Not cute. The angry art of Hyon Gyon.

The art show at the Parasol Unit, London is the first UK exhibition of works by South Korean artist Hyon Gyon. First impressions – shocking mixture of colours. The art is tense but it will not leave you indifferent, as the longer you look the more interesting it all becomes.

The artist is not interested in making ‘beautiful’ art.[1] She often destroys things in order to create something new. Soft cuddly toys are burnt or ripped apart and tied up in complex sculptural compositions. Flat panels are turned into three-dimensional artworks by adding multiple layers in mixed media, the artist then cuts into the layers and burns holes in them. Close-ups reveal details of what must have been a painstaking and extremely time-consuming creative process.

Hyon Gyon We Were Ugly (2018) installation view at the Parasol Unit (Photo: Ground Impressions)

At the lower gallery level the viewer encounters imposing panel titled We Were Ugly. It was first exhibited at Kyoto Arts Centre, Japan as part of Culture City of East Asia 2017 exhibition. As the horrified eyes and faces emerge from the ‘scarred’ surface, the artwork symbolises shared and complex history of Korea, China and Japan.[2]


The art is undoubtedly angry. The artist chose this approach to communicate ideas about fear, sadness and grief. She also addresses issues that she finds troubling in contemporary society. Some of her works might be off-putting, but those strange, nightmarish visions can also be captivating. Despite the inclusion of popular culture imagery, the artist is closer to Munch’s expressionism or Basquiat’s neo-expressionism than Pop Art. Leaving South Korea for Japan and then New York, the artist developed her style under a mixture of influences. Found objects, Japanese rice paper, Korean satin and sateen textiles, gold leaf, Styrofoam, silicone and acrylic paints blend together in unusual combinations. Pieces of fabric are ironed by the artist with a soldering iron in order to achieve characteristic melted-down appearance.

Hyon Gyon Provocateur (2014) detail (Photo:Ground Impressions)

Hyon Gyon’s artistic practice is partially influenced by shamanism. It is worth emphasising that Korean shamans are usually women, which is significant in the context of historically patriarchal society of Korea.[3] The social status of shamans in recent times is changing, many face discrimination, despite the fact that their work is increasingly in demand. Many North and Southern Koreans consider shamanic practices as equivalent to psychotherapy, and seek help from shamans in times of personal crisis, such as death in one’s family.[3] The artist was greatly touched by the purification ceremony, which took place after her grandmother had died. Her individualistic take on spiritual ideas of shamanism is present in many of her works. Featuring in several paintings on display tangled locks of black wavy hair are symbolic of life, spiritual power and rebirth.[4]

Hyon Gyon A Chain of Struggles (2018) detail (Photo: Ground Impressions)

A set of works commissioned especially for the exhibition is displayed on the upper gallery level. Among them is a large tree-like sculpture titled A chain of struggles (2018). The struggles are visualised in the form of boxing gloves covered with angry slogans such as ‘Life is shit and you die!’ In pieces like this, or in the very physical act of burning toys, the artist addresses troubles experienced by the contemporary society and gender politics. Fighting back can be seen as defying the stereotypical image of infantilized femininity, which is often attached to Asian women.

Hyon Gyon Nobody cares about your misery (2018) (Photo: Ground Impressions)

Utilising found objects in her sculptures and paintings the artist makes art that is personal but relatable to the contemporary international audience. Nobody cares about your misery (2018) is a large sculpture made of wood and mixed media elements. It’s a cross between Munch’s painting known as the Scream and a 21st century schoolgirl sporting a hairdo derived from Japanese Manga. The eyes have been replaced with gold dollar signs, perhaps as a commentary on commodification and commercialism overtaking our lives. Ironically, this particular work is enjoying quite a commercial success, as limited edition small-scale versions are available for purchase at the gallery.


The exhibition is at the Parasol Unit, London from 23 January until 31 March 2019.


Read more on the Parasol Unit’s exhibition website:


[1] clip from a documentary ‘Artists in NYC’ featuring Hyon Gyon (produced by Terence Donnellan)

[2] Exhibition brochure




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