Capturing his every subject in their most pure and vulnerable form, using negative film, Koh Sang Woo is a visual artist who consolidates photography, performance, and painting in an effort to present the audience with the opportunity to see the world in reverse, and reconsider the way in which we look at others and understand ourselves.
KissII (2009) 77×110
You were born in Seoul into a family of artists, what attracted you to the US?
When I was a young student in Seoul, South Korea, Art education was mainly focused on technique rather than idea and concept. Techniques based on old masters was a large part of art education.
Repeating the techniques over and over again, hours and weeks to duplicate a master, I realised the US had a different Art education system.
After finding out I had to create 20 original artworks for my portfolio to enter college, I was immediately attracted to study abroad. It required far more creativity and my works to see my own vision and style for my portfolio.
I wanted to study art in the US, where you can have your own style and vision for something else and something new.
Walk with me (2018) 104×104
You graduated from the Chicago School of Art Institute in 2001 and double-majored in Photography and Performance — tell us about your first steps as an artist based in New York.
Right after graduation at SAIC, I was picked up by a high profile art gallery in Chicago and had an exhibition right away. They helped me to reach early acclaim, as the youngest artist to participate in the Armory Show for three straight years in a row.
However, Chicago felt too conservative and limiting for me on what I wanted to say as an artist.
I decided it was time for me to try New York City and make the big move to the East coast. NYC was a new environment and seem to always challenge me on questioning different thoughts that ran through my mind.
“What is acceptable in society?” — these questions lead to the visual storytelling of opinions. No longer an outsider to the city, each of my works showcased a combination of colour, words, and objects. This translation of mixed media represents my own transformation living in NYC.
New York has made me realise many things, including my realisation of the human race, not defined from what part of the world I was born in.
Without forming any relationships to identify myself, I trace back isolation and fear, pain and sadness, anxiety and loss of existence, and the social aspects of the times of confusing identity, and draw the trip of healing, overcoming social wounds as a stranger.
NYC helped me grew to challenge me as an artist, which I have profound love for a city that shows no boundaries, especially during the early 2000s.
Pierrot (2012) 100×130
Koreans are known for their strong attachment to their specific culture and rich history. On your side, you have travelled the world, met American, Asian, and European artists. How have these travels influenced your art?
When you are born into a country you are shaped by your environment to a certain point in your life. I have been fortunate enough to meet and build relationships with people all over the world.
This connection has shaped my views and thoughts throughout my formative years. You become the puzzle piece of different cultures that create the whole picture.
Destiny (2019) 150×150
You are always looking for new techniques in your art. Tell us about the blue technique you have developed in your photographic art and the reference to Man Ray?
The reference to Man Ray is based on how one’s thought to try something new and innovative leads to a signature. Man Ray was one of the first artists to cross-pollinate from painting/photo/ representation of thought through simple forms.
The solarisation technique was such an innovative move to push boundaries on a medium. I greatly respect this body of work. The blue inverse technique came when I was focusing on analogue photography in darkroom and when I was introduced to computer programs for the first time.
Photoshop was just being introduced when I was in high school. Technology advancements have been so rapid for the past two decades but when I started my work, it was a new element for many.
Paint Over Me (2018) 104×104
How do you integrate live performances into your art?
Most of my works start in my mind as a performance. Layering pieces, colour, movement and capturing the essence as a still shot. There is a little theatrical attribute to most of my work from the early 2000s where I was starting to fine-tune the movements on film.
Introvert (2017) 104×104
Butterflies and flowers are very present in your art and supporting nature preservation has been important to you as an artist — tell us more there?
Butterflies go through a process to become a full-grown butterfly. These stages of metamorphosis, I think we can all relate too — growing physically and mentally.
Flowers represent so many different feelings and what each culture represents flowers to mean. I don’t think I can explain in-depth of what each form represents as it really is part of the whole piece.
Not just a symbol to represent a thought or feeling.
Elephant Kiss (2019), 146×195 or 91 x 117
Some media have described you as an “engaged” artist defending freedom of speech and the right to be different. Does that inspire you?
As an artist or as a member of the human race, I believe we need to defend and stand for what we believe in. Against the grain or not, freedom is something that needs to be defined and defended for all of us to have peace.
We wouldn’t have great artists in any field if we didn’t fight to be heard, keeping the ideas and challenges, evolving. Every time I feel like I need to voice an opinion, I create a self portrait. Safety of many tested through verbal attacks.
The only ability I felt was safe; occupy my thoughts by returning to self portraits. Expressions reflected through the use of my body as a canvas.
My Choice (2016), 40×40
Lately, Korean culture, aside from music and K-pop, is experiencing global appreciation with movies such as “Burning” (2018) and “Parasite” (2019). What thoughts do those inspire in you?
I think this goes back to freedom of expression and having the outlet to export these great ideas to a broader global audience.
I am an avid film lover and I love how fellow Korean artist/directors/screenwriters are creating new genres of movies coming out of South Korea.
S. Korea is becoming the epicentre for “new” ideas and genres for the global stage and I think this movement will be stronger in the future.
Falling Sky (2018), 93×127
If you were to name one mentor who has inspired you in your life and path as an artist, who would that be?
My father. He has been creating art for the past five decades and the passion I see in his work is undeniable. He is currently in his 70s and still creates artworks every day.
His resilience and dedication to his art/craft are admirable.
Photo Credits Koh Sang Woo
This story first appeared on www.luxuo.com.