secondary colour, it is a just a tint of red. It is not even included on the colour wheel. I like the fact that it cannot easily fit into the main category. The vitality of pink makes people uncomfortable, and somehow, they could be overwhelmed; however, I try to create a sense of meditation from the preconception of pink that has been categorized as girly and cheesy.
In reference to ancient Korea, of course, there are some elements that are reminiscent of my home country, South Korea. But that is not all about my work. I like to construct the opulent environment where the mixture of diverse concept exists and let the audiences engage with it.
My installation consists of figurative creatures, animals such as rabbits, racoons and dinosaurs but my initial goal is creating an ambivalent abstract landscape by collaging familiar figures.
Without a specific narration it becomes an open-ended space where the audience creates their own tale depending on their personal background.
GSB: What about your video, what is the story and how did it materialize?
HRK: This narrated, single channel video is about revisiting my kindergarten picnics. The story is about a cute tale of a lunch box. In South Korea, we usually went to annual picnics in spring and fall. All mothers prepared the lunchbox for their children. There is an invisible tension among children as to whose lunchbox is more visually appealing… “Aw…isn’t this so cute?”. I try to bring forth this mundane event of my childhood and create a special and humorous fable. The video is the perfect medium for this.
GSB: Your cultural Korean background is a strong influence you have talked about in the past. How has it shaped your work in general?
HRK: I spent my childhood and adolescence in South Korea, a beautiful and visually saturated country. It is colorful, playful and somewhat whimsical. There is the mixture of modern and ancient. We can see old temples located amongst latest architecture. It is a blend of traditional and modern culture. South Korea is a wheel of diversity. I never studied art when I was in South Korea. I started art when I was not young. Actually, I begin to touch art after I came to Canada when my brain was not soft enough to absorb everything. Therefore, what I’ve seen and remember, especially everyday objects, have become the elements of my art. I usually end up creating what I dream of and finding the beauty and feeling of the sublime by using ordinary materials.
GSB: Can you describe how your work explores the notion of playful imagery vis-à-vis maturing adults?
HRK: We often consider children as having no concept of the self; but actually, they have. They just do not have ability to articulate it as much as the adult does. For me, the gap between children and adult is very small. The child is charmed by images and immediately reacts to it whereas the adult is conscious of the gaze. I approach art making like an unselfconscious child and execute it as realistically as possible.
I utilize my childlike passion through the spirit of playfulness of soft seduction.
I usually allow the materials to grow naturally to their fullest potential. I rarely pre-plan or set the end result. My artwork is consistently changing. For the children audience, my installation becomes a familiar imaginative place to enter. For adult viewers, my work hopefully provides an unexplainable feeling of longing stemming from our flat social structure contrasting our present-day realities. I believe that the desire for cuddling and longing still resides in us as adults.
GSB: The worlds you create are steeped in dreamlike landscapes of plastics and artificiality rather than natural habitats. Where do your ideas come from in this regard?
I like the idea that the impact of mass consumer cultures actually blurs the distinction between high and low. I think I am more comfortable within artificial landscapes. Despite our increasingly urban societies and fading natural and organic environments, I actually think the notion of artificiality should not be something to be antagonized. It has become a part of us.
Embracing and celebrating our vulgar reality and transforming it into an art form is my passion.
For the Vomiting exhibition, I collected all cheap synthetic and plastic materials and used them to elevate my art by applying them. It also helps the environment. The erasure of a gap between the natural and artificial becomes a dominant concern in the project.
GSB: Do themes of utopia, dystopia and futuristic landscapes play a role in your process of creation?
HRK: I will say that both utopia and dystopia simultaneously activate the progress of my art. I am thrilled when I juxtapose various concepts and blend the contrasts of time, feelings and textures by utilizing diverse materials. I purposely overlap and mix the contrast components such as soft vs hard materials, old vs. new and high vs low in the notion of art through the overwhelming visual senses. At first glance, my work can appear as a child-like happy-land, but it is inherently a creepy place because of the bizarre combination of components of nature such as animals, plants, and cute objects that I intentionally cover by man-made materials.
GSB: What will you be exploring next as far as material and concept?
I am considering collaborating with other artists to develop digital art installation. Also, I will still volley and hover between natural, organic and the man-made materials.
Part of Festival Accès Asie: https://accesasie.com/?lang=en