Miyeon Yi (born in 1995, Seoul, South Korea) is an artist living and working in London, UK. She obtained her Bachelor of Fine Arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA (2013-2017), and is pursuing her master’s degree on painting at the Royal College of Art, London (2021-2023). She had solo exhibition at the Era Gallery (Milan) and will be exhibiting at the Ojiri Gallery(London) this summer. Her works has been in group shows in USA, UK and France.
It all started from a piece of memory I had from childhood, “I think it is time for me to die.” She said to me while exhaling smoke from her cigarette. I looked up to read her face and check if she really meant it. To a child, who has just begun her life about 8 years ago or so, that phrase was rather shocking. No matter how long I stared at her face it was hard to grasp the true meaning of the words that scattered from her lips. Few years later, her words came true and her body lying flat on our Ikea futon transformed into a ceramic urn. I saw her last breath leaving her mouth as her cigarette smoke left her lungs, and her head turned towards the wall of our living room insisting not to look at us. I saw my grandmother off to an apartment of pottery, and then we bowed to her two and a half times. I remember asking my mother many times, why did great-grandmother turn in to a ceramic urn? “Every one of us will eventually die.” She said, “But you still have tremendous time left ahead of you.” Until recently, I hid behind her temporary words of consolation. But when only I, darkness, and silence remain, questions that will never be answered crawls back in my mind.
I use figures as an allegory of ennui. The figures in my work are often in their own living space filling in the void of life with meaningless tasks while turning away from the weight of drama, experiencing freedom as well as ennui. On the other hand, animals in my paintings have a similar structure and function to the exiting and entering of actors of the Nō Theatre crossing the hashigakari (suspension) bridge. They are suspended from the main act of the protagonist however they have communicated with them in the past or bring a possibility to affect the main act in the near future. My painting discusses overwhelming agony embedded deep down in ones who lives in current world, in relation to individual freedom. Freedom allows us to decide what to make of our life but also guilt. Are we living as one should be? Doubt never sleeps. The characters of my paintings are thus often in a state of distraction, innocence and guilt. The anxiety of emptiness in our lives, the urge to fill the silence with information, as well as the unconscious hope for transforming the world we live in. We do not know how to truly rest in peace. But yet in that same demonic force, the possibility for a righted life is posed as a task. This experience of how both death and life, change and transformation, reflects in objects and the way we interact with them has become more ubiquitous and poignant after the events of the past few years.
What initially compelled you to create your work?
This is such a hard question to answer. Even looking back to the oldest memory of mine, I was constantly drawing as if it is my second nature. And I have never stopped ever since. Right now, I paint with the goal to make paintings that gives a similar calming sensation to holding a small ceramic tea cup with both hands, or sliding open a 100 years old tea ceremony box. I want to feel the same joy of holding a small but very specifically functioning antique objects when I hold my own paintings.
What main topic does your artwork address and why?
My works often depicts groupings and isolations of figures. If not squeezed in to one object or space, these figures form a community by implementing common actions, such as playing card game or preparing for a ritual. They show individuality as well as generality as a member of a group. I find the communication and recognition of coexistence within the figures that are separated into different spaces or moments of the narrative very interesting.
The golden line coming from the sky touching Mary’s head in the paintings, which depicts the moment of the annunciation, connect the two beings in totally different worlds while implying the words of God. In between Mary and God there stands Gabriel. He becomes a bridge between the spiritual and the ordinary world. In my paintings, I search for these moments of connection between the two different characters. I often use animals in my paintings with a mission similar to the existing and entering of actors of the Nō Theatre crossing the hashigakari (suspension) bridge. They are suspended from the main act of the protagonist. However, they have communicated with them in the past or bring a possibility to affect the main act in the near future.
In your artistic journey, what has been the most challenging point thus far?
The most challenging aspect is that I constantly feel like living in a temporary home. I have been moving between countries since a very young age. It has been a repetition of getting rid of most of my belongings every time I have to move, and living a moderately compromised life in between. I enjoy painting my own experiences and surroundings. However, I find that my most intimate living space does not have much of my taste embedded. I think that is the reason why I have been recently painting scenes from my memory back when I lived or visited my family home in Korea or U.S.
Is there an aspect of your life that especially impacts your practice?
Growing up with my great grandmother was a very big influence for my current practices. Baudelaire’s “the old woman’s despair” describes my experience very well through the encounter of a newborn and an old woman. The old woman adores the newborn by projecting and admiring the youth that she once had and lost, while the newborn is terrified seeing an old woman because she shows the unavoidable future (aging and death). I think this was exactly the relationship and impact of me and my great grandmother. Spending time with her I was constantly surrounded by death. When she passed away, I witnessed her presence permeate the objects she used or stayed in. I think the recent works where I frame the scenes with furniture or box-like composition came from these memories.
What do you do when you find yourself at a creative block?
My initial attempt is to look at works of other artists that I respect, not necessarily limited to painters but also film makers, architects, or musicians. Sometimes looking at very early works of artist that I adore will help me to realize that I may have been the worst critic, the one who evaluated my paintings more brutally than anyone else. Recognizing that every artist had their process of failing and learning from it will calm the grumpy perfectionist in your mind. Finding yourself at a creative block means that you have out grown from your past. If looking at other artist fails to bring back the motivation to paint, the next thing I would try is to go out to live the part of my life that is not necessarily related to my painting practices. Luckily, I live right next to a big park in London so I often spend time in the park staring at the pond and floating wild birds. I believe artists must first live their life in order to create. The works must be born from the world we live in not from a white cube or a wall.