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From Rebirth To Transcendence: An Interview With Book Artist Jukhee Kwon

From Rebirth To Transcendence: An Interview With Book Artist Jukhee Kwon

Picture of Ellen Von Weigand
Updated: 28 January 2016
South Korean artist Jukhee Kwon’s work is a testament to processes of creation, destruction and rebirth. By cutting and slicing old books, she uses them to forge surprising constellations, which serve as organic references to all the figurations of their original matter.


I’ve seen several artists who use books in unusual ways in their work, and yet your sculptures are entirely unique. How did you arrive at this method of working?


By constantly experimenting – as an artist, you have to be willing to explore, to try different ideas and take risks. For example, when I tear or fold the paper, hidden possibilities can be revealed. When handling the material, I find the spirit of the book comes alive. Discovering an abandoned book is the first part of the process, then. I often imagine its past and its time with its former owner, as I’m interested in connecting its past with the moment where I begin to cut the pages in the book. I have to be very precise and I cut them line by line and by hand with a knife.


How do you approach each new work? Can you describe the typical process?


The spine of the book is definitely the root of the work and when the pages unfold, they are like branches. This is what I mean when I suggest there is a raw organic energy that exudes when the piece unfolds just before its completion. Paper is a natural material and I can imagine the book’s past up to the point where it was once a living orgasm – the tree from which it came.


When I cut the book, I still make sure that all the paper is connected to the spine and I don’t use any glue or tape. The work is created purely through the process of disciplined slices. I also cut underneath the words, never through the words, so they can still be read.


What role does the content of the books play in the artwork? How do you choose the books that your work with?


Having respect for the author of the book can be important, as I do have admiration for the effort and work the author has put into writing and creating the book. Sometimes the content can be significant, but it really depends on the text and it is not always necessary to a concept. As for my choice of books, I search amongst rubbish bins and recycle bins for those that have been thrown away. I sometimes go to libraries and ask them for books that they no longer need. I collect old discarded books extensively, just as any other artist would collect their materials.


You have a complex and international background, having moved from Seoul to London to Italy. How does this migratory personal history play into your practice?


When you live in different countries, you tend to put down roots, so I would say that any extensive time spent in certain place changes your habits. My artistic approach and ideas are responses to that change, and how I express myself is a response to the culture I live in. When I was in Seoul, I also worked as a teacher, so I was exhausting enormous amounts of energy. While in London, I started to receive many new ideas and renewed energy. Now I live in Italy, I find myself digesting and reflecting on those ideas so they can produce the works you see now.


You say that your sculptures explore ideas of the destruction and recreation of nature through art. Can you explain this idea?


As I mentioned, the spine of the book is also the root and the paper like branches. When the book expands, it reminds me of a tree and because paper is a natural material I imagine the book is developing into its next lifecycle. When I was in South Korea, I started to become very interested in the idea of the cycle of life. In the final stages of work, when the pages of the book are gently pulled out from it, for me it becomes like a flower breaking its bud, like rain breaks the surface of the water or how skin has to break to give birth. The book returns to resembling a tree, which is why I often create pieces that cascade in columns. To me they look like trunks of trees. Also, because paper comes essentially from wood, which was once a tree, the work becomes the rebirth of something that formerly belonged to nature. The process of cutting may destroy an abandoned book, but also it releases a new energy, a new form of life.



The action of assembling your sculptures has been described as performance. Do you see it this way?


Yes, absolutely. It is a personal performance for myself, which also acts as a meditation. In Asia, prayer and your commitment to prayer are important. When you pray you must have clarity and concentration. For example, sometimes a prayer might take five hours of bowing – just one prayer! You have to focus, so when I start to slice through the pages of the book, I apply the same kind of discipline. If I wish to transmit my imagination onto the book, I need clarity. Choosing the right book at the right time helps my expression, but the act of cutting requires commitment and discipline.


Who are some of your influences?


I would say Gustav Metzger and John Latham. With Metzger, I have been particularly interested in his Auto-destruction work. I am fascinated by the splashing of hydrochloric acid on sheets of plastic where the results last less than twenty minutes. It gave me inspiration and an insight into the relationship between action and result. Latham’s radial innovation Still and Chew, was also very interesting. As we can see from Still and Chew, he rejected the tradition of the book with an extremely violent action, that is by chewing all the pages of books he borrowed from college and spitting them into a glass bottle, then returning it to the college.


As Metzger mentioned (and I agree), it is true that destruction inevitably evolves into construction. So I have been developing my book destruction work by researching and observing their footprints.



By Ellen Von Wiegand