model-turned-artist sang woo kim talks nostalgia and narcissism
The model and artist faces his past, his present, and his parents for his debut solo exhibition in Berlin.
You'll have seen him on billboards from the London tube to Time Square as one of fashion's favorite faces, but it's 2017 and Sang Woo Kim is realizing stuff. The Seoul-born, London-bred model and artist has delved deep into his own past for his first solo outing at Berlin's Magic Beans Gallery, exploring themes of identity and immigration in the most personal ways. Putting the face that has spawned 80,000 Instagram followers on the line, Sang wants you to stop talking about his beautiful face and instead get into his head, as his reflections on childhood experiences and his own cultural heritage materialize in painterly abstractions of mixed media and photography.
Kim's art is sensitive and reflective of Rauschenberg in places, with the artist's butter cutter cheekbones and model moves distorted to the point where he's almost unrecognizable. We joined the artist, sitting in front of a series of self-portraits hung at the show's entrance, ahead of its opening for a cheeky preview of the work. We talk nostalgia, narcissism, and knowing when to stop.
How are you feeling?
Relieved. It's been a long three months but I finally feel good. After three years of distraction, of feeling swept away by the modeling industry, I realized I was telling people I was an artist but I wasn't actually creating any art. That moment really hurt, pretending to be something I wasn't. This show has made me realize that I am the artist that I always have been and now I know people are looking not just at me, but at my work at the same time. It feels good.
What was it like growing up as Sang Woo Kim?
Being brought up in a Western culture as Korean and speaking two languages, I developed this kind of cognitive dissonance at home. My parents were very against me going into art at first, and they wanted me to study architecture because it was a more academic creative subject. I'm bringing up a lot of old and repressed memories that I never wanted to express before, but I've used this opportunity to really delve into things that I don't necessarily like and portray them in a much more poetic and melancholy manner. Going from the way that kids used to look at my eyes and ridicule me to suddenly being praised for the way that I look; for me that juxtaposition was just really fucked up. In that respect it's been really nice to be able to be personal and emotional about my work.
As a model, was giving yourself the power to control the way you're seen important to you?
This is the first time I've ever used myself in my work and I just needed to accept that modeling is a part of my life. I'm exploiting myself, but in a very honest and real way. I wanted the paintings to be honest to me and my life, and I think I've now managed to use that aspect in a positive way. It's definitely something that is from me and from my heart.
Immigration is an inescapable topic at the moment, and something you've explored in this show. Was that political statement deliberate?
I've never thought my work would be like that, political in any way, but when I was creating these paintings I had to be instinctual about when a piece was finished. I have a habit of overworking my stuff all the time and by going back to all these memories that I never really understood, trying to put them into context of what's currently going on with immigration and things like that, it just naturally happened. Honesty, realness, rawness, I wanted things to feel rough, like they've just come out of my studio at home.
Text plays a big part in the show, whether it's telling people 'Look at the world' or more personal for example 'I was blind when I was younger.' What was the decision behind that?
It's touching on North Korean Propaganda and Russian propaganda in many respects. They're telling you to do something for your country or for an organization, whereas mine is more personal. It's not biased towards a certain topic but more a general consensus of the world, and saying, 'look guys, wake the fuck up.'
Sang Woo Kim by Emma Dalzell @ CLM Film
What do you think people are really looking at?
There's a piece in the show that says 'You Never Lived My Lie.' What's the biggest lie you've ever told?
That I was wearing a Prada jacket when I wasn't!
If you were a painting, what painting would you be?
I'd be Interior With Plant Reflection Listening (Self Portrait) by Lucien Freud. It's iconic, a very beautiful painting. I'm not saying that I am too, but when you first see Lucien in the background it's just such an unusual way of creating a self portrait and I guess in a way it relates to 'If You See Me Now You Don't'. It's dark and melancholy, it's hidden and you want to delve into it and you want people to understand it. I'd like people to want to understand me and not necessarily just take me at face value.
Text Max Tuson
Photography Sam Khoury