An Artist-Slash-Model Explores His Identity as an Immigrant

In the fashion industry, it is said that models are to be seen, not heard. Sang Woo Kim isn't playing ball.

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Feb 14 2017, 5:20pm

Sang Woo Kim, Rub Them. All images courtesy of the artist and Magic Beans.

In the fashion industry, it is said that models are to be seen, not heard. Sang Woo Kim, a British-Korean artist and male model who has graced numerous runways and campaigns for Tommy Hilfiger, Diesel, and Armani Eyewear, has played along, delivering constructions of identity and culture that shape notions of sexuality, masculinity, and race. In his exhibition at Berlin's Magic Beans Gallery, IF YOU SEE ME NOW YOU DON’T, the Central Saint Martins-trained Kim uses painting, photography, drawing, and video to deconstruct his own personal identity as an immigrant.

Decontextualize me (Please)

"My inspiration for the exhibition came very naturally,” explains Kim to The Creators Project. "I always felt that I was designing my paintings and work prior to this solo exhibition. I felt to some extent that my previous works were a facade to cover up what I truly wanted to express: my fractured identity."

A "first-generation Korean immigrant that was brought up in a Western society," Kim "never had a traditional sense of belonging, it was difficult to understand where I stood and who I was. This emotional realization and profound understanding of myself nurtured me to use these repressed emotions and memories to create work through a recontextualization of old works, literally building up and breaking down boundaries to create a visual skin composed of nostalgia and recollections.”

Please, 2016

“Another topic of inspiration was the commentary surrounding current affairs, such as social media and immigration,” he adds. “Identity takes on new connotations in the modern social media world, where one’s persona is a multi-layered construct and can be created out of thin air. The question inherent in my work is what constitutes identity and how much of it is real?”

Please, a grid of self-portraits transferred onto canvas, is one way the artist explores his dual cultural identity. In it, Kim inverts the principles of photorealistic painting by using a photo transfer technique that makes a photograph appear as if it has been painted onto canvas. A central function of a photo, according to the artist, is to identify a moment or a person. His process allows the images to be manipulated so that their representations are almost unidentifiable. The gesture seems to imply a removal of identity, conflating, according to Kim, “seeing and being seen, the subject and the voyeur.” The process is also used in the creation of If you see me now you don’t, a series of 77 small canvases of photo-transferred images that show the artist in various states of self-revealing.

If you see me now you don’t, 2016

Kim also explores the personal in his use of text, abstraction, and appropriation of old paintings made when he says he was masking his identity. Easy on the Eye, for instance, is comprised of five older paintings.

“I feel that the previous paintings were a facade of who I was in the past and that I bleached myself living in this western society,” explains Kim of the bleaching technique he employs in the work. “The phrases that are written on my work are poetic but they are also ironic ways of expressing my feelings and repressed memories.”

“I was blind for 10 years and I lied for 12,” he scrawls onto the work, an expression of the confusion and discrimination he felt growing up in London. The mark-making in Kim’s expressionistic paintings resembles at points erasure, which evokes the ways cultural assimilation forges identity.

Shut the front door, 2016

“In 2017, as an immigrant myself, I’m aware of myself being different more than ever," says Kim. "The media and certain political decisions that are currently happening are labelling and putting immigrants in a box and I feel in some respects we have become scapegoats as a result of people's ignorance. I hope that my show can raise awareness about these topics.”

IF YOU SEE ME NOW YOU DON’T ran through February 12 at Magic Beans. Click here for more information.

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