Visualizing memories with Yeon Ji Yoo

January 8, 2013 Heather Chin
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A single image attached to a specific memory, when shared over and over and over again, takes on a new shape – becomes a whole new memory.

That idea of transformative change over time and passed on through generations is behind much of Yeon Ji Yoo’s artwork, from her drawings and oil on rice paper canvases to her papier mache sculptures and installations. It is a theme that resonates so strongly in her work and in those who see and experience them that the curators/judges of the Brooklyn Museum’s GO Brooklyn Community Curated Open Studio Project chose her from among the Top 10 finalists voted on by the public, to be featured along with four other winners in an exhibit at the Museum, which opened on December 1 and runs through February 24.

“I thought of [GO Brooklyn] as fun and great exposure; I didn’t think I was going to be nominated, but it was really awesome to find out that I was,’ said Yoo, whose studio is one of dozens in an old warehouse that sits across the street from Fairway on the Red Hook waterfront. “It was a wonderful experience just to find out how many artists are in the neighborhood.”

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Walk into the exhibit room and your attention is immediately drawn into a copse of rice papier mache trees, flora and fauna in the corner – all beige, all fragile, all beautifully vast and somber. Entitled “The Fight,” the installation was inspired by a Haruki Murakami book and is a “homage to [how] dementia claimed my grandmother’s life.”

“The changing sunlight affected how she felt about people and things in her last days,” said Yoo, who created the piece for a sun porch at Wave Hill Public Garden and Cultural Center in the Bronx. “Everything is constantly changing.”

Change is a constant in Yoo’s pieces, as well, both in their themes and literally, as many of them are never really complete, requiring regular repairs and upkeep.  In “The Fight,” as in another installation under construction in her studio called “If I Could Fix You,” which is formed around tree branches that resemble bone joints, “I use materials that aren’t permanent, and I love it and I hate it.”

“When it breaks, even though it’s annoying, I love that feeling of taking care of it, of saying ‘hey, let me fix you, let me bandage it and make it right,’” she explained. “I always like the idea that none of the pieces are really finished because I feel that if I say they’re finished, then it’s gone, no longer in the nest, like post-partum. I think I always like to have a relationship and dialogue with my pieces.”

A similar sense of intangibility and evolving life exists in Yoo’s drawings – she prefers not to consider them paintings – which incorporates a lot of collage work, with of ink, photographs, paper, paint, fabric, and fibers. The images have an almost eerie quality about them, with human faces growing within or sharing space with plant life; her sculptural installations take on similar life with nature becoming animated.  “I wanted them to relate to the way we think about our bodies when they move,” said Yoo.

Yoo’s interest in the natural environment, human experiences and memories, and interpreting her own identity have overlapped in her investigations as part of creating art.

“I found that so many of those things were tied to how I grew up, how I was raised, how were my parents and grandparents like – those legacies that were passed down to me,” she said. “Then together with my interest in the natural environment, it became for me an ongoing investigation that presented itself like this: an infused work that is ultimately about this transference, this change.”

Growing up in South Korea until the age of four, Yoo spent a lot of time exploring the backyards, woods, and farm countryside around her father’s family’s farm. “There were rice paddies, I would catch frogs, my younger brother and I would fight and play with the chickens… it was really beautiful,” she said.

Recently, Yoo has been incorporating archived photographs into her work as a way to visualize the effect of the passage of time on our memories.

“I find photographic images and make photocopies of them. It’s that idea of making a copy of a copy of a copy,” she explained. “That first photograph of the event or person or whatever – that was the first copy, not even the whole picture, just a part of an event… You don’t know what’s happened before or afterwards – so in that sense, there’s a lot of portraiture – since I don’t want to make a story around them [so much as I want to] capture moments.”

In addition to making and displaying her own art, Yoo helps the next generation of artists discover their own creative voices. For 11 years, she has taught art to middle and high schoolers in public school and at a nonprofit portfolio program for aspiring teen artists, and she says it is even more rewarding now as it was when she first started, thanks in part to being able to see how former students have grown and what they are working on in their own lives.

“I love being a teacher. I always tell them that ‘trust me, even if I won the lottery, I won’t stop teaching,’” laughed Yoo. “The non-cognitive skills that kids learn from art? There are so many things to strategize. When you make a collage, there are so many brain muscles you have to tweak to make a layer, to overlap… art applies to so many parts of your life to help you problem-solve. I want to help the kids do that.”

Of course, sometimes “they just make amazing artwork and I want to see them have fun,” too, she said.

With her students’ and family’s support, and with her own inquisitive mind to keep her going, Yoo insists that no, she never gets depressed from the solemn themes of her work. “Making art is such a selfish thing [because] it’s such a private investigation,” yet when people such as the curators and visitors at the Brooklyn Museum admire her work, she is reminded of the importance of “having a conversation about art.”

“If you want there to be great artwork, you have to be responsible and know how everyone who isn’t an artist will respond to it because they have an aesthetic taste and art entitled to think about art,” said Yoo. “Also, from an educational standpoint, it’s so good to show people that this is what an artist does, this is what happens after college.”

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