Meditation, 2022. Book and jeong-i jeobgi with black paper, 80 x 80 x 150 cm. Photo: © Jonathan Greet, © Jukhee Kwon, Courtesy October Gallery, London

Open Books: A Conversation with Jukhee Kwon

Jukhee Kwon, who has been making three-dimensional, paper-based works for over a decade, uses discarded books as her primary material, carefully slicing, cutting, and otherwise manipulating their pages to create a variety of unexpected forms—from intimate, small-scale objects to large-scale installations. Bursting forth from spines, cascading in graceful falls, and sometimes abandoning the book altogether, her sculptures escape their bindings to engage surrounding space. For Kwon, this deconstruction/reconstruction opens a journey of creative discovery, one that allows her to expose inner meanings, connections between past and present, and allusions to natural cycles.

Born and raised in South Korea, Kwon received a BA in fine art from Chung-Ang University (2005) in Anseong, south of Seoul, and an MA in book arts from Camberwell College of Arts in London (2012). She now lives in Italy, near Rome. The works featured in “Liberated,” her current exhibition at October Gallery in London, explore new directions, combining books sculptures with rolls and loops of paper and origami figures. 

Redemption, 2013. Paper (3 of 8 paper books), 450 x 125 x 125 cm. Photo: Jonathan Greet, Courtesy October Gallery London

Robert Preece: How would you describe the developments in your work since we last spoke in 2014? How has living in Italy affected your work?
Jukhee Kwon: During this time, I think that my work has become increasingly shaped by narrative ideas. I’m more interested in the message within each work, and I have been experimenting with different techniques. In the past, my work was very abstract, but now I feel there is a coherence between my narrative thought and what is being created.

I have lived in Italy since 2012, and I find the Italian lifestyle abundant—the approach to life is fascinating and warm. In the beginning, I was confused, but now I understand that the real process for liberation of oneself starts from chaos and requires a move beyond superficial mannerisms. 

RP: Can you tell me about Escape (2022)? There is a certain feeling that expands on the form. 
JK: Let’s say the book is A, and what comes out is B. I wanted to add something else in between—something flexible and complex, like veins. I pondered the notion that inside one life there might be many lives—perhaps a past life that has not passed and a future life that has not yet arrived—and they exist all together in the present. I wanted to make a work that reflects ideas of the boundaries of time and space.

Escape, 2022. Paper (1 book), 20 x 40 x 25 cm. Photo: © Leonardo Puccini, © Jukhee Kwon, Courtesy the artist and October Gallery, London

RP: How much experimentation did you do with the form in Dancing Book (2022)?
JK: I decided to use paper like a pen so that I could make a drawing in space. I was walking through a forest and observed how the sunlight fell on the leaves: one part was dark and the other was very bright. This was the inspiration to create two different effects in Dancing Book. The book is suspended with a single fishing line, so when there is movement or air flow nearby, it moves like a leaf in the wind. The work interacts with its environment and surrounding space.

RP: In Flow (2022), the paper has left the book. What exactly are we seeing? 
JK: The material comes from an old Latin book. I separated the pages from the book cover, then cut blue paper from the oceans in a world map. This work is all about viewers’ positions and observation. There are six directions in the sculpture—front and back, right and left, up and down. I felt that, until this point, I had examined height and width, but not depth. By using a wave formation, I attempt to show delicate, subtle changes of light and differences of depth.

Dancing Book, 2022. Paper (1 book), 30 x 15 x 60 cm. Photo: © Leonardo Puccini, © Jukhee Kwon, Courtesy the artist and October Gallery, London

RP: The paper in Libro Libero (Free Book, 2013) flows down from the book and into a pool in curled rolls. When did this motif start appearing in your work?
JK: I started rolling paper when I made Libro Libero. The work is inspired by the manner in which messages were transported historically. When they were carried, they were often rolled and closed with a string. When the work is installed, the book opens and its pages spread down onto the paper rolls. I like the idea that Libro Libero seems like an “open book” bringing messages to the world.

RP: The paper has left the book again in In Fiore (In Bloom, 2021). How did you achieve the effect here?
JK: There are two techniques that I used for the first time in this sculpture. First, I applied two very different methods—tearing and cutting—as well as rolling. For the middle part of the work, I cut the paper with a knife and then rolled it so that it resembles petals. Around the middle part, the paper is torn and placed like a sepal, which supports the petals. Second, I decided to use two different books, so that the color of the paper is different. The paper in the middle has a bit of yellow. Around this part, I used paper that will remain permanently white. My idea is that over time, the yellow paper will gain a deeper color and create a contrast between the two. I like the notion that the work is changing with time, almost as if it were a living organism.

The reason why the paper has been removed from the books is because when I left Korea, I became separated emotionally from my parents. I employed paper to reflect my personal story, and I realized that many of my impediments came from an emotional dependence on my origin. The outcome of this experience was to separate pages from the books in my work.

Libro Libero, 2013. Paper (1 book), 140 x 90 x 10 cm. Photo: © Jonathan Greet, © Jukhee Kwon, Courtesy the artist and October Gallery, London

RP: How did you make The Wall of Thoughts (2022)? 
JK: In this work, I took the same approach as in Libro Libero. I rolled paper and then decided to mount it in different sizes and thicknesses and heights. I wanted to make it large enough so then when viewers stand in front of it, they do not see the edges, only rolled papers. The idea is that if you are close to it, it continues infinitely and black holes of rolled paper look back at the viewer.

RP: Red Circle Book (2022) takes a completely different approach to creating a form out of a book. Could you tell me about it? 
JK: I became intrigued by the vibration of water. I observed the result when I dropped red paint in water, watching it ripple. The red color is from the edges of the pages in the book. Usually I choose books in a more passive way, which means that the books come to me first and I wait for inspiration. However, when I saw this book with its red-edged pages, I immediately wanted to use it in a particular way, because it already seemed like a red flower waiting to bloom. 

Red Circle Book, 2022. Paper (1 book), 60 cm. diameter. Photo: © Leonardo Puccini, © Jukhee Kwon, Courtesy the artist and October Gallery, London

RP: You’ve taken a different approach in Meditation (2022), hanging a closed book with a profusion of origami forms. What is this new strand in your work about? 
JK: I wanted to broaden my technique. I thinking about how to realize my imaginings and how to make my works fly. I love nature, so I try to adapt it in my work. In the suburbs of Rome, where I live, there are many olive trees and vineyards. I often observe flocks of birds as little moving black dots in the sky that keep changing their formation. These flocks reminded me of cranes in Korea, so I applied origami to Meditation. It’s a single book that remains intact, with jong-i jeobgi cranes of various sizes and torn strips of black paper. Most of my pieces take their color from the inner printed pages, which, here, aren’t teased out. To me, these birds in flight represent the ongoing journey toward liberation.

RP: Do you work with sketches before making the works, or do you just dive in?
JK: I like sketching and doodling. The work comes from a sketch. Some mornings as I wake up, certain images pass into my mind and sometimes I manage to draw them quickly before they disappear.

Installation view of “Jukhee Kwon: Liberated,” with (left to right): Red Circle Book, 2022; Oval Book Forum, 2023; and Endless, 2022. Photo: © Jonathan Greet, Courtesy October Gallery London

RP: You’ve worked with much larger formats in the past, creating book works with the abstract appearance of cascading water. Are you thinking about incorporating some of the new formal elements from these smaller works into larger installations?
JK: I am having fun now by going into detail and exploring each narrative with different books. Each work is becoming a small chapter in the whole story. They are smaller works, but they are constructive and solid, like building a house. Large-scale works need time. My initial works started small, and then they became bigger; I suspect the work that I do now will become larger in time.

Jukhee Kwon’s exhibition “Liberated” is on view at the October Gallery in London through April 22, 2023.