Minjoo Kim’s paintings depict groups of women within a virtual narrative, randomly placed in isolated or confusing situations that represent certain issues in the real world or personal crisis. Born in South Korea and currently based in London, Kim’s work addresses the formation and re-negotiation of cultural identity, drawing on experiences of relocating from a conservative Korean context into a multicultural western one. Interested in the psychological portrayal of her characters, Kim focuses on presenting their universality, producing points of contact for empathy with women like her. Gallery Girl spoke with Kim about feminism, anxiety and being a South Korean artist in the UK.
How was your experience moving from South Korea to London? And how has it affected your art?
To put it simply, moving my life to London means being surrounded by more diverse cultural experiences. Also it kind of liberated me from the sentimental peer pressure of a conservative Korean society. But that doesn’t mean I keep looking for something remarkable from the difference. I always focus on how I see myself in the present time and place that I belong to. If ‘me 4 years ago’ used to see myself as a female living in the conservative east asian society, now I’m trying to define my identity as an east asian female artist living in a western culture.
Who and what are your main inspirations?
I love to let myself explore lots and lots of visuals every day, mostly from the internet and social media I guess. Graphic design, fashion, photography, illustration…whatever they are related to. I like to introduce myself as a narrative painter but I always want my paintings to be aesthetically unique as well. Everything I discover with my eyes can be a good reference to make my narratives more interesting in the end. And I also love listening and reading about films. It’s not only because I love films but also it helps me with having more imagination about creating stories and learning how to imply an important message behind the scene. I think it’s also a really good way to learn the contemporary context as well.
Often the women in your work are attached to their phones, do you think it’s important to address how technologically dependent we are these days?
I don’t think I was aiming to say something seriously about that issue. Those women who are really into their phones in my paintings just don’t care what’s going on around them. It’s more like a method to make them look totally isolated from the current situation which is what smartphones actually do.
Your work is very female heavy, why do you think it is important to focus on women?
In my early years, I’ve never seen my works in a feminism context. It just started from my personal stories which led myself to be presented in the paintings a lot. And one day I kind of realised that there is always a very strong element in my works and narratives affected by the fact that I’m living in this world as a woman. There are many things that I reflect myself everyday about being a woman. I do feel strong as a woman, but sometimes I feel frustration and fear about physical weakness as a woman. I admire all the brave and superb women in the world who have a good impact on society but sometimes I realise I feel so insecure to be like them. I’m a heroine one day and I become a hypocrite the next day. It’s a very mixed emotion. Because of those reasons, my paintings are the process of finding the best definition of my identity as a female artist. That always starts from the reflection to my daily life.
Is your work interpreted differently in London compared to in South Korea?
As an artist it’s always really interesting to see the diversity of how people interpret my works. When it comes to my early works which were mostly made in South Korea, some of my friends and tutors in London told me that there is a strong feminism context going on in my works, which I never intended to. I guess it’s because the gender issue is taken more sensitively in western world and that was becoming an important contemporary subject more and more every year. I have to say those kinds of feedbacks really made my eyes open to something in different dimension and extended the narratives to wider range.
I often get the sense that your women are anxious about something? Am I right? What’s on their minds?
You are right. ‘Anxiety’ and ‘isolation’ are very important words to me. Most of the time I feel like I’m completely merged into this new world now but occasionally I feel like a total stranger. The girls in my paintings usually avoid eye contact and you can’t tell where they are looking at or look really distracted. Even when something crazy is happening, they are just ignoring it and pretending they are not part of this. This shows the uncertainty and insecurity in myself as I’m always having difficulties about defining my identity clearly.
What are you plans and hopes for the future?
For now my aim is pretty simple. Work more and share it more. If I can continue to create paintings and have the chance to show them to the audience regularly, I would be happy enough. And hopefully I can have an exhibition back in South Korea again, maybe in two years time. I’m curious about how the people at home think about my work from London this time.