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Hyun Nahm

Flipping the World Upside Down

Words JEE YOUNG MAENG

Photography BORA KIM

Hyun Nahm begins his sculptures by listening to the sonic qualities of his materials. He creates flamboyant layers of irregular patterns with synthetic industrial materials like epoxy resin and polystyrene, derived from shapes of rocks or stones in nature and sometimes conjoined with architectural structures. Hyun’s works blur boundaries between natural and artificial landscapes. Not only do they resemble forms such as columnar joints or scholar’s rocks, known as viewing stones, but they also embody a sensation of time.

Even though his primary medium is sculpture, Hyun studied painting at Hongik University in Seoul in 2016 and recently graduated in 2019 with a master’s degree in fine arts from the Seoul National University of Science and Technology. Interestingly, he majored in painting as an undergraduate but had not created a single painting during his time at school. He felt painting on a canvas was less stimulating than music.

Hyun had started playing the guitar as a child and, in 2014, joined a noise band called Pink Business that was active for four years. He became more interested in sound rather than music and experimented by building up, deleting, and twisting sound to maximize the source devices of the sounds. He was never comfortable with traditional techniques or attitudes; instead, he intentionally experimented with or abused sounds, which often triggered accidental sonic by-products in surprisingly aesthetic ways. The ways he dealt with a sound influenced the selection of his artistic subjects and media. He made sound-related installations that connected him more with tactile sensation. 

Although he never trained academically as a sculptor, his sculpting journey began when he started his master’s program at Seoul National University of Science and Technology. He was moved by a comment from his teacher, a prominent artist, and sculptor, Seoyoung Chung. After seeing Hyun’s sound installation, she told him, “If you don’t know the language of the objects you deal with, they start to talk nonsense.” He felt stunned at first by her words, and they have strangely resonated with him ever since. He started to investigate using the objects’ language to make noise, which inevitably led him to try transforming sound into a tangible form. However, developing a meticulous sculpting method differed from detecting tonal qualities in objects. This stimulated him to delve further into discovering the medium’s possibilities through using polystyrene, epoxy, fiberglass, and bismuth. He feels contriving a sculpture with these materials is like bringing sound to them. 

Hyun’s sculptures absorb influences from the scenery of his neighborhood in Goyang, Korea, where he grew up and now lives and works. Goyang is one of the recently developed towns north of Seoul and is a popular commuter town similar to the one south of the city, Bundang. He has witnessed dramatic changes in this area since his childhood; land that once was a farm field seemed to become a construction site for high-rise apartment buildings the very next day. 

Throughout the city’s gradual transformation, Hyun’s notion of “landscape” naturally changed. Today, even after more than twenty years of the new town’s development, the changes are still ongoing. Only a few minutes away from the residential neighborhood where Hyun’s studio is located are areas densely populated with warehouses full of used plastic products and electronic appliances to be recycled. Piles of plastic waste surround him like a cemetery. His current sculpture, placed outside the studio, adds an extra dimension to this bizarre scene. Miraculously, the sculpture becomes a marker of his world that houses the waste scattered around it. 

In this sense, it is unsurprising that Hyun describes his work as a scaled-down landscape called a “miniascape.” When he first encountered viewing stones (also known as scholar’s rocks) on the internet in 2017, he was immediately fascinated by the concept of reducing the grandeur of nature on a smaller scale. His sculpture comprises two parts, like a viewing stone that sits on a pedestal. The stones generally capture a surface’s shape, pattern, and texture in an organic way, so Hyun’s sculptures come together coincidentally during the process. They look like crystals in a cave or underwater rocks embedded with colorful seaweed. Organic forms are often united with architectural building shapes as a pedestal (Crown, 2021) or as freestanding accumulated stacks of cubes resembling an upside-down stalactite. 

Unlike most viewing stones—which are created by chemical reactions from sedimentation, erosion, and weathering over time—Hyun digs holes in polystyrene with a heated pipe, a chisel, or a drill and pours epoxy resin into the cavity, letting it cook for a while. The inside of the polystyrene hole quickly becomes a heated chamber as the liquid epoxy hardens, prompting the interior melting process. He adds a few more steps here to control the heat and color, and after the epoxy solidifies, he “mines” the polystyrene from the outside to excavate what remains inside. This is a type of negative casting that cannot be reproduced. The artist has limited control over the output, which resembles the process of a viewing stone’s formation. Without knowing what to expect in the final product, the artist is left in a state of constant doubt and imagination. If he wants to dig deeper, he can make a sculpture much taller, but that entails a greater risk of the structure breaking or the resin leaking in the middle. 

The colors Hyun uses are clues to understanding his process. He can only guess how the different materials in an epoxy mixture will affect the appearance of different layers in his sculptures. He often refers to his process as “geology”—deducing the color and predicting how materials will accumulate. His choice of colors comes from image sources such as animation, games, and live-streaming services. Because these are often provocative or overly cheerful, his use of color is delightfully vivid and exotic. It is impossible to trace the colors back to when and how they combined at the beginning, so the precise recipe remains a mystery. The color and materials improvise as if they were musicians. He once acknowledged these uncontrollable circumstances during the work process by saying, “I am very much enjoying not having full control  over the process; I would rather be vulnerable so that it brings out unexpected results.” 

Chain Link Strategy, 2022. Epoxy resin, polyurethane resin, pigment, acrylic, cement, talc, fiberglass, steel, plastic chain, carabiner and polystyrene. Dimensions variable. Photo by Kim Kyuongtae © P21

After a period of experimentation, Hyun has begun to understand various materials’ characteristics and capacities, which he allows to take center stage as much as possible. It is no wonder his sculptures have such a “natural” look. Using industrial materials like polystyrene and epoxy as his main media connects with the idea that we unknowingly live in an overflow of artificial things. His method is not to criticize the materials but to use them in an organic way. Synthetic plastics are typically used as an insulator or in the exterior painting of buildings, but Hyun treats them as skin or subcutaneous tissues of the human body.  

Hyun’s sculptures include both natural and architectural forms. To achieve his “miniascape” series, he has researched examples of sculptural approaches for portraying landscapes in art history. When he came across Malevich’s Gota from his Arkhitekton series in 1923, he said, “It came to me as a vast urban cityscape of numerous buildings, rather than as a single architectural structure. The small sculpture on a pedestal was compelling in its expansiveness of perspective and distance, which, to me, appeared similar to the art of miniascape, the intention to lead viewers to sense a larger landscape from a small partial object.” This inspired Hyun’s homage to Gota in creating his “miniascape” series (Atog series, 2021). Polystyrene, epoxy, and cement act as the epidermis and subcutaneous tissues of today’s urban architecture. Using the negative casting process, Hyun decided on the title Atog, which implies both the mass being turned upside down and the metaphor of the reversed production process. 

With such meticulously crafted sculptures, Hyun creates contradictory aspects that collide in the world he creates. He allows us to view natural artifacts through a filter of artificial materials. If we look closely, we may even recognize that there is only a thin line between the natural and the artificial in our current world. Through his sculptures, Hyun simply flips these categories around, leaving us to ponder how established demarcations can be overturned at any moment.    

This story is from Issue Five.

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