Based in Seoul, Ram Han is an artist with an eye for the biomorphic forms of South Korean culture; and a skill for reimagining them amid her own fantastical landscapes. Described by the artist herself as “visual ASMR,” her work stimulates its viewers with sexual fantasy scenes and paradoxical viewpoints. We caught up with Han to talk to her about her recent project with French singer/songwriter Oklou, and what it’s like designing cover art for K-Pop royalty.
Being a South Korean artist based in the country’s capital, Seoul, do you feel that your art is heavily influenced by South Korean culture? Talk to us a bit about how your heritage has informed the person and the artist you are today.
Along with the rest of the kids from the 90s and 00s, I was significantly driven by a broad spectrum of converged experiences of reality and media. A yearning for digitalised images, at the heart of my artistic vision, stems from childhood memories. As Korea made rapid, technological developments during this time, I was able to create various 2D, 3D characters in the games I was experimenting with and came across many comic books and animations. Part of my work today is overly romantic or conveys this 'intentionally childish mood' in my animations or in the cutscenes of the games I design for.
My work also borrows unpleasant visual expressions that our media did not intend. Engaging in subculture media that hasn't been censored at an early age not only makes an impression on you, but it is also altogether a traumatic experience. That memory is imprinted on the child who saw it, and that fascinates me.
You have mentioned in a previous article that "the surrealness (of your art) comes from real stimulation." What stimulates you as an artist to create?
I prefer to create enormous fantasies or ideas from which I grasp an ordinary and subtle inspiration. The initial phase of my work process incorporates broad and subtle experiences, such as the User Interface design of photographs taken during a walk, a video game or a screenshot image of a virtual space. These memories can be intensified and distorted as much as I want at any time. I admire ideas inspired by everyday life that are flexible and can be warped into something else entirely.
Speaking of stimulation, much of your work can be thought of as abstract expressions of sexuality depicted with various degrees of subtlety. I refer to pieces like your implicit floral studies, on one hand, and then your more explicit portraits of figures performing sexual acts, on the other. What role does eroticism play in your work? What does it mean to you to create works that can be considered erotic?
Eroticism is part of the experiences I wish to visually express. An image of explicit eroticism is a way of expressing part of my own previous experiences. In their twenties, Korean women become aware of the dualistic nature of women as both sexual objects and sexual subjects, which plunges them into confusion; and, as a result, they have a difficult time tolerating this. This was the emotional experience that I underwent in my early 20s. Although I am 30 years old and married now, the emotions that remained with me from past times resonate with me as powerfully as ever. Thus, the illustrated characters in my paintings are portrayed as complicated figures who dwell, as well, upon melancholy.
I like exploring visually satisfying stimuli that go beyond eroticism. In visual works, there will always be shapes and textures absent from the piece’s symbolic meaning that are there to provide mere sensation and pleasure; they could be flowers, twisted tubes or illuminating abstract objects. I enjoy using these textures and this form of expression. I like discovering shapes and forms in my own neighbourhood. It’s like visual ASMR for me.
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Your image of a girl being watched by a larger version of herself through a set of blinds seems to summarise the perspective of a lot of your pieces. Looking at your work, it feels like we, the audience, are viewing you, the artist as if we were you. It’s a really interesting paradox! Do you use your art as means of viewing yourself through someone else’s eyes?
Occasionally, I hold a voyeuristic desire to observe myself. Realising myself from the observer’s point of view is contradictory, but still natural. In doing so, I observe myself from a perspective that feels as natural as breathing.
We live a life that is always exposing us to other people. We become oblivious of this fact. The perspective I employ reinforces the idea that we have become accustomed to a virtual space that we skilfully use to create a social network.
Despite the unintended pursuit of a career as an artist, I show my works to audiences but my work fundamentally serves as a retrospection. I use Instagram as a platform to display my works. When I get responses on Instagram postings, I analyse how I perceive those comments and reactions, upon which the decision for future works is greatly influenced. It is a sort of algorithm.
You’ve spoken previously a bit about your methods when approaching a new piece; it is, most of the time, a combination of sketching and digital editing, right? Talk us through your full artistic process – everything from the initial planning stages through to the final product.
The initial stage of design always concerns an ephemeral inspiration, which may be a simple scribble of ideas. I appreciate an evening walk as it is very inspirational. I watch water running down the ditch on a lane through farmland near my house, a subtle reflection on the water illuminated in the dark by the light of a lamppost on the street, I considered depicting a scene with a flower bouquet in a capsule...
I don’t plan the preliminary stages for a work but I frequently go back and forth between different methods and ideas. Amid the work process, I often immerse myself in an emotional breakdown. Incomplete work often demonstrates, to me, a mid-process anxiety that arises after I put significant efforts into realising a mental image. In the act of producing the works, hundreds of layers are repeatedly generated with the aid of a digital drawing pad and merged through Photoshop. A final image is then repeatedly re-traced onto the flattened layers to complete the work.
What is it about the dreamscape that fascinates you as an artist?
My interpretation of the dreamscape is fluid and everchanging; rather than a single dreamscape, it often changes. My most recent one embodies the sensation of being alone on a dark night. It views the world as if it were viewed from a spaceship, which orbits and aimlessly floats in space.
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Over the last couple of years, you’ve worked with various K-Pop artists – including the international-renowned girl group, Red Velvet. What’s your initial response when an artist approaches you about making cover art for their music? And how do you translate the artist’s music into your work?
Since we don’t know each other personally, a 'one-sided imagination' is inevitable; and so I imagine the similarities between myself and the musicians. Music is a necessity when I work. When the artist has a concern related to the expectation of a far-fetched visual representation, I have no choice but to refine the work further. The result is an interpretation of their music translated into my own language.
Let’s talk about the I didn’t give up on you video for a moment. Where did the idea for the video initially sprout from? And how much artistic freedom did Oklou and her team give you on this project?
It began with the pdf brief file and the narrative of the song by Oklou. She had grown familiar with my work, from which a desire for the freedom imbued in my art resonated with her. She had already devised the mood and story of the video which made it easier for me to share in the fascinating images she had imagined. I have always been interested in integrating the human body with plants. I pitched this idea on the storyboards and she really welcomed the proposal. Based on her own ideas and imagination, I wanted to render a work that brought us both a lot of meaning. I appreciate her contribution.
You have mentioend previously that you are interested in "capturing only the moments of moving images." Was this idea at the forefront of your mind when approaching the project? Should we view the video, not as a complete work but, instead, a series of moments?
I studied animation in college and the reason I pursued this area of study was out of a genuine appreciation of animation. I like the paradox of a still image beside a moving, flat 2D image. The moving picture has inherent mobility at each moment. A single picture can illustrate various directional natures. When I draw a still illustration, I recall the motion of screen capture of a video from a game or a scene from a movie. A particular scene fused with temporal quality is extracted.
As your background is in animation, do you feel any need to return to that medium after completing this project? How has this piece inspired what we can expect to see from you next?
As an artist who recognises the importance of digital painting as a primary medium, I plan to explore future works that are constructed via 2D-based animation techniques. The techniques I use in drawing animation are borrowed from previous still-life illustrations. The unique visual languages of animation are the main materials for my work. Yes, I will continue working on animation.
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