Kim discusses his first solo exhibition which explores his journey of defining who he is
Cast your mind back briefly to 2016 (I know it’s painful). It’s October and Theresa May makes a statement that, for many, crushed years of social progress and multicultural thinking: “If you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”. This nationalist cry was of course said in the wake of the EU referendum which, for many young people in Britain, was the first time they had to question their own identity or place within the world. Am I European? Am I British? Should I care? For some, these were new questions but for those who have grown up in the UK with a multicultural heritage, they were all too familiar. Identity is complex and when the real world falls short art often provides the vehicle to truly express one’s self.
“The EU referendum is one of the reasons why I did this show,” says artist Sang Woo Kim on the day before the opening to his first solo exhibition If You See Me Now You Don’t which opened on Friday at the Magic Beans gallery in Berlin. “I am an immigrant; I was born in Korea came here when I was six months. After 2016 I’m aware of myself being different more than ever.”
“I am an immigrant; I was born in Korea came here when I was six months. After 2016 I’m aware of myself being different more than ever” – Sang Woo Kim
A former Central Saint Martins student and Goldsmiths drop-out, to some Kim might be more recognisable as the face on a 14-foot-high Diesel billboard rather than an artist. This idea of a split identity is at the crux to Kim’s work; the exhibition aims to unpick the artists complicated idea of himself.
If You See Me Now You Don’t is split up into three rooms, with each piece laid out in no specific order. All the paintings use mixed media, some figurative and some abstract expressionist. Alongside them there is a set of ‘transfer’ works, as Sang calls them, which show imprints of self-portraits on a paint doused canvas. It was a conscious decision for Kim to place images of himself in his art even though his reputation as a model has often prevented him from being taken seriously as an artist. “It’s important that I still use images of myself because I have to accept that I am a model,” he says. “I’m playing on the irony of that.”
One of them, named “Untitled”, is positioned on the exhibition wall with strips of masking tape on either side, as if it were stuck up in the artist’s studio rather than a gallery. In an exhibition filled with emotive work, true to its name, “Untitled” appears void of meaning and is Kim’s favourite; “It’s weird that my favourite piece is the least personal,” Sang confesses. “I feel like the last few months has been a battle for me to be able to create paintings that are this intimate. I’m so attached to these different paintings around me that I can look at ‘Untitled’ simply for its design, I don’t have any hard feelings towards it.”
The complexities of the way Kim views his own art stems from an identity crisis he experienced at school when he was picked on and teased for being of Korean heritage. “Obviously as a kid I had to think about certain elements that not a lot of kids have to think about,” he explains. “In my works now I’m going back into memories that I’ve really repressed.”
“I tried to be someone else whether that’s in modelling or at school. I was trying to be this ‘bleached’ kid that was very British” – Sang Woo Kim
This struggle is present throughout the exhibition but the most blatant example is on a canvas with the words “You will never live my lie” written across it. “The piece is titled ‘I Was Blind For 10 and Lied For 12’”, Sang explains. “For ten years I was just naive and wasn’t able to look at the world properly and then, 12 years afterwards, I tried to be someone else whether that’s in modelling or at school. I was trying to be this ‘bleached’ kid that was very British – which is probably the reason that I speak the way I do.”
At the heart of this exhibition lies a desire to bring resolution to past wounds and to forge a sense of genuine identity that can motivate others. “I want the younger generation not be so confused as to who they are,” says Kim. “I want people to understand that they are not the only ones who feel that way.”
If You See Me Now You Don’t is on show at the Magic Beans gallery in Berlin until February 12, 2017
Sang Woo Kim explains more about the exhibition in the below film by Emma Dalzell, which is titled Sang Woo Kim