Unicorns, missiles, oh my! North Korea inspires an artist.
A Hyperallergic interview with Korean-American artist Young Sun Han highlights how the bizarre rumours about North Korea, the home of his ancestors, influence the artist in his most recent exhibition.
Young Sun Han’s interview in Hyperallergic, published on 18 June 2013, focuses on his exhibition titled “Peripheral Fantom Index”, on view from 5 June to 23 June 2013 at Sanderson Contemporary Art in Auckland, New Zealand. The theme of the show was the artist’s ancestral connection with North Korea and his fascination with its unsubstantiated rumours.
Exorcising fantoms through art
Originally from North Korea, Young Sun Han’s family members were able to escape across the 38th parallel during the Korean War. However, they were never found and their fates remain a mystery. Young calls them “peripheral fantoms”, always lurking about, but never present. Haunted by his ancestors’ spirits, he uses old family photographs painted with acrylic and gold leaf as a way to both honour and exorcise their memories.
Besides his personal ghosts, the artist also created works based on imagery of North Korea taken from various media sources. According to the gallery’s press release,
Han’s ghosts of the past fuse with the more abstract ghosts – the poetic, minimal shapes left behind on the pages. Surviving spirits take the place of the missing memories.
Small paintings in the series explore more recent imagery from North Korea taken from subjective media sources. “The Famous Anonymous (First Instagram from North Korea)” presents an isolated Karaoke singer; “Unidentified Labourer” partially depicts an anonymous worker interviewed by Vice magazine for a bootleg documentary. “North Korean Unicorn” illustrates a particularly absurd news story from the region.
Myth, memory and King Tong’s unicorn
News stories emanating from the secretive Korean state can be weird and wonderful, notes Young. Reputable news outlets such as The Guardian reported in November 2012 that North Korea‘s official state news announced archaeologists in Pyongyang “recently reconfirmed” the existence of a unicorn’s lair, and it was not any old unicorn, but the one specifically owned by the ancient Korean King Tong.
Unverifiable and strange reports like that are fodder for artists. It is that memory of the past, distorted by others, that Young latches onto in his work.
Instagram images of the world’s most secretive state
When asked in the Hyperallergic interview about the mythical unicorn and other bizarre news from North Korea and how this relates to his art, Young was quoted as saying:
Recently, I’ve been illustrating some of these stories in a casual way, for example, a small painting about the first Instagrammed image of a North Korean karaoke singer. Most of my interest lies in the refugees who are able to escape the North Korean regime, such as TED speaker Hyeonseo Lee. Korea is definitely having a moment, yet so many people still have no idea that they are two separate countries and cultures separated by war.
Who is Young Sun Han?
According to his website, Young Sun Han identifies himself as a “Korean-American/Kiwi artist and curator.” He works in diverse media creating sculptures and installations, photography and performance.
Young Sun Han grew up in a Chicago suburb and worked in his high school’s theatre programme creating sets and costumes. His early exposure to theatrical set design influences his art installations, which include carefully crafted traditional altars and hanging sets of clothes.
While attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2001, Young majored in Art History and Photography, receiving his BFA in 2005. During that time, he also undertook an artist residency in Skopelos Island, Greece, and a year of study at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Young then received the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange grant to attend the Kunsthochschule für Medien Köln, Cologne.
After extensive travel and three years of working as a curator/director in an Auckland gallery, he returned to the United States and settled in Brooklyn, where he is now employed at the David Zwirner Gallery. He also worked as an assistant to several established artists such as Theaster Gates, Jin Soo Kim, and Gerda-Meyer Bernstein. On his website he states,
[My] goals are to realize programs that expand the arts community through first-hand art experiences, to provide visual access to what is happening internationally, and to offer educational opportunities for young people and adults.
My passion for art and culture stems from a belief that the quality of a place’s creative production makes it a more rewarding place to live and flourish socially, intellectually, and economically.
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- Yeondoo Jung Prix Pictet prize photographs peer into Korean family homes – April 2012 – work by Yeondoo Jung takes part in “Growth 2011” traveling exhibition
- Emerging Korean artist Rim Lee exhibits new surrealist works in Chicago – March 2012 – young Korean artist Rim Lee has her first solo exhibition “Retrospective” in Chicago
- Can’t buy North Korean art outside DPRK? Mansudae branch in Beijing – Leap magazine – May 2011 – North Korean-run gallery makes a startling appearance in China
- North Korean life like Truman Show: Photography by Back Seung Woo – April 2011 – South Korean Back Seung Woo’s photographs offer glimpse into North Korea
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