In the hushed and whispering ambiance of Tutu Gallery’s current group show, “Gentle Mist,” curated by Seung-Jun Lee and Sha Luo, Se Young Yim emerges as a captivating voice. Her works, tinged with ethereal and introspective tenderness, draw viewers into a contemplative space where the artist’s dreams combine as reality-based objects. Yim’s practice, deeply rooted in the nocturnal journaling of her dreams, presents a unique window into the human psyche and its myriad connections to her unconscious discoveries. 

The exhibition, “Gentle Mist,” epitomizes the theme of ambiguity—a state that Yim finds resonates deeply with the nature of dreams. Her contributions to the show, such as “A Long Wait,” manifest this ambiguity through their materiality and form, embodying the fluid boundary between the known and the unknown. This painting exemplifies her innovative use of cement and acrylic to convey a sense of presence, although ungrounded. The still-life scene encapsulates her reflections on human existence, movement, and the silent histories embedded within everyday objects. 

As an international artist, Yim navigates the complexities of physical and cultural dislocation. Her experiences of living in diverse cities, from Berlin to New York, infuse her practice with a rich tapestry of influences, reflected in changing hues and textures and even in the language spoken and heard in her dreams. This sense of adaptation and movement underscores the artist’s exploration of vulnerability in both presence and transience, capturing the profound connections she forms, whether at home, making work during an artist residency, or on the road. 

Together, Clare Gemima and Se Young Yim engaged in an interview that explored Yim’s multifaceted approach to making with unconventional materials and found objects. They delved into what captivates Yim in her daily life, her bizarrely fantastical yet poignant dreams, and how she translates her imagination into entrancing painterly and sculptural compositions.

A Long Wait, Se Young Yim
Se Young Yim,
A Long Wait.
Cement and acrylic.
20 × 16 inches, 2023.
Photo courtesy of Yulin Gu
and Yuhan Shen.

The Influence of Dream Journaling on Artistic Practice

Clare Gemima: Se Young, it was a pleasure to talk to you about your work in “Gentle Mist” Tutu Gallery’s current group show curated by Seung-Jun Lee and Sha Luo. Having read about your work before seeing it in person, I was made aware you have a pretty comprehensive practice that involves documenting your dreams. How does this nightly journaling of your unconscious experiences influence and transcend into your overall process and ideas? 

Se Young Yim: Clare, I am glad to have had a chance to talk with you about my work. I’ve been journaling my dreams since I was 14 years old, and I used to draw visual elements from dreams, but now I focus on writing and later analyze them with time. I’ve learned from recording my dreams that questions about love, people, and place are deeply embedded in my subconscious. I often appear as another character in my dream, and it’s like experiencing a movie.

One impressive dream was where I appeared as a praying mantis. I was a male praying mantis, and I had a partner praying mantis of the same sex. It is well known that female praying mantises eat male praying mantises after mating. However, I was in a big dilemma about whether or not I should kill my partner after mating. While he was sleeping, I pulled out a knife that I had hidden under my pillow and pointed it at my partner’s face, but I couldn’t bring myself to stab him. As I hesitated, suddenly, my partner’s eyes flashed and opened. I was so surprised, and a drop of sweat dripped from my hand onto his nose. He said, “You can not kill me because I know you love me.” The shock of those words pierced my heart, and I woke up. It was a strange dream that left a long-lasting impression. 

I’ve learned from recording my dreams that questions about love, people, and place are deeply embedded in my subconscious.

Sometimes, I have that kind of dream, and the conclusion I’ve come to is curiosity and anxiety in love. These are big themes that run through most of my dreams. Additionally, the description of my dreams changes depending directly on where I’m staying; for example, when I was selected for GlogauAIR’s artist residency program and stayed in Berlin, the pale, muted colors of Berlin’s buildings reflected my dreams. Also, when I am in the U.S., I dream in English.

The background, colors, and language change depending on where I am, and it shows up in my dreams. Through dreams, I can recognize the extent to which a state of change has been involved and accepted unconsciously. These recorded dreams are clues to my practice. It begins with love and space between human beings. Lately, I’ve been thinking about place and movement. As an international artist, I’ve often experienced physical movement by staying in different cities. I believe that love and connection are ultimately found in the places we are given, the places we need. I am eager to express these streams of thought in my work. 

Se Young Yim on Navigating Cultural and Physical Dislocation

Clare Gemima: Based on your descriptions of dreams and your unconscious, what specific elements of your work and practice feel fitted towards “Gentle Mist’s” conceptual underpinning? Additionally, what other exhibited works from the show’s 12 other artists do you find yours being in conversation with most prominently? 

Se Young Yim: The artworks in “Gentle Mist” are interconnected through the theme of “ambiguity,” as suggested by the title. To me, ambiguity refers to a state that is not entirely clear yet not completely unknown either. It’s like the countless numbers between 0 and 1, fluctuating back and forth. In this context, reflecting dreams in my practice aligns well with the exhibition’s theme. Dreams are events that occur while we sleep, and they often reflect aspects of reality. It reminds me of Chuang Tzu’s “The Butterfly Dream” anecdote, where he dreams of being a butterfly. Upon waking, he is unsure whether he is a man or a butterfly in reality. This sense of being on the boundary is how I interpret ambiguity and what led me to participate in this exhibition. 

To me, ambiguity refers to a state that is not entirely clear yet not completely unknown either. It’s like the countless numbers between 0 and 1, fluctuating back and forth.

In this exhibition, I presented both kinetic sculptures and paintings. To create a sense of cohesion through these two different media, I used the same textures. I wanted to evoke a sense of natural, rock-like hardness. When I viewed the exhibition, I strongly felt the raw material essence like wood, stone, and wax, which conveyed the unique atmosphere of the exhibition through the materials used. The texture of the materials I used, resembling rock, also harmonized well with the other artworks. 

Turtle or Rock, Se Young Yim
Se Young Yim,
Turtle or Rock.
DC motor, paper, plaster,
concrete, foam. 2023.
Installation at Trestle Art Space.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

Clare Gemima: I’m interested in delving deeper into “A Long Wait,” the painting showcased in “Gentle Mist,” particularly due to its distinctive material qualities. Could you share how you began to combine acrylic paint with textured layers of cement?

Additionally, could you elaborate on the themes or scenes you’re exploring within this tranquil, still-life scene? 

Se Young Yim: I began incorporating cement textures to emphasize vulnerability in my work. As a foreigner, I am acutely aware that my physical body enables movement, yet this movement creates a desperate need for space. During the pandemic, I particularly felt the limitations and threats to the spaces I could occupy, which I interpreted as the vulnerability of the body, and I started integrating this into my art.

Rocks resembled this state of lying down. What fascinated me about rocks was how they reminded me of people in their most purely existent state. Rocks and people encountered on the street share many similarities.

Initially, to highlight this vulnerability, I used materials like wax that could melt, suggesting that everything might eventually disappear. However, one day, I observed people lying down—individuals who had moved to get where they were, yet their movement was not visible. This sight made me realize that existence, enduring the body’s vulnerability and simply being, is a wondrous and miraculous state. That moment of pure existence was what I wanted to capture. 

Rocks resembled this state of lying down. What fascinated me about rocks was how they reminded me of people in their most purely existent state. Rocks and people encountered on the street share many similarities. Though they may seem stationary, they have experienced movement from their places of origin, embodying a history that encompasses both universality and individuality within time and space. Using the imagery of rocks became the most appropriate metaphor for me to express human existence. Additionally, the texture contrasted with vulnerability, effectively highlighting the theme of my work. 

This still-life painting, too, can be seen as a portrait of an object with a history of movement. Just like its title, “A Long Wait,” suggests, it may seem to be stationary, but one can imagine the history of someone bringing that chair, that rock, match, or tissue and placing it there, handed over from one person to the next. 

Kinetic Sculptures, Observational Insights, and Site-Specific Influences

Clare Gemima: You also showcased “Turtle (Tortoise) or Rock,” 2023, a collective of kinetic sculptures made with DC motors inside of them, allowing them to move freely on the ground. They are finished with acrylic and mixed media to give them the appearance of stones and rocks. How did this idea come about, and had you worked with kinetic sculpture ideas before you realized this work? 

Se Young Yim: This is my first time creating kinetic sculptures. In addition to rocks and people, I am also interested in observing objects like chairs and turtles. Near my home, I went to Prospect Park and happened to observe a group of turtles. Although they appeared to be still, they moved to get to that spot and sometimes formed clusters while remaining independent at other times. This observation made me imagine rocks with movements similar to those of turtles.

Se Young Yim, Cheeks.
Se Young Yim,
Cheeks.
DC motor, stainless ball, resin, acrylic on mixed media.
Dimension variable, 2024.
Installation view at Tutu Gallery.
Photo courtesy of Yulin Gu and Yuhan Shen.

Clare Gemima: You’ve showcased these sculptures at various other destinations outside of Tutu Gallery, such as at Trestle Art Space. How does the work change based on its site-specificity? 

Se Young Yim: When considering exhibition venues, Tutu Gallery and Trestle Art Space offered distinct experiences due to their indoor and outdoor settings, respectively. I first showcased my work at Trestle Art Space where I created a larger number of moving sculptures and allowed them unrestricted movement across a vast area. For indoor displays, I reduced the number of sculptures and placed a silver ball in the center to highlight the movement. This ball served a dual purpose: it could be knocked around by the sculptures like a ping-pong ball, and its reflective surface mirrored the sculptures, adding an intriguing visual element. Though the ball itself could not move independently, it appeared as if it could through the motion of the sculptures, which I found to be a fascinating dynamic.

The Rose, Se Young Yim
Se Young Yim,
The Rose.
Found object, acrylic.
13 × 35 × 51 inches, 2023.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

Moreover, the location significantly influences my work, not only in terms of display but also in the conceptual phase. The inspiration I draw from my surroundings during my residencies is integral to my creative process. For example, “The Rose,” 2023, is a sculpture I created while 

I was in Berlin. It aligns with my overarching theme of ‘stones,’ incorporating an object I found discarded on the city streets. I have a habit of walking and observing my surroundings whenever I settle in a new place. Noticing an object left motionless on the street for several days struck me as oddly fascinating—simultaneously a part of nature and a human face. I wanted to capture that feeling in my sculpture. This piece was exhibited at the GlougauAIR open studio event, where I had memorable conversations with many viewers who were familiar with the specific site where I discovered the object.