Words by Jaeyong Park
Photography by Bora Kim
Seeun Kim’s paintings are full of verbs, not nouns. She does not depict things but conveys how things are experienced. She is ruminating on the transformation of our senses and accumulating information that is indirect to the body.
In her adolescent years, Seeun Kim spent much time in the outer rim of the Greater Seoul area in one of the new urban experiments aptly named the “New City” project. By way of strange coincidence, the Korean government’s decades-long plan to expand Seoul was also inaugurated in the year Kim was born: 1989, just after the country successfully hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics. Bundang, her hometown, belonged to the first generation of the project, which is still continuing after 30 years of experiments.
Typical of the ‘New City’ project, her hometown was always in flux with the construction of new apartment complexes. Kim recollects that her early years were filled with memories of observing the construction of high-rise apartment complexes, rapidly growing as if they were mushrooms flourishing in the wild. There, a new spatial language was born. A curious child with a keen interest in depicting her thoughts in images, she could not help but explore the ever-expanding urban landscape unfolding in front of her eyes. Entire cities were created before her eyes in a matter of a few months and years.
Yet, another kind of spatial language was also being formulated, namely through residual spaces that have not been covered by the urban planning that primarily focused on speeding up the construction. Small plots of land established their own ecosystems in contrast to heavily planned apartment blocks. In many playgrounds, additional small paths were created out of the leftover spaces along the walkways and paved with pebbles for residents to massage their feet. There in the urban leftovers, she also discovered certain rhythms and movements with a different sense of scale.
The time at the Royal College of Art in London gave Kim a chance to reflect on the very visual language and grammar she had been exploring through her early years. A city with totally different rhythms and movements, London was more than just a place she spent a few years enhancing her painterly techniques. Rather, the whole city was an experiential ground to examine different spatialities. For her, hopping on London’s underground and railway systems were lessons in moving through the city’s inner organs and examining the city’s surface. The rhythms and movements of her native visual language were enriched by encountering a new language in the city of London.
But how does Kim convey this language in her paintings? Her works are full of verbs, not nouns. She does not depict things but conveys how things are experienced. As we are not mono-sensory creatures, the very experience conveyed in Kim’s paintings inevitably contains a palette of her experiences only to be deepened by the visual medium of painting. After she returned to Seoul, she rented a studio far from her home, which led her to commute from the south of Seoul to the north of the city. If what she had observed before were the bones of the city, this time, she examined the blood vessels of the city. She traveled through many tunnels and roads every day, which often ran under the many bridges along the Han River. Yet, this did not result in her depicting these architectural structures in her work. Instead, she became more abstract.
Recently, Seeun Kim built what seems to be a curved cement-pasted wall taken from a construction site. The structure fills almost the entirety of one of her walls in the studio, which forms a long rectangular shape, and is positioned towards the window. The work’s ceiling is high enough to host an architectural structure. Let’s call it The Wall for convenience. In front of The Wall, there is also a miniature of the structure, though it is not done with architectural precision. The Wall stands there to play a double, but what it precisely represents is abstract.
When asked about The Wall, Kim responds with a possibly more abstract answer. The Wall is not created in preparation for any of her upcoming exhibitions or projects. She built it all herself to meditate on her visions for possible future practices. Sure, The Wall is created to represent or reenact a part of a certain architectural structure. Yet, she does not care to build an exact replica of it. What she wants to have is the presence of the very structure in her studio so that she can get a sense of it in physical, material, and corporeal terms. Thus, she built the structure by herself, erecting thin architectural plywood panels against the studio wall. The panels stand in a slightly curved position, their tips leaning against the hanging metal bars from the ceiling. It’s a non-architect’s autodidactic reconstruction of a tunnel wall.
But what does The Wall have to do with the painter’s future practices? Opposite The Wall is a stack of aluminum canvas frames and paintings in progress, all much taller than the artist herself. Kim says The Wall is related to them, but probably not much at this very moment. For now, The Wall stands as a model for what she might create in the future when her speculative imagination of the urban planning of the Greater Seoul region is fully materialized. Indeed, building entire districts under the ground has been pitched by a few significant politicians and policymakers. In one of many possible futures, their ideas might come true, drastically changing how a population of more than 10 million people experience urban spaces.
All these visions for the future cityscape sound very unclear, abstract. Yet, the canvases standing opposite The Wall, some of which Kim has been working on for over a few years, defy the sense of abstraction. Though they might seem like a fluid collection of planes, shapes, and lines when seen on digital screens, they are indeed articulations of experiences. Almost one-and-a-half times taller than the artist, the paintings require physical investment from the artist. Her paintings are sometimes named after particular places or structures, although they do not explicitly depict what their titles refer to. Instead, what they convey is a sense of space or a spatial rhythm, seen from different distances and angles. As such, Kim’s seemingly abstract paintings with mostly non-abstract titles do not intend to capture a singular visual moment or specific subject. They are a study of space and movement in the ever-changing urban environment. In this sense, Kim’s paintings are often a maze full of hints that come in the shape of painterly expressions.
Kim’s paintings are often a maze full of hints that come in the shape of painterly expressions.
One such painting is Yongsan round (2019), where we see what seems to be the entrance of an escalator descending, somehow connected to a round shape that might be a window or a tunnel. Yongsan is one of Seoul’s populated districts, yet the two distinct shapes in the paintings can be found almost anywhere. One might speculate that the painting depicts a particular structure at the Yongsan Station that features a distinctively long outdoor escalator under a circular-shaped ceiling. Yet, the title of the painting has just about the right amount of information to indicate the place (noun) and shape (adjective). For some, the name of the place might not even give any information. What is left in the title, then, is an adjective indicating a certain shape. Regardless of the title, however, what is depicted or created on the canvas is vaguely reminiscent of structures that one might pass by in any urbanized place.
Kim’s abstract paintings are often placed in her exhibitions in ways that invite the viewers to engage with the spaces in which they are presented. Slanted or curved walls invite viewers to use their bodies to appreciate the paintings fully. In her latest exhibition, which took place in March this year, the artist created dedicated seating structures for viewers. One could easily see that the low benches were reminiscent of support structures at the construction site. But what about the low height? One might think of it as coinciding with the artist’s low stool in her studio, which she often sits on while contemplating her paintings. Yet, such is just one of many ways through which she engages with the urban landscape. She is over and under, throughout and outside of the built environment. She often expands and contracts the passing surroundings with the help of optical devices, regulating her distance and proximity toward them.
But for the last few years, life has become confined to our tiny screens or living quarters thanks to a series of safety measures against COVID-19. Many did not even have a chance to look up, down, or around. Being in the city did not necessarily involve the experience of spaces. If one doesn’t move through physical spaces, what becomes of the very experience of space? While there are many who turned to the so-called metaverse, Seeun Kim launched her own studies of the body as a vessel of spatial experiences.
At this point, it seems evident that her studies are not about the anatomical representation of the human body. Kim says she is ruminating on the transformation of our senses and accumulating information that is indirectly related to the body. As with the abstract architectural structure in her studio, even the artist does not know what will become of them. What is clear is only one thing. What awaits us in Kim’s future paintings are verbs, not nouns.