#WHM Yoon Ji Seon
We’ll be tapping our incredible archives in support of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day and posting interviews from our Women issue throughout the month of March.
Yoon Ji Seon two faced
When did you begin photographing?
My first solo exhibition was 1999, and from that time I’ve done a lot of photo work.
Did you go to art school or are you self-taught? Did you start out as a photographer? I want to know the progression.
I graduated from an art school called Hannam University in Daejeon, a city in the middle of South Korea. I started with painting, but it was too difficult. Because art has a long history, and many different things have been done already. Monet and Cézanne had already done everything what I wanted to do. Every time I painted, I felt like I was copying their work. So I started to use photography, because you can see what you want exactly from the photograph.
What was you very first photograph?
I was posing with my hands. I made my hands look like a vagina. It was my hands with men’s legs, because men’s legs are very hairy.
OK. So, how did you make the transition to using thread?
I had been using photography for a long time and sometimes, I would make a little hole in the photo and put some hair. I planted hair in the photo and I’d also make tiny holes in the photo with an acupuncture needle. It was hard because it’s so tiny, and I had to make thousands of thousands of holes. I just accidentally saw a sewing machine, and you know, there’s a needle in the sewing machine. So I thought it would be easier to make holes in the photo using a sewing machine.
Did you sew before?
I never learned how to sew with a sewing machine. I tried to make stitches, and I made lot of mistakes. I mostly learned from the mistakes. It’s not normal sewing, like for clothes. It’s very different from that kind of sewing. The sewing machine broke many times. The man who fixes the machine, he insisted that I stop. I was torturing the sewing machine. It’s not a common way to use it. At the beginning, I’d stitch by hand, but those were small pieces. Now that my work is getting bigger and thicker, I mostly use the machine.
How long is the process? For example, the big one on the back wall [Rag Face #14001 (2014)], how long did that take?
I spent about 15 hours per day, for three months. I hurt my neck from that work. And I had insomnia, because I couldn’t stop. Imagine, the sewing machine’s on this side, and the work is this big, and I had to roll it while I was working. My room is very small, so I couldn’t unroll it to see the work. I had to remember everything I did. That’s why I couldn’t stop working. And that’s why I didn’t sleep.
You address Korean culture, and women in Korean culture, and how cosmetic surgery promotes the idea of sameness and universal beauty. Do you think this is a Western influence?
You mean plastic surgery?
There is a Korean saying. When somebody hears something they don’t want to hear, they say, “Stitch that mouth.” I got the idea of stitching from that saying. Also, when I was in Ireland in 2003, I read a newspaper from Great Britain and there was an article about an Iraqi artist. He stitched his eyes and his mouth, with a real needle, because he was about to be sent from Britain to his own country. He was protesting against the government. I got the idea of stitching form that article as well. At the beginning, I didn’t think about how plastic surgery is connected to my work. But as I was doing it, I realized that people could make the connection with the plastic surgery. But that wasn’t an intention at the beginning. I think that plastic surgery is like shopping. It’s like a shopping trend.
What was your intent in making some of the faces in the pieces purposely grotesque? What attracts you to the grotesque?
I didn’t just want beauty. I’m not against beauty, but I didn’t want to put a general beauty in my work. I wanted to put some humor. One of my nephews, when he saw the work, said, “Aunt, you have noodles coming out from your nose.” It was fun, and I wanted to put some humor in it. It’s also a mixture of timeline. I like to mix the timeline.
What do you mean by “mixing the timeline”?
YJS: I’ll give you two examples. I once used bones of pigs and cows. And I made a hole and planted my hair on the bone. Usually, if you think about our body, we have bones, and then we have skin, and then we have hair. But I just planted hair onto the bone. One more example, I had a seventh generation grandfather. He’s an artist from long time ago. There was a portrait of him, and I planted my pubic hair onto his eyes, so it made it look like a vagina. Usually with DNA, we have a grandfather and father and then me. But I went back to before his ancestors. So it’s not the way time flows, from the past to the future. That’s what I meant by mixing the timeline.
Do you consider yourself a photographer or a photographic artist?
I don’t want to be defined. I just do what I want to do.
Do you think it will always include photography?
I like the saying from Man Ray: “I paint what cannot be photographed. I photograph what I do not wish to paint.” It explains my work very much.
Why do you keep doing self-portraiture instead of choosing a model?
Many people ask that. Why self-portrait, right? Like the novel, The Scarlet Letter, during the Joseon Dynasty in Korea, in the 17th Century, there was a punishment if you painted your face with black ink. Because we think that hurting our body or destroying our body is not beautiful and very disrespectful to our parents. If you do something like that, it’s like a punishment. It’s a taboo. I once planned a solo exhibition but it was cancelled because people were scared of what I did. The other reason why I do self-portraits is because that’s the easiest model I could find.
Is there anything that you had to leave out of your current show that you wish you hadn’t?
Mostly, I like what they installed. I sent them the work a long time ago, so I really missed them. You know, I’m like the mother of the pieces. So I really missed them. It was really nice to see them again.
When you did the stitching, the different stitches and colors creates shades and tonalities, like how on a print, you have different tones of grays. It’s like you’re sculpting the face. Was this intentional?
It depends on the work. I’m not intending to do it. If you look closely, you can see the layers and layers of the work, and the different colors. For example, I started with black thread, but when the work is telling me, “I don’t want that thread; I want a different one,” then I use a different one. Sometimes I intend it and see it. And sometimes it just works out.
If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?
If I wasn’t an artist, I don’t know what I’d be doing right now. I’m sure that I’d be happy. I’m doing what I really love in life. If there is a God, I feel that I am so blessed.
What is it like being a woman artist in Korea? Is it different than it is here?
I don’t know what the environment is here. It’s too difficult to get married and have children for a woman artist in Korea.
Why is that? Because of the career?
There’s no time. It’s too much work taking care of babies and husbands. You know, in Korea, we say, “My husband is my big baby. My big son.” The husband is like one of the children. It’s been like this for a long time in Korean society. Most of housework is done by women. If I had children and house and husband, it would be really hard to find time for myself.
Is there equality for women in Korea? Do women get paid the same?
It’s the same here. But are women artists received well? Are they looked upon with respect?
It’s not good there. The important positions in the art business are mostly men. And if you’re a pretty woman artist, and you want to be famous, you have to date one of these men. As a woman artist, if your work is extraordinarily good, there’s no need to date powerful men. But there are many, many similar women artists, who are on the same level. If you are prettier, then you can use that power.
How long did it take you to put the installation together from the first piece to the last?
Actually, Yossi Milo has my work from 2012. So three years.
I want to work. Because I had to prepare for this show, I couldn’t work as much as I wanted. So I just want to go back to work right away.
Will you continue the stitch work or will it be something else?
I have other series, like the one you saw with the light-box. I want to continue that work, along with this work, Rag Face.