gallery Q&A with artist Yerin Kim: On view at Quality Gallery in Oakland

By Rachel Endoso


The following interview was composed of a series of conversations, emails and cups of coffee in 2016. During that span of time Kim, after receiving her MFA from California College of the Arts was building the studio structures of CTRL + SHFT, a women’s gallery collective in Oakland.

Yerin Kim, Alone Together, 2011, photo courtesy of the artist.

Rachel Endoso (R): The first work of yours I saw was on your business card; a painting, an iteration of an earlier illustration from 2011. It depicts four people interdependently reclining, forming a square. The nodes of their shape are the backs of each person’s head, resting on another’s calves. There is a serenity yet humor to the possibilities you purported for this tedious formation: you have someone eating a nicely plated steak, another is consuming a glass of wine, a third is a headphoned millennial with an accompanying iPod, and the fourth is reading a book.

How did you first become preoccupied with these forms exploring human interdependence? And how does humor play a role for you when delivering serious philosophy?

Yerin Kim (Y): The configuration of figures are not my invention. It was something children would do during recess at school. I too played that in grade school. It was much later; I saw the simple and elegant message behind it.

Sociability is what I find most difficult in my life, because of my upbringing, personality, circumstances and such, but I always liked people, just didn’t get along too well. Naturally, I spent a lot of time thinking about group dynamics and social structures, and I was trying to find a pattern or a rule of thumb that would help me understand. Interdependence was one of the principles I noticed, that applied to all humans. Interestingly, so was solidarity, universally applied to every single being. I wasn’t trying to be funny on this incident, I do often try, though —I was depicting the paradox. Humor is something I try to convey in my art. To be honest, I only want to make sure things don’t lose their light-heartedness.

R: You and I first met while students at California College of the Arts in 2014 during a period of intense academic exploration. At those times personal and philosophical investigation seem to become par for the course. You had a bookshelf in your studio, with books on music, social engagement, and some philosophy texts in Korean. Can you recall a few key ideas you were reading and thinking about at that time?

Y: I was thinking about physics! I was dreaming of explaining human relations with math equations. I was hoping to get an answer for histories of humankind from the waves, and vibrations sounds create in the air. I started thinking about the human body as physical objects and pull and push of those objects. At the same time, I wanted to create an experience of equality through activities the viewer would partake in my installation. Because to think of your body as an object you need to be distracted from all the social roles you are immersed in. Making interactive installations that the audiences had to play with was my tactic of getting the idea of ‘equal body’ across. The idea approaches equality from the binary, looking at the body as 1, the betweens of the bodies as 0.   

R:  A sculptural iteration of the painting I mentioned before, appeared in 2012 as Alone Together, and in 2014 simplified and cast in cement for the ArtWalk event held at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The MICA iteration has a truer tranquility, perhaps because the humor has been stripped away along with particularities to each figure. Around that time you had also created a series of ceramic garden planters, in porcelain, of feminine figures protecting the soil as well as planters in the form of ocean species. It seems a turn to incorporate nature and the feminine occurred.

Y: When I was making those ceramic figures, my main goal was to create Buddha or Holy Mother like peacefulness in their expressions, another big goal was to create figures that weren’t male nor female —no racial identities in particular. The second goal failed as I learned that people would see what they want to see when the information given is ambiguous. At the time femininity was a big taboo to my work, as I believed even the mention of the feminine is a sign of admitting to male dominance, and in the ideal world, there would be no need even to talk about it. I guess I was dealing with inequality by denying it. I never meant any of my figures to be gender specific because of that reason, which just have changed last year with the start of all women art collective I am a part of. Now I believe that talking about how one feels to be them in the world is necessary to reevaluate existing construct accessible for everyone.   

R: Tell me about your illuminations of displacement and isolation, being an artist under impermanent visa status in the United States. You had made the installation Home in 2014 like an homage to your mother, home, and the mountainous landscape in Korea. This expanded in There are Many Mountains Where I am From also in 2014 where cement, ceramics, and fabric became mountain figures functioning as suspended weights from wooden beams. Whereas in Home the viewer feels a sense of its portrait to view and contemplate, There are Many Mountains Where I am From asks the viewer to interact and play. How are notions of invitation to interaction transforming your ideas of place, memory, and subject-hood?

Detail of sculptures included in Yerin Kim’s installation work There are Many Mountains Where I am From (2014), photo courtesy of the artist.
Installation view of Yerin Kim’s, There are Many Mountains Where I am From, 2014, photo courtesy of the artist.

Y: This is the hardest question. I was feeling very isolated as an international implant, the more I found myself assimilated, more I felt distanced to where I was from. Home, unlike many of my other works, had no plan or pre-configuration. I was simply thinking about home, which is very traditional and male dominant Korean family. The women in my family weaved, sewed, cooked, and brewed this structure, while the men stood over, making decisions for everyone. There are Many Mountains Where I am From is the home that never really existed. Land of Korea with the sound of bells and strings, mountains shaped like woman’s body floating in peace and only that. Another aspect of the installation was the playground of the equal body relating to ideas mentioned before; the whole room was to function as one big instrument.

R: In our studio conversations notions of femininity frequently came up.  After graduation, you and eleven other CCA graduates created CTRL + SHFT, a women’s collective and gallery in Oakland. The place has received positive press, and communities in the Bay Area art scene seem to value its gender intervention within the art world. Aside from this success as an entity within the art world, what are the ways you have most found the administration of work different and significant?

Y: Building the space from the ground up meant building not only the physical space but also the construct of dialogue from the ground up (and we are still building it)! From the beginning of sitting down to discuss finding the location for our collective, it was unspokenly decided we were trying to respect everyone’s opinion as much as possible. It has been a great experience working with a group of all women. We all shared an understanding of why we wanted this to be with people who identify as female. We understood we needed each other, to make space for ourselves to be heard and show we are as capable as counterparts. The democracy enforced among members gave birth to CTRL+SHFT as an entity. This may be the most special thing out of everything we have achieved. I often feel as if CTRL+SHFT is a person we work with.

R: In the 2015 CCA MFA thesis show, you built the piece You as Me. In the center of the Nave building, a five-sided tent with sheer curtained walls, allowed a quieter space amidst the bustle, for guests to take a seat within. A white cotton blanket covered a couch you constructed out of wood, with speakers inside that played snoring sounds on a loop. The geometrical foam star from Planet 2014 hovered above in the canopy opening. Sitting inside I remember feeling respite; that I was there but not, seen and able to see the crowd but with a boundary between. If I take a leap from the title, I get the sense of something speakable to the situation of the immigrant. For example, the voice in the piece “An Artist Who Cannot Speak English is No Artist (1994-6)” by the late conceptual artist Mladen Stilinovic, is perhaps its more overt valence. However,  your piece pursues the utopian quality of a dream space relatable to everyone and suggests a curtain of differentiation. So I sense orientation becoming a question itself in the subtle form and content of You as Me.

Yerin Kim, You as Me, 2015, photo courtesy of the artist.
Yerin Kim, You as Me, 2015, photo courtesy of the artist.

Y: Thank you! That is a better description than I can come up with. Going back to the ideas of the body as a physical object, I wanted to create an embracing object that felt alive. The snoring chair had inflatable cushions and also sensors that took pressure from the body weights of the participants, so snoring stopped and started again. The idea came to me from the most intimate experience we can have; having someone sleeping next to you, a trusting and vulnerable situation. When you touch a snoring person, they will skip snoring for a beat, and that is the behavior the chair had. The tent was necessary to transcend the intimacy because it was such a big show that was going to be crowded. Also, I thought it might be a nice thing to provide a place to sit and relax. In the title, I wanted to express the idea of indifference between the bodies in moments, and as you very accurately pointed out, all these are very utopian ideas. It made sense to me to include the geometrical sphere that was a symbol of utopia from the previous project. The sound of snoring was unexpected to many viewers and created laughter; I want to believe in that moment of amusement that space was otherworldly.   

R: Your current practice is changing direction. During your recent residency at Salem Art Works in Salem, New York, you created a land piece The Shortcut/a monument. With rocks, ceramic and tile, you formed a path in the shape of Rén, the Chinese character for ‘human’ or ‘person.’ The simplified pictogram appears like the letter ‘y’ in the English alphabet. Like a figure leaning to the left, it is armless —a pair of moving feet. You placed the path in a grassy yard that opens out through a small corridor of trees. It will be there presumably, forever. A heavier influence you are exploring now are Ted Purves’ ideas in What We Want is Free (2013), in particular, “confrontational generosity” and the “tactical use of gifts.” What did it mean for you to use the officiality of an “Artist” residency position, to embed a familiar and “foreign” garden path for future residents and visitors to SAW?

Yerin Kim, The Shortcut/a monument, 2016, photo courtesy of the artist.
Yerin Kim, The Shortcut/a monument, 2016, photo courtesy of the artist.

Y: I went to Salem not having any particular project in mind. What I saw when I got there, was a lot of monumental sculptures spread throughout the huge sculpture park of SAW and a dead grass path between the outdoor kitchen and the welding bay. I brought What We Want is Free and was reading it at the time. I did not see the point of adding another sculpture in the park; instead, I thought it would better embrace the idea of “togetherness” by making something functional. What I overlooked was what it meant for the people of Salem Art Works to have someone come in and dig out the yard in front of their main office, a dining area where they ate every day. I learned “gift” unasked for is an invasion. Quite the contrary from my intentions, but I think at the end they were happy to see the tile they decorated in the path, and understood what I was trying to do. The Shortcut/a monument is still the favorite work I have done.

R: What do you hope for in the future if you stay, and why have an art practice here in America?

Y: I think of America as a beginning of something. The United States is where globalization is most reflected. The diversities of cultures, nationalities and lifestyles collide. There are many frictions being created because the nation has its base philosophy in freedom of individuality. The issues America has dealt with for many decades, such as racism, gender equality, and queer rights are now just started getting noticed in South Korea for example. I feel it is something very special being here. I am much interested in how people navigate through all the differences with others in their lives. Growing up in Korea I always wondered what needs to be changed for everyone to get along, now I seek the answer at a place it seems the most challenging. In one side, I simply want to witness, on the other —I would like to gain knowledge and contribute.

This past July 30th was the premiere of 40$ec, a solo show by Yerin Kim. Quality Gallery at 3040 MLK Jr. Way in Oakland is hosting her newest work: an installation of paintings and sculptures depicting the artist’s view of today’s economic and social structure created by power.

40$ec by Yerin Kim closes on Saturday, August 6th, 2016.

For more information about artist-run space Quality Gallery and/or to schedule an appointment to visit email them by clicking here or message artist Ben Quinn.

In September she will be returning to Korea, in the interim awaiting approval for an artist Visa to stay in the United States. She hopes for approval to continue her work as an artist  in the Bay Area in our museums, local communities, the collective CTRL + SHFT and through her studio practice.

Installation view of 40$ec1, current exhibition by Yerin Kim at Quality Gallery in Oakland.
Detail of 40$ec1, current exhibition by Yerin Kim at Quality Gallery in Oakland, photo courtesy of the artist.
Detail of 40$ec1, current exhibition by Yerin Kim at Quality Gallery in Oakland, photo courtesy of the artist.
Detail of 40$ec1, current exhibition by Yerin Kim at Quality Gallery in Oakland, photo courtesy of the artist.
Detail of 40$ec1, current exhibition by Yerin Kim at Quality Gallery in Oakland, photo courtesy of the artist.
Detail of 40$ec1, current exhibition by Yerin Kim at Quality Gallery in Oakland, photo courtesy of the artist.

12295242_1687078541562581_6929699523332928914_nRachel Endoso is a practicing photographer/artist and writer, and working cultural professional in the Bay Area. She was born in Gaithersburg, MD and raised in Novato, CA. She earned her BA in Psychology from Seattle University  and MA in Visual and Critical Studies from California College of the Arts. She is currently Assistant Director of the two day  O+ Petaluma Festival connecting “the art of medicine with the medicine of art.” Her interests span to and from: cultural roots, storytelling, identities in America, community building, ancient wisdom, poetry, myth and the avant garde.

12993361_10209329639027511_4902901953495139061_nYeRin Kim, born and raised in South Korea, moved to the United States 2006, earning her BFA at Maryland Institute College of Art and later an MFA at California College of the Arts. For the past decade, YeRin has worked with the themes of coexistence and interdependence. Her work often uses tactical installations that are interactive to viewers. YeRin also co-founded Nomad Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland which brought art to less privileged areas, and presented non-commercial artists. YeRin is currently a founding member of the all women’s art collective, CTRL SHFT, in Oakland, California.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.