You could spend a long time staring at a single Dani Choi illustration and keep discovering more. Her highly detailed, multi-layered artworks are packed with hidden narratives, messages and symbols, brought together in vibrantly coloured, deeply surreal compositions. She says that “the magic of illustration lies in depicting an image that cannot be recreated in the physical world,” and boy does she make the most of that.
Dani is from Seoul and grew up in various South Korean cities, calling the rural coastal city of Gangneung her hometown. She moved to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts and, after deciding to stay, started developing her illustration practice. Early on, she was drawn to the “versatility and richness of colour” of digital illustration, choosing to go fully digital while at uni. Yet it was only fairly recently that surrealist art started to influence her work, allowing boundless freedom of expression. “When I first made art for pure pleasure, I did it to escape and distract myself from reality,” Dani says. “Ironically, over time, my work showed me a way to stay connected to the world and stay grounded. Creating art can be a lonesome journey but it’s truly joyful to watch how people respond to my work. My illustrations are products of how I see the world, what I feel and think.”
Storytelling is at the core of Dani’s work, so it’s no surprise to find out that she’s fascinated by people, and a self-professed cinephile – something passed on by her dad. “He first introduced me to the world of cinema when I was little and naturally watching films became one of my most cherished hobbies,” Dani remembers. “Being so naive and curious of the world as a young girl, I completely fell in love with the colourful stories the characters had to share in movies. I loved the fact that I could taste a bit of the characters’ lives without having to be one, and step into their fictional world.” As she got older, Dani says she realised that not all these stories were made up – that true stories could be as fascinating as fiction. “And that’s when I began to pay more attention to the truth, watching news and documentaries. Oftentimes, these accounts become a new source of inspiration for me.”
As such, Dani can be seen bringing her knack for narrative to The New York Times, Grazia and Poetry magazine, among other publications, as well as client work for the likes of the New York Ballet, Habito, and recently Manhattan Korean restaurant Atomix. Dani was briefed to illustrate their seasonal menu cards, to be served with a ten-course tasting menu sampling Korean cuisine. “They’re given to customers as a kind of souvenir, so I wanted to create images that were related to Korean culture,” she explains. As the restaurant, like most, was reopening after a long pandemic shutdown, Dani found inspiration in Sip-Jang-Saeng; Korean symbols of longevity and prosperity of life “to wish everyone good health”. Each card is designed in a way that works as a standalone image, but also combine to create a large collective piece – “a kind of cabinet of curiosities”.
This year, she worked with Atomix again, this time inspired by Korean folktales. “I’ve always had great fascination for folktales, legends, and myths, especially since I listened to numerous cassette tapes that read Korean folktales growing up,” Dani says. “I was captivated by their unique ways of dealing with the subject of death, reincarnation, vengeance and sacrifice.” Again, it was a chance to give patrons a visual taste of Korean arts and culture, tied in with Dani’s fascination for storytelling. For this project, she chose four famous tales and combined them with four seasons plus four elements represented in the Korean flag, and “tried to capture the essence of the story in each image”.
Of late, Dani has also been focusing a lot on her personal work, using her creativity to express and digest feelings tackled during the pandemic. The End of Summer was created mid-2020, when Dani personally felt “completely exhausted," she says. "However hard I tried to maintain normalcy and sanity, it felt as if the quarter of that year had vanished into thin air since I spent most of my time indoors and had extremely limited human interactions. It still feels a bit like I’m living in a dreadful dream.” This image, in this sense, depicts her “accumulated confusion” and frustration from the pandemic.
To explore her illustrations is to come across countless little vignettes and ideas, all of which start life as jots in a sketchbook. “They’re usually fleeting thoughts and words, but if I see an image too, I try to capture it in a quick sketch.” Then, when in need of an idea, she flips through the pages, and tries to connect the dots between disparate concepts – which is where surrealism likely comes in handy. Characters and objects are then collaged together in an unusual setting, to create a story within the image and capture “surreal and enigmatic moments,” she concludes. “I hope the viewers experience the feeling of alienation and separation from the real world when looking at my work.”
GalleryCopyright © Dani Choi, 2021
Dani Choi: Quarantine (Copyright © Dani Choi, 2020)
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Jenny oversees our editorial output across work, news and features. She was previously It’s Nice That's news editor. Get in touch with any big creative stories, tips, pitches, news and opinions, or questions about all things editorial.