An Interview with Sang Woo Kim at his Studio in Bethnal Green, London
Sang Woo Kim is an artist and model whose current body of work focuses on the challenges of identity; he balances the duality of his creative professions with the realities of being a Korean immigrant brought up in London. Although modelling for international brands such as Burberry, Diesel, DKNY and Dolce & Gabanna supported his studies at Goldsmiths and Central St Martins, he's often found himself to be taken less seriously as an artist as a result. A few hours in his Bethnal Green studio after a direct call to his Instagram account, and I couldn't be more convinced of how focused Sang is on making art and developing his style.
As suggested by the photographs and materials spread across the studio floor, his work is spontaneous and intuitive. Magazines like W Magazine, Dansk, I-D and Dazed and Confused are also starting to acknowledge his role as an artist as they place his drawings and paintings alongside editorial and portraits. Favourite artists include Lucien Freud, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. He has a passion for not only creating beautiful and politically-engaged work, but also organising group exhibitions. These continue to support emerging artists from the UK to Berlin and vice versa, proving his long-term commitment to growing as both an artist and curator. Follow @sangwo0.
Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to be an artist?
Would I be justified in telling my mother that I wanted to study fine art at university when I was only 12? It has always been something that I wanted to pursue. Academically, my parents wanted me to study architecture, but instead I decided to enrol on a foundation course at Central Saint Martins. The modelling then proved to be a massive hurdle to test my commitment to my career as an artist, but I would like to say that I have prevailed.
Can you tell us about the process of making your work?
My work is very spontaneous and intuitive, because I mostly work from the sketches and writings that are dotted around my studio. They mainly consist of my thoughts and representations of what is going on with the world today, translated into paintings. Sometimes I find it useful to use certain phrases or poems that I have written as a starting point. It depends on how I feel that day.
I never tend to start and stop working, but instead it's usually done in one whole swing from start to finish. Some paintings have five different "finished" paintings layered on top of each other, and all the way through I'm thinking that each painting is the finished piece—maybe that is my process? Maybe I don't even know the process of making my work. Who knows? I don't even know.
What piece of your artwork would you like to be remembered for?
I'd rather be remember for my dedication and commitment. Everyone will have an opinion, so you may as well be remembered for something that isn’t as subjective as taste.
If you could work within a past art movement, which would it be?
Definitely Abstract Expressionism, but perhaps also Italian art movements like Art-Povera from the late 60s to 70s, because it indulges in a spontaneity as well as an exploration of unconventional techniques and unusual found objects.
How do you balance your interaction with the worlds of fashion and art?
I’ve always tried to keep those worlds separate, but I can’t escape the real purpose of my life if I'm an artist—and I guess the fashion industry is part of it whether I like it or not. As I always say: if an artist worked at a cafe to support themselves then they wouldn’t say they're a barista, they would say they're an artist. My interactions with the fashion industry as a model are no different to this example.
How would you define beauty in 140 characters or less?
Beauty is empathy and appreciation, limitless yet hidden.
Do you have a favourite photograph or painting, which inspires you?
Interior With Plant, Reflection Listening (Self-Portrait) by Lucian Freud. I feel this painting reflects elements of my character.
How does your Korean heritage impact your work?
I feel like my Korean heritage only impacts me subconsciously. I guess with my first solo show ‘IF YOU SEE ME NOW YOU DON’T’, my cultural-duality as a Korean being brought up in London was a topic that I wanted to address. Repressed memories and the cultural differences that I have experienced are evident within my work, perhaps literally or metaphorically, but definitely subconsciously.
What is your greatest indulgence in life?
Which artist of the past would you most like to meet?
I just finished reading Francis Bacon in Your Blood by Michael Peppiatt and this memoir really resonates with my current lifestyle and from what I have read Bacon seems like the most other-worldly, incredible and empathetic being. If only he was still alive...
Do you interact with technology in your work?
Yes, but I won’t say how.
Has social media had a positive impact on your career?
If art isn’t seen, what’s the point?
What do you wish every child were taught?
How to speak multiple languages at a young age. Being bi-lingual myself, I wish I could speak more languages.
What is your favourite art gallery in East London and why?
The first time I saw the works of Laure Prouvost was at the Whitechapel gallery when she won the Max Mara Art Prize for Women. That year, she also won the Turner Prize. I experienced her work without knowing who she was before. The Whitechapel introduced me to a great artist who has moved me deeply with her work.
Do you work within a community or independently?
Art is a community, a ‘conversation’ so to speak… so I guess I work independently within a community?
Do you make and receive studio visits? What impact do they have?
I wouldn’t formally call them studio visits… I would say my friends that are creatives pop round occasionally to have a look at my work. I always challenge myself to be able to work in front of people. I think it’s a different experience of painting that interests me.
What visual references do you draw upon in your work?
My drawings and my poems. Words and certain phrases, marks and sketches.
Do you also curate or organise exhibitions?
I was very fortunate that lots of my artistic friends from London came all the way to support me at the vernissage for my solo exhibition in Berlin back in January. I thought that it would be a real shame for graduate artists leaving the best art schools in London not to show the world what they'd been up to. I combined that with the work of other Berlin-based artists I knew, mainly students from Weissensee. I thought that with the current European climate there needed to be a positive change, which could be seen through the active 'conversation' of artists. It only requires 'two countries to meet and converse' for it to comment on the current European political climate.
I organised the show, and together we curated, UK to Germany, which was the first exhibition of an ongoing series that will travel across Europe, building a community that grows with artists from different countries. The next show will be Germany to the UK in London within the next few months. It'll be a visual conversation without language barriers.
What is your daily routine when working?
I tend to only really work in the evening which I actually dislike. It takes me most of day to pick up a paintbrush and then… BOOM, I paint all night into the early hours.
What advice would you give a young artist following in your steps?
Never stop working. Talent gets you places but not further than someone that works harder.
Do you love what you do?
Being an artist is like being in a relationship. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s the best thing ever and sometimes you question it all. I ask why all the time, but then again I guess I create artwork, because I'm trying to understand why I need to keep doing it? If I knew the answer then I guess I wouldn't bother.
Written by Flora Alexandra Ogilvy, founder of Arteviste.