Women and Reality: Yun Suk-nam


South Korean feminist artist Yun Suk-nam’s alluring theatrical installation Pink sofa 1996 (illustrated) has recently undergone conservation treatment. This early installation work is a comment on oppression of Korean women in a patriarchal society — it expresses painful personal memories and the artist’s fear of returning to domestic life.

Treating the silk upholstery

Textile conservator Michael Marendy treating the silk upholstery of the sofa in preparation for its display / Photograph: Chloë Callistemon

Born in Manchuria, China, in 1939, Yun Suk-nam’s family moved to Korea in 1944. Yun was a housewife and mother before deciding to become an artist at the age of 40. Having studied calligraphy but without any formal art training, she began by painting her mother, finding inspiration in the working-class widow who had raised six children through difficult times. Yun’s burgeoning practice was set against a backdrop of political turmoil: mass demonstrations against an authoritarian rule modelled on Confucian ideologies culminated in anti-government protests and a widespread campaign for democracy in June 1987. Student-led protests and the Minjung (‘People’s’) art movement, which embraced Social Realism, were calling for political change. During this political period, Yun and fellow artists Kim Jin-sook and Kim In-soon formed the October Group; in 1986, they held what is considered the first feminist art exhibition in South Korea. Yun’s consistent discourse on women deprived of independence and living in a society with long entrenched gender inequality earned her recognition as a leading figure in Korean feminist art. In the early 1990s, after studying in the United States, Yun turned her attention to sculpture and installation using found materials to continue her exploration into Korean women’s lives. Concurrently, her work was gaining greater recognition both in Korea and overseas.

For the 46th Venice Biennale in 1995, Yun presented an installation titled The story of mother 1995, which featured painted wooden sculptures and candles burning in the foreground. Her mother had been her subject and source of inspiration for over a decade, but this work marked a turning point in the artist’s career: it was the end of the story of her mother and the beginning of her exploration into self and women in history. Already recognised as a leading contemporary artist at home, Yun was participating in major exhibitions overseas, awarded the Lee Jung-Seop Art Award — the highest honour accorded to Korean artists — in 1996, started IF magazine in 1997, and in the same year, was appointed the director of the Feminist Artist Network.

In the early 1990s, Yun used secondhand chairs in her work to personify women. Soon after, she embarked on the ‘Pink Room’ series — an exploration of maternity, in which she reflected her own story as a middle-aged, middle-class housewife and mother, and the painful memories of the oppression of women — and, by extension, their cross generational social role — as non-participants in Korean society.

Preparatory drawing

Yun Suk-nam’s Preparatory drawing for ‘Pink sofa’ 1996 / Gift of the artist 1997
Yun Suk-nam’s Pink sofa (detail) 1996
Installation view of Yun Suk-nam’s Pink sofa 1996

In early 1996, Yun submitted Preparatory drawing for ‘Pink sofa’ (illustrated) to QAGOMA, which later served as a guide for its installation. The work was one of 144 artworks featured in the Gallery’s second Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT2) and became an important addition to the Collection. It differs from the preparatory drawing in that the standing figure (illustrated), made from recycled timber and situated on the periphery, was reworked to take on a more ghost-like appearance: rather than being suspended, the woman, who is painted in acrylic wash, is planted in heavy metal ‘feet’, her arm and mannequin’s hand no longer part of the milieu. At the time, curator Soyeon Ahn surmised, ‘This brilliantly coloured work expresses women’s hopes and their desire to escape from a society that demoralises rather than accepts them’.1

RELATED: Delve into the Asia Pacific Triennial

Yun Suk-nam’s Pink sofa (detail) 1996

Central to the installation is a mock-baroque sofa — a symbol of European taste and affluence and a style popular in Korea at the time. Yun reupholstered the salvaged sofa in vibrant Korean silk: ‘“PINK” is an uncertainty of emotion, particularly of women, which stemmed from the feeling that they could exist nowhere in the world’.2 Yun remodelled the legs, which appear to balance precariously on large metal nails. The sinister supports were inspired by eunjangdo, small knives carried by women for self-defence during the Chosun dynasty era (1392–1910).3 The seat cushions are pierced by long metal spikes, rendering the furniture unusable by anyone other than the seated figure tucked in the corner: constructed from recycled timber, the figure wears hanbok (traditional Korean dress) painted and adorned with mother of pearl, suggesting a pre-modern era. The timeline is nevertheless disrupted by the modern figure, who is literally marginalised by a sea of plastic beads covering the floor. Both women are isolated.

Realised at a pivotal time in Yun’s career, and framed against South Korea’s women’s movement, Pink sofa is as relevant today as it was when conceptualised quarter of a century ago. This significant installation is a comment on a society’s deep-rooted gender inequalities and conveys a strong message of female oppression while paradoxically offering a sense of optimism.

Emily Gray is Assistant Registrar (GOMA Collection Storage).

See Pink sofa 1996 in ‘Reality and Invention: Contemporary Asian Art’, in the Marica Sourris and James C. Sourris AM Galleries (3.3 and 3.4, GOMA) until 19 September 2021.

1 Soyeon Ahn, ‘Yun Suk-nam’ [essay] attached to Acquisition Proposal for Preparatory drawing for ‘Pink sofa’, dated 27 June 1997, QAGOMA Research Library, p.142.
2 Yun Suk-nam, ‘Detailed provenance’ form, QAGOMA Research Library.
3 Kim Sung-jung, ‘Baubles, bangles and beads: Interviews with four Korean women artists’, Art Asia Pacific, vol.3, no.3, 1996, p.66.

Yun Suk-nam, South Korea b.1939 / Pink sofa 1996 / Wood sofa covered in Korean silk, curved steel pins, steel pin legs on sofa, plastic balls, two wood sculptures painted with synthetic polymer paint, fragments of mother-of-pearl inlay, steel base / Sofa: 118 x 280 x 93; (installed) / Purchased 1996. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Yun Suk-nam

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Installing Aisha Khalid’s steel and gold-plated pin tapestry


Pakistani artist Aisha Khalid’s site-specific triptych Water has never feared the fire is a set of hanging textiles embedded with millions of long, steel and gold-plated pins commissioned for ‘The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT9). This remarkable sculptural textile presented unique unpacking and documenting challenges upon its arrival at the Gallery. Emily Gray takes us behind-the-scenes as the Gallery prepared the delicate but prickly work for display.

Aisha Khalid ‘Water has never feared the fire’ 2018

Aisha Khalid, Pakistan b.1972 / Water has never feared the fire 2018 installed at APT9, GOMA 2018 / Fabric, gold-plated and steel pins / Triptych: 492.75 x 167.65cm; 492.75 x 83.8cm; 492.75 x 83.8cm / Commissioned for APT9 / The Kenneth and Yasuko Myer Collection of Contemporary Asian Art. Purchased 2018 with funds from The Myer Foundation through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation to commemorate the 25th anniversary of The Kenneth and Yasuko Myer Collection of Contemporary Asian Art / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Aisha Khalid / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA

Watch | The inspiration for Aisha Khalid’s tapestry

Installing Aisha Khalid’s sculptural tapestry

Khalid creates large-scale textile works from fabric and pins, often taking her inspiration from the colours and geometric patterns of Persian visual culture. Her works incorporate a number of traditional elements, referencing miniature painting and designs from Charbagh gardens, a quadrilateral garden layout based on the ‘four gardens of paradise’ mentioned in the Qur’an. Khalid adds a three-dimensional, sculptural aspect to her works by using sharp pins to pierce through several layers of cloth, leaving the sharp ends exposed. This technique  presented unique challenges for staff in unpacking, moving and storing the textiles without displacing any of the pins.

Water has never feared the fire was freighted from Lahore, Pakistan in three timber crates. The artist devised a way of packing the textile panels so that they were literally suspended in their crates during transit. Each panel had lengths of cotton fabric machine-sewn to the long edges of the work, together with horizontal metal poles that had been screwed into the sides of the crates to provide additional support and separation between the two layers of fabric and pins. The cotton strips were anchored with string to metal eyelets at multiple points along the inside of the crates.

QAGOMA Registration, Conservation and Workshop staff unpack Aisha Khalid’s textile work, July 2018 / Photographs: Chloë Callistemon © QAGOMA

Together, the tapestry’s three panels comprise roughly three million steel and gold-plated steel pins pushed through a strong synthetic velvet and cotton substrate. Since the surface of the artwork was quite vulnerable, unpacking and moving the tapestries required careful planning. The panels are also very heavy: the central panel is the largest (485 x 120cm) and weighs almost 100 kilograms, while the left and right panels (485 x 60cm) are approximately 40 kilograms each. We decided to unpack one of the smaller textiles first — this had pins pushed through in only one direction, which meant that the artwork could be laid out on tables if handling became problematic.

Workshop staff constructed a hanging bracket fixed to a wall in Conservation. While art handlers supported and lifted the artwork, two staff systematically cut the strings anchoring it in its crate. While maintaining tension to the textile, we slowly raised the artwork from a horizontal to a vertical position, leaving the lower section (in fact, the top of the artwork) lying in the crate. Our sculpture conservator was then able to unpick the cotton strips on either side of the panel and remove particulate matter — some polystyrene packing material and small wood splinters — from among the pins, a soft paintbrush was used to remove the debris, grabbing the unwanted particulate without disturbing the pins.

In the meantime, a frame was constructed suitable for storing the textile and moving the work into the exhibition space. The final design solution was a large timber-framed vertical rack on wheels; the textile is wrapped around the fabric-covered rolls at the top and bottom. Positioning the two double-sided pinned textiles on their timber frames required thoughtful planning to ensure that none of the pins were crushed.

A frame was construced suitable for storing the textile and moving Water has never feared the fire 2018 / Photographs: C Callistemon © QAGOMA

A team of six people was involved in raising the artwork into position using a chain and pulley system and a mount secured to the gallery ceiling. Finally, the bottom edge of the work was carefully fed under the lower roll of the storage system. While the artwork is on display in ‘The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art‘ (APT9) Registration staff will agree on a long-term storage solution with Workshop and Conservation staff to ensure that the finished product is space-efficient and suitably fitted out — essentially three crates will be constructed for this light-sensitive and difficult-to-clean artwork.

Emily Gray is Assistant Registrar, Collection Storage (GOMA), QAGOMA

Reverse of left panel Water has never feared the fire 2018
Front of left panel Water has never feared the fire 2018

The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT9) / Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) Brisbane Australia / 24 Nov 2018 – 28 Apr 2019


‘The Mooche’ oozes 1960s cool and vitality


A generous gift to the Collection from James C Sourris, AM, this jazz-titled, lozenge-shaped canvas by Australian artist Dick Watkins ‘oozes 1960s cool and vitality’.

In the 1968 catalogue for the landmark exhibition ‘The Field’, Royston Harpur identified The Mooche 1968 (illustrated) by Dick Watkins as ‘the outstanding painting’ in the exhibition.1 Curator Brian Finemore and exhibition officer John Stringer brought together the latest in Colour Field and hard-edge abstract painting and sculpture for ‘The Field’, which was held at the newly built National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road in Melbourne. The exhibition attracted huge publicity and attendances, with around 100 000 visitors in its first weekend.2 Critics at the time were particularly harsh, but today ‘The Field’ is acclaimed as one of the most important exhibitions in Australian art history. Testaments to this are the generous amount of literature on it and numerous exhibitions revisiting the theme since the 1980s. Early in his career, Watkins looked to the work of North American abstract expressionists and Pop artists working in a narrative manner, and in 1968 attended lectures given by visiting influential art critic Clement Greenberg. Watkins’s travels between 1959 and 1961 played a key role in shaping his practice: he lived in London, visited continental Europe and stopped off in New York before returning to Australia. The Mooche hints at lyrical abstraction, at what was to come. Indeed, in his catalogue essay for ‘The Field’, Patrick McCaughey (then art critic for The Age) predicted that with The Mooche, ‘. . . the opening of the field and the loosening of the paint promise a view of the future. . .’3

Dick Watkins ‘The Mooche’

Dick Watkins, Australia b.1937 / The Mooche 1968 / Synthetic polymer paint (PVA) and oil on canvas / 167.5 x 167.5 cm / The James C Sourris, AM, Collection. Gift of James C Sourris, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2014. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Richard John Watkins/Copyright Agency

With undercurrents of Cubism and early Russian Constructivism, The Mooche is a vibrant mix of Pop meets Colour Field and hard-edge abstraction. With soft-edged forms and a rhythmic movement of shapes traversing the picture plane, this jazz-titled work oozes 1960s cool and vitality. Its lozenge-shaped canvas4 adds to the work’s dynamism and alludes to Piet Mondrian’s losangiques, first painted in 1918.

The Mooche has passed through some significant collections. Until 1988 it was owned by mining engineer Jeremy Caddy before entering the prestigious Laverty Collection (Dr Colin and Elizabeth Laverty) of Indigenous and non-Indigenous art. Gifted to QAGOMA by Brisbane collector and QAGOMA Foundation Committee member James C Sourris, AM, it strengthens our existing holdings of mid-twentieth-century paintings and early Australian abstraction. The Mooche joins three other works in the Collection that were exhibited in ‘The Field’: the large, modular Colour Field painting Arbitrator 1968 (illustrated) by Central Street frontman Tony McGillick, Dale Hickey’s Untitled 1967, and Nigel Lendon’s Slab construction 11 1968 (illustrated). Along with these are examples in the Collection that closely relate to other works in ‘The Field’, such as the influential American James Doolin’s Artificial landscape 1967, Robert Rooney’s Kind-hearted kitchen-garden I 1967, and two untitled white/off-white paintings by Robert Hunter, both from 1968.

Nigel Lendon ‘Slab construction 11’

Nigel Lendon, Australia 1944-2021 / Slab construction 11 1968 / Synthetic polymer paint on plywood / 131 x 76.5 x 70cm / Purchased 1994. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation and Queensland Art Gallery Functions Reserve Fund / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of Nigel Lendon

Many of the artists in ‘The Field’, including Watkins, lived or travelled overseas in the years preceding the exhibition, and this undoubtedly helped to shape its content. A time of huge political and cultural change, North American popular culture was rapidly filtering into Australian life. The Mooche emphatically represents a period when many Australian artists abandoned traditional motifs, such as the landscape, and embraced a new internationalism.

Emily Gray is Assistant Registrar GOMA, QAGOMA

1  Royston Harpur, then curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, artist and former manager of Sydney’s Central Street Gallery, in The Field [exhibition catalogue], National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, and The Aldine Press, 1968, p.93.
2  The Sun, Victoria, 26 August 1968.
3  Patrick McCaughey in The Field, p.90.
This was also a format used by Kenneth Noland for his paintings Go 1964 and Stand 1966, which were exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne and the Art Gallery of New South wales, Sydney, as part of the hugely popular and influential 1967 exhibition ‘Two Decades of American Painting’ from the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Tony McGillick ‘Arbitrator’

Tony McGillick, Australia 1941-1992 / Arbitrator 1968 / Synthetic polymer paint on shaped canvas / Four pieces / Purchased 2007 with funds from the Estate of Vincent Stack through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © estate of Tony McGillick