Life from the sides
South Korean artist Yi Hwan-kwon's figure sculptures are visually arresting. They are either horizontally compressed or vertically stretched like reflections in distorted mirrors or movies squeezed to fit television screens in the past. It's the latter that inspired the sculptor.
'I was about five and I was watching this film that had been reformatted for TV and the images came out all wrongly proportioned and stretched. I was fascinated by what I saw and wanted to be physically inside that world of distortion,' says Yi, now 35. 'That was how the idea of distortion first took root.'
Today, Yi creates all his sculptural works in this distinctive style - one that has won him many fans and collectors. Christie's sold his Fat Boy sculpture, from his Bus Stop series, for HK$907,500 two years ago - the highest amount one of the artist's works has fetched at auction.
Seoul Action achieved the second highest price at its inaugural Hong Kong sale in October last year for Children of My Next Door, which went under the hammer for HK$796,000, nearly four times the pre-sale estimate of HK$210,000 to HK$280,000.
This Thursday sees Yi's first solo Hong Kong exhibition, Scenes From Memory, opening at the Arts Centre in Wan Chai. On show will be 22 pieces including works from his Bus Stop series, A Family series and his new Movie series.
Yi says most of his subjects are people he knows, although he often injects his personality into them.
'These are people with whom I have close emotions and feelings,' he says. 'Friendship and love, they are emotions that come naturally to me. Sometimes, I feel they are like me, because my perspective of my subjects reflects the nature of the creator [me].
'Sometimes ... [I can't] avoid having my own personality reflected in my sculptures. After all, I am sculpting from my own perspective,' Yi says.
His piece I Don't Like to Study, for example, featuring a girl slumbering over her homework, reflects his attitude to studying growing up. Other works, such as Becoming a Book II, are more general narratives on human behaviour and emotions.
'The piece is about my friend with whom I went to the same school. He is so focused and absorbed in his reading he almost becomes sucked into the book,' the sculptor says.
Born in Seoul to a family of five, Yi says he has always been artistically inclined, and enjoyed drawing as a child. In his teens, he wanted to become a rocker but family and societal pressure pushed him towards a more traditional path. He graduated from Kyongwon University with a master's degree in environmental sculpture in 2004 and has since exhibited widely including at the Seoul Municipal Art Centre and Anders Galerie in Dusseldorf, Germany.
Scenes From Memory will feature fibre-reinforced plastic sculptures from his major series. The artist says Bus Stop, his earliest series of sculptures made between 2000 and 2003, was the result of an organic creative process. Featuring seven characters, it began as an experiment. 'I started with just a woman [named Kang-ji], a real person, holding a phone. She was the first character and after I made that, I developed the idea further and started creating other people and things that are familiar to me,' Yi says.
'These characters are not expecting things, they are just there. There is no story. I didn't mean to have a story.
'But at the end, I realised the whole series is an expression of my idea of waiting ... waiting for something ... waiting for the bus, waiting for success, waiting for love. So people are in the perpetual state of waiting here at the bus stop.'
A Windy Day, Yi's second series, offers more philosophical musings on relationships. We Are in the Same Place But ... depicts the shadows of two people, one stretching across the floor and the other across the wall. They can't communicate.
'This series represents my personal feelings and emotions. For example, when it is windy, I feel a sense of emptiness,' says Yi.
A Windy Day shows a young woman popping a letter into a pillar box - an act that the sculptor says is now rare.
'People don't write letters anymore,' Yi says. 'This girl tries to communicate but what is in the letter? Is she reconciling after a fight?'
A Family is a sculptural portrait of a family he knows well, inspired by the jangdockdae, a traditional jar Koreans use to keep their preserved sauces and foods such as kimchi.
'When I saw a row of jangdockdae standing together, it reminded me of a family. So that's why all the characters look squashed in this piece; they are in the shape of these jars,' he says. The work also highlights the key role of women in Korean society.
'Usually the jars are the property of the women in the family, handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter. So what I really want to express with this piece is that a Korean family is not only a man's family but one headed by a matriarch,' Yi says.
The Hong Kong exhibition will also feature two new works - Leon & Matilda and Trinity - from his latest Movie series. Yi says it reflects his interest in the celluloid world.
'Sometimes I am so engrossed in watching a movie I want to step inside it,' he says. 'And by creating these figure sculptures, part of this wish I had since a child is realised.'
Scenes From Memory, Thu-Nov 22, Pao Galleries, 4&5/F, Hong Kong Arts Centre, 2 Harbour Rd, Wan Chai. Inquiries: 2537 1880