Canadian artist residing in Seoul, Paul Kajander

Paul Kajander, a 34-year-old Canadian artist living in Seoul, often pays a visit to Euljiro Street. He finds inspiration from numerous light stores and light displays placed by these stores on the street. 

Since moving to Seoul from Vancouver in 2012, Kajander has been working on video and installation art works. Last summer, he took part in the Universal Studios exhibit involving art by non-Korean artists living in Korea at the Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA). 

Like many artists who lead a nomadic life and work in diverse cultures, Kajander gets his inspiration by living in Korea and expresses what he has experienced in Korea through his art. 

Canadian media and installation artist Paul Kajander

Kajander heard about Seoul from his friends who took part in the Mediacity Seoul exhibit in 2011 and decided to move to the city. He said that Seoul is a great city in which to do creative work and that, now, it feels like home. 

He has been using various media, including video and photography, to create his installation art works. He uses such diverse media and materials. "Because it allows you to do the most. There are flexibilities in doing many things. Also, I like complexity. I like feelings of doubt," he said. 

He has a great deal of interest in Korean history, society and arts. Last year, he took part in the "Real DMZ Project" and worked with elementary school students living in Cherwon County, Gangwon-do (Gangwon Province), near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the Korean Peninsula. He took photographs of innocent children with the ruins of buildings devastated by the Korean War (1950-1953) in the background. Then, he inserted images of the division to create a contrast, trying to express the memory, agony and scars of war. 

"It is an opportunity and responsibility to reflect on the conditions of the world and the state of the world at this time," said Kajander. "It is a way to organize reality and yourself in reality," adding that he wants people to have a chance to think about something through his work. 

Kajander was interviewed at his studio in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul, and asked how he decided to move to Korea and what he thinks of art. 

- Why did you move to Seoul to work as an artist? 

It was curiosity mixed with desperation, and I decided to work and stay here because it was a good chance to explore a different part of the world. Curiosity came from friends who took part in the Mediacity Seoul exhibition in 2011. I heard a lot of great things about the city at the time. I knew a little about the city from films and history, like the Korean War. The peninsula is divided. I was interested in Korean films. Recently, Korean filmmakers are making interesting films. 

- You worked in New York and Tokyo. What's it like to do creative work in Seoul? 

Seoul is great in the sense that it is an interesting place to work, to think about materials and to think about culture and politics. I made a few small projects in Tokyo and New York for only a few months. Seoul is becoming more like home. I never thought that New York or Tokyo would be a home base. I only went there to do some projects or to take part in residence programs, but I never moved there. 

When you are based somewhere, it is different from when you are visiting. When you visit somewhere, you have a limited routine as to where you go, such as the museum or gallery. When you are based somewhere, however, you know the city in a complex way. You become aware of the city and it offers possibilities to learn about the city and to explore different parts of the city that are unfamiliar to you. 

- Why did you become an artist? Are there people who influenced you to become an artist? 

It is a complicated question. The role of the artist now is determined by your relationship with culture and society. When I was young, I was curious about participating in a culture that was strange to me. If you are an artist, you don't need to compete or survive. You can definitely think outside the economic relationship to labor. 

When I was young and made drawings, people said I was so talented. That kind of influence shaped my sense of identity. When I went to art school, reality started kicking in. When you are 18 years old, what you did in art is different from what you do when you are 34. My perspective on art has changed a lot since then. Actually, I don't know why or when I first made the decision, but I am glad that I did. I continue to work as an artist. 

There are a few people who influenced me the most. When I was studying for my undergrad, I met my teacher Judy Radul in 2008. She is a powerful figure in terms of thinking about art and knowing about how you want to live your life. I had a lot of admiration for how she works and how she thinks of her work. Although I met her as a teacher, she later became a friend. 

- Why did you choose media and installation art among others? 

Generally, I think of my work as different layers of being, either material or durational. A lot of the time, they involve videos. Video allows you to do something very unique. In videos, sound, space and language happen at all once. If you are making a video, people are watching, speaking and hearing sounds at the same time. Then, there is the montage. I want people to think about something. I use a lot of labor and time. Mostly, I work from research. I encounter something and it works as a trigger to make something. 

- Why do you use various materials and genres, such as painting, sculpture and video, to create your works? 

Media and installation art allows me to do make different things. You can incorporate different objects, images, time and duration. Video and sound seem to be a way to get a feeling of life. It can happen in art. You are not entirely sure whether it is fixed or finished. When we are on the subway, we can see LCD screens everywhere. Media allows you to do that. 

I know that every person approaches everything differently. There is an amazing poet whose name is CAConrad. His poems say it very well. He says I have one poem, but if thousands of people read it, there are 1,000 poems. It is because you are the result of your experience, knowledge, personal beliefs and everything else you carry with you. 

I love it when people who are not educated in art, but who are open-minded, see your work and say the most amazing things to you. They are really observant and they find one element of your work that is really meaningful for them because they can grab on to it. It is the most useful part of an exhibition. 

Last year's 'The Real DMZ Project' by Paul Kajander involves elementary school students living in Cherwon, Gangwon-do, and a range of materials and media. (photos courtesy of Paul Kajander)

- You took part in the "Real DMZ Project" in Cherwon County, Gangwon-do, near the Demilitarized Zone last year. You worked with elementary school children living in Cherwon County. What kind of message were you trying to deliver? 

In that case, it is like when you are presented with an opportunity for a very specific context. It was an opportunity to make art and answer my own questions. I had a chance to visit there many times. The message in that work is kind of complex. It comes down to the atrocity and violence that happens on a large scale. It leaves psychological scars. I could feel that in Cherwon. I can only understand it as a foreigner from textbooks, films and documents, media representations of war. 

I wanted to work with children who grew up there. They were totally children of this time. They had smartphones. You also see tanks driving along the road. They were living right here in proximity to the situation. I wanted to talk to children and ask what freedom means to them and how they think about life. 

- You took part in the International Artists Residency Program supported by the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. How did you participate in the program and what did you gain from the program? 

I thought it would be a great opportunity to work and meet other international artists so I applied for the residency program. Korea has some of the best opportunities for residence programs. Other countries have artists of one nationality but Korea has a very nice mix of both non-Korean and Korean artists. 

For an artist anywhere, at anytime, having time to work in Seoul would be great. I learned that it is important to have a material space. I have been traveling a lot and I lost a sense of being based in one location. The residency program gave me a chance to such a large work. Otherwise, I would not have made such work. 

- You exhibited "Lights Lit for Show" at the Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) for the Universal Studios show last summer. How did you come up with that work? 

They are photographs of fluorescent light boxes. It is a type of low level advertising printed on latex. The subjects of the work were amazing light displays. All these light vendors have these fluorescent lights along Euljiro, showing all these things as a form of advertising. I always love to see this. It gave me motivation to see Euljiro. 

They were obviously put together by some shop owners. Taking photos of these is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek joke. I was always capturing light displays. They were idiosyncratic. They are quite fascinating sculptures. 

They put the sculptures outside the store or on the streets. That is something I love about their neighborhood. It's as if Home Depot exploded. 

- In what kind of subjects are you most interested? What kind of projects are you working on or planning to do? 

I am interested 3-D art. I am doing a project that involves 3-D components. I am going to take part in the New Forms Festival in Vancouver in August. It will be a 3-D sound installation. 

When I was in New York recently, I saw something incredible. Ken Jacobs has been working with 3-D. This was a kind of experimental filmmaking. I saw Jean-Luc Godard‘s 3-D work. It was very inspiring. Media is always evolving. 

- Where do you get your inspiration from, such as Korean society or history? What do you do to find inspiration? 

A lot of inspiration comes from reading. For interesting places in Korea right now, Euljiro is really fascinating to me. It is inspiring to make new works. Or, I go to the mountains in the suburbs just to wind down. When I lived in Bukchon, Seoul, I walked along the Changdeokgung Palace for night-time walks. That has been my favorite walking trail at night in the summer. There are a lot of trees so it is cool. Since I moved to near Beotigogae Station, I started walking along the fortress trail. The Shilla Hotel is beautiful at night time. Walking is a source of inspiration. 

- What does Korea and art mean to you? 

Art means everything to me. It is a way to come up with new questions. Art means a lot of struggle and pleasure. Good artists honestly reflect the conditions of being in the world today. Their work becomes meaningful when people see it and think that they are alive. Contemporary art is more likely to help people think about society. There are different perspectives to approach art. Only human beings create art. No other life form seems to do that. It is a very unique form of being conscious. 

To me, Korea means a lot of contradiction. Vancouver is a multicultural city. In the subway in Seoul, however, everyone knows that I am not Korean. It is a useful experience. You are always aware of who you are and how you behave. It is like inverting your sense of taking for granted. Korea has been instructive in that regard. There is a lot more possibility to spend time and make more art works. 

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