The Polymathic Practice of Yunchul Kim

In a conversation with the artist, Monica Uszerowicz traces the myriad layers and imaginings of Yunchul Kim, who is representing South Korea at this year’s Venice Biennale.

Yunchul Kim. Courtesy of Studio Locus Solus

Yunchul Kim

Courtesy of Studio Locus Solus

Chroma V, a visually stunning component of Gyre, Yunchul Kim’s exhibition at the Korean Pavilion for the 59th Venice Biennale, is a hybrid creature. The kinetic sculpture curves li...

Chroma V, a visually stunning component of Gyre, Yunchul Kim’s exhibition at the Korean Pavilion for the 59th Venice Biennale, is a hybrid creature. The kinetic sculpture curves like an arthropod, its 382 cells shimmering like fish scales; continually activated by an internal device, the colors dim, brighten, and refract the light. Gyre comprises five sculptures in total—and one serpentine drawing of the same name—that propel each other, thrumming with biological liveness.

Yunchul Kim, Installation view of Gyre at Korean Pavilion, 2022.  Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Roman März

Yunchul Kim, Installation view of Gyre at Korean Pavilion, 2022.

Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Roman März

Kim has assigned each piece to one of three thematic categories, entitled The Swollen Suns, The Great Outdoors, and The Path of the Gods—for which the literal translation of the Chinese character is the corporeal “nerve.” Argos – The Swollen Suns is activated by invisible muon particles colliding with the Earth’s atmosphere, giving visible life to Chroma V’s cells; the tubes of Impulse, filled with Venetian water, resemble the arteries of the heart. As the sculptures communicate like a nervous system, they create a pulsing microcosm of the universe, and of the mechanisms of the human body—itself a small cosmos.

The process of assembling works at the Yunchul Kim’s Studio – Studio Locus Solus. Courtesy of Studio Locus Locus

The process of assembling works at Yunchul Kim’s Studio – Studio Locus Solus.

Courtesy of Studio Locus Solus

Kim, a transdisciplinary artist, is also a writer, a sometimes-chemist, and always a musician. “Sound is very important in this exhibition,” he told me in a recent interview, recounting the process of composing Chroma V’s movements—“dancing, breathing”—in cadenced time. He has long been interested in the natural rhythms of life forms, their unexpected yet innate relationships with each other. As a child, “I was totally into the world of insects,” he says, admiring ants, spiders, butterflies. On the beach, he’d turn over stones, looking for patterns; today, he grinds them into nanoparticles to create new pigments and materials with which to color his works. (Kim used vermiculite to produce a novel substance for La Poussière de Soleils—part of Gyre—a sculpture that seems to breathe.) His parents were certain he’d become a scientist.

In his practice, Kim is like one—often contending with the nature of matter, the way it’s rendered meaningful by human interpretation. He has conjured the term intra-action to make more intimate the concept of material interaction—“A and B colliding is interaction, but intra-action has no division. If we talk about the moon, we also talk about how it’s related to the earth, the sun, the climate; there’s no distance”—and matter-reality to relay the experience of materials as far more than the sum of their parts.

Experiment for La Poussière de Soleils. Courtesy of Studio Locus Locus

Experiment for La Poussière de Soleils.

Courtesy of Studio Locus Solus

“If you observe architecture, for example,” he explains, “we do not speak about the materials, but rather about its construction and structures, the beauty of its forms.” Coincidentally, Kim exposes the interiority of many of his sculptures, their machinery laid bare, so that we might watch how their movements start, stop, coalesce.

Gyre is as much an artistic experiment as it is both a heartbeat and a miniature cosmic event, vivified by the atmosphere. This year’s Biennale, The Milk of Dreams—a title drawn from Leonora Carrington’s book of the same name—explores the possibility of transformation, the inevitability and metaphor of metamorphosis in the Anthropocene. In his 2011 poem, Swollen Suns, a forebear to Gyre, Kim writes, “Go on and on/like a perennial plant/of four sudden stages/in the life cycle/of its endless own/with no beginning either.” What happens, I asked Kim, when the sun swells and bursts—is that death also generative? “The sun is a dominant power—nobody thinks that the sun is going to die,” he reflected. “But it’s a natural system; it has a whole life cycle. It’s symbolic to imagine the swollen sun is scattering—the dominant power losing that power.”

The pain of our era is written in its name; consider the relief of a world without anthropocentrism, without us at all. Kim asks us to imagine further, envisioning ourselves still fully alive on a planet that, thankfully, carries on without our authority. “This is my general emotional thinking about the world without humans,” he explains. “It’s not simply thinking about humans not existing, or a nonhuman world—it’s more than human. It’s changing the horizon of human-centered viewing.”

Monica Uszerowicz is a writer, photographer, and editor in Miami. Her work has appeared in Artforum, Art in America, The Believer, Bomb, Cultured, Deem Journal, The New York Review of Books, and elsewhere, and her photographs have been exhibited globally. She is a recipient of a 2020 Arts Writers Grant from The Andy Warhol Foundation.