“My art is like a sandcastle”: Sunjin Won on carving out her own distinctive style
The illustrator discusses the processes behind her series, which captures the “secondhand nostalgia” she feels for her early life in Singapore in the 1990s.
- Elfie Thomas
- 15 December 2021
How can you portray memories that are not your own? What is an appropriate visual language for evoking something you feel nostalgic for, but can’t remember? These are questions that Sunjin Won deals with in her kaleidoscopic illustration series As if I were There. But the answers were not always so clear. When she finished an exchange student programme in media and communication at Goldsmiths, Sunjin found it difficult to focus her energy on any particular project. By the time she finished her MA, her imagination had become so saturated with jostling visual influences that trying to define her own distinctive style felt like an impossible task. In response to this period of uncertainty, Sunjin decided to focus on depicting something very personal. What followed was the crafting of her project As if I were There.
Sunjin was brought up in Seoul and continues to work there today. However, she was born in Singapore and her family lived there between 1992 and 1995. “I don’t have any memories of Singapore, but pictures of my family [...] and their individual memories have sparked the inspiration for my illustration series,” she tells It’s Nice That. The project encapsulates what Sunjin aptly describes as a kind of “secondhand nostalgia for the 90s in Singapore”. Through the series, she has developed an intricate visual language that summons that dreamlike, hard-to-describe feeling that surrounds inherited memory. The images appear almost like patchworks, lovingly constructed of fragmented moments. This patchwork effect is achieved with a wide range of mediums and materials. Pops of juicy oil pastel contrast playfully with objects and surfaces executed in delicate pencil lines. The contrast seems to evoke different parts of Sunjin’s early life – some details are less clear than others. She also adds elements of collage. Paper cut-outs appear in some of her illustrations, a figure or an object suddenly materialising where it wasn’t before. In this way, one gets the feeling that we are being invited into the construction of Sunjin’s experimental memory archive – was that person there at that moment? – the images seem to ask. The overall impact of the work which Sunjin is working towards is one of “unexpected harmony” composed of “selective clashes”.
When she starts on a piece, colour often comes first for Sunjin, “if those colours just pop up in my head, I need to seize the colour right at that moment.” The ease and immediacy she finds when she uses the mediums of oil pastel, pencil and crayon, allow her to be spontaneous, to act quickly on an idea that unexpectedly presents itself. The resulting “harmonious clashes” which really set Sunjin’s work apart, emerge not only from her use of materials and choice of subject, but also through her experimentation with texture. Sunjin describes many influences on her work including films, music and nature but she is also deeply influenced by fashion design, citing designer Minju Kim as one of her main inspirations. With this admiration for textiles in mind, one gets a greater sense of Sunjin’s understanding of texture and her capability to experiment boldly with it. For example, in her piece SBS Bus, the vehicles in the background give the impression that we are looking at a street scene. But where there should be streets and road markings, the ground space is constructed of tight, wiggled lines, resembling an embroidered tapestry or rug. This intricate pattern is cut off and stitched together with a striking polka-dotted design that wouldn’t look out of place as a printed textile on a Minju Kim design. Interestingly, when you look to the actual textiles in the painting, for example, the blue jeans worn by the figure on the left, Sunjin has not tried to replicate the texture of denim here. Instead, she opts for a soft, almost blurry texture, evoking the softly rippling surface of water.
While an abstract feeling of half-remembering is skillfully evoked through clashes of texture in Sunjin’s work, there is one thing in her compositions that remains undetailed. Sunjin leaves the faces of her figures blank. In this way she invites a kind of viewer involvement, purposefully leaving faces “empty for the imagination of the viewer”. Sunjin says that when she experimented with depicting facial features, they “drew too much attention from the image”. Instead, she wanted the characters in her work to exist independent from specificity, “tangled with time, space and the mood,” and acting as part of “a multi-layered story”.
The exquisite intricacy of ideas and mediums which combine in Sunjin’s work makes it hard to define simply. But Sunjin’s own description is apt, “my art is like a sandcastle,” she says cryptically. She continues, by explaining how she understands each tiny element of her process as a “small sand particle”. These particles gradually come together to create the whole work – something that feels finished whilst retaining a sense of fragility and the ephemeral.
Copyright © Sunjin Won, 2021
About the Author
Elfie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in November 2021 after finishing an art history degree at Sussex University. She is particularly interested in creative projects which shed light on histories that have been traditionally overlooked or misrepresented.