Culture

Koh Sang Woo On Harnessing Technology In Art And Defending Freedom Of Speech

The Korean visual artist speaks about his signature blue photography style, his connection with nature, and standing up for his beliefs
Reading time 7 minutes
Koh Sang Woo

Capturing his every subject in their most pure and vulnerable form using negative film, Koh Sang Woo is a visual artist who consolidates photography, performance, and painting — in an effort to present his audience with the opportunity to see the world in reverse, and to reconsider the way in which we look at others and understand ourselves.

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KissII (2009) 77×110

You were born in Seoul into a family of artists. What attracted you to the USA?

When I was a young student in Seoul, South Korea, art education was mainly focused on technique rather than idea and concept. Techniques based on old masters was a large part of art education. Repeating the same techniques over and over again for hours and weeks to duplicate a master. 

I realised the U.S. had a different art education system. After finding out I had to create 20 original artworks for my portfolio in order to enter college, I was immediately attracted to study abroad. It required far more creativity, and I had to see my own vision and style for my portfolio. I wanted to study art in the U.S., where you can have your own style and vision for something else and something new.

 

You graduated from the Chicago School of Art Institute in 2001 and double-majored in Photography and Performance. Tell us about your first steps as an artist based in New York.

Right after graduation at SAIC, I was picked up by a high-profile art gallery in Chicago and had an exhibition right away. They helped me to reach early acclaim as the youngest artist to participate in the Armory Show for three years in a row. However, Chicago felt too conservative and limiting for me on what I wanted to say as an artist.

I decided it was time for me to try New York City and to make the big move to the East Coast. NYC was a new environment and seemed to always challenge me on questioning different thoughts that ran through my mind.

“What is acceptable in society?” These questions lead to the visual storytelling of opinions. No longer an outsider to the city, each of my works showcases a combination of colour, words, and objects. This translation of mixed media represents my own transformation, living in NYC. New York has made me realise many things, including my realisation of the human race, not defined from what part of the world I was born in. 

Without forming any relationships to identify myself, I trace back isolation and fear, pain and sadness, anxiety and loss of existence, and the social aspects of times of confusing identity, and draw the trip of healing and overcoming social wounds as a stranger. NYC has helped me to grow and to challenge myself as an artist. I have profound love for a city that shows no boundaries, especially during the early 2000s.

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Paint Over Me (2018) 104×104

Koreans are known for their strong attachment to their specific culture and rich history. On your side, you have travelled the world, and met American, Asian and European artists. How have these travels influenced your art?

When you are born into a certain country, you are shaped by your environment to a certain point in your life. I have been fortunate enough to meet and build relationships with people all over the world. This connection has shaped my views and thoughts throughout my formative years. You become the puzzle piece of different cultures that create the whole picture.

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Destiny (2019) 150×150
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Pierrot Lion (2019) 150×150

You are always looking for new techniques in your art. Tell us about the blue technique you developed in your photographic art and the reference to Man Ray?

The reference to Man Ray is based on how one’s thought to try something new and innovative leads to a signature. Man Ray was one of the first artists to cross-pollinate from painting/photo/ representation of thought through simple forms.

The solarisation technique was such an innovative move to push boundaries on a medium. I greatly respect this body of work. The blue inverse technique came when I was focusing on analog photography in a darkroom and when I was introduced to computer programs for the first time.

Photoshop was just being introduced when I was in high school. Technological advancements have been so rapid for the past two decades, but when I started my work, it was a new element for many.

 

How do you integrate live performance into your art? 

Most of my works start in my mind as a performance. Layering pieces, colour and movement, and capturing the essence as a still shot. There is a little theatrical attribute to most of my work from the early 2000s, where I was starting to fine tune the movements on film.

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Resistance (2016) 104×104

Butterflies and flowers are very present in your art. Supporting nature preservation has been important to you as an artist. Tell us more there?

Butterflies go through a process to become a fully grown butterfly.  These stages of metamorphosis, I think we can all relate to — growing physically and mentally. Flowers represent so many different feelings and meanings to different cultures. I don’t think I can explain in depth of what each form represents, as it really is part of the whole piece. Not just a symbol to represent a thought or feeling.

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Carrera (2013) 104×104
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Emotion (2016) 90×122

The five words that best describe your art?

Love, Life, Passion, Connection, Inspiration.

 

Some media have described you as an “engaged” artist defending freedom of speech and the right to be different. Does that inspire you?

As an artist and as a member of the human race, I believe we need to defend and stand for what we believe in. Against the grain or not, freedom is something that needs to be defined and defended for all of us to have peace.  We wouldn’t have great artists in any field if we didn’t fight to be heard, keeping the ideas and challenges, and evolving.

Every time I feel like I need to voice an opinion, I create a self-portrait. Safety of many tested through verbal attacks. I felt only ability was safe, so I sought to occupy my thoughts by returning to self-portraits. Expressions reflected through the use of my body as a canvas.

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Introvert (2017) 104×104
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Walk with me (2018) 104×104

In which city can we expect to see your next solo exhibition ?

Amsterdam, Netherlands in October 2020.

 

Where can we see some of your works online, and are these for sale ?

ArtsyArtnet, and my website.

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Pierrot (2012) 100×130

Lately, Korean culture, aside from music and K-pop, is experiencing global appreciation with movies such as Burning (2018) and Parasite (2019). What thoughts does that inspire in you? 

I think this goes back to freedom of expression and having the outlet to export these great ideas to a broader global audience. I am an avid film lover, and I love how fellow Korean artists, directors, and screenwriters are creating new genres of movies coming out of South Korea. South Korea is becoming the epicentre of “new” ideas for the global stage, and I think this movement will only get stronger in the future.

 

If you were to name one mentor who has inspired you in your life and path as an artist, who would that be?

My father. He has been creating art for the past five decades, and the passion I see in his work is undeniable. He is currently in his 70s and he still creates art every day. His resilience and dedication to his art and craft is admirable.

 

 

Take a tour through Koh Sang Woo’s websiteInstagram or email him personally at kohsangwoo@yahoo.com

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