The pandemic situation is becoming even more complicated here in Korea. How are you doing? What are your daily routines these days?
I have worked throughout the pandemic with a slightly more relaxed schedule and time to think things through. We have been very lucky to avoid getting ill at both the studio and home. It has been frustrating to postpone exhibitions and to be unable to attend installations and openings. I have learnt to install my shows using VR goggles and models of the gallery. It’s not ideal but it allows me to work. Material shortages and transport issues are difficult, this is as much Brexit as Covid. Things seem to be getting back to some kind of normality here.
Is your studio still located in Shoreditch London? Could you please briefly tell us what kinds of works are in the process of creation?
Yes, I’m still in Shoreditch. It works well for me and I have been here for over 30 years in a 19th century warehouse where they used to make furniture. I work with a team of ten others and surround myself with other people’s art that I have collected to reassure and inspire and enjoy. I think the space you work in has a big effect on what you make. Scale, architecture, I even draw the people from this neighbourhood a lot.
You captured Seoul in Walking in Sadang-dong in the rain (2014) and Walking in Sinsa-dong. These were such impressive pieces for me and I still love them. You might vividly remember how impactful Crowd (2014) was presented on the whole Seoul Square building façade. How do you feel and memorise Seoul? What is the city of Seoul to you?
I have been very lucky getting to know Seoul and some other parts of Korea over this very dynamic period. Even in the 1990s I made a few projects in Korea but my collaboration with Kukje Gallery has allowed me to exhibit often and widely. I loved showing in Suwon and particularly in Busan. The energy and culture of Korea is amazing and is having a huge influence here. My niece who lives in the deep countryside is addicted to Korean music and film.
Do you have any other plans to create a piece influenced by Seoul?
During the lockdown I used online maps to travel around Korea and draw some of the apartment buildings that had made an impression on me during earlier visits. As you mention I have drawn a lot of people on the streets of Seoul, but in this latest show I have included a large steel sculpture of a building from Incheon. These suburban apartment buildings are sufficiently detailed and recognisable that I can abstract them down to create an almost abstract network of lines. The sculpture does not refer to a famous building in Incheon but just one of the very many tall white apartment blocks familiar in Korea. I have also made Suwon and Seoul towers and am working on Busan.
You have said: “We think that we are perfectly understanding what’s going on around us, but actually we are partially comprehending with our own way of thinking." Does this philosophy affect how you draw and create art?
Did I said that? It sounds rather inarticulate. Maybe the translation. Perhaps I was trying to share a sense of wonder at the very act of seeing and comprehending. As animals gain the ability to see, as babies grow and understand what their eyes and brains record, the world becomes a picture, a model in our mind by which we navigate, know and share experience. Making art is a way of playing with this process, of breaking it down and interfering. We think we see the world but it’s a trick of the light and this model gives us a language with which to survive and to make art.
You seemed to delicately involve your idea not only into the art piece itself, but also the ‘space’. The whole layout of the exhibition space, traffic flow etc. Can you speak about that in relation to this exhibition?
Kukje has four spaces and I have tried to make strong connections between them while using a different approach for each. At the moment I am making works in three main categories, people, animals and buildings so the show is roughly divided that way. I try to keep the viewer interested and guessing, making connections and being surprised. An exhibition is not like a movie or a book, perhaps more like a concept album or opera where each song must stand for itself but the whole is a journey that unfolds and adds to the individual works. In part I want to create an immersive experience, a model within a model. I have been playing with the idea of full on VR exhibitions, next year perhaps.
The new Kukje space called K3 is a beautiful stand-alone environment. I imagine the audience entering the space and being drawn to explore as they might a historical town or a computer adventure game. I have always been intrigued by movement as a way of drawing on another plane. Movement of the images themselves but also the movement of the people looking at the work. Movement allows us to see, to explore, to know the world. I have used and played with the human ability to navigate and read space for a long time first using abstract architectural spaces and then recognisable buildings. I have also used landscape imagery, but I live in a city and exist in an environment defined by buildings. Like a bee in a hive I think in the shapes of buildings and streets, in plastics and aluminium and flashing LED lights.
Could you briefly tell us on some special behind the scenes stories of the pieces presented this time in Seoul?
Well I mentioned the Korean buildings. During lockdown I jogged around the city of London near myself studio and gathered images of the many historic towers of this area. After the Great fire of 1666 the City of London was rebuilt and it’s with folded aluminium images of these towers that I have occupied K3.
Before the pandemic I set up a camera on a traffic island in Shoreditch and filmed the local commuters crossing a busy street. I repeated this process during different seasons and the winter and summer series are shown here in animated and static paintings. The changing seasons give me very different clothing and colours that allows for contrasting compositions and moods.
We have many animals in this exhibition in Seoul. What do these animals mean for you?
I have often used images of animals before but for this project I went back to the beginning and set about photographing the animals I could find around me, nothing exotic, just the animals I see around me. I focused on scale, using the diversity of actual size in animals to dictate the scale of the works. However, the colours are not natural - they are taken from the road signs that are also being referenced since animals are known to us as much through symbol and language as actual first-hand experience. So, these works are as much images of signs, sculptures of adverts, paintings of logos as they are depictions of animals. I have been looking a lot at early human images of animals, trying to locate the relationships and power within them. We recognise animals and feel affinity with them, but they are also strange and funny and a little frightening. I spent a long time waiting for deer to get up off the ground, for dogs to stand perpendicular to my camera and for birds to walk in a straight line. We even built a kind of street for pigeons to get them to move in the way I wanted. The best model for this project has been my cat, Gainsborough, who is looking at me sceptically as I write.
What do you think of the term ‘modern portraits’ as a way to describe your walking people?
Every artist reacts to the world around them and in some sense represents it. It would be hard to do anything that was not modern by definition.
Do you enjoy walking as a pass time? Could you tell us about some of your favourite places to walk and what you might think about or imagine when you are walking?
It’s when I move that I start to really notice the world. It could be walking or running, cycling, driving or flying. This is partly due to the way you can then read the world as an unfolding story and partly because it’s one of the few times you actually focus on your surroundings (if you get off your phone). I have been cycling a lot recently. It’s a good way to gather images as it’s easier to stop. When I drive, I tend to come home with images of roads. I notice with a lot of work I am doing recently that it’s only really visible as you move around it. A photograph of it is frustratingly unreadable. I see this as a good thing.
Do you have a favourite artwork themed around waking?
Walking is a very revealing activity. You can know someone by their walk. A human in motion is perhaps at its most graceful and natural. The striding figure is familiar in so much art from Pre-historic to Egyptian and Ancient Greek.
I started by drawing people who were standing still looking back at the audience but soon came to realise that people walking past you were easier to draw and easier to look at.
Just as Michael Craig-Martin influenced you at Goldsmiths, what would your advice be to the MZ generation of contemporary artists? I am sure the readers of <DAZED> Korea would love to have your answer to this question
MZ? OK... I’ll ask my children what that is. Michael Craig-Martin was a very great teacher and I was extremely lucky to have had him as my tutor throughout art school and then as a friend afterwards. To my surprise I found I was not such a good teacher myself and didn’t really have the patience. By necessity I have found myself writing about art quite a lot these days and a lot of these texts are on my website if you are interested. My third daughter just started art school and it’s very exciting to see her so engaged in making art and discovering other artists, relaying that back to her own work.
Every now and then I get fed up with my own practice but invariably I find myself starting some small half-baked project that looked fun to try and before I know it it’s turned into my next exhibition. For me it always comes from observation, something in the world clicks or connects. Something becomes visible to me and I start to play with it and see what it can do. I use exhibitions as part of the process of making, driving me to focus, and then freeing me to move on. I make as much work as I can while the ideas make sense and the energy is there. Soon enough I have lost the thread or found what seems to be a better alternative. I try to avoid fear and follow what looks fun and engaging but what works for me may not be right for others.