Yunchul Kim is a Korean composer and artist based in Berlin, whose work focuses on the artistic potential of fluid dynamics. He creates installations using ferrofluids that explore the properties of matter and evoke natural processes, whether on a cosmic level or inside an imaginary body. Kim works at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and has co-founded, with art historian Lucía Ayala and astrophysicist Dr. Jaime Forero, the research group Fluid Skies, focused on exploring the fluid materiality of the cosmos from the perspectives of astrophysics, art, history and philosophy. Yunchul Kim’s project Effulge won the Third Prize at the VIDA 15.0 Awards.
In your work, you address both physical and data flows. What draws your interest towards fluidity and impermanence?
My personal interest and my fascination in fluidity is not just about the physical phenomenon (the fact that something is flowing) nor about its metaphorical aspect (the idea of dynamism), but rather about the potentiality of certain materials in physical reality. Of course, if you work with the properties of something fluid, there is a lot that can be expressed in a formal language. For instance, you can take the metaphor of impermanence which you refer to. I like this word for its particular meaning in Buddhism and the fact that when you observe something that is constantly changing, you reach a point where there are no more images to create in your mind. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, everything flows. But changing also means not staying, not being able to hold onto a particular state, decaying or even stopping. Therefore, it encompasses every meaning of dynamics, which also includes something not moving. So, for me it is very important to work with fluidity as a means of exploring inside materials. It is this particular condition of matter that interests and fascinates me.
Some of your works refer to an imaginary body (of which the artwork is an organ) or to processes in nature and the cosmos. What inspires these apparent changes of scale? How should the viewer relate to them, one dealing with the intimate and the other with the sublime?
I shift between these scales because they imply different subjects and a changing approach to reality. The reason why I choose the metaphor of an imaginary organ is that I want to introduce in the piece some factors which are related to symptoms, not just process. This allows me to interpret matter with the senses and not just by creating images or symbolic meanings. It is an important factor in my work, the concept of a symptom.
This is also important in the sense that the piece is connected to its environment, in a certain way it reacts to it and establishes a relationship with the audience. I am concerned about how the audience feels my work, because for me there are no rules when experiencing the artwork. I conceive it as a potential object, and therefore its properties and agents of relationship must be open to feedback in the exhibition context. Usually, viewers expect to “read” the piece, they want to understand what it is about, what does it tell. Yet, for me art is not about reading or understanding in the first place, but rather about experiencing, and for this reason I introduce some symptomatic factors into my work that allow for a different kind of experience, one that activates the senses.
The creation of metamaterials suggests an unsettling ability to control natural phenomena, while their fluidity seems to contradict it. How do you balance control and chaos in your work?
For me this polarity between control and chaos is important because it creates an interesting paradox, and it forces me to look for a solution. The work is therefore not driven by aesthetic or decorative reasons, but rather by the need to find a solution that allows me to handle this unstable equilibrium. I must find some physical solution, a mechanical device or a program that helps me control this instability. This usually translates into problems in the exhibition context, because sometimes the work is not stable enough. That leads me to think about different forms of building the pieces, different devices and systems. In providing new solutions to newly generated problems, the artwork keeps developing.
So, every time I install my work it becomes a challenge. We were talking about scales: this is a recurring problem because I usually start working on a piece in my studio and there the scale is smaller. When I develop the initial idea into the final piece, usually I work at a bigger scale, and then nature is not always 1:1, so if I make something twice as big as the first model, then maybe I need to create a structure that is four times more stable. So in the end it becomes an engineering problem.
Sound is an important element in your work. How do you incorporate it into your pieces, do you consider it beforehand or is it mostly a consequence of the processes involved in the artwork?
Sound is very important for me, it’s like my mother tongue. It allows me to perceive and conceptualize space and time. So it is not simply about making sounds or music, it becomes a sixth sense which which I observe my surroundings. For this reason, it is typically involved in my work, while it usually can’t be heard directly. I work with fluids, and sound is a fluid in a way. I become familiar with certain kinds of waves or fluctuations in the fluids that allow me to handle this phenomenon in a different way than scientists usually do.
You co-founded Fluid Skies, a collective that aims to “explore the fluid materiality of the cosmos”. What role does it play in your work?
Through the experience of being part of Fluid Skies I have learned a lot. I meet regularly with Lucia and Jaime and we discuss and share a lot of ideas about how we are working with matter, and what it implies. In art history, the concept of materiality is related to the artwork and it is different to the meaning that “matter” has in physics. This generates interesting discussions: for instance, I search for the truth of the matter that I am working with, there is a certain metaphysical aspect to it, while in physics they think about particles, the smallest elements they can find, and then build on that. This exchange of ideas between different people and different disciplines helps me understand my experiments. Furthermore, Fluid Skies is not only about producing artworks, but also about producing knowledge: we publish our own books, write papers, organize workshop and so on. It is a platform in which we share our ideas and extend our knowledge in different ways.
Fluid Skies promotes a “fluid approach” to (astro)physic processes. How does this interdisciplinary perspective inform your work?
Art history is an important source of inspiration for my work: I am very interested in the way artists related to nature during the Renaissance, and also Mannerism and Romanticism. Many artists tried to understand nature like a scientist, but they distorted the image of nature in different ways. This kind of approach to an understanding of the environment is something that I find very interesting, and it has helped me to discuss my ideas with professionals from other fields to approach this kind of knowledge. It is not enough for me to just build and exhibit my pieces, I want to explore other areas of knowledge. At the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, where I am working now, I develop artistic projects with Roman Kirschner and we sometimes discuss what is artistic research. Is it art as research, or art about research? In this sense, it is interesting that many artists work together with a scientist or theorist to open up their creativity to other fields. But this is not new: the history of music is also the history of engineering, because in order to build an instrument, there has to be an understanding between the luthier (an engineer or craftsman), the composer and the player.
At the same time, the collaboration between artists and scientists results very often in a very illustrative or even decorative art. Or science is used as a sort of intellectual decoration for an artwork. So I think that it is important that artists and scientists can collaborate on the same level, engaged in a conversation. And, furthermore, an artist can not only receive from science, but also give to science. When we meet with Lucía and Jaime we engage in this kind of positive and constructive communication. I have also had good experiences when meeting scientists: nowadays, scientists don’t experiment so much, they create simulations and therefore are usually surprised when they visit my studio and find an experimental laboratory. They expect a more “artsy” environment but instead they find a chemistry lab.
This also happens when I open this aspect of my work to the public. Once I had a solo show in which I tried to show my laboratory, so that the visitors might approach the process of my work. It was interesting to do it, but then I wonder if this is a good idea, because I don’t want to give clues to people, to have them focus on the making or the technology behind it. I’d like the visitors of an exhibition to simply experience my work, just as when you watch a film: you experience it, you don’t need to be constantly reminded of how it was made. In another show I did last year in Vienna I worked with a project group in the University and this time we only showed the setups, not the final pieces. There was a lot of lab instruments and the visitors had to figure out what the final work would be like. In this manner I did not have to establish comparisons between these two worlds, the lab and the exhibition space, which was interesting, and it was also a sort of fiction because instead of using expensive lab equipment I created setups with cheap materials which were in most cases just everyday tools that were used in a different context.
In his novel Solaris, Stanislav Lem narrates how scientists fail to understand or communicate with a living planet whose fluid surface eludes any form of description or categorization. Would you describe your artworks in these terms, as autopoietic systems that avoid interpretation?
I like Lem’s novel very much because it makes me think about science fiction in a different way: it is not about some fantastic future or the special effects in films, but about what it is to deal with fluid or unstable matter. I am not sure if I would call the system embedded in the artworks autopoietic. It is mainly about controlling a physical element using an homestatic algorithm. Homeostasis in a important concept for me, which takes us back to your previous question about the balance between control and chaos.
Given the references to living systems in your work, how would you define artificial life?
For me, artificial life is a metaphor that we learn from nature, that is inspired by it and leads us to ask ourselves what is life? In the field of artificial life, researchers do not only explore life as we know it, but also life as it might be, and therefore they are extending the meaning of life. To many people, artificial life is a negative concept, because they create a naive opposition between natural and artificial, but I do not agree with this sort of dualism. Something artificial can stem from a natural process, for instance I can use a neuronal network to create an algorithm for one of my pieces. Therefore, we must observe this concept to see what life can be and also how does our relationship with technology evolve, because while it sometimes may not be good for us, it is certainly necessary in our lives.