Saturday, January 26, 2013

Ephemera and Endurance: Installation by Vivian Hyelim Kim

Vivian Hyelim Kim, Visual Diary, 2013, detail. Installed at Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Author photo.
During my current residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, where I've been working on a book, I've been lucky to meet a working installation artist. I've never really understood the practice of ephemeral art—the "why" especially—so I've been delighted to learn from  Vivian Hyelim Kimwhose work has opened my eyes.

Kim's cutting worktable at VCCA.
I had looked at Kim's website and seen pictures of the magical work she's done with paper cut-outs, building installations from shapes she cuts at random from all kinds of paper, then arranges into beautiful fantasies of color, light, and, one feels, breath. In her studio I found traces of that work (she continues to cut, accumulating ever more of her structured shapes in plastic bags; she can never have enough when she needs them for the next project). 

But now Kim's up to something new. Pinned and taped with masking tape to the wall were all manner of weeds and seeds, the detritus and prizes of the forests, fields, and cow meadows that surround VCCA's bucolic campus. Each tiny arrangement of natural materials includes one man-made scrap: a cash-register tape, a tea bag, the folded corner of a page from an old book. The work is three-dimensional, tactile, and above all, ephemeral—doomed to swift decrepitude even as it is in the process of becoming.

Vivian Hyelim Kim, 1.17.13. (lichens and fungus) Installed at VCCA. Author photo.
Kim, who arrived at the colony just before the New Year, considers this work a visual diary, with a visual note marking each day of her stay in Virginia, which lasts through mid-February. She will continue composing her entries from native materials. When she moves on at the end of the month, to colonies in Minnesota and then Wyoming, this installation will be given away, abandoned, or consigned to the compost heap. 

As Kim moves from place to place, traveling westward, eventually to Korea, where her parents live, she is also keeping a daily photographic diary, but one unrelated to this work. Eventually she will compile her photos into a book, a book that records her relationship to the presence of beauty every day of the year.

I readily confess that my instinctive reaction was that this wall of pretty arrangements seemed tentative and slight. Why bother? What could give it significance? But those two questions should always be asked consciously, for they're useless as long as they remain rhetorical. Kim's installation provoked worthwhile insights about the nature of art-making both in the grand scheme, and at this moment of 2013.
Materials for use in installation, in Vivian Hyelim Kim's studio at VCCA;
First: For Kim, traveling unburdened by a large kit of artist's materials, she knows she will have to forage for the central elements of her work. Her studio, then, is not the exclusive realm of art-making, where she remains shut off with her equipment and ideas. She's been gleaning in the wild lands around the colony, looking for interesting materials with possibilities that she cannot always predict (Will it change color? Will it disintegrate?—Will it give her a rash?). 

These naturalizing trips are essentially opportunities for her to go outside and observe the landscape up close. She touches and visually examines matter that she's never seen before, even common leaves or twigs that we rarely pause to focus on. The installation materials are in themselves objects of beauty and wonder that invite her own investments of contemplative time. Though Kim will arrange them into a larger scheme, each element compels her attention as if it were itself an artwork. When she finally places all of them on the wall, each is removed from the nature's visual noise so its beauty and curiosity, now isolated, can be shared. 

I was struck that Kim does not gather materials in order to transform them into something else, as one uses charcoal or clay to make art. These materials are not modified at all, but only by arrangement become the art work. The point is enjoyment of the materials for their own aesthetic qualities.

Vivian Hyelim Kim, 1.18.13, 2013. Installation
at VCCA. Author photo.
Next, the process of collection has become a communal activity. Once her fellow artists and writers learned what she was doing here, Kim began receiving from all quarters gifts of materials that her colleagues thought beautiful, novel, and potentially useful for her piece. Thus, she had transferred the process of looking to everyone around her—the central purpose of the installation was accomplished before the installation could be said to exist in a material way at all. Everyone around her has become involved in examining the details of nature on their daily walks, slowing down to perceive what they had not taken time for before—or actively seeking out curious or exquisite to contribute to Kim's installation. 

I found this community effort beautifully simple, as when elementary school children bring to their teacher items gleaned in a nature walk. Everything is acknowledged as useful and special, as worth of study: in this case, as having the properties of art. Anyone who thinks about the project and then studies a leaf with renewed curiosity becomes part of the artwork, or begins thinking like an artist.

As the work grows more participatory, in what sense, I wondered, did Kim consider it a diary? In writing a diary, most people distinguish one day from another by noting events that stand out, like a birthday, a holiday, or the day on which an unexpected or longed-for event occurs. Nothing in the series so far would seem noteworthy in a way that invite particular memories. Nothing outstanding marks New Year's Day, for example.

Pinecone "blossom" in Kim's VCCA studio, January 2013.
The artist's point, of course, is continuity. Time can be measured in many ways, and one is to be where you are when you are, observing your environment and its beauties. This is not a diary that will recall events, happiness, or disappointment, but that one coexists with beauty every day of the year. The work is contemplative at its core. It is on the one hand grounded in the pleasure of immediacy and in the inevitability of decay. Even as the passage of days extends The physical presence of the artwork, its composite natural materials are dropping seeds and spores, growing brittle, flaking, or decomposing before our eyes. By the end of Kim's six-week residency, the entries of the first week will have slid farther into ruin than when they already were when installed. The palpability of physical failure, of dust-to-dust as an embodied theme, gives significance to this casually taped-up array of straggling weeds and crumbling fungi.

A final noteworthy point about Kim's ephemeral art, is that it avoids many of the expensive impediments to art making that plague young, creative people. The assumption that fine art is durable art is the backbone of a system of endless expense for people who too often have little money to invest in their careers. At the dinner table at VCCA or any art colony, one hears repeatedly about the dilemmas of artists who push their pennies between a room to live in and a studio across town. Add to these the costs of documentation, framing, showing, shipping, and storing work, and it's evident that there are good artists who cannot practice professionally for purely financial reasons.

Vivian Hyelim Kim is a peripatetic artist who travels very light, who thinks about the weight of her luggage and how to avoid airline fees. The power of observation, and her willingness to dissolve into the present are gifts that travel well and for free. 

When I wondered what Kim would consider the "whole" of such an installation as her visual diary, it finally occurred to me that she is the whole. Her own ability to stand in one place and imagine the past and the future in the beauty of the present moment—that is its unity. Dust to dust, beginning and end, yet focused with every thought and sensation in the excellent here.

Materials for use in installation, in Vivian Hyelim Kim's studio at VCCA; 
experimenting with bittersweet as a pigment.

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