A few years ago, when Heesoo Kwon was visiting South Korea during a summer break from her MFA program at Berkeley, she found old home videos of her family. Watching the decades-old interactions among her family members and the Catholic rituals they practiced fascinated her. But in one video, her mother stood by the table while others ate, waiting to serve them. It made Kwon angry.
Driven by the sadness she felt about how women were treated in Korea and what her female ancestors had endured, Kwon tried to reimagine their history. She designed a digital avatar of herself, which she then edited into her family’s old photos and videos. Her virtual presence, which could be seen supporting her mother and grandmother, dramatically shifted the dynamics of the scenes. “That was the motivation to start the whole Leymusoom practice,” she said, the name she derived from 무성별 (museongbyeol), a Korean word meaning agender, and gave to the invented religion fueling her art, one based on the tenets of feminism and freedom from patriarchy.
Inspired, she incorporated Leymusoom into her final MFA project at Berkeley in 2019, placing her avatar in grainy footage taken throughout her family’s history. This video compilation, titled “A Ritual for Metamorphosis,” is now featured in Kwon’s solo exhibition A Flower Strong in the Wind, showing at Micki Meng’s Chinatown gallery in San Francisco through April 21. Later this year, Kwon will also have solo shows at the Institute of Contemporary Art San José and New York’s Ryan Lee Gallery.
In A Flower Strong in the Wind, Kwon is again trying to rewrite history, but this time with old family photos displayed within light boxes that give an illusion of depth and movement. She inserts not her avatar but a reptilian figure as the embodiment of Leymusoom into each one. Female and snakelike, the creature combines inspiration from both Korean shamanism, in which snakes and women are perceived as spiritual, and the story of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis, which Kwon read with her grandmother. The figure is pictured as comforting, with its hand on her grandmother’s shoulder or its arms wrapped around her mother and godmother at Kwon’s first communion.
“I think the message from Genesis is: Knowledge is dangerous,” Kwon says. “Whenever I questioned the patriarchy and misogyny in Korean society, [my family and friends] were like, why do you ask these kinds of questions and make people’s lives so hard? So I wanted to reimagine the female and snake characters. They just wanted to understand what’s going on, like me, and they were perceived as the reason everyone left utopia. But for me, it’s just they wanted to know what’s going on.”
The show is meant to honor her grandmother, who lived with the family, and whose name, 김근화 (Geun Hwa Kim), refers to root and flower. Her grandmother was a big influence on her, Kwon says. She was extremely religious, and Kwon would read the Bible with her every day. Kwon says that when her grandmother died, she never went to church again. She’s in all the images in the show, such as one of Kwon’s first birthday party, an important ritual in Korea.
Growing up in Seoul, Kwon didn’t plan on being an artist. She studied business, earning a degree from Ewha Womans University in 2015. An entrepreneur, she developed new packaging to conceal sanitary napkins, for which she won a Female Inventor of the Year award from the Korean Intellectual Property Office. But then, she says, she realized that her project was rooted in shame about her body.
“What I learned from the business field was how to monetize my body and my emotions—and my friends’ and family’s—without even recognizing that,” she said. “My business model was to reproduce the misogyny and patriarchy.”
When Kwon realized she could use art to talk about the feminist issues she found important, she started making videos, often about her body and her identity as a Korean woman. She was accepted to all the programs she applied to in the United States, including Cranbrook Academy of Art and School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but decided on Berkeley, where she began to develop her Leymusoom art project.
Kwon wants to continue revisiting the past so that not only she, but also her female ancestors, can occupy a world where their gender doesn’t hold them back.