and the matter of Space

Hyelim Cha

We spoke with the South Korean artist Hyelim Cha ahead of her solo show “Bellows Hill”, at her studio at Künstlerhaus Bethanien to find out more about her art that can be read like an open book: space is her blank page, and her interventions the pen with which she reinterprets literature including Indonesian mythology and Buddhist tales, but also British pop culture and cinema.

At her studio, she showed us the diary she uses for poetry, and this affinity she has for writing seems to underpin the narrative aspect of her practice. The exhibition space is where she deconstructs and reassembles folk stories into large scale installations that reimagine the past in today’s context, enhancing how we experience our surroundings.

Hyelim Cha © the Artist

Her mixed media installation The Coconut Girl for instance speaks of secular desire on the basis of a Buddhist tale, while An Aerialist teases us to make sense of the surreal, like a life size poem or a daydream.

This lets us enter newly configured places that symbolise how we relate to society writ large: through the lens of literature, including myth and pop culture, Hyelim Cha explores the links between technology, ecology and ourselves. As we touched on these and other ideas in our interview, Hyelim Cha’s multilayered practice impressed us with its intrigue and wit.

The aim to define space

Fire, metal, earth, water, air. Which of these elements would you choose in relation to yourself or your practice?

I feel most drawn to air in terms of breath, of a breeze. For me it also brings to mind the idea of space in the sense of somewhere empty to exhibit my work.

My installations are site specific, and I am interested in the dynamics between the artwork and the space it is in. Space can become full, but if empty it brings to mind those blank spaces which the viewer’s subjective can fill.

The imagination of the visitors broadens the possibilities of the space as they enter it.

On a personal level, I am quite sensitive to the atmosphere a particular space can have, and its effects and impact on us as individuals when we are in public areas that we share.

Space is quite introspective too.

It is something we long for to find peace within ourselves, especially since dense demographics have made quiet let alone empty spaces increasingly rare now.

The layout of my sculptures and mixed media installations visualises these relationships between private and public spheres, empty and full.

Hyelim Cha, Music score for spiral movement, mixed media variable dimensions, 2018

Hyelim Cha

The exhibition space often appears fragmented in this way -how do your installations deconstruct it, and why?

My installations investigate how the body can relate to other things, to other worlds. The fragments you see in the exhibition space translate this sense of detachment, this disconnect between us (our bodies) and nature.

In ‘Music score for spiral movement’, the dismembered legs you see in the foreground are drawn from the TV series Black Mirror.

This mirror motif can also be found in Buddhism where it reflects one’s inner, true self.

The scattered components I display in the exhibition space are the different parts of ourselves, a ‘body’ deconstructed because detached from nature.

Hyelim Cha, Wood/Number of the World , golden thread wrapped on metal mold, variable dimensions, 2013

The Coconut Girl

To what extent does nature inform the narratives in your work?

As human beings we are all part of nature, and mythology often draws from this kind of kinship and connectedness. Key themes or categories for myths include fire with the figure of Prometheus that represents hardships to be overcome; and agriculture, meaning growth. The title of my installation

The Coconut Girl is based on Hainuwele, a girl from the island of Seram in Indonesia who was killed by villagers and dismembered, her body parts buried in different soils producing crops for food.

I stumbled upon this theme of death and regrowth with the spiral staircase motif I used in Music Score for Spiral Movement.

Hyelim Cha, The Coconut Girl, mixed media (goods from industrial shop) variable dimensions, 2015
Hyelim Cha, The Coconut Girl, mixed media (goods from industrial shop) variable dimensions, 2015

The spiral recalls the shape of the trees’ bark. The tree itself is an important motif in Buddhism as well, and I also came across the Buddhist image of burning mountains which refers to one of The Buddha’s teachings from the Lotus Sūtra (written between 100 B.C and 200 A.D).

Journal of Thoughts – Deconstruct, Rewind.

Speaking of literature, does it influence how you display your works in the space and how you want viewers to navigate it?

Yes. Actually I consider this in symbolic terms -writing a sentence within the space, a comma here a comma there, the exhibition space like an open book. In Metallurgy, the objects I have transformed ‘rewrite’ as it were the space they are in. Alongside my art, the poetry I write in my diary is interspersed with blank pages. One sentence begins on one page, say six letters, then onto the next one.

I feel that these empty spaces in between provide room for my thoughts, and in an exhibition they spark the viewers’ own.

Hyelim Cha, An Aerialist, mixed media, variable dimensions, 2011
Hyelim Cha, An Aerialist, mixed media, variable dimensions, 2011

In terms of the architectural layout of a space, I am interested in the East Asian wooden panels that date back to China in the 3rd century BCE and spread to Korea in the 7th century AD.

Traditionally used to divide a large room, to prevent drafts or for privacy, these folding screens are still part of the interior design of many homes today. Decorated with motifs drawn from plant-life or outdoor scenery, they look like fragments of nature brought inside.

My writings draw a parallel with my art, like a journal of my thoughts on paper rather than in the exhibition space.

The words and pictures I jot down in my sketchbook are therefore often a starting point for my research, and points of silence or suspense are important motifs in my work too. The ideas for my artworks often spring from particular words; as well as British drama and cinema.

Hyelim Cha, Metallurgy, mixed media, variable dimensions, 2013
Hyelim Cha, Metallurgy, mixed media, variable dimensions, 2013

Tango, Poems and Tumbleweed

If you could define your practice as a literary genre, what would it be?

Perhaps a long poem, not linear, that you can read from any page, with titles derived from pop culture or television series. I also like the idea of the comic book where image goes together with text. Similarly I work across two media, painting and installation -often beginning with the canvas (the image) which guides me to my installation work (the text) as a kind of visual script in the space.

Tango with the prime number: indivisible number is about these subliminal spaces, when our brain absorbs countless information day to day, like a cartoon where we process transitions between scenes image after image, as a continuum.

Hyelim Cha, tango rule of prime number, oil on canvas, retractable steel structure variable dimensions, 2013
Hyelim Cha, tango rule of prime number, oil on canvas, retractable steel structure variable dimensions, 2013

In our minds there is this blank space between these cuts, but in such a short lapse of time that we don’t notice it.

The title ‘Tango’ refers to these objects that seem to be in a dance. Tango is also a music genre that involves silence between people, glimpses of quiet so discreet we barely sense them. It all happens within milliseconds, almost imperceptibly.

The idea of ‘living fossil’ in your video work ‘Tumbleweed’ recalls this notion of time.

Yes, the idea for this video sprung out of my impressions of South Korea’s economic and urban growth that happened so quickly and intensely. I wanted to address these tremendous changes that have affected our cities, our urban ‘ecosystems’, within such a short period of time.

Hyelim Cha, Tumbleweed, Single Channel Video, 2018
Hyelim Cha, Tumbleweed, Single Channel Video, 2018

The ‘living fossil’ means essentially a living being that still exists today: if we apply that to Korean society, older traditions live on like living fossils.

They are traces from the past being kept, despite rapid growth: lineage, ancestry, family, genetics, all these ties that make up our identity are disrupted by the pressures of cities where communities may be at risk.

How about outdoor spaces, art displays in cities for example?

Yes, public art is key for me to engage with the people on a local level, and my art addresses different agencies within communities. The objects in Metallurgy are made of different assembled pieces as a metaphor of the community. Different individuals, becoming one, are brought together.

Hyelim Cha, Solo Exhibition ‘Paraxis: Intermediate Story’ installation view
Hyelim Cha, Solo Exhibition ‘Paraxis: Intermediate Story’ installation view

For this installation piece I collected industrial goods and applied coating on each item. Initially they were not connected, until I mixed materials and juxtapose these objects to insert stories that link them together and therefore, re-create this sense of community.

Alongside Buddhism, does spirituality feed into your art in other ways?

I feel that spirituality seeps through certain spaces, through their vibes and atmospheres. Each place has its own aura which might move us, it may be soothing or on the contrary make us feel restrained. Fortune telling and shamanism appeal to me too.

I believe that the artist is a kind of spiritual medium between us and the divine -an archaeologist digging out clues from the past and our surroundings to cast more light on ourselves.


Opening January || Exhibition January 17th – 9th of February, 2020

Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Kottbusser Damm 10, 10999 Berlin

Author: Alexandra Etienne