Kanghee Kim takes ordinary life, melts it down, looks at it cross-eyed, spins it around a few times, bakes it in a birthday cake, and puts it back together again. While her work carries a distinctive visual style—and is undeniably technically impressive—the Korean-born artist insists everything comes from a dedication to keeping things chill.
Speaking to VICE, she emphasizes that good art is about unselfconscious experimentation. And if it's not funny, it's probably not worth doing.
VICE: Your work is pretty eclectic in terms of subjects, but fruit and reflections pop up again and again. What is it about those two things that appeal to you so much?
Kanghee Kim: I don't know. I think I'm pretty obsessed with watermelon and bananas. I guess they're already just so visually interesting and I like having them next to artificial fruits, too—channeling what fruits look like in our head. Also watermelon tastes amazing. As for mirrors, a few years ago I just started carrying them everywhere I went. I love the way they bring something into the scene that wouldn't have otherwise been in the image. A huge part of every photo is what gets left out so I like to bring a little of it back in.
Your work also has a pretty open focus on humor. Do you think that's is an underrated element in art?
Yes. Humor is what drives me, and keeps me engaged. Life is already so serious and complicated in the first place. Why add to that? To me being playful is really important, if my work feels serious, everything just feels tense. Obviously humor plays an important role in social interaction and I'm hoping it serves the same purpose in my work.
Exactly, creativity is just playing.
My work tends to suffer when I feel like I have to do something really polished and 'good.' I need that freedom to work.
The interesting thing about you is while your work is playful, it doesn't look loose. Is having a consistent visual style important?
A lot of people say it's really important to have a consistent visual style, but I just like experimenting. What excites me is making something new.
You make it all sound very incidental, but it just takes a glimpse of your Instagram to see how prolific you are.
That's from being very responsive to my surroundings. I always have this urge to document fleeting moments with my phone. I almost mindlessly do them to satisfy my urge, like keeping a visual journal and keeping momentum. Sharing things on Instagram is like grabbing your friends attention when you walk with them to see something worth seeing. Sharing is caring.
Do you consider yourself a photographer or a visual artist?
Both. I value my fine art background as a photographer. I like being in between those two. It's like asking me if I consider myself Korean-American or Korean.
Speaking of where you're from, I was interested to hear that although you live in Brooklyn now you really started out as an artist in Baltimore.
Yeah, the art scene in Baltimore is really emerging at the moment. New York can feel a bit intimidating sometimes.
Was it easier to work in a place with a smaller art scene?
It was easier for me to focus on my work. There is so much going on in New York that it's easy to get distracted. It's hard to describe but there's a really positive creative energy in Baltimore at the moment.
The Baltimore scene is maybe more experimental and not so commercially driven. It's a very supportive environment and the sense of community is strong. There are a lot of great DIY galleries worth checking out, such as Bb, Platform Gallery, Springsteen Gallery, which are run by some of my good friends from MICA.
Speaking of collaboration, I dug your series MELT that you did with Bettina Yung. Can you tell me about that?
Bettina's one of my closest friends and I was really into what she was doing with beeswax and I thought they looked great compared to the normal candles you just see all the time. It's a really difficult material to work with, so we decided to make wearable candle accessories, a situation where they would both be functional yet futile. FYI, we will be selling a new edition of candles at this upcoming NYABF at the Open Space table, another artist-run gallery space in Baltimore, along with a multitude of amazing artists and friends.
Interview by Ben Thomson. Follow him on Instagram.