Drawing from Within – Drawing with Breath

For this post, we spoke with the South Korean artist Sun Choi, who takes an experimental approach to painting. Educated at the Hong-Ik University in Seoul, Choi questions the nature of art as well as the western canons imposed onto Korean art. As he points out, »My work reflects my own questions about the ambiguity and indefinability of art.« The projects Choi develops use natural materials such as salt, hair, bones, sugar, or snow, or take inspiration from physical conditions like vomiting or disease. In one project, he asked people to blow onto paint, creating a collaborative work that somehow defies the limits of authorship and the concept of drawing.

Painting can be perceived as one of the most individualist of all art forms. Painters are quite often understood as masters who shaped our imagination over centuries – from Diego Velázquez to Pablo Picasso or Jean-Michel Basquiat, no one can do what a painter does. So, when we ask ordinary people to paint for us, what happens to the concept of authorship? Choi is still the author of his paintings, as he has artistic vision. To some extent, we can argue that he is the curator of the paintings that he imagined, as he created a certain frame within which people could express themselves. But, one can also argue that he did not »make« the paintings himself.

Finally, blowing paint is not exactly painting, as the result is unexpected. To breathe/blow onto paint is an immaterial gesture. Only air is moved from the lungs, and unwillingly produces forms. Thus, the next question could be: who/what draws that form? The unconscious, the skilled artist, and his marvelous concept or chance?

Breathing is never a simple gesture, as it has strong symbolism. Breathing is of course one of the vital signs of life, in which the respiratory rate of humans is on average somewhere between ten and forty breaths per minute.

Breathing has different spiritual meanings, as the Latin word »spirit« means breath. The Bible also associates the creation of Adam through breathing onto clay – thus giving life to inanimate forms through breathing. Similar perceptions can be found in rituals such as yoga, t’ai-chi or Buddhist meditation. Finally, breathing is the main source of artistic expression in activities such as singing, whistling, and playing wind instruments.

So, when we breathe onto paint, blowing it, what kind of representation do we achieve? Do artistic people breathe/blow the paint better? Do we draw with our hands, or with the mind? What is the role the unconscious plays in the artistic process in general? Is the artistic inspiration a myth or reality?

Similar to walking or drawing, breathing can evoke a feeling of relaxation. When we walk, we discover new connections in our minds; when we draw, we find new forms, ideas, or feelings; when we breathe, we are better connected to our interior world. So, breathing could be seen as one of the essential manifestations of the self, similar to walking or drawing.

So, the question arises, when we draw through breathing, who/what and how draws/paints the work? We dared ask Choi some questions.

Ana Mendes: When and how did you get the idea of asking people to blow onto paint?

Sun Choi: In 2011, I watched a huge tsunami arise after the earthquake of Japan. It was a moment in which everything disappeared, including people and buildings. After the experience, I asked myself what life and beauty is and what art can and must do in that situation. First, I’d like to overcome the fear of disappearance by art, which is not made by hands and ideas. I liked to have a conviction that I can make artworks through life alone. As you know, we must breathe to keep alive, even the morning after a family member’s death. Sometimes life seemed to keep breathing in from person to person. So, I tried to make a painting with people who lost their families in the 2011 tsunami by their breathing. The work is You Can Continue to Breathe at the Ending Point of My Breath, 2011, but I could not finish it yet.

The morning of April 2014, the Sewol Ferry Tragedy happened in Korea. More than 300 high school students from Ansan city near Seoul, headed to Jeju Island, disappeared into the sea. The Korean Government and the old generation could not control the accident and save them. They had no will and courage to save them because of the money and political power. The president of Korea was sleeping in that morning. Since the accident of Sewol Ferry Tragedy, I would like to make more beautiful works without any technology.

I initially titled the work “소식”. In Korean, “소식” may translate to “news” in English, but that word “소식” means sharing a part of my breath with others as the sign of my safety.

AM: How do you perceive the concept of authorship in a work like Butterflies, in which you asked people to perform a certain activity for you?

SC: Actually, the right of authorship in the work like Butterflies is not clear. I had no concept of authorship when I started the work. I am trying to get a contract with someone who calls me and manages the project for me before starting, each case is different. I am just trying it. I am good at begging someone for something I need, like the Buddha.

»Similar to walking or drawing, breathing can evoke a feeling of relaxation. When we walk, we discover new connections in our minds; when we draw, we find new forms, ideas, or feelings; when we breathe, we are better connected to our interior world.« Sun Choi

AM: To what extent do you perceive yourself as the curator of the work that the audience creates through your concept?

The audiences want to enjoy participating in the work. It’s really great to make the audience feel the beauty of their breath, the marks prove they are living through the work. Butterflies is painting without any illusionary techniques. When I was in the Korean military 25 years ago. I crashed and lost feeling under my knee for a short time. After the accident, I realized living life is beautiful and important.

AM: How do you maintain a certain aesthetic vision when you work with ordinary people?

SC: That’s a really good question. It is a serious problem with the work. I have to sternly warn the audience not to make any personal marks or messages, like a heart. That’s the point.

AM: Your works are always very colorful. How do you perceive color; what role does color play in your works?

SC: I use color as a word before the word. I really love all kinds of color, including white and black. I am sure that we can understand the message of contemporary society through color.

As you know, Korea is separated into two nations. In the national flag of South Korea, the blue means South and the red means North. I do not know why, but many Koreans realize red is a symbol of North Korea’s Communism; and blue is capitalistic democracy. Can you believe it? There is something incomprehensible in my subconsciousness. I used to use both red and blue for the conflict and the pain of separation in Korea.

Conventionally, White means purity, but I use it to represent a contradiction to my inner world. And I use the color in the context of society and history as a Korean artist.

AM: How do you understand drawing?

SC: Drawing is a way of understanding the world for me. It means understanding human beings, the time of history and space of the world, too. I enjoy reading the drawings of other artists and doing the drawings for me, too. And I wish that my drawing could stimulate new thinking and new art.


Sun Choi (born in Seoul in 1973) studied Fine Arts in Painting at Hong-Ik University in Seoul, South Korea. Choi was won numerous Korean and international awards and residencies, including the Grand Prize of the 12th SongEun Art Award, SongEun Art Foundation, South Korea. His work has been exhibited widely in Korea, Japan, China, and India.