Story by: Remy Raitt, Photos by: Yuni Kim Lang
Artist Yuni Kim Lang may have lived outside Korea for the past 24 years, but her work is intricately entangled in her longing for the country and the hereditary and cultural cues it imparted to her. Using hair as her primary subject matter, Kim Lang’s sculptures, wearable artworks and photographs explore the cultural significance of one’s appearance and how her own personal identity is rooted in this significance.
With the aid of black polypropylene rope as her hair substitute, the Michigan-based artist has twisted, braided, knotted and unknotted her way to exploring her place in this rapidly globalizing world. She has also done this while testing to see how far a cultural symbol can be stripped down before it becomes unrecognizable.
Groove Korea: You left Korea when you were 3 years old, but your connection with the country plays a central role in your work. How has this relationship influenced you and your art?
Yuni Kim Lang: I have always been connected to Korea but have never really been in the middle of it. My relationship with it is mostly about my longing for it and to understand it. In most cases, the “longing” becomes the most beautiful part of the experience.
But this longing for Korea is not about finding answers to what being Korean means — it’s more like a deeper search to understand the emotional experience of wanting to know what makes me who I am.
My work is an exploration of this emotional search. After each body of work, I understand myself a little better but am also left with more questions to ask. What would be the beauty of life if we had all the answers?
You describe yourself as a foreigner in someone else’s country. How does this self-identification continue to drive your work?
I will always be Korean in my heart and will also always identify myself as a Korean. My heritage is very important to me. As our world becomes more and more globalized and the phrase “melting pot” becomes applicable to all nations, the importance of understanding our individual heritage becomes very important. I myself am a unique example of a melting pot: I am a Korean married to a Chinese-American living in the USA with our baby who was born here (in the USA).
Can you shed some light on your perceptions of hair and how its ‘roots’ link to cultural identity, more specifically your own Korean heritage?
When it comes to hair, all women can relate. Whether you are Asian, white or black, we all agonize over how to wear it. Why is it that we have such intimate relationships with our hair? Why do no other body parts hold such a variety of symbolic power? Hair is a part of our body and therefore part of our individual identity, and yet it can so easily be changed, detached, transformed.
There is so much information embedded in the way one wears and handles their hair. Not only can you read into someone’s style and preferences but their social background and heritage as well. This is why I am using hair as a powerful tool to embed my experiences and emotions of my cultural identity. For example, “Comfort Hair” is a sculpture that was inspired by the ga-che, a big wig that was historically worn by Korean women from high social backgrounds. I used the patterns, motifs and form of the ga-che as inspiration to fantasize about my hair and how it represents my cultural identity.
To follow on what you have said about hair and its links to cultural identity, can you explain if and how you draw links between the transient nature of hair and our rapidly globalizing world?
Hair, just like our society, is becoming a melting pot in its own way. Hair used to be a way to identify someone’s heritage, but with new technologies and fashion, our hair is easily altered and modified. It is no longer reliable in representing what it used to. Globalization is affecting our cultural identities on various levels, not just physical attributes but also our values and ways of life. The hair is just a metaphor to communicate these experiences or fantasies.
Do you keep a close watch on the Korean contemporary art scene? Does contemporary Korean life influence your work at all?
Yes, I am interested in contemporary Korean life: people, fashion, the constructed idea of beauty through the Korean eyes and much more. However, I am also interested in what the rest of the world identifies as Korean or Asian. What are the cultural cues and visual elements we identify and understand as representing a culture or a society? I look to deconstruct these forms and truly understand what it is about these visual elements that we read into.
For example, my “Wearables,” “Adornment at Large” (photographs) and “Comfort Hair” (sculpture) were a deeper investigation of the Chinese button knot and Korean mae-deup hairstyles. I reconstructed these knots and deconstructed them, made them over and over again, and tried to understand the motion of making the knot and why this action was so prevalent in understanding my culture. It was the perfect metaphor and form to begin with.
Do you have any upcoming works or exhibitions? Any plans to visit Korea?
I will be in Beijing for the month of August for a residency through Red Gate Gallery. I will be making my new body of work there. My time there will be spent researching and gathering materials and information about Eastern cultures, specifically Chinese cultural patterns and objects that have history with layers of meaning embedded in them. I will be visiting Korea after the residency to do more research. I am interested in finding links between the two cultures and understanding the differences as well.
For more information about Yuni Kim Lang and her work, visit www.yunikimlang.com.