How Hong Seung-Hye Explores Time in Her Abstract, Computer-Aided Works


Sungah Serena Choo

Aug 3, 2023 10:24PM

Hong Seung-Hye, installation view of “Organic Geometry” at Kukje Gallery, 1997. Courtesy of Kukje Gallery.

This article was produced in partnership with the Korea Arts Management Service (KAMS).

For nearly 40 years, Hong Seung-hye has been creating art that delves into the history of computer graphic design tools. Since her first solo exhibition in Seoul in 1986, she has been showcasing her signature series, “Over the Layers” and “Organic Geometry.” Over time, she’s expanded her work to include flat and 3D artwork, sound pieces, architecture, and, more recently, performances that resemble stage productions.

Hong was a pioneer in using computer tools for abstract painting. In these works, abstract images freely multiply, highlighting both their similarities and differences; she incorporates this imagery into her performances. And though her practice has evolved over the course of the past four decades, she’s consistently explored the concept of time.

In the catalogue for her 2014 exhibition “Reminiscence” at Kukje Gallery, Hong Seung-Hye stated about her art: “This is about the passage of time, and about everything that changes with time.” From this, it’s clear that she’s been trying to understand “time.” She wonders if time can flow; if it can be crossed or placed somewhere; if it can be gathered up; and if it can be recorded. She also thinks about what she should use to represent time. Her interest in memory and how she controls, reorders, and rebuilds time are closely connected. She uses this idea to look at the future from the perspective of the present.

Hong Seung-Hye, installation view of “Point·Line·Plane” at Seoul Museum of Art, 2016. Courtesy of Seoul Museum of Art.


Hong uses technology like Photoshop, Illustrator, and simple Windows drawing programs from the 1990s to make her art. Using these tools, she freely draws, cuts, copies, pastes, and changes her work. In this way, she started by drawing lines, both straight and twisted, on a white screen. Then these lines slowly grew into grids that fit into the space of the human body and the built environment. Over time, these drawings grew into sculptures, wall paintings, furniture, moving images, sounds, stages, and even bodies.

For a long time, Hong has been using a method to create repeated images. She does this by making lots of something using the basic shapes of dots, lines, and planes. This shows a fundamental understanding of time and how repetition can create differences, not just copy things. We can see this in the way she uses a simple pattern again and again. But even though the pattern is simple, using it repeatedly in a minimalist way creates a unique identity. It’s like each pattern becomes different from the others because of the endless possibilities for change. You can see this particularly in the symbols and sounds that the moving figures in her videos make.

Hong Seung-Hye, installation view of “Over the Layers II” at Kukje Gallery, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Kukje Gallery.

The technology and sound in Hong’s video works bring out the characteristics of time. The music she uses in her videos is similar to the notes and rhythm of Steve Reich, the iconic composer of minimalist music. Hong grounds time by mapping it out and uses sound and image to balance intended scenarios with randomness. In this process, typical sound characteristics like pitch and duration fade, highlighting unusual sounds and rhythms instead.

Weight and speed, which often seem to oppose each other, are important parts of Hong’s work and reflect conflicting feelings. Her unique humor shows in the way she cleverly uses deformation and cracks on top of repetition, like copying and attaching. This comes from the intuitive and responsive qualities of some computer tools the artist uses. In particular, her inkjet prints, videos, and sculptures give off a sense of lightness. At the same time, the conflicting feelings she expresses through her music help to hint at the narrative structure of the work.

Hong Seung-Hye, Moonlight, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

Almost two decades after creating “Over the Layers” in 2004, Hong made a sequel called “Over the Layers II” this year. This shows that she thinks of an exhibition not just as a single event or a random happening in a fictional world, but as a carefully planned construction of time and space based on a script. The word boksun (Korean for “foreshadowing”) is referred to as “layer” in the title. This might suggest that the artist is thinking back from the present, but also considering time as a physical thing with many layers, where she sees time as a paradox that hints at the future. As a result, Hong’s artworks can provide a prequel and sequel, where each piece acts as a theatrical device that represents a specific time in the past.

Her performance of Moonlight in 2022, which brought together moving images, sound, and choreography, was more like a stage show and showed the nature of time more than any of her past works. The work was an experiment to explore the rhythm of time that goes round and round, symbolized in the moon’s cycle, similar to Claude Debussy’s Moonlight. Hong focuses on experiencing the moments of life’s cycle, which is the same for everyone, as an extension of her typical way of transforming the shapes, structures, and movements found in daily life.

Hong Seung-Hye, About Frame, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Kukje Gallery.

Hong creates a situation where performers instinctively interact with and manipulate geometric structures that symbolize the human body, using their everyday movements. The “foreshadowing” becomes more immaterial in this context. Additionally, the distinct geometric forms that mimic real objects become active participants in the event, transforming from static pieces to dynamic elements through the performers’ subtle movements, thus acting as their shadows. On top of this, the props on the stage, stacked and supported by each other, give room for finding the possible narrative, in addition to moving images that work as lighting and background. Thus, Hong’s unique, emotive yet playful perception of the perpetual cycle of time offers an attempt to present the past, present, and future concurrently to the audience.

Typically, when different multimedia works are combined in one art space at the same time, they are used to recreate events. Scenes are built again to physically recreate events while the artist envisions storylines or broken up timelines. If Hong has been concentrating on splitting space at the physical level and enhancing computer graphic design tools, she now views space as a stage. She starts to see storytelling as a possibility from an evolving theatrical perspective, as demonstrated in the aforementioned performance.

Unlike her past works that used neutrals, black, and white to underline repetitive shapes and movement, her recent sculptures use various colors and resemble props in a play. As a result, the broken down elements become individual pieces, blurring the boundary between a prop or a piece on the stage. In the end, Hong, who physically approaches the object to instinctively understand its uniqueness, consistently explores the suggestion of time in her work.

Hong Seung-Hye, Flower Vase, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Kukje Gallery.

The artist reconstructs scenes to physically reenact events, envisioning narratives or segmented timelines. Whereas Hong used to focus on dividing space physically and utilizing graphic design tools, she now sees space as a stage. In her recent performance, Hong sees storytelling through a theatrical lens. Her new sculptures, colorful and prop-like, contrast her old monochrome works. Printed elements on a plane become individual pieces, blurring the boundaries between sculpture and props or a stage pieces. Always physically interacting with these unique objects, Hong keeps focusing on exploring time in her art.

The beauty of Hong’s recent stage works lies in her exploration of time—turning it into a performance. In her latest works, she highlights the flow of time using a wide range of audio and visual elements. Even when time is broken down, viewers can imagine a story through Hong’s theatrical approach, transforming time and space into music, or moving images and lights.

Hong takes basic questions about life and turns them into a shared understanding through transforming abstract ideas that were once distant and cold into lively performances that are closely tied to reality. As a result, we are given a chance to think about our own lives and how time changes them.

Sungah Serena Choo

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