Read this exclusive preview of EYES IN Edition 11 featuring innovative artist Koh Sang Woo. This edition is now available in the EYES IN Nook store.
Koh Sang Woo has a taste for controversy. His images may look beautiful, but the stories beneath needle away at the unspoken do’s and don’ts that tie us up in social and cultural obligations. His last exhibition in his hometown of Seoul, South Korea, was almost pulled at the last moment due to a call from KBS, the Korean equivalent of the BBC.
It featured one of their presenters, with her husband, in a state of undress and, more importantly, without their permission. Another show picturing a mixed race couple was simply avoided and mothballed, to avoid offending “cultural sensibilities.” And yet it’s hard for us in the West to believe by just looking at the work.
Koh’s art is part painting, part performance, documented in photography. Carefully choosing his subjects for their personal stories, he paints directly onto their bodies as he works, and then reverses the colors in the final exposure to give his photos an unmistakable electric vibrancy. In one way, he is an artist that paints photographs, and sees the world in reverse.
But this reversal is also a social statement, a means of subverting the way society can push people away from their ideals, and make them compromise and change to accommodate social pressures. In True Stories, an exhibition recently shown at the James Freeman Gallery, all of his photographs probe the kind of subtle conventions that restrain and limit their subjects — be it corporate control, racial prejudice, or the pressure to “be the best” as in his "Portrait of a Girl / Portrait of a Woman" series.
The works thus become a kind of release and defiance, beautifully rendered. And it’s his eastern form of kicking against the system that makes Koh’s work so interesting. Not in the obvious punk aggressive way, what the West is used to, but a more discreet and suave manner of counter-culture, balancing Korean values of discipline and respect with the need to make a point.
Koh is an example of why there is a current swell of international interest in Korean contemporary art. Having been overshadowed by the booming Chinese market, increased investment and activity is helping Korean art make its mark on the contemporary scene.
Given that Korea is currently the thirteenth largest economy in the world (predicted to become the 3rd largest by Goldman Sachs), and already has a massive cultural presence in Asia through its films and music (known as the Hallyu wave), it is only a matter of time before, as an ArtTactic report recently stated, “The Korean art market and its collectors... play a very important role in the Asian and
international art market in the future.”
A Conversation with Koh Sang Woo
As a child, what did you want to become (profession-wise)?
My parents were both artists. With both of them being sculptors, I was introduced to different mediums of art from an early stage in my life.
In which town did you grow up?
I was born in Seoul, Korea.
Do you think your background has influenced your current art style? If so, what specific element in your background is most pervasive in influencing your current art style?
Yes, for sure. I was raised in South Korea and had to move to the United States at a young age so I had to adapt to a new culture. We didn’t have the Internet to use to explore other countries. You just had to dive into the culture and society without any hesitation or biased feelings. Being a semi-outsider looking in for the first couple of years (and then being part of the culture) allows one to be able to think outside the box and re- evaluate what she or he is looking at in the moment.
I was recently featured in a number of international exhibitions that represent contemporary Korean art. Being a certain ethnic background can certainly work in your favor or the reverse. Like most people, I see myself being a global mixture, not one ethnic background. I translate and mix the cultures that have influenced me.
What inspires you in the job of being an artist?
Ordinary relationships inspire me; listening to the stories of human connection and human relationships mean a lot to me. We live in a global world but yet anyone can relate to one topic universally: “Connection.” Everyday is a new connection you make and you can tell a story through art using just one word.
In which way do you consider yourself an innovative creator?
My overall process of creating my pieces is innovative in terms that you do you not see many artists using this technique. It’s a process I have fine tuned over 10 years and with new technology and changes in materials, I can re-create the same artwork with different materials and change the overall feeling of the artwork. Most people think that my artwork is purely photoshopped work until they realized the technique and the actual process that takes place.
This is another way I feel a connection to the audience; their own perspective of what they think something is has changed. I usually have paint brushes in my left hand and a camera in my right hand to capture the moment.
Read more of this article, interview and beautiful works from artist Koh Sang Woo in EYES IN Edition 11 available now on the Nook.