May 26 2014

Yeesookyung: Piecing It Together

by John Jervis

YEESOOKYUNGThousand (detail), installed at Art Basel in Hong Kong, 2014. Photo by Jason Bonello. Courtesy Kukje Gallery, Seoul.

Combining discarded shards of porcelain with gold leaf, Korean artist Yeesookyung creates new shapes, often softly curved and anthropomorphic, occasionally jagged and alien. This ceramic practice, which started with the “Translated Vases” series in 2006, has proved therapeutic for the artist, and the resulting works are profoundly, undeniably beautiful.

Yeesookyung is in town for the opening of Art Basel in Hong Kong, where she is contributing a substantial installation work, Thousand (2014), to the curated Encounters section. First shown at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, in 2012, it consists of 1,000 unique ceramic sculptures made from jade-green celadon pottery, placed on a five-meter-wide, dodecagonal plinth, which reflects both the Chinese zodiac and the slightly surprising fact that, as Yeesookyung says, “personally I don’t like round shapes.”

When we meet, Thousand is not yet installed: schedules at the fair are proving elastic. Hundreds of porcelain pieces are being laboriously removed by a glum young gallerist from tiny plastic bags—each bearing a photograph of its contents—and laid beside the newly constructed plinth until its paint dries.

The scene is transformed two days later. The largest pieces have been clustered in a dense, rolling mass around the plinth’s center. Most of these are little more than 20 centimeters high, and are constructed from larger, curved fragments—many with delicate lotus or animal patterns—resulting in gently rounded shapes, and the occasional bulbous protrusion.

Spreading out toward the edges of the plinth—often following lines of red thread that divide it into 12 equal segments—the covering of glistening jade and gold becomes sparse, and the pieces smaller and angular. The narrow neck of a broken vase rises like a branch from a small pot; an animal’s foot emerges from under a jumble of shards. At the edges, a solitary handle or piece of perforated openwork sits alone, while a trail of tiny fragments is arranged in a line, each boasting its dab of gold.

Installation view of Yeesookyung’s Thousand, at Art Basel in Hong Kong, 2014. Photo by Jason Bonello. Courtesy Kukje Gallery, Seoul.

The complexity of celadon ware gives it additional appeal—Yeesookyung enjoys exploring its shapes more than any other ceramic—and the choice of manufacturer was a deliberate one, resulting from research into the history of individual studios and masters. These particular shards came from a government factory in Gangjin, a rural area at the southern tip of the country, that specializes in reproducing celadon from the Goryeo dynasty:

“Korean celadon has a varied and delicate shape, as it was produced not for daily use but for ritual ceremonies or important burials. It has many meanings, some of which we don’t understand fully today—there is a big gap between those worlds and our current one. And there are lots of symbols of animals or flowers, each with their own symbolims—it contains a complex universe with a lot of energy, and one I find really effective.”

Thousand is an oasis among the conceptual installations that make up much of the Encounters section at Art Basel in Hong Kong, and its refined beauty and therapeutic qualities may not seem ideal credentials in today’s art world. Fortunately, curators can be found to provide more suitable expositions in catalog introductions, citing cultural appropriation, ritualization and hybridity as appropriate. Yeesookyung, however, is obviously uncomfortable with such broader positionings of her work, neither confirming or denying their accuracy.

It is the practice of her work—both research and production—that moves her. Thousand took three years to complete, and it is the hypnotic, repetitive manual aspect required for these ceramic works that has proved important in her move away from the skepticism and irony that marked her earlier practice: “Around 2006, I began to use my hands a lot more, and my practice became more to do with labor. It wasn’t so much about the concept; the process became more important. It changed not only the work but also me, the attitudes I had, and my approach toward what I was doing."

Installation view of Yeesookyung’s Thousand, at Art Basel in Hong Kong, 2014. Photo by Ann Woo for ArtAsiaPacific.

Until recently, Yeesookyung found a spiritual release in drawing for hours, often at night, but feels this is no longer necessary: “Many of my problems were solved, and these days, instead of drawing, I switch across to another of my projects.” However, the ceramics she employs, and her relationship with them, can also be reflective of her state of mind:

“Some of the shards have their own presence, there is no need to connect them with other fragments, so I just add a small gesture and leave them. At other times I will connect many pieces together. It’s like life, some things are clear and say something simple, but sometimes it can be complicated to try and get a solution. The working process is quite similar to how I live my life—there can be moments of happiness and moments of unhappiness as I work.”

There have been some benefits to the interpretative desires of critics. In June next year Yeesookyung will be undertaking a residency and exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei:

“A lot of Western curators position me as a female artist dealing with tradition in a contemporary context, so I started to study Korean traditional art, which lead me to be curious about East Asian cultures, especially China, which is such a huge topic, and such an influence on Korea. I feel I should learn in each city, immersing myself in the locale. The residency in Taipei will be my first in Asia, and then I will move to Singapore, Shanghai and Fukuoka.”

Yeesookyung is intending to exhibit an ongoing series of canvases in Taipei that record her use of hypnotherapy to explore past-life regression and reincarnation. However, having spent two years practicing Korean traditional dance, she is also hoping to create a new performance piece during her residency, studying Taiwanese opera so that she can play the role of a shadow or “interruption” while a local artist performs on stage:

“I intend to practice hard, and try to synchronize and express as a shadow. I would like to find out if there are any links between the traditional dance in each country I visit, because long ago we shared so much culture, so I think there will be some common connection in how we dance.”

However you choose to experience the work of this soft-spoken but determined artist, this burst of activity is something to anticipate and cherish. Unearthing lost connections and reforming them in a contemporary context has served Yeesookyung well in the past; the approach promises to be equally rewarding in the future.

John Jervis is managing editor at ArtAsiaPacific.