Léon Mychkine : You’re from South Korea, and you came to live in Europe 20 years ago. Can you tell us why? I mean, coulnd’t you become a contemporary artist in Seoul?
Youjin Yi: That’s an interesting question. The art scene has undergone significant transformations in the past two decades. When I made the decision to immerse myself in the world of art back in 2000, I enrolled in a painting program at Sejong University in Seoul. However, the academic curriculum at the time was quite conservative, and funding for the arts was scarce. The art market was also relatively small, making it difficult to envision a future with art as my main focus.
Faced with these challenges, I eventually chose to abandon my studies and embark on a journey to Europe, seeking inspiration and new opportunities. While considering various destinations, France, particularly Paris, initially crossed my mind. However, the bustling art scene there made it hard to envision establishing my own artistic identity.
Surprisingly, it was Germany that caught my attention and resonated with my aspirations. Germany seemed grounded and genuinely interested in art, boasting numerous prestigious academies of fine arts, ample art funding, and well-established institutions. Trusting my instincts, I decided to make Germany my new artistic home. To fully immerse myself in this new environment, I first devoted myself to learning the German language, which provided an exhilarating and refreshing start to my artistic journey from scratch.
After securing a studio to paint, I reached out to various professors at art academies across Germany. Curiously, I deliberately avoided Munich and Bavaria due to their reputation for being conservative and strict. However, my perception drastically changed when I met Professor Günther Förg, who welcomed me with open arms.
During my studies, I felt the urge to take a brief break and explore art in a different context. It was then that Professor Förg recommended Leiko Ikemura at the University of the Arts Berlin. Her guidance and mentorship helped me gain valuable experience during my year as a guest in her class.
Having enriched my artistic perspective, I returned to complete my degree under the guidance of Günther Förg. Ever since, I have been living and working in Munich, where I continue to thrive as an artist. The evolution of the art scene and my experiences have played an instrumental role in shaping my artistic journey in Germany.
Léon Mychkine:Your paintings are a kind of mixture between Nature and strange figures, characters. Is there, in them, a mixt between your Korean cultural heritage and the European background?
Youjin Yi: During my childhood, I had a profound introduction to the world of art, particularly through my experiences with still-life paintings, which mostly revolved around fruits like apples, strawberries, and watermelons. This fascination was nurtured by my parents, who ran a fruit shop and provided me with an abundance of fruit examples. I vividly recall placing these fruits on the floor before me, one after the other, and sketching them with enthusiasm. It was a revelation when I realized that I could capture the essence of these fruits on canvas, and that moment marked the beginning of my journey as a painter — a truly wonderful discovery.
This early connection to art was deeply influenced by my upbringing, especially by my shamanic aunt, who intensified my perception of the world. Additionally, my native language, Korean, played a significant role in shaping my artistic expression. Korean, being a language that allows for multiple interpretations, contributed to the ambiguity and complexity present in my artistic motifs. Thus, my paintings have always been intricately woven with both biographical and artistic elements.
When it was time to take the practical exam for entry into the academy, we were given the subject of ‘background’, which was later revealed to be inspired by Günther Förg. Until then, I primarily painted landscapes, but in retrospect, I began to understand the deeper meaning behind this theme and resolved to explore it further in my work.
The concept of ‘background’ had a profound impact on my artistic journey as it compelled me to explore my Korean heritage and contemplate questions about my identity and origins. While my nature, mind, and language are Korean, I found myself integrating into other cultures as well, leading me on a quest of self-discovery. This delicate balancing act of navigating diverse influences and contrasting perspectives became akin to a tightrope walk, eventually shaping my unique visual language, which acts as a metaphor for my inner complexities.
Gunther Förg once referred to me as a “Korean Picasso/Matisse”, a remark that deeply resonated with me. To truly understand one’s artistic expression, it is crucial to delve into the roots of one’s identity and heritage. My Korean background has been a driving force in shaping my art, even as I continue to embrace and assimilate elements from various cultures in my work. This ongoing journey of self-awareness and artistic exploration remains at the core of my creative process.
Questions written by Léon Mychkine and answered by Youjin
writer, Doctor in Philosophy, independent researcher, art-critic, member of AICA-France
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