Installation view of “Mother Spill,” Commonwealth & Council, Los Angeles, 2014. Photo: Heather Rasmussen, Courtesy the artist and Commonwealth & Council

Body of Work: A Conversation with Young Joon Kwak

Young Joon Kwak, a Los Angeles-based artist working in sculpture, performance, and video, reimagines the form, function, and materiality of objects in order to propose alternative ways of seeing and understanding bodies, as well as physical and social spaces. Rather than closed or static, Kwak sees these entities as inclusive, fluid, and open-ended, their shapes (and meanings) not determined, but in flux, capable of change and transformation. Much like an actor inhabiting a character, or a quiet individual who dons a mask and becomes a lightning rod of energy, Kwak’s work is chameleon-like—it changes color and appearance by changing the wavelength of light reflected off its skin. This material transformation serves to elevate the mutable (as opposed to an ideal) body to something worthy of belief.

Object or performance—Kwak is also the founder of Mutant Salon, a roving beauty salon/platform for experimental performance collaborations—these works consistently challenge us with unusual beauty, taking over the spaces they inhabit with fearless abandon and breaking boundaries of every kind. While continuing traditions, they forge new paths—formally and culturally—through joyful expression and critical discourse premised on nurturing and belonging. Kwak’s work makes you want to dance, and it allows us all to be ourselves without shame.

Hermaphroditus’s Reveal I, 2017. Fiberglass, cast resin, and gold enamel, 42 x 28 x 33 in. Photo: Ruben Diaz, Courtesy the artist and Commonwealth & Council

Joshua Reiman: I am curious about your view of being a transgender artist at this point in time and how you view your role in the discipline of sculpture. Do you have a philosophy of making work about bodies in transition?
Young Joon Kwak:
I’m a material girl. I love exploring how materials can be manipulated or cared for in different ways, taken off, reapplied, and reconfigured. This relates to my lived experience of body plasticity, which is also the experience for many trans, disabled, and non-normative bodies. Sculpture is a discipline that directly relates to our bodies in space, and I am interested in creating work that proposes an open-ended sort of choreography, expanding our sense of what our bodies can be, what they can do, how they can feel. I think of how sculpture can be active, that matter is an actor, how it can take up space and create space for non-normativity. I often look at materials as surrogates for transitioning marginalized bodies into a space of greater recognition, empathy, and dialogue.

JR: You succeed in that, especially when you are present with the work. The work is visceral and action oriented, almost ceremonial.
Making sculpture is like taking care, caring for materials. Creating bodies is willing them into something without breaking them. I often make molds and casts of close friends, many of whom are queer/trans/womxn/people of color, and I want to respect and care for them, invoke their beauty and power in another form. With my performance work, such as my music performance project Xina Xurner (with my partner Marvin Astorga), it’s about a real, live connection formed between myself and audience members. It’s about how trust, intimacy, a fricative bond can develop between different bodies beyond just myself—like during our performance at Sistered in Portland, Maine, when I felt your embrace as I pounced on you and licked your face. I learn so much from audience members. This reciprocal interaction often influences my approach to my studio work, and my inspirations come through the materials.

Mutant Salon, 2012–ongoing. View of collaborative performance and installation. Photo: Courtesy the artist

JR: I see your work—sculpture, installation, performance, music, even social media—as a way of teaching. The work seems to take hold of people who are willing or who are enamored by your materials.
YJK: I want to learn something through the experience of making. I want to share and see work that I wish I had seen or known about when I was younger, work that values marginalized subjectivities and bodies. I want to participate in a larger dialogue that seeks to reimagine a world that is better and more equitable for different bodies than our own. Even if the work is problematic, which I have no doubt it is because of how problematic my materials are, I hope that it is still teachable in some way, that there are lessons to be learned from it.

JR: Some of your work rebukes traditional and Modernist fundamentals, but I also see a real respect. Your work has pastiche, easily saying “fuck you” and “I love you” at the same time.
YJK: I recognize that I work within a discipline that historically hasn’t recognized me and other marginalized groups. The history of art is part of a larger culture that has valorized certain bodies over others and privileged certain ways of viewing and understanding bodies based on the politics of the time. One example is Constantin Brancusi, the father of Modernism. Many of his sculptures were meant to capture the essence of a man or a woman, reducing bodies to abstractions and making essentialized notions of certain bodies as universal, which just doesn’t work for us today. Art history has ripple effects that have influenced many real problems that still plague us, such as the harmful objectification and politicized representation of marginalized bodies. I see a connection between current political issues, including the conflict and confusion around what bathrooms can be used by transgender people, and the ways in which the history of visual culture has proliferated representations of bodies that conflate gender, sex, and genitals. I’m interested in expanding the discourse of sculpture to be more inclusive, to speak to the problems of representation that cause real harm, and to recognize and address a wider audience of those who feel alienated by the history of art.

Endless Kiss, 2020. Cast aluminum, pigmented resin, ABS, acrylic, glitter, dirt, rocks, stone powder, and paint, 26 x 5.5 x 4 in. Photo: Paul Salveson, Courtesy the artist and Commonwealth & Council

JR: Breaking down and decolonizing art history would be nice.
It can be extremely delightful, a true joy. Fucking patriarchy can be very sensual, but it’s also an imperative. We can see that the history of marginalized bodies being objectified has played a part in present-day social unrest—its effects on the policing, surveillance, and violence against Black and brown and trans bodies today. But I don’t think that a single artwork can solve the world’s problems or that one artist can do this by themself. I hope that my body of work contributes to a larger dialogue around the potential for agency for those marginalized in society.

JR: When you say “body of work,” it seems to mean something completely different from a collection of works and more like an overall message.
YJK: Yes, I think of my art practice as similar to how I think of all bodies as assemblages of all different forms of matter—not just physical, but political, environmental, and other unseen forces, with the potential for unknown transformations to occur in between all of these fragments. For me, creating sculpture is a process of continual fragmentation and discovery of different bodies. And I see my practice as part of a larger canon, a larger body.

JR: Do you see your work and the collaborations at Mutant Salon as providing a platform for people of like mind, or as something to change some minds?
YJK: It’s a platform for “mutants” who have traditionally been ignored by the art world to reach a larger audience, to support and celebrate each other, but it’s also an opportunity to connect intimately with others who are different from ourselves. More than just transforming oneself, we do so collaboratively, as a community, and invite audience members to partake in this process, which I look at as an act of worldmaking. Even if these moments are fleeting, everyone can take these experiences away as a model for a different form of sociality that can affect their everyday lives.

The Gift, 2020. Nickel silver, resin, acrylic, pigmented wax, and copper rod, 23.5 x 48 x 45 in. Photo: Ruben Diaz, Courtesy the artist and Commonwealth & Council

JR: Can you talk about collaboration as mentorship and education?
Collaboration is difficult. For me, it’s a process of learning from others, as much as it is a process of self-undoing and unlearning. With something like Mutant Salon, the idea is that we are stronger together, that we can leverage our energy, resources, talents, and vision in ways that sustain the self and each other. Real social change and paradigm shifts in art are a collective endeavor. It doesn’t happen with one person. I want to remain open to different perspectives, to always keep learning. I saw this quality in my best teachers and mentors.

JR: What advice can you give to artists of color and those who want to learn from recent events, such as the increased influence of Black Lives Matter, about how art and understanding work together? Has your understanding of your work changed?
YJK: I think it’s important to find a community that will help sustain you emotionally and creatively. I feel like I was saved by my community, for which I am very grateful. I’m still trying to process how my practice has changed in response to this moment in history—it’s an ongoing process. It’s hard not to get bogged down by everything awful going on in the world and easy to feel powerless, but you can’t allow that to be something that debilitates the joy of making art. This, too, is an ongoing journey, but I think it can be powerful to create art from a place of delight, pleasure, and love as a means of invoking those same feelings in the viewer.

A 3D walkthrough of “Spartan Skin,” an exhibition of Young Joon Kwak’s recent work using the symbol of the Spartan to explore monuments, identity, and collectivity, can be viewed here. Kwak has been the 2020–21 Critical Race Studies Artist-in-Residence at Michigan State University.