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Jian Yoo

Brighter existence that embraces the new history


Photography JAE KIM

There are no waves in the ocean that can be repeated. These are records of time and traces of the sea that glisten with each continuous and innumerable flow. With meticulous craftsmanship, Jian Yoo utilizes mother-of-pearl to create vibrant works that whisper beauty and motion through each mosaic-like composition. As the sea meets waves and creates large and small currents, mother-of-pearl and Yoo fill each other. Yoo’s mother-of-pearl is no longer an object in history or tradition but a brighter existence that embraces the new history of those living in the modern age. In this interview, we discuss the endless curiosity of artistic language representing her practice and the power of connection it has for her as an artist.

Beyond the Ocean_THE FLOW_Blissful Waves 02 & 03. Mother-of-Pearl, Mixed media. 115 x 84 x 50 cm/ 54 x 60 x 41 cm, 2021. Courtesy of Arijian.

PLUS: How did you begin utilizing nacre, the so-called ‘mother-of-pearl? 

Jian Yoo: In my 20s, while studying in New York, I was figuring out what keeps me competitive and what my possible future path could be. I contemplated what I was good at and could still capture my identity. What first came to mind was the mother-of-pearl, which I’ve seen often growing up.

My father operated a mother-of-pearl studio before I was born, and thanks to him, this material was very familiar and close to my heart. While mother-of-pearl is also used overseas, I’ve never seen the kind of craftsmanship or brilliance that Korea has shown. So when I returned to Korea, instead of viewing the mother-of-pearl and its glow as a regional or historical material, I decided to approach it in a modern art direction with the intention of seeing it as an art medium to create a genre of my own. 


P: Can you share these memories of growing up in Korea and being exposed to the creative scene from a young age?

JY: The images of my father and the other master artisans, drawing designs, inlaying the mother-of-pearl, coating with lacquer, as well as the sight, the touch, the smell, the traits of similar materials, the feelings—all of this still stick closely with me in my memory. Watching over their shoulders was a daily occurrence, so I know how much time and effort it requires for a piece to be completed. When a piece is sold in Korea, people say, “You’re marrying it off.” I think that expression alone contains the joy, the hardships, and the sense of accomplishment that come with this creative process.


P: So, what should one pay attention to connecting with this endless beauty and expression?

JY: While the physical trait of the mother-of-pearl is solid, the radiance of light that’s glowing is quite soft and warm. I believe beauty is this mystical and radiant shine emitted by time and life, and every piece of art using this material is solely completed through the human touch. In my works, I try to embody the depth of time these master craftsmen have spent studying and researching for countless years. It’s this exceptional value that I hope everyone will experience through my work.

I believe beauty is this mystical and radiant shine emitted by time and life, and every piece of art using this material is solely completed through the human touch.”

P: It’s incredibly fascinating to see how this solid material can be tapped and broken down into a limitless imagination in patterns, images, and texture—creating such a unique visual dialogue. Could you share a little about the methodology and techniques? 

JY: I receive most of my inspiration from nature, culture, and modern architecture. The topics of conversation in my work are usually: How can I maximize the shine of the mother-of-pearl? How can I present the mother-of-pearl in the direction I have in mind? Or how can I utilize wood and other modern mediums with the mother-of-pearl to create a harmonious result?

While the basic frame is done by modern technology, the actual craftwork must be done delicately by hand. It takes a very long time to create, but the process is flexible at the same time. It begins as sketches and then building a structure using wood, metal, or FRP. After, the prep work for inlaying the mother-of-pearl will begin, including sanding and coating with lacquer. The process will repeat itself numerous times to complete. 

In terms of technique, such as tapping, breaking down, and placing pieces are mostly done intuitively where the hands will lead. This might seem as if there is no particular method, but when the thousands of lines and (small or big) pieces are inlaid onto the surface, they form their kind of order, forming an intimate relationship. Through this, each piece glistens like a precious jewel. As the mother-of-pearl is a natural material, I find it so fun and charming that there will never be two pieces of work that will be the same!


P: Beyond the Ocean_The Flow took a new approach to investigate the medium. With this series, you focused on revealing the mother-of-pearl’s materialist aspects to communicate with the work. 

JY: Beyond the Ocean_The Flow is a series I created with the idea of essence. What’s the best way to express the trace of time that the mother-of-pearl embraces? If I express the radiant light of the mother-of-pearl as rolling waves, will it shine even brighter with more dimension? The continuation of these kinds of questions led to this series being born.

The works are made so that the shape would resemble an island, almost as if it belonged back to the ocean. The pieces have the stability to be used as a lounge chair or a stool while ensuring that the object’s outer appearance and the flow of the surface are smooth and natural-looking. The theme of the series and the material used is a cohesion of life forces that have withstood the long flow of time. To condense every aspect into one object required much trial and error and endless effort. 

And when people tell me that they can feel the remnants of time and energy through the art piece, like the object could possibly be found in the ocean somewhere after experiencing the passage of time, or gives the natural sensation of the constant flow of the ocean, I feel incredibly grateful as my intentions were conveyed well. 

GOT Series. Mother-of-pearl, Metal. Courtesy of Arijian.

P: Could you also talk about the GOT series? 

JY: The GOT series was influenced by the traditional Korean hat, which literally means a hat and is pronounced as “got” in the Korean language. When I draw this direct inspiration from Korean culture, I tend to search for objects that wholly embody the spirit of Korean craftsmanship while being up to the standard of public appeal, independence, creativity, present time compatibility, and dynamic range. The object that satisfied all elements was the “got.”

The “got” served a dual purpose of protecting one’s face from the sun and revealing one’s social status. Instead of the traditionally used horsehair or extremely thin pieces of bamboo, I have utilized long, slender mother-of-pearl strips that were inlaid, one by one, on the wide brim of the hat held up by a cone or cylinder. The traditional “got” shielded faces from the sun, but my GOT series does the opposite, emitting and exposing a great radiance through mother-of-pearl.

P: What are the symbolic meanings in the images portrayed in many cabinet works (ex. flowers, cranes, trees, etc.)? What dialogue do these images try to evoke?

JY: The structure and design may be modern, but the decorative patterns consist mainly of traditional images of Korean culture. Each pattern has its own story and helps the craft become more affluent in meaning. For example, the crane symbolizes longevity, while the flowers represent harmony, balance, and love. When you decorate with beautiful flowers and a pair of birds, it signifies marital harmony.

Traditional images that use animals and plants alluding to the hopes of people may express themselves in various ways, but the meanings behind them (longevity, health, fortune, happiness, etc.) can relate to everyone. Regardless of age and culture, it’s a universal desire of all human beings. The mother-of-pearl usually used for these cabinets was already crafted 30-50 years ago. These pieces in art furniture record the beautiful heritage of the past in the language of present times while conveying the timeless value that continues today and to the future.


P: There is still a misconception of how the mother-of-pearl is considered in Korea. Often it’s categorized as a craft or decorative object due to how it was first introduced in the past. How do you perceive the boundaries between decorative and art? And what changes do you want to see?

JY: In Korea, many people view the mother-of-pearl as mere material for traditional craft. However, that also means that its history is deep and widely recognized. But in this current time, when the boundaries set between craftwork, design, and contemporary art are gradually disappearing, I don’t find significance in categorizing art pieces.

Determining whether the same piece is decorative or art really depends on ideology. Even if it’s the same image, if it contains the intrinsic value of why it was made a certain way, what story it holds, and what message it wishes to convey, I believe that even a decorative piece can be art. When working with traditional techniques by hand, it’s craftwork, and when using contemporary mediums and philosophy that reflect current times, it’s contemporary art. 


P: Lastly, any unrealized projects? 

JY: I have an ongoing art project about the coexistence of tradition and contemporary that I’ve been preparing for a long time under the working title of “Intersection.” Korea’s traditional cabinet, inlaid with mother-of-pearl holds the soul and touch of the most excellent craftsmen of the time and the luxury culture and value that reflects the past. 

Also, I’m working on adopting a portion of that and merging it with contemporary art. It’s been a fun process looking at images of the past from a contemporary perspective while adding a splash of my own colors to them. You can see it as a collaboration between the new and the former and history and contemporary art. I aspire to create my own “contemporary mother-of-pearl art” genre using various mediums, such as objects and images. 

This story is from Issue Five.



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