“My artwork is a form of healing,” says YOU-JIN UM, a metalworker who makes jewelry “kaleidoscopes” that are infused with fond memories of her childhood. One important clue for understanding her artwork is her remark that “a reverie that attracts various memories is like a kaleidoscope that shows different patterns when you shake it.”
WRITE Bo-Hyun Lee(contents editor of ARTMINE) PHOTOGRAPHY Ju-Yeon Lee VIDEO VOD team of ARTMINE
UM’s first pieces were objets d’art that struck a balance between geometric patterns and contemporary designs, and more recently she has been adding functionality. She cuts each individual sheet of metal with the determination to “do as much by hand as possible,” and viewers are amazed by openwork that maximizes the beauty of her handicraft in a manner a machine could never approximate. When global jewelry collector Charon Kransen came upon UM’s kaleidoscopes at a craft trend fair, he was so impressed by their delicate artistry that he arranged for UM’s work to be premiered at SOFA Chicago, a world-class craft fair. Since bursting out of the domestic market and gaining the attention of the overseas art community, UM has been quite busy, receiving invitations to the Artmining Milano-Paris exhibition this April and the 2019 AUTOR International Contemporary Jewelry Fair.
Your exhibition Hexagonal Kaleidoscope was recently put on at Gallery Ahwon. Since this was your first solo show, was there anything you paid particular attention to?
I tried to be as honest as possible in putting my world on display. My pieces are like tiny objects that can be viewed from all directions. I chose to scatter them on the floor instead of hanging them on the wall, where only one side would be visible. I wanted my viewers to feel a little nervous about the possibility of knocking over my scattered pieces if they weren’t careful. I was trying to symbolize that the path I’ve taken and the goals I’m pursuing aren’t necessarily easy.
When you say your work isn’t necessarily easy, you seem to be referring to your work method. Cutting every hole by hand is pretty labor-intensive, after all.
I cut holes by hand to express geometric patterns. Since technological developments have made it easy to enlist external processes, the fact is that this work is much more involved and time-consuming for a person than for a machine. But speed and convenience aren’t important for me. If I’m capable of doing something myself, I want to do it on my own. Every second I spend in the laborious part of my artwork brings me healing. These aren’t meaningless and wasteful stages that I have to pass through to reach the finished product; they have sufficient meaning and value in and of themselves.
작업의 주재료는 순수한 어린아이처럼 순도 높은 정은이다.
은판 위에 선을 긋고 일일이 톱질과 줄질을 함으로써 투각을 한다.
각을 맞춰 은땜으로 접합한 작가는 "땜이 예쁘게 흘렀다"며 만족스러워 했다.
There’s something strangely familiar about the subject of a kaleidoscope.
The more time goes by, the more I seem to cherish the innocent and unsullied memories of my past. While building spaces to hold those memories, I thought of a kaleidoscope. I’m talking about the toy you hold up to your eye and look inside to see a series of flashy patterns reflected in a mirror. The bright shapes in the kaleidoscope are similar to the colorful patterns formed when memories collide.
Are there any memories you’re particularly fond of?
Looking back, I suppose I was pretty lonely growing up. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but I enjoyed being by myself, so I often went to play on the playground in front of a church near my maternal grandparents’ house. I especially liked the jungle gym. Peeking out from inside gave me a sense of security, as if I were being protected by the grid formed from all those intersecting bars. The sense of peace I felt there took root inside me and gave me an idea of what my own space would be like.
Hearing the story about the jungle gym helps me understand the geometric patterns in your work as an artist.
When I see a bridge or a steel frame, I can’t take my eyes away. I suppose I’m influenced by those memories of my early years. Since I was trying to design a shelter to represent a handmade room to rest in, the kaleidoscope inevitably was expressed as a geometric pattern. If I’d aimed for a beautiful-looking geometric pattern, I would’ve been limited in my ability to enjoy the work.
Your kaleidoscopes typically take the form of hexagons composed of several overlapping sheets.
I found it interesting that the patterns produced when sheets are stacked together look different from each angle. When I repeated the process of stacking, the kaleidoscopes eventually began to organize themselves into hexagons. Hexagonal structures are the ones that bring me the greatest sense of security. Triangles feel insecure, and octagons excessive. Since the theme of my artwork is memories of my childhood, which is the source of my security and healing, I guess it naturally took the form that makes me feel the most secure.
What would you say is the most important consideration in your work?
My artwork is open-ended in its application. While I’m working on a piece, I’m always careful not to slap a function on it. The instant a piece gets a function, it feels stiff and stuffy, as if it were in prison
Your artwork seems to be flexible. In the same vein, I’m told you also do custom-made pieces for people.
My early pieces were mostly objets d’art. Someone who’d bought one of my pieces before dropped by another exhibition and asked if I could change an objet d’art into a necklace. It was quite interesting to tailor my piece to the wearer while taking into account things like weight and style.
What’s the secret that has enabled you to stay with your artwork for so long without wavering?
The reason I’ve managed to stick with it is because I’ve regarded my artwork as a way to relax. Whenever I was going through a tough time, I did some artwork. The very act of making art brought me joy and healing. There’s no need for me to hesitate or imitate other people in my work. I think the best artwork is honest and sincere. Rather than feeling pressure to create something stunning, what’s more important is trying to stay sincere in each moment even if you don’t have any inborn skill or technique. I guess the reason I can’t be broken by external criticism or judgments is because of the patience and stubbornness I’ve built up through that sincerity.
What dreams do you have for the future?
I’d like to display my kaleidoscope series both on the domestic and international stage. Several group exhibitions are being planned here in Korea. I’m also getting ready to take part in the Artmining Milano-Paris exhibition this April and the AUTOR fair in Bucharest, Romania, after that. I also like to think about opening up my own place someday. For about three years, I was offering tailor-made classes in a workshop of my own. If I ever get my own place again, I’d like to get in touch with the students I had back then and invite them to my new place.
YOU-JIN UM | METALWORK
경기대학교 디자인공예학부 장신구디자인 전공을 졸업하고 홍익대학교 산업미술대학원 금속디자인에서 석사 학위를 받았다. 놀라울 정도로 섬세하고 정교한 투각기법을 통해 유년시절의 기억을 매개로한 육각구조의 금속 만화경의 세계를 선보인다. SOFA Chicago, Artmining Milano-Paris, Autor 2019 International Contemporary Jewelry Fair 등 국제적인 무대에 초청받은 작가는 독자적인 조형 오브제와 장신구로 실력을 인정받았다. 작업하는 순간이 가장 큰 행복이라고 말하는 엄유진의 만화경 시리즈는 작가를 넘어 보는이들에게도 치유의 감동을 선사한다.