© Yoon Kalim

Interview: Yoon Kalim

Kopenhagen Publishing

This Friday Korean artist Kalim Yoon (1980) will open her first solo show in Copenhagen. This winter Kalim Yoon had a 3 month residency at the National Workshops for Arts and Crafts preparing works for the exhibition. Alexander Tovborg went there to discuss the work in progress.

Kalim Yoon is a MFA graduate from Slade School of Fine Art in London. After her graduation she did a residency programme for one year at the Florence Trust Studios in London. Kalim Yoon first exhibited at Helene Nyborg at the gallery’s inaugural show in 2006 and afterwards she had a group show in 2008 with Daniel Svarre and Christine Clemmesen.

Interview: Alexander Tovborg
Foto: Torben Zenth &Anders Sune Berg

Tell me, when you came here to Gammel Dok, did you have a kind of theme? An idea for the exhibition?

I wanted to make several pieces, objects that were functional but odd - with odd functions. The main material was wood. Denmark has a great reputation for furniture, so I thought I would use this opportunity to gain inspiration from this environment. I found it intriguing. I like Scandinavian aesthetics, which are very simple and clean - that was what influenced me most. My idea was to make some tactile, physical pieces in wood, and to open myself to the influences here.

This is one of the wood sculptures you are talking about - could you tell me about it?

For the last five years I've been away most of the time in foreign countries. Because of this I'm constantly faced with problems or situations that I can't handle that well, and then I end up feeling isolated. In such moments, I wish that I had some kind of help or support. Afterwards I always regret not handling the situation well, and then I end up making objects, basically to support myself physically - like this table. I'll describe the situation I had in mind: When you are sitting across a table from someone, you are looking at each other but there are moments where you don't know what to do, when you can't really communicate with the other person. Then I imagine the table being divided into two pieces with an invisible wall in between. I feel compelled to stay there, as though I can't leave - I feel my elbows planting themselves there, and then I am in my own world. This is a table for that. In the beginning I called it "Tables for Conversation" and later "Tables for Confrontation", and at the end "Tables for Boredom".

It could be any or all of those. It's a very poetic and a strong statement, not only of that lack of conversation, but also the isolation. Speaking about these types of spaces that you create, you also made a piece called A Portable Waiting Bar. It's also about this intimate private space. Can you tell about this work?

The first impression that I got when I entered Copenhagen Airport was the arrival hall. The time I arrived, it was night time and I didn't have anyone to pick me up. The first thing I saw was a bar, or rather two portable bars. A few people were hanging out at the bars, waiting for relatives or friends arriving on late flights. And then suddenly I felt so lonely, because no one was waiting for me and it was night, and those two bars really caught my eye.

I took some pictures and that image of the bars - chic, well-designed, different from other bars in airport arrival halls - was an indication to me of how well-designed this country was. I had that photo archive in my computer and I was thinking I had to do something with it. I related it to a feeling of isolation and awkwardness. Airports in unknown countries are probably the most awkward places you can be.


I think there are a lot of expectations: Arriving there with people waiting for you, not knowing if the flight is delayed. Because I usually travel alone, I tend to feel completely lost before I manage to get out of the arrival hall. It's a very specific space, and this object, the Portable Waiting Bar, gives people comfort and supports them. It is a space to do something when you are waiting and don't know what else to do but put your hands in your pockets and hang around. That's the feeling I have when I'm in a foreign country: other people know each other, and I need to be there and be myself, but I don't want to lean on the wall. I don't want to look bored, waiting for something to happen.

The portable bar, is it sort of like a shelter?

Yeah, I guess so and it's important that it is portable.

This portable bar is meant for two people, but you have also made one which has spaces for more people, right? It suggests close contact. Can you tell about this work?

I think I wanted to make a shelter for the isolated individual, but I also wanted to give the impression that someone else is invited, too. Probably my chairs are like that too, and my Love Seat.

Speaking of Love Seat, can you tell about this work?

It was first made in 2007, influenced by the Victorian love chair, or love bench, which is a sofa-type bench from the Victorian period in England. You sit on it back to back, in an S-shape. I was in London and I was very lonely. Sometimes I ended up sitting in bus shelters or on park benches next to strangers - total strangers. It was tempting to try to talk to them, but I felt I shouldn't. In London people don't really talk to each other. So I thought, why don't I make a bench to sit with total strangers - not talking to each other, but sitting really close. I wanted to trick people into sitting so close that if you turned your head, you could almost kiss. I wanted to invite two strangers to do something beyond normal behaviour. It is almost an enforced intimacy, created by sitting on the bench.

Can you tell me about the workHead Rests - this one where you are kneeling down?

Yes, when you kneel, you bow your head. For me kneeling is very symbolic: When you do something wrong, you have to kneel down. When I was a child and did something wrong, I had to kneel in respect in front of my parents and confess what I had done wrong, and I was scolded for my mistakes. Of course kneeling for a long time is very uncomfortable. I'm Catholic, so I kneel in church as well when I'm praying. I think if you kneel down, it kind of drives you to be introspective. In Buddhism there is a practise where you kneel down and face the wall so nothing distracts you. You don't have thoughts or anything; your mind is totally empty. And then you can ascend to a different level. So I thought I would make something that would help myself or others with these inner thoughts; in a way, almost a confession.

I find this work very interesting, because of its cultural differences. If this was in Iran, it would have been a very different work than it is here in Denmark. We are not so bound to our religion, so what we relate to is maybe this shamefulness. You have to kneel down and face the wall while the others are moving on. Like a penalty. But in other cultures it's something you do to appease your parents when you do something wrong. Have you thought about that, both the cultural and political aspects?

Of course I have thought about that. That is why I made it in gold: It has it's own sublime quality. It is actually gilded with 24 carat gold; I used a traditional way of gilding. When used in a limited amount I think the gold gives a special effect. It relates to religion: I wanted it to have undercurrents of religious themes. Some people are very resentful of kneeling down, they don't even want to try it, it is too much for them to face. I don't really have instructions for the piece; spectators can experience it if they choose to or not.

Is the most important thing that your work has a function or that its function is being used?

Well, if viewers can just imagine certain functions, that's probably enough for me. If someone looks at a work and can use their imagination about how it can be used. If it inspires that kind of imagination, I think that's enough. I like to leave it open for viewers. It can be functional if the viewer can imagine a function for it.

Maybe you could tell me a little bit more about yourself, because if there's something that strikes me, it's the very personal approach to your work. A lot of these works took shape from personal experiences: You've been travelling a lot, studying at Slade School of Fine Art, and are now back in Copenhagen for the second time. Can you tell me about the concept of being on your way somewhere, and being inspired by different cultures? How has it affected you?

I think for almost all of my works, I am not able to detach them from myself. They are results of my feelings or thoughts, daily life in different places, different people and events. I thought that when I got away from Seoul, where I'm so used to everything, I would feel much more free. I thought that things would change, that I would be in a totally different environment, and that I could get away from all the habits. But since living in London for 4 years, as an outsider as well as an art student, I realised that wherever you go, you can't run away from yourself. So probably the sense of suffocation I felt was really myself, my inner thoughts, not the Korean environment.

When I left, I decided to leave everything behind me - also the way I worked - and I wanted to get a fresh view on everything, including myself. A lot of things occurred: I felt isolated, I felt free. I'm a reflective person, so I am susceptible to influences in my environment, who I meet and where I am at the time. In the beginning I tried to understand English people by objects: I tried to manipulate them. I didn't think they looked English, I thought they looked like me. Somehow they didn't look right to me, so I used neutral materials, and experimented with the space. I documented my travels, I documented my bed - every morning. This is proof of my existence, the traces I leave, and my loneliness.

I documented the boxes that were sent to me from abroad. I made pictures of my food. I was eating alone a lot, but I like cooking and I wanted to leave a trace of what I ate and how it looked.

I also found a print of animals in a print shop in London. I found them fascinating. Half of them I don't know; they are engraved and printed in 1800-something. The engravers never saw these animals in reality, so they engraved it after a description. So some of them look so strange, and I could really sympathise with these animals - they don't exist in real life, but I felt sympathy for them. I had some gold thread, and I tried to dress the animals with the thread. I wanted to give them protection or lovely garments that they could show off. When I did that I realised that the effect of the metal thread on the surface was quite interesting; they looked absurd, they looked lost, like something from an encyclopaedia. And I got more into this technique.

Do you want to glorify them?

Yes, I wanted to dress them nicely, because they looked lost or forgotten. So I followed the edge of the line with my thread. It gave this interesting effect and I felt like I was drawing. When I perform this technique my mind goes blank and time just passes. It was a kind of direct, instinctive interaction with this thread and the print.

Here in this picture [Wild Life Picturesque] you outlined the front of these animals, and here is one on the back side with your comments to it. Why is that?

The back side is more interesting, because in order not to make mistakes on the front, I made a lot of mistakes on the back. I needed to have some cloth on the back to hold it together - otherwise it would fall apart -and after I finished one on the front I thought, Oh perfect, I didn't make any mistakes. But when I saw the back it was full of mistakes. They look abstract and interesting on the back. The back side felt more free, so I wanted it to be seen on both sides.

And you work with this embroidery thing, can you tell about that? What are you creating right now?

I found something written in Latin, a study about sea animals - a species of coral called Matrepoa. The pictures of the corals are so different from one another that you can't relate them as the same species. I found that interesting and wanted to make embroideries of coral. But in the end, when you're done with the paper you get this ambiguous shape made of gold threads. Some of it looks like shadows, like an abstract form.

So you glorify the shape of them and on the back side, you can barely see what it is. Why do you do that?

I think it is the traces of the effort and work, the preciousness of the activity that is left behind. So that it is actually no longer important what it was in the beginning. It becomes something else with this transformation. I thought it was more interesting to be more comprehensive with embroideries; I've got this sea plant, and I'm making almost a landscape with it. So the individual piece isn't important any more.

How has it been to be able to work so intensely with the materials? I heard you got acquainted with someone who has a lot of experience with embroidery, with wood and metal. Your work with wood is far more consequent now.

I have had intense, physically demanding works before. I was trained as a sculptor. I know the pain, I know the satisfaction of this pain. I don't think this type of education exists here any more. I had to learn using basic materials. Back then, in Korea I was given a stone, or I could go to the wood yard to choose my own chunk of wood with the bark still on it. These were the traditional materials I could choose among. I learned how to do plaster casting of whole bodies. I learned about the different kinds of materials and their characteristics, and how to manipulate these natural materials in traditional ways, which is quite difficult to do by hand.

I always think of myself as a sculptor. This sentence is imprinted in my head: Sculptors need to be strong, because the materials they use are strong. They need to be stronger than the material. Of course as a woman it is difficult physically. Wood in particular is really difficult to work with because it changes. Stone doesn't change much, but wood changes. When you think you have a straight piece of wood, you know it can change in a month from humidity, temperature and everything. To make it right is really difficult. It's painful, but I enjoy that pain, because I like to see the materials changing. It shows me what they are, what they can be. It's intriguing for me. I want to push it further.

I saw one of these incredible embroiderers - one of them is in Denmark, her name is Berthe [Bramsen]. I saw her working and its incredible how she works. You just sink in to this material and what is in front of you. You can't be interrupted by thoughts because the process functions with one thread at a time, one stitch by one stitch makes it a whole. So if you lose your train of thought, you drop your needle, you go wrong. This requires intense concentration, and that's almost like working with wood.

You have worked with other difficult materials a cat in scalpel blades? How much do the materials mean to your work? And how do you choose them?

For me the choice of material is open, it can be anything. Anything from daily life, anything that invites me to use it. With the scalpel blades it's very specific because it shows my history as well. I started as a visual communication designer as well. I used a lot of these scalpel blades. Even as a visual communications designer I liked to work on sheets and vinyl, instead of working on a computer. So I ended up having boxes of scalpel blades. I actually travelled with them to England and that work was made in my first week at Slade. I think it reflects the state I was in.

How were you?

Very vulnerable. Needing armour. Strong armour. But when you put strong armour on yourself, it restricts you, gives you less opportunity to be free.

Are you a sensitive person?

Very. But I think all artists are. In different ways.

Thank you