10th - 13th Oct 2024Saatchi Gallery, London

The Aesthetics of Ephemerality

J Seo, Isaland, 2022, Watercolor on Silk, 82✕55cm

“When I was young, I liked to stay at dusk whenever I felt gloomy. Horizontal images and flowing water brought me serenity — I get consolation from these images because they remind me of ephemerality. Nothing lasts forever”. In her own words, South Korean artist J Seo expresses her longing and nostalgia for the landscapes of her Korean homeland. Her works focus on the themes of impermanence and ephemerality, which ties in to the vanishing of certain images ingrained in the artist’s memory. Nostalgia, as she points out, is not necessarily toward a specific space. Rather, it is the longing of a certain time period. This week, FOCUS art fair features the artworks of J Seo in order to explore the meaning behind ephemerality and nostalgia, through which arise a profound sense of homesickness for past tradition, fleeting moments, and vanishing memory.

J Seo, Untitled, 2022, Watercolor on silk, 40✕43cm

The inspiration for the works of J Seo stem from her own background. Born to a Buddhist monk and an architect, the artist is captivated by the Buddhist philosophy of life and death and, influenced by her father, envisions these ideas in spatial terms. The artist’s education at Goldsmiths University in London has furthered the development of her own philosophy. Inspired by Existentialism and Nihilism, J Seo viewed herself as an ‘outsider’ in her host country where she did not fit in with the foreign culture and traditions. It is perhaps during these great moments of identity crisis where art has endowed upon her the opportunity to revisit the memories and landscapes of her homeland. In two of her Untitled works, J Seo depicts the Dae Seung Ji lake — a body of water near the artist’s hometown which holds meaning for her family. By creating this work which could “provide a space to look at oneself with consolation”, J Seo pours her own loneliness and feelings of displacement into the process of art creation.

J Seo, Dawn, 2022, Watercolor on silk, 82✕55cm

J Seo makes use of the medium of Korean watercolor to produce pieces that harken back to tradition. In her untitled lake series in particular, the monochromatic color palette, coupled with the soft strokes of the brush allude to traditional paintings of the Joseon Dynasty, which often feature landscapes of mountains, trees, and bodies of water such as lakes and rivers. The use of Korean Silk, then, enables the artist to communicate her theme of ephemerality. As a delicate material, the Korean Silk allows the watercolor paint to permeate its surface and spread outwards. This creates the effect of serenity and calmness, as if the viewer is gazing upon a lake enshrouded in a morning mist. Together with the sight Spread of watercolor, J Seo does not place emphasis on the details of form. Instead, she accentuates the haziness of her paintings, a feature that gives her artwork a dream-like state.

J Seo, Shadow in Paris, 2021, Watercolor on silk, 23✕32cm

However, J Seo’s work also explores traditions other than her own. In ‘Shadow in Paris’, the artist seems to reference one of her other philosophical inspirations — Vanitas still life. In her own painting, the viewer is presented with the overlapping shadows of flowers, a chest of drawers, and a table. By focusing on the depiction of their shadows, these objects appear to be ‘fading away’ into nothingness. To this regard, it seems as if the artist is alluding to the Latin motto of Vanitas art — memento mori, a warning of the ephemerality of human existence.

J Seo, Seoul, 2022, Watercolor on silk ,19.5✕12cm

Written by Rose Wei