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Interview: Se Young Yim

Se Young Yim - Turtle (Tortoise) or Rock, 2023

Moving sculptures, dimension variable, dc motor, acrylic on mixed media

1) Could you introduce yourself? Where are you from, and where did you study art? When did you first see yourself as an artist?

Hi, my name is Se Young Yim. I am a painter and sculptor based in New York. I was born and raised in South Korea, then moved to New York to study art. Before this, I studied Japanese and fashion. I’m not exactly sure when I began to consider myself an artist. Although I was always captivated by art and spent most of my childhood drawing, I felt like I was circling around the edges rather than diving straight into art. Even while studying fashion, I was constantly drawn to creating strange creatures. When working on three-dimensional patterns, I thought of them as resembling sculptures. One of the garments I designed during that time won an excellence award at the International Knitting Contest. I believe the judges appreciated the sculptural elements of the garment, which I had fashioned to look like wriggling worms. By the time I graduated with a fashion major, I was convinced that I needed to pursue a proper education in art, and that decision has led me to where I am today.

Se Young Yim - A Long Wait, 2023

Cement and acrylic, 16x20 inches

2) What did you observe about people in your daily life in America and during your residencies here and abroad that made you start thinking about existence as a topic?

While in the United States and Europe, I was particularly captivated by individuals lying down. Whether they were lounging in a park on a sunny day or sprawled out on the street for some reason, these moments caught my attention. The act of lying down with one’s eyes closed represents a state devoid of immediate purpose. Encountering such scenes of random individuals in these vulnerable states evoked a peculiar feeling.

As I moved from place to place, I often reflected on my sense of belonging and space. Living through the pandemic abroad heightened my awareness of the limitations and threats to the spaces I could occupy. Every human being inherently requires space from birth—at the very least, enough for one person to lie down. Moreover, as we navigate through life, the experience of movement is inevitable. The constant need for minimal space due to mobility sometimes left me feeling powerless.

I interpreted this feeling as the inherent vulnerability of the human body. However, observing people in the act of lying down—those who had moved to that spot yet appeared perfectly still—made me appreciate the sheer wonder and marvel of existence itself. The moment of enduring bodily vulnerability and simply being, without engaging in any action, is profoundly captivating. I became deeply fascinated with capturing such moments of pure existence.

Se Young Yim - I Hide Tulips within My Neck, 2023

Acrylic on fabric, cement, 51x26 inches

3) Why is the metaphor or the imagery of rocks so pertinent to finding the essential meaning of existence?

What fascinated me about rocks was that they reminded me of people lying down—they seemed to embody the purest moment of existence. Rocks and people encountered on the street share many similarities. Though they appear stationary at the moment, they have experienced movement from their place of origin, encompassing a history that holds both universality and individuality in time and space. For me, using the image of rocks became the most fitting metaphor to represent human existence.

4) Could you tell us more about your observations of existence, in relation to rocks, people, and every other thing and being in the universe? How do your observations and understanding impact and contribute to your art making?

Beyond rocks and people, I am also interested in observing objects like chairs and turtles. They all share the commonality of appearing stationary yet having moved to reach their current positions, and they can exist both in groups and independently. I believe that the ability of any being to occupy space is fundamentally rooted in love. The act of giving and taking space, both psychologically and physically, is intrinsically related to love.

I have always been curious about why humans are naturally inclined to love others. This curiosity has led me to have profound dreams, and I feel compelled to express this through my practice. I believe that love is the foundation of all the fears and principles of the universe, and I am driven to explore this concept continuously through art.

Se Young Yim - Turtle (Tortoise) or Rock, 2023

Moving sculptures, dimension variable, dc motor, acrylic on mixed media

5) Are you a conceptual artist, even if you approach art through a conceptual framework? What would be a counter, sibling movement of Conceptualism? Intuitism?

I am not sure under which artistic concept my work falls. While others may interpret my work in various ways, I prefer not to label it myself. My work conceptually aims to use metaphors, but there are also abstract elements, such as textures and feelings of solitude, that I invest in my pieces.

Se Young Yim - Cheeks, 2024

Dimension variable, DC motor, stainless ball, resin, acrylic on mixed media

6) Are you a perfectionist, even if you make art about existence, which includes the everyday, the mundane, and the imperfect? Are you into de-skilling in art or the technically complex and labor-intensive kind? What is your philosophy and character like as an artist?

The definition of a perfectionist can vary, but I believe most people engaged in creative work are perfectionists. Even with a lack of technical skill or during moments of boredom, if they have their own standards that they must adhere to and are willing to endure difficult times to achieve them, then they are perfectionists. In my art practice, the most important thing is how deeply the creator immerses themselves in the process. This immersion truly becomes apparent.

A good piece of art carries an aura that the artist was intensely engaged in its creation, whether it was a joyful or painful experience. For me, the feeling of immersion is akin to prayer. I do not follow any religion, but when my work reaches its peak and is about to come to life, I fervently pray for its completion. It feels almost like falling in love; I become intensely eager just to gaze upon the emerging image.

For example, works like "Hide My Tulips Within My Neck" embody this process. To quote Gaston Bachelard, one of my favorite thinkers, "Once you fall in love with an image, it can no longer be a mere copy of reality." I immerse myself in the creative process for those moments when the image I envisioned transcends into something beyond itself.

Se Young Yim - Two Bikes for Planting, 2022

Wax, fiber-glass, abandoned Christmas tree and metal bar, 15x31x48”

7) How do you plan to evolve the concept and the metaphor of the rock or stone-like objects? What kind of art do you envision you will make in the future - maybe 10 years from now?

At the moment, I am eager to take on larger-scale projects. I want to create portraits of large stones through painting. When you stare at objects for a long time, they sometimes seem to have faces, even without eyes. When I encounter such phenomena, I often capture them in photographs and find myself repeatedly examining the same photos repeatedly. Although I cannot guarantee how this sensation will evolve in the future, I need to explore the faces of stones.

Additionally, I aspire to create a series of large sculptures. Previously, I made a series of chair-inspired sculptures using molds, and I imagine creating many pieces to fill a large floor space similarly. I also want to use sensors to capture the movement of stones or to design them to follow a more extended trajectory. For the foreseeable future, I will likely spend time contemplating how the faces and movements of stones ultimately relate to human experiences.

Se Young Yim - A Frame in A Picture, 2022, cement, mixed media, printed paper, 7x8x83.46”

8) Could you talk about your paintings? Why have you applied the same kind of buildup of material and texture that you found for your rock-like sculptures and installations for your paintings? What does it mean for your sculptures to become paintings and/or vice versa?

I primarily use heavy and hard materials to provide a juxtaposition with the themes I explore. The vulnerability of the body, experienced during movement through space, is a central theme in my practice. I use permanent materials to emphasize this vulnerability's fluidity and potential for change. Secondly, I find myself unconsciously drawn to stones, and I thought using artificial materials that can replicate that natural, hard texture would be interesting. I want to show through these materials that, while they may look like real stones, they are intentionally crafted settings for art.

In my practice, I decide intuitively whether a piece will be a painting or a sculpture. If there is a difference in my perspective, it is in how I anthropomorphize objects. When I work with painting, I want the object to appear as a portrait, whereas, with sculpture, I want it to look more like an object or a setting.

Se Young Yim - A Seat for Two, 2021, paper-mache, foam, wax,20x20x80”

9) What is the role of an artist? How does it deviate from a philosopher, a priest, or a scientist?

I believe that the role of an artist is to touch the unnoticed fears or anxieties that lie beneath the repetitive and mundane of life. I think that an artist can be a philosopher, a priest, a scientist, and also be strange at the same time. Unlike reading a textbook, art as a form of communication requires a certain strangeness to leave an impression without explanation in a short moment. It's different for every artist in their way, but the works I admire have always touched thoughts and feelings that I can't put into words, that have been swirling in the pit of my stomach, and that's the strange power of art, it awakens things that hard to notice or speak, and I think that's why art exists.

Se Young Yim - A Frame in A Picture (detail), 2022, cement, mixed media, printed paper, 7x8x83.46”

10) Who are some of your favorite artists and mentors who have impacted you as a person and an artist?

My favorite is Philip Guston, I saw his solo show in a gallery in Chelsea a few years ago and it was absolutely shocking; the poignancy of the large paintings,,,, that emanated from them made me feel like a brick scratching my skin. They are works that I looked at for a long time, over and over again, and I wish I could paint with that level of prayer and immersion. I also read a lot of philosophers, some of whom are like mentors to me. When I'm stuck, I return to Gestures by Vilém Flusser and The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard.

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