Memory, loss, and learning to breathe through art with Hyesung Im

Hyesung Im (b.1998, Jeju, South Korea) is a mathematics student in Seoul. Based on her interests in films and cinematography, she tried to capture the most usual moments in life and change them into something meaningful, traversing fiction and reality. Her work features prominently in Sign of the Times.

Hyesung Im

Rose Berry: You are a mathematics student based in Seoul, South Korea, and describe your work as “trying to capture the most usual moments in life and change them into something meaningful”. Tell me about your background and how you got into photography.

Hyesung Im: I think my father kind of started it really, he taught me how to take photos when I was younger because he’s a journalist, so I kind of have always loved it. He took a lot of photos of my hometown, Jeju, which is the most famous tourist island in Korea. As soon as I got to University, I was like “Oh, I need to find something else besides studying”, because I think that’s really important, and so I signed up for the photography society, and it just kind of developed from there. Especially in my first year of university, I went to UK by myself for three weeks, and from that moment I really felt like I needed to take more photos because it’s so meaningful.

RB: Your first series of photos in the exhibition depicting Iceland, How To Disappear Completely, borrow their title from the Radiohead album of the same name. Where do you most find your inspiration to create, and does it often come from music?

HI: At that moment, I think it primarily came from a book and also the music. I was reading Ignorance by Milan Kundera, and I loved it—and I really actually like Kundera’s novels in general. His work explores the idea of being a stranger, as he was born in Czech Republic, but he lived in exile in Paris. I think he felt that experience as his loss, and I loved how the novel created that atmosphere delving into his feelings surrounding his loss and putting it into fiction. And the music—I was listening to a lot of Radiohead, especially when bad things had happened to me. When I was feeling a bit low, I would just listen to their music. I think since I spent most of my time listening to music and walking around the city while I was studying abroad in Glasgow, I think music has really impacted my photos, myself, and my creative process a lot.

RB: You describe the landscape in Iceland as “overwhelming”. Similarly, your second set of photos, Nostalgia, deals with very intense emotions, emotions that in themselves threaten to overwhelm. How does this idea of intense emotions come through in your work?

HI: One of my best friends at university died two years ago, and that was the most intense experience I’ve ever had. From that experience, having lost my friend, I felt like knowing that this person was just gone from the earth was like this piece of my memories had just fallen apart. They were just gone. That was intense, it influenced me a lot about how I feel about memory. I found myself being so obsessed with memories with people or memories of myself, and I think nostalgia came in with that emotion too. Especially because my grandmother, the focus of Nostalgia, is not in her house anymore, and so the memories of her and of the house just kind of stopped at that point for me, because it’s hard to meet her these days.

Nostalgia, 3

RB: I find your exploration of the concept of memory and loss very intriguing. I know that for many, the past year has become a memory that perhaps we will want to forget. Specifically in relation to the pandemic and this last year, can you tell me more about how these ideas have come through for you?

HI: Well, about this last year… everything was so… everything happened so randomly, right? Everything happened, and then it was like how can it get worse, you know? And the worst situation happened, and is still happening. All the time, every day. When I was doing another exhibition with my friends in Korea in the summer, one of my friends took a photo of a woman who was wearing two masks on her face, so that you couldn’t see her face at all. He wanted to try to say that masks are for sanitary reasons (and you should wear one!), but we end up not being able to see her. Masks separate us, and obviously we can see each other, but we’re just not really seeing each other. And for me I personally feel that when I go outside with my mask, I feel kind of safe because I can cover my face. And I feel like I’m saying to myself like, “Okay, this is going wrong, because it’s not the usual. Like only a year ago this was the worst thing”. So, I really agree with his photos and his ideas—that we’re now separated apart, and we should be more grateful about what we have when we have it.

RB: I know that you are a film lover. Are there any artists, in any media, that you greatly admire or that have influenced your work?

HI: There is, actually he’s one of my friends, so he’s not very famous, but he was featured in the exhibition in Korea in the summer too. I really admire him because he’s always doing something creative, like all the time. Recently, he made an Instagram AR filter, which is a bit new to me! It’s essentially a viewfinder filter, so that everything that your phone captures looks like something that has been captured by a camera. I just think it’s really amazing. He also likes flowers and creates many photos centred around flowers—it doesn’t mean anything special, he just really likes flowers and the image that they give. His work is very experimental, and I love the idea that he is taking photos without thinking about it too much. If he wants to take a photo of flowers, he just does it. If he wants to take a photo of water and flowers, he just does it. [His Instagram is @9ooob if you’re interested in seeing his work]

RB: Do you have a dream project you would like to work on someday? Tell me about it or any other unrealised projects you would like to complete.

HI: I think I would like to move around lots of cities and take photos of the people, so I can remember them, and feel the city even though I’m not there. I’m not sure I have a particular method in mind of realising this, but I think this is really important to me anyway in my photography.

RB: I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your process. Are your photographs spontaneous, or do you begin with a specific idea and then shoot?

HI: I usually just go out and take photos. Very spontaneously, but sometimes I like to take photos with an exact idea in mind, and Nostalgia is an example of those kind of photos. But mostly it’s just spontaneous.

Nostalgia, 4

RB: Do you have a favourite or stand-out piece of yours in the exhibition? What feelings does it evoke for you?

HI: I really love the photo in How to Disappear Completely [series 1, 4251]. The memories it evokes, the feeling that comes from looking back at it.

How to Disappear Completely [series 1, 4251]

RB: Now for the scary question: what are your plans for the future, and do you have any specific aspirations as an artist?

HI: That’s a really hard question! Mostly these days I am actually really preoccupied with my studies, as I’m preparing for a Masters in Paris next year, so I’m studying hard for that. I mean—I’m trying to get it! I study French and Mathematics, and both of them are really heavy. So I haven’t really been thinking about photos much. I mean, I’m not sure I can really call myself an artist! (cue RB shouting “You are, you are, you are!!”, HI laughs) I think I just really want to travel around the world and take photos of people, and for sure I would like to realise an image about the loss that Milan Kundera was describing in his novels. I’m very excited to find a way to express those feelings, understanding them through my work. Recently I’ve been taking courses about Francophone literature in Africa. There are many people there who have lived through really bad things, have had many incidents of injustice and tragic events happen in their lives. I want to try to voice this, tie it to the feelings of Kundera, how one can feel like a stranger in their own land, with having to speak a different language in their own homes. I want to explore this idea of being in the boundary of many lives. For example, I’ve lived in another country, I’ve been in the position of being a stranger all the time, but also I may feel like a person who should or shouldn’t be there. I think that there can be lots of feelings when you’re staying in another place as a foreigner. Researching about how people have gotten through the feelings of being in the boundaries in their lives—I would like to express that in my photos if I can, I think it is going to be a lifelong process.

How to Disappear Completely, series 3, diamond 1

RB: Thank you for your incredible insights, Hyesung! It almost feels like you’re in Glasgow again and we’re talking over a pint. One last question. I myself am really interested in the idea of artists being interdisciplinary, that the arts and the sciences should not necessarily be separated from one another. You study mathematics, but you’re also an artist. For yourself, is there an intersection between the arts and sciences in your own life and work? Do you find art in math or vice versa?

HI: I have always kind of thought that math is art. The deeper I go into studying math, it feels more like philosophical thinking, rather than technological. To that end, I think art is about philosophy too. Philosophy is about asking the questions: how should we live, what is life, that kind of thing. At the end of the day, math is really similar to art I think. I’ve also heard many times from my professors at university that researching math is more like drawing or painting. I don’t think I’ve really studied math more deeply than this, but if I did study it further, I think I could better understand these feelings. Art and studying French for me is kind of like a way to breathe, because math is so hard and difficult. When I’m doing math it’s like, when is this going to end, I’m so tired.  Speaking French and taking photos feels like less of a burden, so that I’m just enjoying the study, or spontaneously taking photos.

See more of Hyesung’s photography at her Instagram, @denimbeatles , and explore her works in the exhibition

Published by Rose Berry

Rose Berry (she/her) is an English Literature and History of Art (MA) student at the University of Glasgow. Her areas of interest span everything from First Nations arts, the fin de siècle, to contemporary and classic literature. She is currently researching and volunteering at the Hunterian Art Gallery in Glasgow.