Capturing his every subject in their most pure and vulnerable form, using negative film, Koh Sang Woo is a visual artist who consolidates photography, performance, and painting – in an effort to present the audience with the opportunity to see the world in reverse, and reconsider the way in which we look at others and understand ourselves.
You were born in Seoul in a family of artists. What attracted you to the US ?
When I was a young student, Art education in Korea had mainly focused on technique rather than idea. Realism was large part of art education based on hours of daily drawing, painting, and training. I realized the US had a different Art education system. After finding out creating 20 artworks portfolio was the way to enter college, that immediately attracted me. It required far more creativity. I started to build ideas and personality to create portfolio. I wanted to study art in US.
You graduated from the Chicago School of Art Institute in 2001 and double-majored in Photography and Performance. Tell us about your first steps as an artist based in New York.
Right after graduation at SAIC, I was picked up by a high profile art gallery in Chicago. They helped me to reach early acclaim, as the youngest artist to participate in the Armory Show for 3 straight years. However, Chicago felt too conservative and small for me.
When I had to live to New York, I would ask myself, “What is acceptable in society?”, these questions lead to the visual storytelling of opinions. No longer an outsider to the city, each of my works now showcase a combination of color, words, and objects. This translation of mixed media represents my own transformation to NY.
New York has made me realize many things, including my realization of the human race, not defined from what part of the world I was born in. Without forming any relationships to identify myself, I trace back isolation and fear, pain and sadness, anxiety and loss of existence, and the social aspects of the times of confusing identity, and draw the trip of healing, overcoming social wounds as a stranger.
Koreans are known for their strong attachment to their specific culture and rich history. On your side, you have travelled the world, met American, Asian, and European artists. How have these travels influenced your art?
When you are born into a country you are shaped by your environment to a certain point in your life. I have been fortunate enough to meet and build relationships with people all over the world. This connection has shaped my views and thoughts throughout my formative years. You become the puzzle piece of different cultures that create the whole picture.
You are always looking for new techniques in your art. Tell us about the blue technique you have developed in your photographic art and the reference to Man Ray?
The reference to Man Ray is based on how one’s thought to try something new and innovative leads to a signature. Man Ray was one of the first artists to cross pollinate from painting/photo/ representation of thought through simple forms.
The solarization technique was such an innovative move to push boundaries on a medium. I greatly respect this body of work. The blue inverse technique came when I was focusing on analog photography in darkroom and when I was introduced to computer programs for the first time. Photoshop was just being introduced when I was in high school. Technology advancements have been so rapid for the past 2 decades but when I started my work, it was a new element for many.
How do you integrate live performances into your art?
Most of my works start in my mind as a performance. Layering pieces, color, movement and capturing the essence as a still shot. There is a little theatrical attribute to most of my work from the early 2000’s where I was starting to fine tune the movements on film.
Butterflies and flowers are very present in you art. Supporting nature preservation has been important to you as an artist. Tell us more there?
Butterflies go through a process to become a full grown butterfly. These stages of metamorphosis, I think we can all relate too. Growing physically and mentally. Flowers represent so many different feelings and what each culture represents flowers to mean. I don’t think I can explain in depth of what each form represents as it really is part of the whole piece. Not just a symbol to represent a thought or feeling.
The five words that best describe your art?
Love, Life, Passion, Connection, Inspiration
Some media have described you as an “engaged” artist defending freedom of speech and the right to be different. Does that inspire you?
As an artist or as a member of the human race, I believe we need to defend and stand for what we believe in. Against the grain or not, freedom is something that needs to be defined and defended for all of us to have peace. We wouldn’t have great artists in any field if we didn’t fight to be heard, keeping the ideas and challenges, evolving.
Everytime I feel like I need to voice an opinion, I create a self portrait. Safety of many tested through verbal attacks. Only ability I felt was safe; occupy my thoughts by returning to self portraits. Expressions reflected through the use of my body as a canvas.
In which city can we expect to see your next solo exhibition ?
Amsterdam, Nederland. October 2020.
Where can we see some of you work online, are these for sale ?
Lately, Korean culture, aside from music and K-pop, is experiencing global appreciation with movies such as “Burning” (2018) and “Parasite” (2019). What thoughts does that inspire in you?
I think this goes back to freedom of expression and having the outlet to export these great ideas to a broader global audience. I am an avid film lover and and I love how fellow Korean artist/ directors/ screenwriters are creating a new genres of movies coming out of South Korea. S Korea is becoming the epicenter for “new” ideas and genres for the global stage and I think this movement will be stronger in the future.
If you were to name one mentor who has inspired you in your life and path as an artist, who would that be?
My father. He has been creating art for the past 5 decades and the passion I see in his work is undeniable. He is currently in his 70’s and still creates artworks everyday. His resilience and dedication to his art/craft is admirable.