Jisan Ahn - Biography

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Seemingly cheerful scenes presented in ominous grey tones, arousing an elusive mixture of alienation and nostalgia: Jisan Ahn (b. 1979, Busan, South Korea) digs up fragments from South Korea’s recent past and lets them tell a new story.

A trip to Amsterdam made him curious about the rest of the country. Ahn moved to Groningen, where he went to school and delved into Western art. ‘Before that time I made paintings about Korean political subjects. In my new surroundings I realized that such local issues are not relevant all over the world, so I started searching for something else, something more general.’ After years of living in the Netherlands, he returned to Seoul in order to look at Korean society with fresh eyes.

A big source of inspiration for Ahn is Korean commercials from the 1970s. ‘Not slick ads based on psychological marketing, but commercials that have a naïve quality,’ he explains. ‘They are direct, reveal their goal with no hidden agenda: buy shoes. Nevertheless, the setting and the message almost seem to be unrelated sometimes.’ With the know-how we have today, this makes his visual sources seem a little absurd. But they also have a sympathetic aspect, which we seem to have lost in today’s consumer society. ‘I want to put that old-fashioned, traditional visual idiom in this age and see how people react to it,’ says Ahn. Taking the images from the commercials out of their original context and isolating them eliminates the references. The image itself then becomes central, affording room for a more universal meaning.

This series marks the beginning of a new artistic approach for Ahn. ‘I used to make drawings, collages and miniature setups before starting the painting itself. Now I have skipped that process in order to directly put the impression, my memory of the image, on the canvas. A new way of working in order to tell new stories.’ Ahn prefers not to explain exactly what those stories are about. ‘I choose the images; my personal opinion is not important beyond that. I am much more interested in how the viewer reacts to them, what people see in them.’ Although their explanations can and do vary, many people recognize discomfort in his work. A feeling that is deeply rooted in Ahn’s work, one that he takes a certain pleasure in. ‘My childhood was very ordinary. Maybe that’s why I’m not looking for happy pictures. I like uncomfortable situations.’

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