interview with minyoung choi on his dream aquarium paintings
where reality meets fantasy
animals, especially fish, have always been a subject of fascination for koreans artist minyoung choi. Growing up in Daejeon, Choi remembers the National Geographic Programs that fueled his dreams and the aquarium in his family home that lit up his imagination. after spending her childhood drawing and painting, choi knew she wanted to work in the creative field and pursued her dream with fine art masters in painting from seoul national university and ucl .
Now living and working in London, Choi has become known for his dreamy watercolors and oil paintings that blend surreal moments with real memories. in recent years it has been the artist’s paintings of aquariums and fishbowls that have struck a chord, with the theme of captivity reflecting our experience of nature in contemporary life while inviting viewers to escape to a miniature world within a world.
in this maintenance with designboom, choi develops her inspiration, her process and what she wants to express with her paintings. read the full conversation below.
bathoil on linen, 110 x 120 cm, 2020
all images courtesy of minyoung choi
chatting with minyoung choi
designboom (DB): can you tell us about your aquarium paintings? Why did you choose fish as a subject?
minyoung choi (MC): I’ve always been fascinated by animals since I was young. I used to watch National Geographic all the time and dreamed of seeing all kinds of creatures in real life. naturally, I grew up with tiny creatures around me as pets (but not necessarily) and the first animals I became friends with were fish. I remember goldfish swimming in a large ceramic bowl on my family’s balcony and a large glass tropical fish tank in the living room. my neighborhood in my hometown of daejeon was called ‘eoeun’ which means ‘the fish is hiding’. I imagine fish are literally hiding in my town and the whole place was under water when I was a kid. I remember someone said that seashells could be found in the nearby mountains because that place was an ocean a long time ago. for many trivial reasons, fish were particularly familiar to me and I felt like I was part of them somehow, as if I was one of them too because my sign astrological also happens to be Pisces. when I paint big anthropomorphic fish, I really sympathize with them, feeling that they represent a part of me.
the aquarium itself is a fascinating subject for me as well. it is a glass box that contains nature. I like the way the world is laid out inside a confined glass box. it’s a whole world for fish and a small universe for me. it reminds me of the limits of the world to which I belong.
while living in big cities, seeing fish as pets in a glass jar or in an aquarium has been more common for me than seeing them in the sea in their natural habitat. I think this idea of captivity also perfectly reflects the way we interact with and perceive “nature” in the contemporary world. everything is a bit staged at the end. I believe it creates tension when the living and the inanimate coexist in the same image within a painting.
goldfishoil on linen, 80 x 60 cm, 2020
DB: You created works like ‘bath’, ‘goldfish’ and ‘sunset’ in 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. were these works an intentional commentary on confinement, or simply a form of artistic escapism?
MC: None of my works are intentionally made in relation to the pandemic or the lockdown.
I could almost split the year with when the paintings were done. I remember doing ‘bath’ just before the pandemic. the idea behind the painting was for the yellow fish to take a bath in a temporary box while its original home is being cleaned. this is how I remember our aquarium was washed in my childhood. I may have finished ‘goldfish’ but left ‘goldfish 2’ unfinished.
during confinement, I developed my routine by working from home doing watercolors. naturally I did more aquarium paintings as I was fascinated by visualizing aquarium water in a water-based medium. I started to incorporate the vivid colors of the sunsets that infused the aquariums and the space into the works. I was more used to using shades of blue/green for my work, but I also wanted to expand the range of colors I could use. this is how the ‘sunset’ series was born.
aquarium150 x 130 cm, oil on linen, 2020
MC (continued): back in the studio that summer, after confinement, I continued to develop the idea of the aquarium in oil paint.
‘goldfish 2’ was finally finished and I also did ‘aquarium’ which was an extension of my ‘sunset’ watercolors. by the time I was fully back in the studio, I was able to take my work in a new direction.
I didn’t necessarily associate the pandemic with my paintings. I was more interested in the subject as a means of bringing natural elements into domestic settings: the visualization of a world within a world. the viewer first started to connect my paintings to the lockdown and eventually, I also felt the pressure of the lockdown reflected in my work. later, I moved on to the representation of living beings in open spaces as well. I think these paintings will feel differently after many years when the pandemic is over and they will probably no longer be associated with health-related isolation.
goldfish 276 x 61 cm, oil on linen, 2020
DB: What feelings or sensations do you want your work to convey to the viewer?
MC: I believe the finished works go beyond my intention and are open to interpretation for the viewer. however, there are mixed feelings and sensations such as ‘weird but playful’ or ‘tranquil but eerie’ that I focus on while painting. I aim to keep these elements mixed until the end. I can say that fantasy is at the center of my work, although my work is linked to reality and is essentially linked to my own memories. I constantly draw my patterns from the surreal moments I’ve had, including some of my eerily vivid dreams, playing games, watching movies, and other digital or non-digital experiences. to me, life is quite magical and strange. I just need to tweak it a bit and organize things in a slightly different way or see it from a different angle. the things I paint won’t make sense in real life, but they do in my work. the fact that it is a table is essential. each element is crucial for the whole picture. Composing the image of a painting therefore amounts to staging a perfect coincidence and the spectators become witnesses to these slightly unreal but believable worlds.
sunset 5, 28.3 x 20.7 cm, watercolor on paper, 2020
DB: how do you approach a new painting? what does your initial process look like?
MC: I start working from vague images in my mind. I choose the subject from my doodles on paper which only show rough ideas. then I collect objects and photos that would help me describe the details. I don’t have a particular way of working but I tend to create plausible space and time that feels lived in and occupied. although I plan, many parts are materialized while I am actually working on the canvas. overall I adapt a lot to what is already painted on the canvas and work quite intuitively changing colors, shapes and composition. you can imagine my initial process seems quite messy and rough. I don’t really like revealing the process to other people because the initial images are so different from the final stage.
sunset 2, watercolor on paper, 28.3 x 20.7 cm, 2020
DB: what inspires you in everyday life?
MC: since I have been in residence in romania for two months, the new environment is a great inspiration for me. the pines are beautiful here and the animals are always around the studio. especially at night, I find the moon and stars noticeably brighter in this area. the stars are like shining salt and I feel like I can make them out. it is indeed surprising how bright it is outside, only moonlight at night. we had a lot of snow for a few weeks and it was wonderful to see the snowy landscape again.
DB: What are you currently working on? what themes would you like to explore next?
MC: I am currently working on a series of paintings that will be exhibited for several projects this year. the first one i will attend is the london art fair with lychee one and will be followed by a few other projects in china and korea. I will have a show with thisweekendroom in seoul in may.
I’m developing some images I made a few years ago. there were a few things that I think I didn’t get to fully explore. there are my paintings called ‘moon ritual’ (2017) and ‘snowball picnic’ (2016) that i did while i was at the slade. I have already started a new series based on these. I am also developing new works from my drawings of ‘sleeping fish’ and my recent painting ‘cats playing with slightly frightened creatures on a clear day (2021)’.
check out more of minyoung choi’s work on her site here and instagram here.