Soluna Fine Art inaugurated its first Hong Kong outpost last October, dedicating its programming to Korean arts. The Sheung Wan gallery space has welcomed an array of artists that represent a myriad of Korean art traditions since then, ranging from buncheong ceramic craft from the 15th century to contemporary pen and paper drawings. This month, Soluna Fine Art introduces the dazzling works of Kim Woo Young — the gallery’s first photography exhibition.

Born in the port city of Busan in 1960, Kim Woo Young’s formative years came at a major turning point in South Korea’s economic rise. His pieces are swathes of deep, luscious colours, textures and lines that upon closer inspection turn out to be dilapidated street scenes. Elegantly and simply photographed, they are buildings, walls and roads devoid of human activity yet at the same time they capture the human quality of abandoned, lived-in spaces. After pursuing BFA and MFA degrees in New York, the California-based artist spent years travelling cross-country in the United States to find and document some of the nation’s loneliest forgotten spaces, in effect discovering what humans had left behind through decades of change. We sat down with the artist to find out more about his craft.

Kim Woo Young, ‘Stewart Ave 1’, 2016

How did your background lead you to pursue photography as an art form?

From the beginning, my work involved documenting the city. [In Korea], I had a degree in Urban Design and Industrial Design — my main job was to absorb the city, observe, take notes and see how it was changing. Then, after my degree, I worked in movies, I worked for a broadcast station, but I was overwhelmed with meeting all these different kinds of people. I was getting sick of my environment. I wanted to move my career down a more artistic path, but the music and movie industries still involved a lot of work with other people, which didn’t solve my problem. To get away from all the social fatigue I was feeling, I looked to photography, which was an analogue link between the photographer and the scenery. 

In the 1980s, Korea was getting rapidly industrialised but there was also increasing political turmoil. It wasn’t a good situation to study in Korea anymore. I decided to move to New York, which was the start of my journey: I studied photography.

With all this change surrounding me, with the influences of avant garde art, my work then focused on capturing the details within these changing times. New York by then was quite mature as a capitalist society, whereas the Korea where I came from was quite different. In this experimental stage, I met Ed Ruscha. 

Inspired by his work, I started photographing gas stations along the highway. I went on a cross-country road trip to widen my perspectives. While studying, I did almost 13 cross-country trips.

 

I graduated in the early 90s. At the same time, Korea was becoming a more artist-friendly place. I received an offer from a Korean commercial company, inviting me back to work. They wanted a fresh perspective from someone who had spent time abroad. My initial idea was to refresh myself and spend a year in Korea. But one year became five years of incredibly busy work. I ended up with the same fatigue that pushed me to leave the country years before.

Returning to the US, I felt that California fit me better in terms of creativity, so I moved there instead. I now have a studio there a few hours away from Los Angeles.

Can you take me through your series and how your work has evolved?

When I arrived in California, I couldn’t work right away: I spent almost three years to settle down and find myself again. For those three years, I was taken by solitude. I tried to free myself by travelling. Instead of huge, busy cities, I looked for small abandoned suburban towns. I put myself into these sceneries, it was just myself and the city. The loneliness attracted me and gave me inspiration. Even a building that had a white wall, as time goes by, the colours are repainted over and over and over, so the building shows all of its history in its layers.

I often felt like I was a single spot in a long road, where you can’t find the beginning or the end. That’s why in a lot of my work you can see a portion of the road [in front of the buildings]. I wanted to express the idea that it was where I was, I was the one drawing the lines, and I was still moving onwards on my journey.

Your work showcases quite a few dilapidated and abandoned settings — in your older series (‘Philosophising the Landscape’) they are incredibly colourful, almost abstract plains of colour. Your later series of work takes you to the East, but they seem to take on more of a muted palette. Why is this so?

In my earlier work, I was interested in very vibrant, colourful city scenes. But through capturing more and more scenes, I directed my focus towards minimalism. Even for my equipment, I only use standard lenses, rarely wide lens or special equipment. This is so that I can best capture what I can see with my raw eyes.

Yet, with this minimalistic philosophy, it became more and more difficult as I continued with my work. It might look like I just snapped a photo and was done with it, but actually I visited the place many times to look at the light, I stayed a long time to observe all its details. Even though the final artwork looks minimalistic, the way that I worked was very labour-intensive and complicated.

Also, my energy kept changing depending on where I was located. Even though I was working in the west, I still retained an Asian influence and my background in my work — I felt like an outsider. Instead of directly and actively being involved in the changes that were happening, I was habitually an observer. But travelling through Asia, especially recently when I visited Tibet, Hong Kong and back in Korea as well, I felt more comfortable with what my surroundings were giving me. In my more recent works, you’ll see that I felt inspired by nature, Asian shapes and eastern energies.

Kim Woo Young, ‘Vasi Way’

For instance, I was interested in raw textures in the wood found in Hanok (traditional Korean houses), trees, and shadows. In Korea, they use a certain type of natural wood — they don’t use exact right angles, but they use the wood itself. I took all these photos in the morning, that’s why there are no shadows and it looks like a watercolour painting.

Why not focus more on the city areas in the east? Why Hanok?

When I left Korea for the second time, it was a rapidly developing country. I just couldn’t find any motivation or inspiration in the city itself. But when I travelled to Tibet, the scenery reminded me of what it was like growing up in the 70s in Korea. That’s what draws me back to those bits of nature — nostalgia. When I go to less developed countries, I feel more humanist energy. This sensibility that people [there] have — this is something you cannot find in urban areas. I wanted to capture this energy and deliver these feelings of a bygone era to those inhabiting newly modernised cities.

Kim Woo Young, ‘Andong 9967’, 2016

For Koreans, it’s always about forward development, but they don’t look at what they are losing right now. While modern people might see concrete as a symbol of development, I’m trying to show what modern people have destroyed before. Let’s feel that again by seeing things like Hanok which you can’t see that much anymore. 

What’s your creation process like? How long does it take you to find places and photograph them?

One day, two days, sometimes I visit again after some time. Sometimes I take photos again and again of the same wall every year. Sometimes it changes: I like to save that kind of experience and circumstance.

Nowadays, taking a photo is something simple and instantaneous — you can just press a button. But when I first got into photography, I felt like it wasn’t free at all because I had to fit a piece of scenery into this rectangular frame. I felt quite limited. I tore and attached different scenes together as experiments, even. But nowadays I feel like photography is really an honest method to express my feelings in an artistic way. Especially when I am only using standard lens that reflects what the human eye can see. I tried to use the natural light, so I had to choose the exact time of day, the exact temperature of light I wanted. If I wanted light available at dawn, I had to go early in the morning to wait and find the perfect timing to do this work. I kept records of the locations and times, so that I can revisit. This is an ongoing process where I can monitor the changes.

Do you do any post-production or editing to your photographs?

I just clean it up if the road is a little dirty, before I take the picture. After I take the picture, I want it to feel like the moment, so I don’t want to touch it up. I don’t want to change the colour of what is captured.

Were there times that you felt like you were in danger, photographing in abandoned towns?

Sometimes, policemen would come to me. These were in abandoned towns and abandoned buildings, so sometimes they were concerned whether something happened. But mostly it was very early in the morning, so there wasn’t anyone around. It would get scary sometimes. I would have about 30 minutes before the sun came up — once the sun came up that would mean there would be shadows on the wall. If I have a shadow on my pictures, they will be able to tell that it’s a photograph — that I am a photographer. Without shadows, it looks more like a painting.

I prefer rainy days actually, because the road would be wet, meaning the colours would be a lot deeper. Most photographers hate it when it’s raining, because they have to protect the equipment from the rain, but I preferred it. To me, my camera is a consumable item. For instance when I used an expensive Hasselblad, I’m not afraid of ‘wasting’ the camera. My priority isn’t on protecting the camera, but on the outcome. These days I don’t even bring my assistant anymore, because it feels like I have to take care of my assistant more than focusing on the work — it feels like more trouble. Ever since I gave up on bringing an assistant, I’ve been using digital cameras more and more.

 

Kim Woo Young, ‘Hadogil I’, 2018

You dealt with a lot of fatigue throughout your career and took hiatuses and breaks to rediscover inspiration. How do you think that contends with the stereotype of needing to work hard constantly, especially in places such as Hong Kong and Seoul?

Modern people, including myself, can’t avoid this working culture, or having multiple meetings back to back, for instance. But people are losing the actual meaning of life. What I want to do through my artwork is to capture people’s attention so that they can reflect on their busy lives, and bring refreshment and energy to them again. Even in Korea, I travel to find moments of inspiration such as in Hanok buildings. In Hong Kong, I’m travelling around the outlying islands to try and figure out what meanings and virtues people have been forgetting these days. I do this to remind people what they are forgetting… to also remind myself.

Kim Woo Young’s exhibition ‘Urban Odyssey’ opens 20 September. Soluna Fine Art, G/F, 52 Sai Street, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong, +852 2955 5166

Evelyn Lok
Associate Editor
When not trying out the latest beauty and wellness trends, Evelyn is likely enjoying a perfectly balanced negroni or exploring some of Hong Kong's best new places to eat and drink. At Lifestyle Asia she covers everything from the biggest events in town to interviews with Hong Kong specialists, with topics spanning art, food and drink, health, tech, and travel.