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[Herald Interview] Sculptor inspired by childhood friend nature

Finding herself in unexpected limelight, 89-year-old Kim Yun-shin says showing at Venice Biennale is another stimulus

By Park Yuna

Published : May 12, 2024 - 20:15

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"Add Two Add One, Divide Two Divide One 1979" by Kim Yun-shin is among her eight works selected for the Venice Biennale 2024. (Courtesy of Seoul Museum of Art)

Wood sculptures that reveal both the soft inner bark and the rough outer bark appear to be stacked or clumped together – some may remind you of towers of stones carefully placed on top of each other, found along mountain trails and near mountainside Buddhist temples. The sculptures appear to breathe, their forms like blood vessels.

The sculptures were part of artist Kim Yun-shin's solo exhibition at Kukje Gallery, which ran through April 28.

"I do not know what kind of art is trendy these days and rarely visit exhibitions. I just do my own art with the simple thought that I will leave my unique art in this world," said artist Kim Yun-shin, 89, about her art practice during a recent interview at Kukje Gallery in Seoul.

For the last 40 years, she has never been without her electric saw, according to Kim, who returned to Korea last year after living and working in Argentina for four decades.

It was only a couple of years ago that Kim began to be recognized in Korea and at major international art events such as the Venice Biennale. Kukje Gallery and Lehman Maupin began representing her this year.

Kim Yun-shin poses for a photo after an interview at Kukje Gallery in Seoul on April 11. (Park Yuna/The Korea Herald) Kim Yun-shin poses for a photo after an interview at Kukje Gallery in Seoul on April 11. (Park Yuna/The Korea Herald)

Kim is among some 330 artists presented at the main exhibition of this year's Venice Biennale that kicked off April 20 under the theme of “Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere.” Four wood sculptures made of Korean red pine and walnut trees and four stone sculptures carved from semi-precious stones such as onyx and jasper by Kim are on display.

“Many people congratulate me (for showing my work at the biennale), but I think I still have a long way to go. I would like to see how my art can evolve from there, after seeing my art displayed on the global stage. That is the only thing I am curious about,” Kim said.

The artist said it will be her first time to visit the biennale, jokingly admitting, “I am a bit provincial.”

"Add Two Add One, Divide Two Divide One 2001-719" by Kim Yun-shin is among her eight works selected for the Venice Biennale 2024. (Courtesy of Seoul Museum of Art)

Kim says she has never compromised when it came to art. After graduating from Hongik University's Sculpture Department in 1959, she studied in France and taught at Sangmyung University upon her return.

Agonizing over her path as an artist, she left for Argentina in 1984. There, she was captivated by nature, particularly various trees. She decided to pursue her art in an unfamiliar land.

"It was a time of political chaos (under the military regime) in South Korea," she said. “Wherever I work, that is going to be my hometown now. I never imagined I would settle back in Korea."

She titled her wood sculptures “Add Two Add One, Divide Two Divide One” based on the philosophy of yin and yang, meaning that all matter in the universe can be described by the interchange in which two heterogeneous elements meet (“add two”) and become one through interaction (“add one”); this sum is then divided into two again (“divide two”) so that each becomes one (“divide one”).

“A tree itself is an artwork created by nature. It becomes another artwork through my hands and spirit,” she said.

Kim talked about her childhood in Wonsan and Anbyeon -- now in North Korea -- which influenced her view of nature and her art, the artist said.

After Korea was liberated from the Japanese colonial era in 1945 and divided into two nations, Kim came to the southern part to meet her family. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, she was unable to return to her hometown. She was 12 or 13, she recalled.

Kim grew up watching her mother pray with a lit candle in front of her. Although the young girl did not know what her mother was so desperately praying for, she brought stones for her mother to stack up in prayer, an image reflected in some of Kim's wood sculptures.

“It was a really beautiful town located near Keumgangsan. All things in nature were my friends -- all the trees, whether they were peach trees or apricot trees, they were like my friends,” Kim said, recalling her hometown where she had spent time with friends enjoying nature.

An installation view of An installation view of "Kim Yun Shin" at Kukje Gallery that ran from March 19 to April 28 (Courtesy of the gallery)

One day she found pine logs -- "her friends" -- in town, which she later heard had been cut down by the Japanese to extract oil from the roots during World War II.

“I wanted to raise them up because those trees were my friends. Such memories still live on in my heart,” she said.

Kim said she never expected the spotlight she is getting these days. She had a solo exhibition at the Seoul Museum of Art last year, and that is how Adriano Pedrosa, who curated the Venice Biennale 2024, had a chance to see her art in person. The eight works on exhibition at the biennale were earlier shown at the solo exhibition.

“The only thing I am interested in is how I can continue my own art. I am thankful to get the opportunity to show my works at the biennale because that will be another watershed moment that stimulates me as an artist,” she said.