Xooang Choi (1975, Korea)’s work is distinguished for its hyper-realistic portraying of human bodies and its powerful metaphors contained therein. His work is currently shown in Obedience- Akeda or the Sacrifice of Isaac at Jewish Museum Berlin.
Yoewool Kang has met him in his studio near Seoul and shared an interesting conversation regarding the ideas and practice of his art.
Yoewool Kang: The aspects I consider especially extraordinary in your work are multi-layered: first, the degree of realism and vividness that exceed any realistic rendering of the human body by other sculptors; second, the richness of metaphors and allusions expressed through the symbolism of the human body; third, the way your works interact with each other within a certain context created as they are juxtaposed to one another. How does a plan or a concept of a sculpture usually begin, and how does it change or evolve as you proceed?
Xooang Choi: For an initial planning of a sculpture, I try not to visualize a particular image or figure, in order to avoid being confined in a pre-determined imagery or cliché. Rather the first step begins with my recognition and feeling about certain phenomena arising in our environment in which social, psychological or emotional aspects are intermingled. In observation of such reality of ours, I often experience the sentiment of compassion or sympathy as I sense wounds and pains of people that are not always so obvious or direct. Figures of my sculptures, often composed through the process of destruction, transformation and re-assemblage, are reflective of these elements. What might seem brutal at first glance is actually my method of dealing with such wounds and scars, hopefully to evoke sympathy and understanding from the viewers. I believe in this method of expression that is exhaustive in rendering every single detail of movement and surface of the human body – this is a very powerful way to approach viewers almost directly, literally skin to skin. When these figures form a group, for example as in an exhibition, I hope viewers can feel as if they are meeting other people rather than seeing sculptural figures, sometimes sympathizing with them and sometimes realizing their own inner aspects reflected in them.
YK: It is interesting how people – not just spectators but also curators – may view and interpret your work in various ways. For example, your work The Wing (2009) is currently shown at Obedience- Akeda or the Sacrifice of Isaac curated by Peter Greenaway and Saskia Boddeke – obviously, the curators viewed the agglomeration of numerous cut-out hands forming a wing as a symbolic image of ‘sacrifice,’ probably that of an anonymous mass for the sake of the public good. On the other hand, a journalist who chose the same work to illustrate the victory of Angela Merkel in 2013 saw it in a different way – an angelic reference and also a symbol of democracy founded on the power of the mass. I think, these seemingly opposite viewpoints can be actually two sides of the same coin. How do you feel about these readings of your work?
XC: I think various interpretations and understandings attached to a single piece of work generate a living story of it that is also meaningful on its own. When I made The Wing, I was thinking about aspects of both social value and personal sacrifice, from the perspective of society as well as that of an individual. I thought what can be perceived as a sublime sacrifice can actually be a cruel reality for an individual. The Wing was initially meant to be connected to the back of The Hero (2009) that is the most candid, straightforward sculptural portrait of my father who went through the most turbulent period of the development of Korean society, serving as a public official. He was probably overwhelmed and engulfed by the imposing social propaganda; the victim mentality and the lack of personal control in his life caused by that was striking to me. Thinking about this provoked serious reflection on the relationship between an individual and the society or the country where he belongs. Later I decided to separate “the wing” from his “individual existence” making him face directly the truth of the wing, or a burden pressing on his shoulders. It is interesting for me to see how people actually may or may not see this ambivalence implied in this work.
YK: For the Gwangju Biennale 2014 “Burning Down the House” curated by Jessica Morgan, you presented The Noise (2014) and Sheddings (2014). While The Noise is composed of more than seventy heads of real people – from those you have met just briefly to those who are close and dear to you – with different facial expressions, Sheddings shows a pile of debris, traces or skins left behind like hollow shells. While the noise of numerous voices echo, becoming an unintelligible noise, the abandoned bits and pieces are left and forgotten in total silence. Again, here arises a beautiful interplay between the two works. Could you elaborate further about each of the works and their possible relationship?
XC: The suggestion of the curator Jessica Morgan to show The Noise and Sheddings together was meaningful for me because that was exactly the way I presented them in my exhibition in 2007. They are in fact quite different in terms of the experiences they provide to viewers. In The Noise, the feelings and emotions that a viewer experiences while standing in the middle of the installation, surrounded by numerous faces of strangers is the key element that completes the work. On the other hand, Sheddings immerses the viewer in the observation of the object itself, trying to make sense of the pile of seemingly worthless, valueless debris. While one’s experience of The Noise is a way to realize his/her own condition of being, through the awareness of others, which can be actually quite overwhelming and uneasy for many people, the Sheddings induces a search for or a reflection on the meaning of material existence itself in objects that no longer function as part of the whole.
YK: While most of your sculptures are extremely detailed and graphic, your drawings tend to be expressive of yet another side of your art. Directly related to sculptures sometimes, and showing their own stories other times, they are quite delicate and even poetic. How do you employ drawing within the overall context of your artistic practice?
XC: There are two different approaches in my drawing. One is a descriptive kind of drawing that records the process of how my study of a certain subject or a work has been developing. The other kind has a more independent status on its own – this is a way to express an overall, basic theme in my work. Usually I use watercolor in order to create many different layers composed of individual units represented by a form whose contour is formed as a color spreads, stops and dries. These forms overlapping or interacting with each other conjure up a story in which individuality and harmony coexist.
YK: Speaking of individuality and harmony, you have a lovely studio, part of which you recently began to share with another artist Minsoo Sohn, the renowned pianist and also your best friend of more than 20 years. I think this is a unique and meaningful combination of two ‘masterful hands’ of visual art and music – gifted with talent and poetic sensitivity, endowed with technique and intelligence. I can imagine you two may inspire each other beyond differences and similarities of two different art forms. How does sharing the same work space with him affect your work?
XC: It is in fact very inspiring and helpful for me to discover and learn how our artistic endeavors actually share many similarities. The way Minsoo carries out a thorough analysis and detailed interpretation of a single score that often leads to a long and agonizing process, and how his questions toward one subject leads to another, enriching the texture of his own music, exactly reminds me of my own artistic efforts and exploration through drawing and sculpture. While confident in the ability and possibility of our hands, both of us always contemplate seriously the perspective and the attitude regarding how and for what to use them. Sharing such processes of investigation and practice -albeit in different fields – is great artistic encouragement and support to each other.
YK: In your work, ‘body’ or ‘the concept of body’ is the most important medium through which various aspects of the personal and interpersonal, individual and social, particular and general, physical and metaphysical are observed, explored, and interpreted. What quality or dimension of the body is most significant for you?
XC: For me, body shows how one perceives oneself and others as well as the society and environment where s/he belongs. It is a sign to understand one’s habits or patterns that are not just physical but also mental. For example, our obsession or denial of body through transformation or alteration in a way that was unimaginable in the past often reflects the volatile crisis of our society. It is an ideal medium full of possibilities to explore various phenomena – from emotion to perception, from psychology to ideology – taking place inside and outside an individual consciously or unconsciously.
YK: Having observed how the course of your work has been developing and expanding, I find a meaningful narrative unfolding – it is a complex story of us and each of us encompassing the issues of self and other, isolation and communication, individual and society, life and living– all of which cannot be in fact separated from the fundamental question of the very nature of human being itself. It seems your interest and concern for the phenomenology of human society eventually led you to address the existentialist question of human being itself. I think this is an inspiring case of how the genuine power of art can be practiced to reach its best and most valuable level. This is why I am looking forward to your next project all the more enthusiastically. Could you give us a little hint about your future direction?
XC: My next project will take a quite a different turn from what I have been doing, at least from its appearance. Whereas I have been building bodies as an entity that both symbolizes and reflects various aspects of our life, my next work will involve a process of deconstructing or dissecting it both literally and metaphorically. This can be a most straightforward way of confronting our anxieties and uncertainties about human existence founded on the complex intertwinement between mind and body. This could be a journey towards a thorough introspection towards the inner and the invisible starting from the most visible and the most tangible. In the void or space that is revealed from this process I want to delve into more fundamental questions about the elements that comprise each of us as well as our society – mind, consciousness, emotion and material.
- Image courtesy of the artist, photographs by O-yeol Gwon and Seolyi Hong
- Image courtesy of the artist, photographs by O-yeol Gwon and Seolyi Hong