One of the rising stars of the Asian art scene, Korean artist Osang Gwon makes alluring, figurative sculptures from an accumulation of detail pictures of his subjects, and riveting photographs of sculptural installations of mediated consumer products. Gwon has shown his work around the world, collaborated on a record cover with British band Keane, and created commissioned projects for Fendi and Nike. We caught up with Gwon at his Arario New York show to discuss his unique way of making art and the fresh ideas behind it.
Flavorpill: How did you develop your photographic style of making sculpture?
Osang Gwon: I started in 1998, in my third year of college. I debuted my first photo-sculpture in 1999. I majored in sculpture, which usually means making stone and metal works. Working with heavy materials hurt my back, so I wanted to come up with a process that was light. I thought of photography — it’s paper and it’s light.
FP: What materials do you use?
OG: At first, I just used photographs; I assembled the photos in a paper-mâché style and the sculpture was hollow. As the sculptures got bigger, I began using a wire armature for support. But it was still hollow, which was problematic. Whenever people touched the work it went in, and it was hard to pull back out. So I started to use Styrofoam as a base for the imagery. I glue the photos in place and use epoxy resin to varnish and seal the final work.
FP: Where do you find your subjects?
OG: My earliest subjects were the people around me — my friends, my brother and sister. I wanted to work with subjects that wouldn’t get angry at having to stand for three hours while being photographed. As I’ve become more known, interviewed, and reproduced in magazines, a number of celebrities have contacted me and I’ve actually worked with them, as well.
FP: How do you photograph the subjects, and how long does it take?
OG: It really depends on the piece. It usually takes three or four hours to photograph every part of the body, but at times, it’s taken as long as half a day. I photograph the part of the body that I feel is the most important part of the sculpture first, and then I work from there until it’s completely documented.
FP: What type of equipment do you use?
OG: I used to shoot film, but I started shooting digital imagery in 2007. I develop it in a professional film lab. I usually use 5 x 7-inch prints that I cut up and assemble. For smaller sculptures, I use 3 x 5-inch prints, and for the new, larger-than-life works in my New York show, I used 8 x 10-inch prints.
FP: How do you make the body for the photographic skin? You said that it’s Styrofoam. Do you carve that? How do you determine the volume?
OG: Yes, I carve it. I studied sculpture, so carving is not difficult for me. I used to take measurements, but now I just ask for the subject’s height and make the body by eye. Then I put the photographs in orderly piles and work from one part of the body to the next, covering it with the images.
FP: How long does it take to assemble the entire piece?
OG: When I used to make the work alone, it took up to two months. Now I have assistants. It doesn’t really cut the time that much, because I do many of the things myself. Maybe it takes a month now, but it’s hard to tell because I work on multiple sculptures at the same time.
FP: What influences the subject’s pose?
OG: I look at a lot of ads and magazines. A lot of the poses in commercial sources are based on traditional poses in sculpture and painting. Lately, I’ve also been looking at classical sculptures for inspiration.
FP: Do the subjects pick their own clothes?
OG: Sometimes I tell them what to wear, and sometimes they decide. At other times, I buy clothes or get sponsors to provide the outfits.
FP: Are you aiming at reality or fiction?
OG: The early works were more distorted than the ones I’m making now. That said, I’ve never aimed at making a totally realistic figure. It’s always going to turn out differently, and that’s in line with my series title, Deodorant Type.
FP: What does Deodorant Type mean?
OG: For me, it means covering something up and changing its odor. It implies not showing the exact thing, but transforming it. I got the title idea after seeing an advertisement for Nivea, where they used a Middle Eastern model to sell deodorant in Korea. What they didn’t realize is that Asians don’t usually have a problem with perspiration. Because so few people have that problem, we think of it as something serious and have surgery to correct it. The company trying to sell the deodorant didn’t fully understand Asians; they didn’t do their research. The ad campaign didn’t hit the target. In making this work, I want the finished figure to be off a bit, too.
FP: Are you commenting on your generation, or a particular aspect of contemporary society?
OG: It’s a very important question. I’m commenting on contemporary society, which is filtered through the advertisements of today. My Flat series uses products, such as watches, make-up, and jewelry, that are cut out of magazines, set up with a small wire, and photographed as a massive installation. I see the process as sculptural. There is a play between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional in both bodies of work.
FP: Did the project with Keane differ from making your other work?
OG: I don’t see a big difference, but I did have to spend a lot of nights working on the project because there was a short production period.
FP: How did the collaboration come about?
OG: They saw my work when it was exhibited at the Manchester Art Gallery and contacted Arario Gallery in New York. I was in Seoul at the time. We met in London, where I photographed the three band members, and then I made the sculptures back in my studio in Seoul. After I completed the sculptures, they bought them and used them in the cover design of their album Perfect Symmetry.
FP: Were you surprised when you saw the front cover? After so much work, they only used elements of each piece on it.
OG: At first I was disappointed, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was good. It’s not so obvious. People are curious about what it is and discover the rest of the works inside the CD foldout. It led me to working on collaborative projects with Fendi and Nike. I’m working with Nike now on a new project that involves famous athletes.
FP: What inspired the idea of the chainsaw girl in your current show?
OG: Advertisements from Diesel and lots of music videos of women touting chainsaws. It’s a contemporary interpretation of women warriors. I was very intrigued by the pose. I put it in this show because there are also sculptures of men that are bound with ropes.
FP: For this show, there also seems to be a new play of scale, both larger and smaller. Is this a new development in your work?
OG: The space in New York is very different from the open spaces, where I have normally exhibited. Here, the ceiling is lower, and it’s more difficult to light the whole view. There are groupings, but the show is more focused on the individual sculptures. People have to go closer to look at the work, and I feel that that’s something’s new with this show.
FP: What about the relationship between the large and small figures that are similar in appearance? Is that playing with a surreal, psychological, dreamlike idea?
OG: It’s very consistent with my idea of exploring the contemporary through magazines, where people and objects are both big and small. You can think of it as surreal, but it’s really open to the imagination.
Osang Gwon: Deodorant Type is on view at Arario New York through October 24.