Hyun-Sook Song is a Korean-German artist recognised for her luminous tempera paintings. Contrary to the historical use of egg tempera, favoured by mediaeval and Renaissance painters for its opacity, Song employs it in a way that the paint medium is semi-transparent. The recurring motifs of her paintings, evocative of objects from her rural childhood in South Korea, explore memory in space.Read More
Song was born in 1952 in Damyang, a small agrarian village in Jeolla Province. In 1972, a young Song joined the approximately 10,000 South Korean nurses who migrated to West Germany in the 1960s and 70s as part of the two governments' bilateral labour recruitment agreement. The German hospital Song worked at held art therapy sessions, and she revived an old interest in painting.
A few years later, when she was forced to leave work due to a lung disease, Song decided to study art and enrolled at the University of Fine Arts Hamburg (1976–81). The artist began developing her recognisable use of egg tempera during this period, experimenting with its opacity and flow on canvas.
Song was also an active member of the South Korean diasporic community in Germany, advocating for the women nurses' rights in the late 1970s and providing aid for South Korean exiles in the aftermath of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising.
In 1984, Song returned briefly to Korea on an exchange programme to study Korean art history at Chonnam National University in Gwangju. Since then, the artist has been living and working in Hamburg.
Song paints with a limited number of brushstrokes, from which human figures or suggestions of tangible objects emerge against usually darker backgrounds. The broad brushstrokes of her work, whose bristles are visible, are influenced by traditional Korean calligraphy, while the artist paints with the historically Western medium of egg tempera.
Song begins by making sketches on paper, then paints with the canvas placed on the floor. The surface remains wet as the artist paints in a single movement, breaking it into connected brushstrokes. While Song's paintings hover between the abstract and the representational, their titles, typically unnamed or named after the number of brushstrokes she used to complete each work, emphasise the physical and durational nature of her process.
Recurring motifs of Song's paintings include the storage pots, poles, silk veils, and shoes that were common sights in rural Korea when she left home for Germany in 1972. Upon her brief return in 1984, however, Song discovered that such objects were being displaced by the waves of fast modernisation across the country, doubly rendering her an outsider in her adopted country and her motherland. The artist has continued to paint the same objects throughout her career, contemplating memories of her own past, and of South Korea's.
Paint or Die
Where at Home – Paint or Die, a detailed memoir and biography of the artist written by her husband, the sculptor Jochen Hiltmann, was published in 2021.
Hyun-Sook Song exhibits internationally.
Solo exhibitions include: Hyun-Sook Song, Sprüth Magers, Berlin (2022); The single brushstrokes as a horizon between heaven and earth, Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp (2019); Breath and Brushstroke, Hakgojae Gallery, Seoul (2014).
Group exhibitions include: Your Present, Pace, Seoul (2022); How To Disappear, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg (2020); Abstract by Nature, Sean Kelly, New York (2019); Works on Paper II, Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp (2018); Architecture of Life, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, USA (2016).
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2023