Turning everyday people into heroes

Art December 24, 2015 01:00


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Sculptor Yi Hwan-Kwon distorts proportions to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary

WHEN WE MET on Monday afternoon for a photo shoot at Seoul Plaza where his sculptures were being installed, Yi Hwan-kwon had to be cajoled into giving a big smile for the camera. And when he finally did, it was a disarming, child-like smile.

It’s the same kind of smile as appears on the faces of people viewing Yi’s works depicting ordinary people in unexpected dimensions – elongated out of proportion or squeezed squat. Even on that rainy afternoon, passers-by stopped to look at the three towering sculptures, delighted at the unexpectedness of the works.

We met again Monday evening, this time at the Seoul office of the International Organisation for Migration, an intergovernmental agency that works in the field of migration. Yi’s sculptures of three siblings of Ghanaian and Korean parentage, titled “My Migrant Neighbours”, installed earlier in the day at the Seoul Plaza were created to celebrate the UN-designated International Migrants Day on December 18.

“I have thought a lot about ways to reduce prejudice,” said Yi, explaining that he learned a lot about difficulties and realities that migrants face in the process of working with IOM on the project. “I was shocked to learn about North Korean defectors choosing to go elsewhere after they arrive in South Korea.”

“The children seem to really like the work,” adds Yi, who showed the works to the three youngsters last Saturday at his studio. “The second child said, ‘Awesome! Look at this!’” Yi recalls with a smile of satisfaction on his face. “It made me feel very good, very fulfilled. It was encouraging.”

People who see Yi’s works – oftentimes casual passers-by on busy streets or plazas as many of his sculptures are displayed in open, public areas – respond with curiosity. “Jangdokdae”, a set of six squat bronze figures of a friend’s family, elicits curious stares and amused looks from people walking around the historical Jeong-dong area. Many whip out their phones to take a picture, laughing even as they snap away.

Yi takes ordinary people as his subjects – a teacher in front of a blackboard, a boy sitting in front of a fan enjoying the breeze, a woman hanging laundry – and transforms them into “extraordinary” figures with “extraordinary” proportions.

 “I work with everyday people because I don’t know anyone special,” Yi explains. “Maybe they are a projection of myself. I am ordinary.”

It is often difficult to discern the facial expressions in his works: The three siblings of “My Migrant Neighbours” display little emotion. “My works are a juxtaposition of ordinary persons and strong images. The works grab attention because they arouse curiosity and create illusions,” Yi says.

In fact, in Yi’s view, no one is ordinary, “Everyone is good at heart. People are only different living in different circumstances,” he says. “I am convinced that ordinary life is being true to oneself.”

Yi professes to not have particular themes or thoughts when it comes to his sculptures. “I do what I feel like doing,” he said. With “My Migrant Neighbours,” Yi sought to portray the children, whose Ghanaian mother passed away in 2008 and whose Korean father passed away two years later, as heroes.

When he was approached by the IOM with the idea for the sculptures, his first thought was to squash the figures short and fat. But he changed his mind after meeting with the models. “I realised that changing the figures that way wasn’t suitable. The children inspired me to return to my original style of straight figures,” Yi says.

He changed the size he had in mind, too. “Earlier, I was thinking about something two metres tall. But after meeting them I decided to give them more height,” he says. “I wanted to make people literally look up to them. I saw hidden heroes in the children.”

Yi’s works are well-known in the international auction scene. He made a splashy international debut at the 2006 Christie’s auction in Hong Kong where his two sculptures each fetched 75 million won Bt2.3 million), one of them selling at 10 times the estimate.

What explains his popularity? Yi cites strong visual stimulation as a factor. Indeed, the visual illusions created by his elongated or squat figures, figures that are bent disproportionately, catch viewers’ attention.

The distortions are not accidental – much thought goes into how he creates the visual illusions. “Who should be the protagonist? What kind of situation is unfolding? Can it accommodate my world view? I realised that these are very important,” he said. Although the figures seem to have been pulled long, squashed flat or bent haphazardly, such manipulations are highly calculated moves made with the assistance of 3D scanning and digital imaging.

Yi’s whimsical works bring simple joy to viewers, another reason for the popularity of his pieces.

 “I might be a funny person after all, since there is projection of myself in my works,” he says modestly.

There is humanness to his sculptures, too – ordinary, unselfconscious people going about their lives.

 “Thoughts about humanity, thoughts about life inspired ‘My Migrant Neighbours,” Yi says. “I am curious about the human condition, human life. I wonder ‘How do those people live? Why do I feel the slightest bit of distance between those people and myself?’”