He'll never tyre of making mutants
The new JangHeung Atelier outside Seoul houses Ji Yong-ho's studio - although these days he chooses to work inside the crumbling structure next door which is under renovation.
From the rubble the 30-year-old artist emerges, gesturing to a piece that has been guarding the premises - a lion whose ferocity is tempered only by a lamb-like expression. Made mostly out of used tyres, the bestial sculpture belongs to the 'mutant series' he has been working on since the beginning of this decade.
'Mutation is a big issue in South Korea,' says Ji, who returned from New York two months ago after a solo show with Seoul's Gana Art Gallery in April. 'Today, we hear about genetically modified animals and the side-effects of genetically modified food. It could even be possible to replicate yourself.'
His early jaguars, wolves and horses had an overlaid musculature that turns them into the most extreme examples of their species, echoing Darwin's theory that only the fittest survive.
These days, the artist crossbreeds animals, creating a bull's head with ram's horns, a dog possessing the qualities of an eagle, and in his more recent work, a lion with the face of a woman.
A couple of these creations come under the hammer at Seoul Auction on Tuesday.
Ji began to focus on mutation at university in Seoul. 'I tried to find a material that represented the concept,' he says. 'I tried leather and plastic but they weren't powerful enough.'
Then a pile of car tyres in a yard caught his eye. 'They looked like monsters to me,' he says, recalling his first impression. 'Tyres have a lot of texture and like skin, they are flexible though still strong.'
More crucially, the material itself was a symbol of mutation, having gone from a natural fibre to an industrialised product and then a discarded one in a consumerist society. 'I saw myself as giving them a second life.'
He was so enthused he stripped his own car of its tyres and started on them right away. However, it's not an easy material to work with.
'I broke many machines trying to cut the tyres until I perfected the art of wielding a very sharp knife,' Ji says. But years of working with the material has now made him a master.
It takes Ji about a month and 100 tyres to fashion a medium-sized sculpture. To enhance their forms, he has switched from cast iron frames to using clay and sometimes plaster, around which he affixes the tyre skin.
One of his favourites is a shark intended to be suspended from the ceiling, which he created with a clay frame to achieve the smoothness of the body. On one boar head, he experimented with casting a dead animal to replicate precise details.
While Ji's medium may be unusual, his influences remain traditional. He sees his work as a return to the anatomical rigour of Rodin and Michelangelo. When he first saw their work in the original on a trip to Europe six years ago, he was so daunted by their perfection that he at first gave up the idea of being a sculptor.
'I changed my mind when I returned to South Korea, though,' he says. 'I realised I had to figure out my own concept.'
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of his work is that Ji manages to coax expression out of rugged forms. In his first jaguar sculpture, to which he says he is still deeply attached, Ji combined the aggressiveness of the animal's stance with a tentativeness of expression that characterises all of his creatures.
He found that more subtle facial expressions could be achieved in his trophy series, such as the bull's head in which he 'juxtaposes the patience of the bull with the aggressiveness of the ram'.
Ji's work is now shifting towards a focus on human mutants. The man-in-beast blend evokes such mythical figures as Pan, the centaurs and the Sphinx. The particular expression that Ji tries to convey harks back to boyhood encounters with children born with Down's syndrome.
'I lived near a school for these children and though I initially tried to avoid them, through interaction I discovered they were kind people although they looked different from the rest of us,' he says. 'They did not appear to be miserable. Rather, their faces looked happy and innocent.
'After I grew up I realised that in their faces, I had glimpsed what I longed to find in my art.'
Seoul Auction, Tuesday, 6pm, Grand Hyatt Hong Kong