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Sunday, 28 April 2013

Drawing the Dark Side in South Korea

Written by Hannah Garrard
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An Interview with Benjamin Phillips


Benjamin Phillips is a young London based artist and illustrator who in 2012 completed a five month artist in residence stay at the Incheon Art Platform in Incheon, South Korea. The Platform is a recently renovated gallery complex which provides studio and living space for Korean and international artists, who showed a collaborative exhibition entitled ‘Wuju Dabang’*-inspired by a story written by fellow Platform artist Lee Pong-about a girl who disappears through a smoke ring. Ben’s contribution consists of a pair of legs disappearing into the ground, eerie shadows painted onto the gallery walls, and multiplying heads floating towards an unknown universe. 


Ben’s contribution to the Korean art scene is important because of Korea’s identity with the West. Korean youth culture is developing rapidly as it incorporates Western subculture into its mainstream, yet artists still use very traditional mediums in art. Within that combination of influence a new dialogue is developing, and young artists such as Ben make an important contribution to this exciting new art scene displaying a mutual exchange of Asian and European ideas which is genuine, unassuming, and original.   


Ben’s illustrations are mostly drawn in pen and ink, but he also does etchings and paintings in acrylic. His images teeter somewhere on the brink of a ghoulish fantasy, and affectionate portrayals of everyday life with appropriate doses of irony. He has produced work the band Peggy Sue, held exhibitions in the Rag Factory on Brick Lane, as well as holding shows in Glasgow and Brighton where he achieved his first class honors degree in Illustration. His original take on the world have made him a unique addition to area’s artist community, and he is the first European to partake in a collaborative effort with the gallery. 


“Korean art is very culture focused. In England there is more of that punk attitude” 


We met in the gallery complex where his studio is situated. It is a collection of renovated buildings dating back to the Japanese occupation of Korea, and right next to the quirky China town district- an ideal spot for an illustrator with a keen eye for the idiosyncratic. In his small studio, he shows me sketches of middle aged Korean women in purple Puffa jackets, old men working out on the urban gyms, along with his portrayal of the self-conscious foreigner at the dinner table- seated legs akimbo on the floor. His incisive pictorial displays of every-day Korean life immediately strike a familiar chord with me, and I can’t help but grin at their pertinence. We head to a local Italian restaurant, where we sit amongst the din of clattering plates, and Ben tells me about his fascination of the dark side, when it’s best to be naked, and mysterious worlds through smoke rings.


*a dabang is an archetypal Korean style café- low lit, the air heavy with cigarette smoke, a no questions asked kind of establishment.



H: Do you have recurring characters, and favourite characters you like to draw? I’ve noticed there are a lot of skeletons in your work. 


B: Yeah, but not so much these days. I used to draw skeletons quite a lot. Women are very much a recurring theme, and some animals crop up again and again- canines in general. 


H: Do you think dogs have personalities? 


B: Yes, I think they are one of the more human animals. They’re quite needy, they have the same good and bad qualities of people I think.


H: There’s some work on your website called ‘For the Kids”, is it really for the kids? You draw images which would scare children, like demons and oversized bears.


B:  Yeah, twisted fairytales. I quite like subverting things which have quite warm and sweet connotations, and then giving them the opposite, then doing it the other way round-something which has an uneasy feeling, taking it and trying to make it formidable or approachable. 


‘For the Kids’ was a project I did in university. It was some pieces I’d done mainly based around the anxieties of being a kid- the paranoia of adults and false preconceptions. 

Ben Phillips 2 

H: There’s a macabre, dark tone to many of the things you draw. What do you find so fascinating about the dark side?


B: It’s a bit boring drawing cute happy things all the time. I don’t get much enjoyment out of that. I don’t like drawing twee things too much, but I understand that some of my work is a bit twee, but I try not to make it like that. 


H: This my observation, I wonder if you agree: I find your drawing very candid, you ‘ll draw things that maybe people will think but are maybe too scared to say out loud or turn into an image. 


B: I think everyone is suppressed to a certain extent. When I showed you my sketchbook earlier, I felt very nervous because it’s something very personal, but part of me feels like sod it, I don’t really care. I know people are thinking different things all the time, even if something you’ve written or drawn is a bit out there. I think most people are quite open-minded. It’s healthy to get some of that stuff out, and I don’t think that I’m a pest or deviant in any way. Sometimes my images contain a lot of nudity, or are a little bit abject. I like those things, but I don’t want to indulge in it all the time.


H: What, nudity? 


B: I quite like being naked, but it’s for the bath and bed and stuff.


H: I’m going to quote you on that.


B: (laughs) Clothes are just a bit dull, and boring. Clothes mask so much.  My old art teacher told me something which I thought was really interesting. He said that he liked the idea that anyone in the history of the human race, if they were photographed in exactly the same way, naked, and they’d never had any tattoos or anything like that, you’d never have any idea what time they were from, or very little idea of where in the world they were from. If you change yourself in that way you then lose the ability to be timeless. I think there is something nice about that. I think nudity is timeless.


H: Explain in your own words the ‘Wuju Dabang’ Exhibition.


B: All of the work produced was a reaction to Lee Pong’s piece of writing. She wrote a fictional story about a tearoom where the owner transports clients to different places in the universe. It’s soaked in disappointment. You don’t really know if she does go anywhere, and if she does, you don’t know where she goes. It’s all very ambiguous. She points at a photograph on the table and then the guy blows a smoke ring and she vanishes into it. It was so vague that you’re unsure whether it was a real porthole of time or just a seedy shop where people get lost in. But the reactions to the piece of work are quite different, and Hong Ji Yoon’s reaction to it was quite literal. She goes straight to the scene where she’s being transported through the hole. Oh Suk Kuhn puts more of himself into his work-  he likes to draw people on the fringes of society.


H: What was the collaborative process like putting the exhibition together?


B: Interesting. Obviously the language barrier was difficult at times, especially when you are talking about very subtle ideas, or trying to talk about how to create some sort of atmosphere or ambience. Everyone had a firm idea of what they wanted to do, so it was meshing them together which was important. It was really nice, we did everything together, we planned everything through and we bought all the materials as a group and helped each other out a lot. It was definitely a communal effort. 


H: Do you think that being in Korea has sparked your imagination for illustration? 


B: It was very hard for me to produce work at first. Just being comfortable with your surroundings has such an effect on how productive you are. The first month, I was trying to produce work but I felt quite alien and it was very cold and miserable. When I became more settled and stopped putting so much pressure on myself to activate work, I was being more productive. I don’t know whether I’m more inspired for being here, but it has taken my work in a different direction had I stayed in England. Obviously being immersed in a different culture is going to show different things to you.


A lot of my work has to do with relationships between people. The way people interact with one another are so different here.  


H: Can you elaborate on that? 


Just very simple things, things like people’s attitudes towards couples and young love, sex and sexuality. There is a lot of pressure to be straight here.


H: What is your ideal space to work in for the imagination to be on top form?


I don’t work very well on my own. I really like working with other people who are being creative and whom I get on well with. If I can work and have some banter throughout the day, then I’m far happier. Having a nice, bright space and plenty of materials is important, and having enough room to be messy. If it’s too small and claustrophobic I freak out a little bit, if I have to keep organising things. But it’s more the people I am working with which is important.


H: You write as well, how does the written word and art compliment one another? 


B: I find it better if I write before drawing, if I draw something and then I try and put text afterwards it’s always a bit too literal, it’s just very, I don’t know, it’s just a bit stagnant. Writing to an image is too obvious sometimes. If you write something there’s dozens and dozens of words you can pick up on. You can pick up on something very small and take it in a different direction with an image. I find it harder to focus on the detail within an image and then expand on it. But I like playing with visuals, I like having subtleties within an image, and having visual metaphors- puns within images, and then I can take that on a tangent with words as well. I like rhyming couplets and alliteration.


H: What has the reception to your work been like in Korea?


B: People have commented on simple things like my line work because my use of line is very different to the way that most Koreans would draw. They have the traditional calligraphy and it’s all about sweeping motions, very clean lines, whereas I like to make something which is jaunty by breaking up the curve into many lines. I’m not so keen on the round and voluptuous. 


H: There’s a lot of fluid like brush work used in Korean art.


B: The Korean artists I know have a very traditional way of using materials. Artists here are very respectful of traditional mediums, in England there is more of that punk attitude. Young artists in London are more trend focused. Korean art is very culture focused: art about Korea, or its relationship with the West. There is such a distinctive ‘Korean style’.


Hong Ji Yoon challenges that though. Her work’s interesting because she uses very traditional materials, and she uses them in a traditional way but she layers things up and challenges it.


I want someone too see my work and not know if I’m Jewish, or Pakistani, or whatever. There’s something very refreshing about that.

Self Conscious At The Dinner Table 2



(c)Hannah Garrard




Last modified on Tuesday, 30 April 2013