What does insignificant mean to you? Do you make light of small things, regarding them as minor mistakes or common events in daily life? As Heinrich’s law shows ‘Insignificance is never insignificant,’ observing and discovering insignificance beautifies a person, making them unique. Thus, the Sookmyung Times (SMT) met junk artist, Kim Keuna (KIM), who has moved people by reinventing the way people see the shabby cigarette butt.
SMT You transferred to the College of Fine Art at Sookmyung after entering Engineering College at Hanyang University. What made you change your mind?
KIM Like most students in Korea, I entered Engineering College regardless of my aptitude for the field. Naturally, my grade point average was poor since I didn’t have any interest in the area. I had difficulty learning and making computer programs because I even couldn’t work spreadsheet programs. Pondering my life, I realized I enjoyed art classes as a kid. Thus, I retook the college entrance test again. People around me were shocked and opposed my decision. However, it was so evident that I didn’t belong in engineering that they finally stood behind me. The College of Fine Art at Sookmyung suited me perfectly. It offered a competitive infrastructure compared with other universities.
SMT What made you decide to work with cigarette butts? Do you usually pay attention to insignificant objects?
KIM During my undergraduate studies, Professor Lee Sukju gave us an assignment. We were to find unusual material and leave the regular square canvas. Instead of working with brushes and paints, the traditional way of painting, he encouraged us to broaden our view. I started to use cigarette packages and cigarette butts. Also, as I broadened my identity and usefulness, I felt a connection to cigarette butts. Since cigarette butts are dirty, smelly, and insignificant material, I wanted to turn them into something people like. Moreover, I think every experience can be the foundation of artwork, so I didn’t want to leave out any insignificant things.
SMT Turning cigarette butts into art must have required a tremendous amount of time and effort.
KIM Yes. At first, I had to put all my effort into collecting cigarette butts. After collecting 9,000 cigarette butts, I had to wash them off with detergent and let them dry. This process is crucial as it removes impurities such as amylase to ease dyeing with vivid colors. I used to dry my cigarette butts in the yard on Sookmyung Women’s University’s Second Campus. Sometimes, people around me tried to talk me out of doing this hard work, but nowadays, I am pretty adept to it. The best place and time for collecting cigarette butts is the area around a university campus at dawn, just before street cleaners start work. Also, rather than starting a piece after collecting all necessary cigarette butts, I gradually collect them as I work on the art piece.
SMT Are there any special reasons most of your artwork replicate animated characters such as Shrek and penguins?
KIM The characters I create are like self-portraits. I have drawn penguins since undergraduate school, and the animal is not only cute but also I see myself in it. After deciding to use cigarette butts as art material, I naturally started to create penguins. I usually tell my story through the penguins. I can represent my various feelings about human relationships and friendships through my work. Especially, as a disliked character, Shrek shares a common image with a cigarette butt. In addition, Shrek later meets a friend and his future spouse, Fiona, after going through change. His change is similar to the change I went through after using transformed cigarette butts as an art material. It’s great to see people interpreting my artwork in various ways. Interpretation is always open to everyone.
SMT What are you planning for the future? Are you planning to use other special materials?
KIM Often, I desire new materials. I don’t want to be trapped, but no idea has yet come to mind. Still, the public expects me to create artwork made of cigarette butts, so I’d like to break this frame before being labelled. These days, I am considering greatly for a future. I am planning a doctoral program to develop my professionalism. Moreover, I want to exhibit my work abroad. Last year, I had an exhibition in France, thanks to a French curator, who accidently saw my artwork. There I gained attention through my live-painting, which is a sort of performance art. I replicated the Eiffel Tower with cigarette butts on the street. Although I don’t have any specific future plan, I hope my exhibitions spark active interactive communication with their audiences. Think of it as having a drink, playing games and talking at the exhibition hall.
SMT In a word how would you describe what SMU means to you? Do you have any advice for SMU students?
KIM For me, Sookmyung is home. Physically, I was literally a constant figure on campus. I spent most of my time there until I graduated from graduate school last summer. In addition, mentally, I am always content and at ease at Sookmyung. What’s more, just as my parents influence me greatly, and as I mentioned earlier, professors at Sookmyung had great influence on my life as an artist. Lastly, it is my hope that students at Sookmyung make new relations with friends from different majors through elective courses or club activities. Those things helped me to broaden my perspective by accepting different points of views.
- MA in Visual Art, Sookmyung Women’s University
- BA in Fine Art, Sookmyung Women’s University
- 2013 Invitation Exhibition at Bucheon International Comics Festival
- 2012 1st Solo Exhibition ‘無用之用’
- 2012 Junk Art Contest Organized by Korean
- Ministry of Environment -Grand Prize