The visual memoirist

To hear Songyi Kim tell it, accidents led her to art in the first place, and then led her art in its direction. To an outsider, little about her story seems accidental. A Korean metalwork artist leaves her country and joins the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University. Soon after she arrives, she suffers an identity crisis. She begins to explore themes (the meaning of identity, self, and time) that are also those of a popular literary genre in America (memoir). By bringing different media (video, drawings, photography, Post-it notes) to this genre, she creates something both old and new: visual memoir. Her work points to what can be gained by a visual incarnation of a literary genre. Her experience speaks to the development of artists.

"The Self-portrait: Family Photo" (detail) ongoing since 2006, 30x22"(detail view), ink wash on paper

It starts in an ordinary enough way. Kim was an adolescent when her parents, a middle-class Korean couple, decided that art school would help their daughter find a suitable husband.

“Maybe [to] learn to arrange flowers? Maybe [to be] a good housewife?” Kim says, speculating on why she ended up at the local arts school. We laugh at this, driving to the McColl Center, where she is an artist-in-residence. The flower arrangement plans never panned out, but she did go on to study metal craft at Seoul National University, then work as a metal craft artist. She explains how everything changed when she came to the U.S.

video still from "the Self Portrait:Family Photo"

This image is a video still. More Here

“When I got in the school,” she says, “my crisis wasn’t about genre. It was about self. [I was] so sad, lonely, pathetic. I start[ed] to use my self in my art.” Nowhere is this more evident than in her studio. While she makes us tea (good Chinese tea from the tea shop she used to work at in New York—-“So expensive. It never sold so [the owner] shared with us,” she smiles), I look around. I see her image everywhere, in paper and video:

*A half-erased self-portrait rests on an easel. *Video images of her face and figure disappear and reappear on the screen of her Mac. *Lines of neon post-it notes, marked with her to-do lists, crawl up one wall.

The Self-Portrait: Post-it Notes" , 2005-2006, Installation A year-long accumulation of the artist's daily created Post-it notes. Currently shown at

The only departure from this focus on self is the image of her family. Hundreds of postcard-sized drawings of her family hang on the back wall. Each one is based on the same photo. It’s a Sunday outing kind of photo, with the four of them sitting a bit stiffly on some steps. It is the only photograph of her family she has. Kim describes it to me as “our happiest moment. My mom and dad are healthy and young. We are proud of ourselves.”

It caught her eye last Christmas, evoking the kinds of feelings that many people have about their families. “I love them. I hate them. Five years have passed. All of a sudden it’s interesting, how meaningful [it] is for me. I really want to do something [about this picture] with my art.” She began to draw it every day, adding a wash after she finished. Why revisit the same photograph each day? Why draw the same thing?

“[At] first [it was] sentimental. Now it’s more than that: rediscovery, writing my autobiography. . . I recall trauma and misery . . . I have to admit it. Don’t hide it. Expose.”

This is memoir—writing autobiography, coming to terms with the past, self-discovery. Memoir illuminates its author’s changes in identity at defined, significant moments. Its popularity in the US has been chalked up to the growing interest in ordinary lives, and the reassurance we feel by learning how people get through strange and difficult times.

The term “visual memoir,” though, is just coming into focus. Some artists use it to title their work. A few universities use it to title film classes where students use autobiographical materials. What makes visual memoir distinct from the literary kind? To start, literary memoir allows us to imagine someone’s experience in its historical detail. As Kim’s explains, “I’m not political or social. I’m not interested in that. [I’m interested in] dealing with my personal situation.” Kim’s personal details are historical only in the facts of their movement: the line of her face or figure appears, disappears, and is never the same twice. Watching her re-draw her face, it was clear to me that she was sharing her personal situation with me, but I never knew quite what her idea of herself was, beyond its essential quality of elusiveness, or in relation to others. She leaves that a mystery, which I took as an invitation to reflect on my own experience of change. In fact, even when she includes others in her art, as she does with her family portrait, the people are literally blurred. When I asked her if her family knew about this portrait, she smiled and said something to the effect of not really, and that she was sort of worried about their reaction if they knew. Then she paused and added, “It’s really not about them.”

Unlike a literary memoir, with its theme of adversity overcome, her art offers nothing so reassuring. The Post-it notes accumulate. A self appears (on a Polaroid, or drawn and erased on paper or chalkboard), and is replaced by another emerging self. I had the sense that strange and difficult times had been observed, described, and marked with a different theme: identity survives only by changing.

Another installtion of "The Self-Portrait: Post-it Notes"

For some, including Kim, this message appears to be reassuring. She thrives on change and finds inspiration in new places and new media. In this way, she offers a window into how artists can, in the pursuit of an idea, allow one tool or materials to disappear and a new one emerge. She says of her starting point, “I want[ed] to experiment in idea, then use media appropriate to it,” and then she dropped a medium she was trained in and took up new tools. This is brave. Kim is the first person to tell you that she’s not free from anxiety, that she struggles to be disciplined enough, and that she sometimes feels pulled to “get a real job.” She laughs about it, saying, “I’m happy, but that moment is too short. I’m 99% anxious, struggle, depressed. 1% happy.”

But her persistence in following her ideas as they emerge, disappear, and reappear, is inspiring. If art in general, and especially memoir, reflects a desire to make or leave an impression, then her playfulness with impression has a serious side. By making a bit of a joke of it (making impressions, erasing them, and inviting them to come again), she reminds us in one breath of the limits of our time and of the many lifetimes we can have within our one.

Erin Collins

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  1. I have not had the opportunity to see Ms. Kim’s work in person, but I have the same question I often do with “visual memoir”, namely where is the line between a collection of artifacts by the self-obsessed and what we call art ? Merely organizing said artifacts into a semblance of structure doesn’t seem to me sufficient. Interesting perhaps, but not art. Some overarching conceptual element besides compulsive introspection seems necessary.
    I don’t mean to denigrate Ms. Kim’s work, I’m in no position to do so, it’s just the few pictures and brief interview available on the web cause me to recall the question.

    By Erik Christensen
  2. having recently seen ms. kim in a movement research project in nyc; she was riveting, both in the self-portrait she painted and in the micro-movements of her’s painter’s focus, movement that totally gripped the audience, far beyond the more extroverted movements of a dancing companion. ms. kim has an exceptional sense of the visual and, one feels, has only just begun to amaze a world hungry for excellent art and ideas; her insights are nothing short of breathtaking.

    By doc martin