Si On (Hyon Gyon) & Interview

Si On (Hyon Gyon) is a female Korean artist who taps into her deep subconscious to purge the feeling of sorrow and anguish and transforms it into the creative energy. She is inspired by the idea of Korean Shamanism that does ritualistic performance by female shaman’s gut dance for the psychic catharsis and the removal of bad karma. For Si On, Art is something that we can burn negative feelings, which perhaps the reason she has discovered the interest in Shamanism. She explores the idea of sociocultural identity, suppressed feelings regarding grief and anger, and sexual politics through practice. Since she stayed for almost a decade in Japan, Japanese culture has influenced her life as an artist in many aspects, as if she uses Korean satin fabric and Japanese paper together and puts Japanese words in work. It seems to me that she is a prominent artist who pioneered the cultural hybridity between South Korea and Japan.

In the exhibition “We Were Ugly” at Parasol unit in 2019, she showed the flaming imagery in her striking paintings that reflect the idea of burned flesh in reference to the violence historical and political conflicts between Korea, Japan, and China, particularly atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by U.S. army. The screaming faces in her paintings make me think of traditional Japanese demon amid flames, so it is likely that she is much more involved in Japanese culture than I think. With regard to the exhibition title, she deliberately used past tense so that she wishes a better future.

The waving long hair is the most notable feature in her works. She thinks that hair is a critical part of our body and has vital power. We can actually find the visible power in the flowing movement of black hair. It represents the obsession about life getting messed up in the chaotic realm and oozing from inside while being repressed, according to the interview with Contemporary Lynx. As indeed, long hair is regarded as a typical symbol of women in many countries. The depiction of spread long hair reinforces the feeling of Korean Shamanism as the performance is normally done by mudang (female shaman). In addition, it seems to me that she shows the affection for Korea by depicting and transforming the clothes as the former designer of chima jeogori (traditional Korean outfit for women).

* I had an email interview with Si On *

I asked 4 questions to her, and I translated the reply into English. I hope I wouldn't make her reply confused!!

  1. As you studied and lived in Japan for almost a decade, is there anything you have been influenced by Japanese culture or Japanese way of thinking?

As an artist, it was such a unique experience to live and study in Kyoto, the most traditional city in Japan. Japanese were proud of their culture and tradition, and they tried to pass down the cultural legacy and develop and remake it into new genres, which I was greatly impressed. While seeing how Japanese cherish the tradition and the legacy, I was looking back on how Korean treated our tradition and trying to find something fundamental that formed myself. I accepted what I didn't have, and learned how to combine the opposite things, and I have been largely inspired by that in terms of art making. (Si On, 2020)

2 . Is there any difference between the Western audiences and the Asian audiences? If so, how different they are?

I feel that the difference of audience’s response depends on their cultural background. I haven't felt the demonstrative expression from Korean and Japanese audiences. On the other hand, when I had an exhibition in America, the audiences were more active, some were even crying in the gallery. It seems to me that restraining one's feelings has been thought to be a virtue for a long time in Korea and Japan. It is quite natural that people who have lived in a culture that has long considered it a virtue not to show their feelings or opinions in front of others, and those who have lived in a completely different cultural background, accept it differently through the same works. Nevertheless, it is up to them what kind of reaction occurs in their mind when they see the work. It's hard to say what the difference is in the way Asia and the West see my work. It's not up to me and I'm not them... In Japan, I heard that my work was a Korean style. In Korea, I heard that my work was a Japanese style. In America, they said it was an Asian style but not feminine. In European countries, my work seems hard to find out the nationality. Whenever I hear that, I question myself: what is to become a Korean, Japanese style? What should be the criteria to judge that? Masculine and feminine, what is the difference between them? Then, does nationality exist in contemporary art? Can it be a standard for judging or evaluating a piece of work? I think the distinction is already unfair. The criteria suppose the cliché that includes a specific stereotype and orientalism. People tend to make a category to understand or to make it easy to judge art and work according to the categories. If one doesn't belong to any category, people tend to ignore it or pretend not to see it. It is natural that things that are consciously or unconsciously absorbed while living or traveling in the country are reflected in the creation of the work

3. What is your driving force to make art? What do you think when you are working?

I was drawn to shamanism because of its primitive power that could have existed so far, why people needed shamanism, and how it has settled in society.Rather than the mystique or superstitious part of shamanism itself and the transcendental part of Shaman. Since ancient times, Korean shamanism has been a device to help those who are at the bottom of society and have a tenacity for life, and a shaman has served as a psychotherapist and a spokesman for a victimised person. In particular, the shaman has played a role in appeasing the spirits of the dead and providing a way for the people who remain to accept reality and to live. I have been interested in the role of shamanism, which deals with things related to human birth and death, being old and pain.... I expected my work could do similar roles to Korean Shamanism.The weak, the poor, the frustrated, the sick, the lost loved ones, the jealous, the victims, in front of death and birth, natural disaster.. I have been interested in the way to overcome the most fundamental matters that humans must face someday if they have to live. I am interested in how to control the misery, the negative emotions, anger, and sadness that everyone must face one day, and how to transform them into different energies, and the potential for catharsis that emerges through the process. And this is the driving force to make a work.... I trust that the primitive energy which Korean shamanism has and the ultimate power of art are in a similar context. (Si On, 2020)