Wearing her trademark sunglasses, Kim Yun Shin is dressed down and casual when we meet.
Surrounded by a mini-entourage of translators, and others known as her artistic followers, she is both calm and collected. Yet all the while, as we talk, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that she exudes a certain star quality.
It wasn’t always this way, of course. When she arrived in Argentina, more than three decades ago, Kim was all-but unknown. Today, the 83-year-old artist is an icon and a reference point for the Korean community both here and abroad. She has her own museum in Flores, the neighbourhood in which she settled. Illustrating her standing, when the Korean Embassy opened its new cultural centre in the magnificently refurbished Palacio Benich in Retiro last month, they decided to name a room after her.
It’s safe to say she’s made it from relative obscurity to the top of the Argentine contemporary art scene. As she sits down with the Times – with Cecilia Kang, a Korean film director and our translator for the day in tow – her incredible story unfolds.
Kim was born in 1935 in Wonsan, a small town in what is today North Korea, but then was annexed to the Japanese empire. The youngest of six children, she was expected to lead a more traditional and conventional life – entering a marriage selected by her parents, followed by the bearing of children. Kim, however, would eventually decide to forge her own, more independent path.
Her early years were set against a backdrop of political and military instability. When World War II ended in 1945, it was decided that Korea would be divided in two. Soon after, the area would erupt into conflicts, leading up until June, 1950, when war broke out. Kim and her mother managed to escape to South Korea, while her father and one brother fled to China.
Tragedy would soon follow. Making the mistake of returning during the fighting, Kim’s father was shot. Her mother passed away shortly after fleeing the country. With the rest of her family remaining in her homeland, she would eventually lose touch with her siblings. Still unsure of their whereabouts today, it’s unclear whether they survived or not.
Leaving behind a country that was gripped in the brutalities of war, Kim Yun Shin’s life has not been without hardships and difficulty. But that independent streak would soon see her travel beyond her homeland.
In 1984, Kim moved to Argentina. It was a fairly spontaneous decision, she says, speaking with the help of Cecilia Kang, a Korean film director and our impromptu translator for the day.
She recalls how she had been exhibiting artworks in Canada, before travelling to Buenos Aires to visit a niece who lived here. Enchanted by the country, Kim would eventually choose to settle in the barrio of Flores in Buenos Aires, a popular spot for Korean immigrants at the time. It’s estimated the community peaked at about 50,000 during the 1980s and 1990s, Kang says, though today that figure is believed to be closer to 20,000.
Pitching up in Argentina, having done all of her studying and training in Seoul and Paris, as one might imagine, Kim was a relatively unknown name in her newly adopted country. Keen to launch her career and make a name for herself as a professional artist, she had no fear in approaching the thendirector of the Museo del Arte Moderno, Roberto del Villano.
“I wanted my own exhibition, I wanted to show what I could do, so I went to del Villano and asked for an exhibition,” Kim, who became an Argentine citizen in 1987, recalls.
He asked to see her work, and a few months later, she would surprise del Villano with uniquely carved tree trunks, featuring an incredible level of detail. He responded with a resounding yes, Kim recalls.
With her first major exhibition featured in one of Buenos Aires’ premier art galleries, consisting of 30 of her own sculptures, it became clear that Kim’s artistic talent would take her places.
“From that point onwards my career took off, and I suddenly received a lot of offers for exhibitions and work,” she remembers. An early highlight, she says, was seeing her work exhibited in the picturesque gardens of the Jardín Botánico in Plaza Italia.
Most might imagine that moving to Argentina, a country as geographically and culturally different to Korea as perhaps is possible, would lead to all sorts of transition and adjustment problems cropping up. But Kim Yun Shin, on the contrary, says she was relatively unphased by the switch.
“I was inspired by the great outdoors and open space of Argentina, in comparison with the much smaller and more densely packed Korea,” she explains.
Throwing herself into experimenting with her work it’s clear the diversity of Argentine landscapes have offered her plenty of inspiration. “When I arrived it was amazing because in Argentina there was so much natural beauty that hadn’t been interfered with by humans yet,” she says.
Kim is famed for her unusual approach. Using unique techniques, such as those that find her carving with a chainsaw, her work embraces the natural environment of Argentina. Seeing trees as a connection between the Earth and the sky, Kim says she finds painting or sculpting to be a way of connecting with her soul and spirit. For her, creating her totem-inspired sculptures is an outlet through which she can express her ultimate belief that there is a god and creator of all.
“I’m not sure whether anything exists beyond life on Earth. For me, the sky is simply the space that’s not Earth,” she says, adding that, “trees are a link between the ground and beyond, they provide a special connection.”
So how does she create? What is her process? She describes it as being very organic from start to finish. “I don’t preconceive any ideas or plan anything, I just see where the piece takes me while I create it. I also have to work alone, so I can meditate while working,”she clarifies.
Indicating that people were also a big draw in deciding to live here, Kim credits the friendliness of the community in Flores and beyond for her eventual success in Argentina.
“I was, for a while, unsure what to do,” she says. “Whether to pursue a more conventional and economically stable career like teaching or to follow my passion as an artist. I didn’t have much money.”
There was one potential option. Heading back to Seoul and teaching there. Kim says she pondered what the possibilities of financially supporting herself here in Argentina would be.
Thinking back, Kim recalls a conversation that helped make up her mind. One of her past students and followers, Teresa Kim Ran, reminded her that “no great artist in history had ever worried about monetary woes.”
Taking the comment to heart, hearing one of her biggest supporters saying this, was a dealbreaker, she says. Kim decided she would go against the odds and forge her own path as a contemporary artist and sculptor in Argentina.
Falling on her feet somewhat, Kim says she was lucky enough to find an artistically minded collective of people who helped her get set up in the city and looked after her basic needs. Soon after Teresa Kim Ran, who is today the director of the Kim Yun Shin museum, helped her discover what would become the space where she both works and shows off her completed pieces.
With her museum in Flores the firstever fully dedicated modern Korean art museum in Latin America, Kim Yun Shin has risen to new heights. Discussing the Korean Embassy’s decision to name the room in the new cultural centre after her, Kim’s face lights up. “This centre is just one of three in the world that counts on the support of an Embassy, and I’m the only artist to have a room named after me,” she says proudly.
Asked about what kind of legacy she hopes to leave, Kim replies thoughtfully.
“If I were to have one dream, it would be to keep making more art, I hope that one day, when I’m not here anymore, younger generations to come will take something from my art, something that gives them some sort of understanding of the war and of the life of a refugee.”
The newly opened Centro Cultural Coreano (Maipú 972) is open Monday to Friday from 9am until 6pm. Kim Yun Shin’s museum in Flores is located on Felipe Vallese 2945.