"Beauty through Destruction” - An Interview with SEO by Gesine Borcherdt
Source:Artintern.net Author:Gesine Borcherdt Date: 2010-05-25 Size:
My central themes are landscape, globalization and the destruction of the environment. For the most part, nature no longer exists in its totality, but is now only a part of an industrialized and fragmented world.

GB: So, SEO, what are your pictures all about?

SEO: My central themes are landscape, globalization and the destruction of the environment. For the most part, nature no longer exists in its totality, but is now only a part of an industrialized and fragmented world. I collect various reproductions of landscapes from images I find in newspapers, magazines, and on the Internet, and then work then into my art. Greatly varying landscapes, many of which have been desolated through war, for example, are then combined with one another. These might include mountains in Korea, forests in China, or water in France – I merge elements which do not actually belong together at all. This is exactly the same process engendered by globalization. For me, its about the contradictions between nature and industry, about the drive in human beings which forces them to continue producing new things. I piece together a new world, because the real world is in the process of being systematically destroyed.

GB: Your work also references classic motifs found throughout the history of painting. Some of your images are reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich, Henri Matisse or Claude Monet. What role does tradition play for you?

SEO: A journalist once said that my pictures are not modern. Landscapes are now often perceived as being “classic.” Just because my pieces deal with nature, however, does not mean that they are automatically traditional. Actually, it is the future that I am referencing. I was already interested in Caspar David Friedrich in Korea, where I studied ink and wash painting: delicate landscapes receding into the background, painted with very thin brushes on rice paper. Humans cannot live without nature. Friedrich saw this as well.

GB: Now, however, you are having an exhibition not together with Friedrich but with Robert Rauschenberg. He dealt little with nature and much more with America’s throw-away society. Where do you see the parallels in your work?

SEO: I do not want to compare myself to Rauschenberg. Even so, he was definitely dealing with industrialization. He found most of his material on the street, collecting broken objects which did not belong together at all, and reordered everything anew on the canvas. Rauschenberg was also inspired by newspaper photos and by his travels through other countries. We both have done similar things in reflecting upon a world destroyed by industry and the modern era. Rauschenberg had his way of putting things back together, and I have mine.

GB: In his work, Rauschenberg took a critical look at society. Do you view yourself as being an artist who is critical of society?

SEO: Since the opening up of Asia to the West, people have not been able to process the overwhelming stream of things flowing towards them. Everything is new and strange. With impressions such as these, artists are usually the first who are able to reflect critically upon them. Rauschenberg was in a similar situation in the 1950s, as America was discovering all of the new things there. His thoughts – at least, that is how I view it when looking at his work – were very irritating to American society. He still loved modern life though – just as I love fast cars and McIntosh computers. The trash on the streets, however, is something else.

GB: He was an American. You are of Korean nationality and live in Germany, where you have devoted a great deal of thought to clichés and the tradition of painting. Where do you see yourself as residing between these two cultures?

SEO: Korea has been strongly influenced by America. We use numerous English words for which there are no Korean expressions, for instance. We received a great deal of support from the Americans in the Korean War, so that I feel a certain sense of loyalty. I have lived in Germany now for eight years, and German culture is very different than American culture. In the beginning, it was very difficult to get settled. Similarly, Rauschenberg moved to France after the war to study at the École de Paris. In the end, he wanted to return to America because he found himself unable to work on contemporary themes in Europe. In my case, however, it is the other way around: if I wanted to make traditional paintings, I would have to continue studying in China or Japan. I have always wanted to make use of abstraction, gesture, and strong colors, though. That is why I knew I wanted to come to Germany. Asian art is always clean and delicate, but it was too pretty for me. With German art, the content is always more important than the form. I do not show the things themselves, but the essence of the things.

GB: But, aren't your pictures decorative and pretty too?

SEO: Yes, at first glance, my pictures are pretty. They rest, however, upon a series of destructive steps taken during the painting process. My landscapes are built up using torn shreds of rice paper. The elements I use in making up the whole are abstract ones. That is everything but pretty. The underdrawing on the canvas is obliterated by a layer of rice paper. On top of that, I add a layer of acrylic paint. Then I add another layer of paper, then color again, and so on and so on. My painting is an ongoing process made up of creation and destruction. At first, you might think of them as being decorative. My paintings do not end with the first glance, however. One needs to confront them repeatedly in order to fully understand the destruction.

GB: What destroys the decoration?

SEO: I destroy them at the very moment I begin gathering things together – props from various landscapes – which do not normally belong together. Behind this brutal undertaking, an ironic gesture is present: the beauty of my pieces arises through destruction. Beauty is something very Korean. In Korea, everything must be beautiful, and everything negative must be covered up with beauty. If I simply wanted to produce prettiness, I wouldn't need to implement this tedious working process, in which each layer gives way to another. My pieces just can’t be called pretty or beautiful.

GB: Notwithstanding, although the structures are fragmented, in the end, your compositions are wonderfully harmonious.

SEO: That is true for the entire image as a whole, but each pictorial element, in itself, has been destroyed.

GB: How important was your professor George Baselitz for you, with his dark and aggressive ways of painting?

SEO: At the beginning of my studies, I had painted my first canvas with oil paints – it was excessively colorful. Baselitz came by my studio, handed me some black and white paint and said, “You don't have to copy what the Europeans paint. Think about where you come from.” I was incredibly irritated. I wanted to learn something new. Why was I supposed to go back to where I had come from? But then, I realized what he had meant: You can't just simply putaside your tradition. The color in my work is very bold in some ways, but, then again, not really at all. Actually, there are no real colors in my work; everything is sort of washed together. This recalls the Korean tradition. In Korea, I was taught that gradations are important. Since then, however, I have also begun to use clearer tones.

GB: How has your work developed over the last few years?

SEO: I used to work more coursely, using wider planes and larger shreds of paper. My pictures are now made up of hundreds of thousands of single pieces, which keep getting smaller and smaller. In addition, the ambivalence between beauty and destruction, along with the irony, is becoming ever more explicit. In my earlier pieces, I was also much more present as an individual in my work. I was processing my search for identity here in Germany in self portraits or installations which focused on German clichés. For me, this confrontation was an important point at the time. It might be best said in this way: my depiction of the world came more from within, whereas, now, it comes more from my surroundings. In the past, my role in Germany was more important to me; now, I have gained a certain amount of distance, from which I try to combine the Ger- man and European traditions with those I had learned in Korea. This being torn between cultures, between brutality and beauty, is my most important subject.

GB: Do you view yourself as being part of the neo-romantic movement, which seems to be engaging so many artists from your generation?

SEO: You see, with art, it’s now the one theme, and now the other which is given the most importance. That has to do with developments in society. I want to lend expression to my vision concerning nature and landscape. I am not alone with this vision; there are many young artists working with these issues. So, yes, I am a neoromantic.

This article above is from:

Exhibition at Kunsthalle Rostock 2008, Close Encounter (with Robert Rauschenberg) pages 83-88

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[Editor] Elemy Liu