There are many artists who use their own faces as signatures, such as Yue Minjun, Tomoko Sawada and Keiichi Nitta. Young Kim is unique in his own way despite of all, the identity of his persona ‘Suitman’ runs through business and personal projects. Simply put, he embodies his own art. Young Kim has set up his studio / showroom in Chai Wan (Hong Kong) recently.
Text: Ron Lam | Translation: dilettante | Photo: Chan Kin Wai
TS: THINK SILLY
Y: YOUNG KIM
TS: Why did you choose to set up your studio in Hong Kong after L.A. and Tokyo?
Y: It was four years ago that I came to Hong Kong and made my debut here. I didn’t know much about the place and didn’t know what to expect. I realized there is a great balance between Western and Eastern culture in Hong Kong, be it cuisine, fashion and other areas. It is a rare situation and many misunderstand Hong Kong as a pure financial center. When the economy suffered after SARS period, there were many toy and fashion designers who had to create new expressions to promote themselves, to get them through the hard time. There are many opportunities here, and many creative people — native and foreign. I believe Hong Kong is going to be the next London, New York or Tokyo, that is why I choose to set up my studio here.
TS: Are there anyone you like particularly, from the Hong Kong creative industry?
Y: TK, Joey Chu, Wing Shya and toy designers such as Michael Lau whom has built a name of their own internationally. Hong Kong designers and creative practitioners are building up a reputation internationally. I believe the creative force will grow even stronger in three to five years. On the other hand, the recent attention towards Chinese contemporary art is drawing the commerce world to focus on art as fashion and cultural product. Art is no longer something for a minority crowd. I heard that Hong Kong government is planning to organize an art expo. Art would be a different game by then.
TS: Did you start the Suitman project seventeen years ago?
Y: It is nearly eighteen years ago now. In the beginning I just wanted to take photos of myself in suit all over the world.
TS: How did that come about?
Y: I have always had a phobia towards wearing a suit, since I was a child. I thought it was extremely uncomfortable. I questioned myself why I would feel that way, that it is just a suit. To overcome this obstacle, I bought a ridiculously expensive Yohji Yamamoto suit and decided to wear it for the next nine months.
TS: You took a lot of photos during those nine months.
Y: I didn’t really think about the photos in the beginning. I just wanted to try on a suit, to wear it riding the bike, working, camping even. The people I met at the camp were really surprised to see someone in suit. They were like ‘What? Wearing suit in the middle of a forest?’ I was working throughout that nine months, and travelling to places such as France and Germany in the snow. When the others wrapped themselves from head to toe, I was still wearing a suit and nothing else. I took pictures during the travel and sent them to my friends. Many of them asked if the pictures were photoshop-ed and if I did go to the places. After certain amount of pictures I was drawn to it as a project and took it from there.
TS: You never wore a suit before this project?
Y: No. Let’s just say I felt extremely uncomfortable wearing a suit. My mother used to make them so I could wear suits when we went to church, but I disliked it a lot. Most young people consider suit as ‘monkey suit’, representing negative notions such as uniform or boring white collar workers. From another perspective, a man always wears a suit at the most important moments, such as wedding, graduation and funeral, as a respectful gesture. Why do we hate suit so much sometimes? That is why I wanted to make Suitman my project. I wanted to investigate why is it that wearing a suit makes me look different, hilarious or weird?
TS: Is it hard work to be wearing suit and nothing else all these times?
Y: Yes, it is a commitment. Those pictures were not shot in a set, they were just taken at work. I had to endure extra work to make those shoots happen, especially in foreign countries where I do not speak the language. They were particularly challenging.
TS: In what way has Suitman changed during the eighteen years?
Y: If Suitman is a real person — of course he is real — he would have been eighteen years old now. In our society, eighteen is the age of a legal adult. Suitman has matured over the years and have more ideas now. I hope Suitman will become a more established subject. The title of my exhibition in Beijing is called ‘Out of Space in This World’. It is a closed space where one could see sights of nature and Suitman only. The whole set up is so empty that it looks like outer space. I wanted to kill Suitman once, a performance that is like a funeral. Isn’t the dead in white in traditional Asian culture? I could create a Suitman in white suit, with it comes a surreal world. I believe there will be more radical projects taking place in 2009 and 2010.
TS: Many artists take their own image as their media, such as Japanese female photographer Tomoko Sawada. I am very interested in finding out whether the artists view themselves differently because of what they do?
Y: It is true that I do not see myself when I look into the mirror. I see a character created by myself. Suitman is more known than Young Kim now. No one would look at me twice on the street when I wear just jeans and T-shirt. I get recognised when I wear a suit, so it makes me feel like an actor. I felt awkward at first, embarrassed even, and I questioned myself. Now I know that this is what I do, my identity as an artist enables me to make all sorts of statements. It is similar to an actor, who plays a part and leaves it behind outside the set.
TS: How did you start working with labels?
Y: I just took pictures of myself and shared them with my friends. Later a friend of mine shown my pictures to Yohji Yamamoto, he thought they were interesting and wanted me to design a few items. This is my very first collaboration with a designer.
TS: Is Yohji Yamamoto your sponsor for suits?
Y: For a period of time, yes, and he was my first sponsor. I have over twenty suits now, including Yohji and Agnes b. I have been wearing my own designs for the last decade. My habits influence my designs. For example, there are many pockets inside the suit jacket for little things such as passport and i-pod. The back pocket of the trouser is placed lower than usual, so that I can take my wallet out easily.
TS: Did you anticipate success?
Y: Not at all. Suitman is a way to create and express myself. I wanted to share something with my friends and peers, but it grew bigger and bigger and beyond my anticipation. That is why I wanted to kill him. I wouldn’t say the whole thing is an accident, but I am surprised by the development.
TS: In your opinion, what made Suitman so popular?
Y: The concept behind Suitman, perhaps. The kind of ‘sense of belonging’ he is searching for, that people find interesting. He is not necessarily a Korean American, he could be Chinese or French. Anyone who grows up in a society and needs to blend into a culture possess this urge for a sense of belonging. I get asked a lot whether I think I am Korean, or where do I feel I belong to. I receive many emails from my audience who said they relate to my feeling even they are not Korean, nor have been through similar experience.
TS: Do you think you lacked ‘sense of belonging’ in your youth?
Y: Everybody bound to feel it at some point when growing up, that one wants to belong to a group or friends, and to be loved and accepted. For a Korean in America, one might be told he or she looks weird and eats strange food. Therefore one has to rise above these criticisms and let oneself to be accepted. When I found Suitman I felt I have found the answer. The answer being I don’t need to become a Korean or American. I just need to be myself.
TS: You collaborate with many labels, are these projects separated from your personal project? Do they ever get ‘out of control’?
Y: I am very picky with the labels I work with. I hope Suitman only gets involved in the relevant projects. For example, the chocolate I worked on with Agnes b. Chocolate is a very respectful ‘media’ but I didn’t understand its production process. I went to the factory to work with the workers, and it shed new light on chocolate as a creative media. One must be careful with the temperature, and know the exact moment to pour the mix into the mould. This experience made me realize that ‘art’ isn’t just understood by artists. Chef, balloon maker and even carpenter are great artists and craftsmen. Creativity is embodied in everyone, only lost with age and time. Many like drawing when they are young, but abandon it along the way. These collaborations, chocolate in this case, are not just about manufacturing and selling. It is a reminder for all of us to appreciate our surrounding, to see art in everything.
TS: Are there any labels or designers you would like to work with?
Y: There isn’t a list, but I really want to work with children. This is why Suitman has always been children-friendly.