In Conversation with Jungwon Jay Hur

Words by

Robert Frost

In Conversation with Jungwon Jay Hur

The following conversation between Robert Frost and Jungwon Jay Hur took place in April 2024.

Jungwon Jay Hur, ‘Along the North Strand’, 2023. Oil on birchwood panel, 40 x 110 cm. Courtesy the artist and Hive Center for Contemporary Art

The title of your Hive CCA solo exhibition, Flee as a bird to your mountain, derives from David’s examination of the soul in a time of crisis. From what I’ve read, it went like this: whoever identifies their sin will be shown the way to redemption. Is there any specific reason behind the choice of this title?

The decision on the title was one of the last things to take place. Yifei and I finalised it just a couple of weeks before the show opened, which was a new process for me as in the past I would usually use the title to unravel the process of working towards a show. This time it was as if I was weaving things back together towards a totality.

Yifei and I did know that we wanted the idea or the imagery of a bird to be central to the show from the beginning, almost seeing it as a continuation of my solo show A Woman from the Bird Egg at Incubator last year that will allow me to unfold this tale of an “imaginary bird woman” further.

The religious connotation or undertone of the title comes from many conversations I shared with Yifei, about the exposure to religious experiences I had growing up with Buddhist parents in South Korea, and how they have subconsciously formed my approach to the process of ‘making.’ To me, as a kid, the idea of ‘punishment’ was a bodily act, whether it’s practicing Buddhist bowing 108 times or long hours of meditation, through which I experienced the idea of ‘redemption’ by facing or encountering self-reflection. With the ongoing turbulence of our world where the sense of (life and) death is currently so closely residing with and heavily weighing on us as humanity, the whole process of making the new body of work for the show became a personal ritual which then made each individual piece a prayer and a mantra.

When Yifei first came up with the idea for the title, I was drawn to the double meaning behind it, where a rather literal, peaceful image of a bird flying back to its mountain coincided with the biblical image of David’s temptation to run from danger. We then tried to respond to the question of the art and considered the act of creation to be a place of resistance against fear and of refuge from all sorts of catastrophes, be it personal or global, as we were working towards the show.

Jungwon Jay Hur, ‘The Weight of Death; after John Berger’, 2024. Oil on maple wood, 7 x 9 cm. Courtesy the artist and Hive Center for Contemporary Art

You wanted to continue the correspondence from your solo exhibition A Woman from the Bird Egg of the bird as a kind of prayer, maybe even a sort of amulet. I feel that very much in this set of paintings. But in some of your works I can decipher clear detours from this path or narrative. The Weight of Death; after John Berger (2024) seems to ride against this mantra. Are you ever surprised by what art does, what it can reveal?

Yes, absolutely, especially with that painting. I had the impulse to paint it after reading one of John Berger’s essays where he talks about his encounter of a dead robin, holding it in his hand as an analogy to ponder about the value of life, the weight of death, and the lightness of it, which contradicts the heaviness and significance of the subject itself. I was thinking of the time I held the body of a dead bird in my hand two summers ago; the weight of death that I could remember, as light as air, so fragile as if it was made of thin glass, its body becoming nothing but a shell, without the essence or trace of life anymore. It made me think that maybe it’s the soul of a life that weighs the most and grounds us, holds everything altogether; and the things connected to materiality, our body, exterior, weightless. I tried to recreate and convey the sensation of this incomprehensible lightness of life which felt like an almost impossible challenge in a way, because how do you even paint and visualise a “weight,” which is only an abstract sensation? The whole time I was painting it I would cup my left hand like holding an imaginary bird as a point of reference, because to engage with something so immaterial like sensation you’d have to do everything to either recollect, reconnect or imagine and empathise with it. Art, its making, especially painting, helps me be more aware of sensations, the materiality and immateriality, and sensitivity, tenderness, attentiveness in life.

It’s a development from the Incubator show. The only small indicator of the subject death was through the folding screen, which is an object I’d always see during Jae-sa (제사), a commemorative ceremony of the dead. The show at Hive is a slightly more matured version of the narrative. John Berger’s idea of “home,” that it exists in the crossing point of two lines; one vertical and one horizontal. The vertical line that goes across the lands and the horizontal line that connects the heaven and underground. Through these two solo presentations I’ve been able to stretch out the horizontal and vertical planes in order to start finding the centre.

Jungwon Jay Hur, ‘The Wanderer’, 2024. Oil on birchwood panel, 23 x 30.5 cm. Courtesy the artist and Hive Center for Contemporary Art

With these words in mind, I think about your work. You’re figuring out how to capture the weight of the soul through figurative painting. The Wanderer (2024), for instance, has a ghostly intangibility. This question–how do you even paint and visualise a weight?–is one you’ve asked yourself over and over again, right?

When this abstract, intangible sensation exists in a work it makes you actively engage with the work, to really understand that is to feel it heart to heart. When this ‘heart to heart’ engagement does happen between a work and me as a maker, even as a viewer, it creates this sense of vibration, a perpetually vibrating resonance. This doesn’t happen every time I paint but I seek these moments, these eruptions.

The attempt to visualise abstract sensations through painting has been a fun challenge, materially speaking. I get to explore how I want to define it through my visual language and understanding of those sensations.

The method of application is important.

Right. The constant oscillation between the accumulation and deduction or removal of paints creates both opacity that implies weight and transparency that implies lightness. I find feeling and creating this tension through material handling enjoyable. Connected to what you’ve asked earlier about what the process of making can reveal, I’ve got to fall in love again with certain painting mediums, especially with linseed oil this time, finding a new potential of the medium that hugely assists the visual language that I try to create by revisiting the medium for the first time in three years.

Jungwon Jay Hur, ‘Mantra’, 2024. Etching and aquatint on Calico; 4 parts, 300 x 300 cm each. Courtesy the artist and Hive Center for Contemporary Art

There’s something life-affirming about what you’ve said, as if your work could disencumber you from anything. When you were making these paintings, did you ever ask yourself how much personal narrative or information is worth revealing?

Totally. I started to create works that heavily convey autobiographical narratives during the second year of my BA at Wimbledon, where we were encouraged to explore personal narratives, and throughout my time at Slade. I was then completely obsessed with understanding and searching for the sense of intimacy and vulnerability which was visually translated and manifested via the use of found photographic materials that somehow spoke on behalf of my extremely personal narrative.

I used to think that the only way to create intimacy and vulnerability was to reveal every single detail of my personal narratives, like “What’s in my bag?” but with my life. But it became too intoxicatingly personal to the point that it felt rather selfish and forced, losing the power of enigma in the work. Now that I look back, I think I just really wanted to be seen, heard, and understood. Ever since I read an interview of Kiki Smith where she says: “People need to know what you’re invested in but it cannot be so personal that it’s impenetrable, and it can’t be so general that they can’t see your commitment,” I try to find the middle ground of the personal and the universal. I’ve definitely learned the idea of moderation and have more empathy towards the wider things other than my own narrative. Although my work is still very much autobiographical, and I use the images that holds personal narrative and create images based off of the experiences, thoughts, and feelings I lived through. I now try to resist being possessive of these personal narratives, but rather think of them as a part of a bigger narrative that people can also resonate or empathise with, where they can reflect their own narratives and find consolation. More recently, filtering these personal narratives by bringing in the elements of fiction, tales, and fables, and other intercultural source materials, has helped that process a lot.

Jungwon Jay Hur, ‘Time to Wake Up', 2024. Oil on birchwood panel, 23 x 30.5 cm. Courtesy the artist and Hive Center for Contemporary Art

There’s long been talk of honesty and opening up, of narrators searching for certain aspects of a discredited past, like Dan Fox. His book Limbo, a caryatid of his suffocating experience with the reproduction of words. I also go to German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, when he said: “The more ‘honestly’ you put yourself into the story, the more that story will concern others as well.” There is something else, though. I think this idea of disintegrated authorship you’re circling represents a kind of inversion of this, or at least a push for distance beyond this kind of totality. You’re learning to access your interiority without the emotional rollercoaster.

For me, it’s not the emotional harm from accessing my interiority that threatens me, and nor do I intend to avoid it. What concerns me the most is something else entirely: when I share the honest personal narrative I want to make sure that I do it out of a genuine approach to tend the need of connection rather than out of the inflated sense of self. It’s inevitable to encounter emotional harms, be it uncertainty or grief during the process of looking into my interiority or even painting. I understand my practice as questioning these uncertainties and conundrums, it is a means of reconciliation, exorcism, and catharsis. Making Drape for Saint Barbara (2024), Mantra (2024), and With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough (2023) was crucial for that reason.

Jungwon Jay Hur, ‘Alchemy’, 2023. Meranti wood, etching and aquatint on Hanji paper, 160 x 282 x 4.5 cm. Courtesy the artist and Incubator. Photography by Gillies Adamson Semple

That’s really powerful. These inabilities, or perceived inabilities, have led you to what your body of work has become. That prayer or mantra, or— In the Incubator show last year, there’s the folding screen with countless etchings on it, Alchemy (2023). Is that a manifesto?

The idea of wanting to make a folding screen first came about as I was thinking of ways to present my work a bit more playfully. I wanted to discover new possibilities with installation, especially using prints, as it’s such a generous medium; having the ability to reproduce allowed me to be less fearful. Prior to the preparation of the show, I visited my family home in Seoul and it was there that I settled on the idea of making the screen. I felt encouraged to introduce materials and elements that will work as a manifesto about the idea of ‘home’ I have longed to unfold.

As much as it’s now considered as an old artifact that you’d mostly see only at craft museums or old palaces in Korea, folding screens carry significant cultural attachment and personal memories for me. Growing up in a Buddhist household my family would host this commemoration of the ancestors, the family members, on the day of their death each year, Jae-sa, 제사, 祭祀. There’s always a folding screen that contains either just simple calligraphy of Chinese characters or watercolour paintings of landscapes standing behind the tables on which you lay foods the family prepared as a sign of appreciation towards the ones that passed. I always thought of the folding screen as a conduit that connects the past and present, the dead and alive, and life and death; it’s like a door where all these energies enter in and out, it felt really powerful and significant. In that sense, I realised, the conversation around death or the embracement of it strongly resides in Korean history and culture.

The actual making of it was, as I expected, time-consuming and laborious, although I was very lucky to meet a brilliant joiner based in Brockley who really guided me through the whole process. I could have found a pre-made folding screen for sure, but it was important for me to actually make it myself and leave traces, the touch of my labour and intention. The etchings are printed on Korean traditional Hanji papers which were the materials I’d never explored before for printing. Its fibre was so much sturdier than I expected, it brought me such joy and surprise as a material to understand and work with. The whole process of making was a meeting point of intensive labour, time, and different materials that then became an ‘alchemy,’ a body of prayer. It really acted as a ‘door’ that opened up something in me, to delve into the idea of ‘home’ which allowed me to ponder and unfold the experience of diaspora as a female Asian artist in the UK, and re-explore my native Korean culture I often overlooked in the past, building a new network of cultural and personal connection.

Jungwon Jay Hur is a multidisciplinary artist from Seoul, South Korea, who currently lives and works in London, U.K. She received her BA Fine Art: Painting from Wimbledon College of Arts in 2019 and finished her MFA Fine Art: Painting at the Slade School of Fine Arts in 2022. Recent and upcoming exhibitions include The Future of Loneliness, Guts Gallery, London (June 2024); Our Teeth are Reefs, Slugtown, London (2024); Flee as a Bird to Your Mountain, Hive Art Centre, Shanghai (2024); Vessels, Cabin, Berlin (2024); Voyager 1, Hive Art Centre, Shanghai (2023); A Woman from the Bird Egg, Incubator, London (2023); Contemporary Voices, Plataforma2 Gallery, Barcelona (2022); Why Don’t You Dance?, ASC Gallery, London (2022), and Hearth, Lokal, Helsinki (2021).

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