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In the Studio: Jayoung Yoon

Artist Jayoung Yoon, a woman of Korean descent with light skin tone and black hair, stands in her studio—a room with off-white walls and several large work tables. We see multiple wooden molds and woven artworks on the surfaces of the tables, along with sketches on the walls.
Jayoung Yoon in her studio in Beacon, NY.

Jayoung Yoon is a New York-based artist who was born in South Korea. She is a 2023 Joan Mitchell Fellow. We interviewed Yoon about her work and creative practice in February 2024. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.


I use human hair as a primary medium to create two- and three-dimensional works that are deeply inspired by spirituality and Buddhist philosophy, exploring themes of mindfulness and interconnectedness.

In 2005, a year before I moved to the USA, I attended a spiritual retreat in South Korea. During this retreat, I was introduced to various practices, including fully inhabiting the present, clearing the mind, and recognizing our duality. One practice that particularly inspired me was questioning, “Who am I?” It was a simple yet profoundly challenging question. Each person responded with their name, job, gender, and nationality. However, the minister emphasized that these were merely external attributes, not the essence of our true selves.

A composite photo shows two views of The Offering Bowl, a sculptural vessel made of human hair, horsehair and feathers. The outer cup form is translucent woven material. Inside sits a white egg form created from feathers.
Jayoung Yoon, The Offering Bowl 05, 2022. Artist's hair, horsehair, feathers, glue, 6½ x 6 x 6 inches.

After several days of introspection, we arrived at a simple yet profound realization: “I AM.” We don’t need to append anything after “I AM” to describe who we are. In other words, our true individual self transcends our physical appearance and cultural background.

That was a moment of realization for me. When I transcended my thoughts, beliefs, and notions, I saw the world, including myself, as it truly is. I felt a sense of oneness with others, connectivity, and totality. For me, spirituality is a journey to remember who we really are. And I like to think that my art is a journey to remember who I truly am.

In a photo documenting a performance by artist Jayoung Yoon, a nude figure with light skin tone and a shaved head lays on her side, back to the camera, in the center of a room with white walls and white floors. Her head rests in a halo of light, and a translucent woven sculpture spirals up from her ear in a funnel shape, expanding into a flat surface that hovers a couple of feet above her body.
Jayoung Yoon, Listening to the Mind I, video performance documentation, 2009. Digital print, 22 x 33 inches.

In my early work, I employed semi-translucent sculptural forms to represent thoughts and memories in video and performance works. For example, in my videos, the “invisible thoughts” connected to my head lift slowly into the air and disappear in a cleansing gesture.

My videos and performances are also ritualistic meditation ceremonies, often comprised of long-term actions involving endurance and silence. I crafted the wearable pieces to evoke a sense of intimacy and envelopment. At the same time, the sculptural installations invite the viewer to slow down, pause, and deepen their own awareness of the present moment.

“I am the Emptiness” is an installation of 7 vertical banners of translucent white silk hung on white driftwood above a black circle, evenly staggered back from a center banner. The center banner has radiating fine black lines in a circle. The first banner to the left reads in small script font “Beyond All Consciousness Emptiness Hollowness I Am”. The banner to the right of center reads “The Void Into Light”. Other banners have partially visible linear illustrations of a flower growing from a root ball and a disembodied foot.
Jayoung Yoon, Sowing Seeds of Emptiness, 2022. Artist’s hair, Silk fabric, Silk thread, Milkweed seeds, 6 ½ x 9 x 12 feet.

More recently, I draw inspiration from the concepts of Form and Emptiness, which highlight the interconnectedness and ever-changing nature of all phenomena. Through my art, I embark on a poetic exploration of these concepts, delving into the question of what emptiness truly signifies.

To convey these ideas, I utilize shimmering veils meticulously crafted from human hair and other natural materials including feathers, milkweed seed fiber, and horsehair. They evoke a sense of fragility, inviting viewers to reflect upon the transient nature of life. By intricately interweaving and knotting different fiber materials over time, I hint at the underlying interdependence of all beings, symbolizing the interwoven fabric of existence.

In a white gallery space, a person looks into sculpture “The Portal” which is a very elongated transparent cone made from very finely woven black hair that stretches from their face to the upper corner of the room.
Jayoung Yoon, The Portal, 2022. Artist hair, 5 ½ x 5 ½ x 120 inches.

One of my recent works, The Portal, was directly inspired by my meditation retreat in 2005. It represents my stream of thoughts gradually disappearing into another dimension. It is installed horizontally so that viewers can stand at the open end of the sculpture and look into the funnel shape. The sculpture invites the audience to explore their own stream of thoughts and contemplate what lies beyond the vanishing point.

As I was searching for a material that could visualize cleansing my thoughts through materiality and process, I found that human hair has the potential to embody both mind and matter. Since I weave and knot each strand of hair into structures that are mostly air, my sculptures become semi-transparent, resembling ineffable thoughts and memories. Also, hair evokes matter through its visceral, tactile quality, and it is literally a trace and product of the human body.

I find that by using tactile and delicate materials like human hair in my work, people are invited to pay closer attention to the present moment. The nearly weightless sculptures, composed of woven strands of hair, move in space with the shifting airflow and respond to the viewer’s locomotion. These small movements in space and intricate details shift the viewer’s awareness of their surroundings and introduce subtle perceptions that are often taken for granted.

Since my sculptures are semi-translucent, I observe that the visibility of hair sculptures constantly change within the environment. It’s sometimes visible, sometimes invisible depending on light changes throughout the day. It provokes reflection on the fleeting and ephemeral nature of our existence. I envision the works transforming the space into an intimate and contemplative environment where the viewer can discover a new perception.

A composite image of five photos taken by artist Jayoung Yoon of traditional horsehair weaving in Korea. At top left is a wooden form used as a mold for a woven vessel. Top right shows Korean artifacts on a wooden table. Bottom left shows Yoon using a lathe to create a wooden form in a woodshop. Bottom middle shows a horsehair weaving in progress being held up on a wooden form. Bottom right shows the completed woven vessel free of the form—a translucent woven sculpture held up in the artist’s hand in front of a forest and sky.
Images from Jayoung Yoon’s research trip to Korea and photos of the horsehair weaving process, 2023.

Using human hair to make art is not typical in Korean culture. However, during a visit to Korea in 2019, I took a class to learn Korean traditional embroidery and patchwork at the Korean Cultural Center. In one of the classrooms, I saw Tang-geon, one of the traditional hats made of horsehair, on display. I was fascinated by its semi-transparent beauty and delicate structure, which resonated with my own works. I looked into where I could learn these techniques and discovered that several masters, recognized as “intangible cultural heritage,” still pass down the traditional horsehair weaving technique on Jeju Island.

In the summer of 2023, I traveled to Jeju Island, South Korea, and learned Korean traditional horsehair weaving for a month. This experience granted me profound insights into these traditional methods. The process involves making a wooden form, weaving the horsehair, affixing it to the wood, submerging it in cold water, then boiling it for 20-30 minutes to solidify the shape.

On a table in Jayoung Yoon’s studio, around a dozen wooden forms and translucent weavings sit together at varying heights and stages of completion. On one wall behind them is a window with slat blinds and woven forms sitting on the window sill. On the other wall, we see the artist’s sketches and templates for woven sculptures.
Woven horsehair and human hair sculptures for Jayoung Yoon’s new project, Torus: The Fabric of Energy.

Currently, I am using the new techniques to develop a new body of work, tentatively titled, Torus: The Fabric of Energy. This series was inspired by the documentary film THRIVE, which highlighted Einstein's discovery of “quantum packets,” often referred to as “little packets of wholeness.” The energy within this pattern flows in from one end, circulates around the center, and exits from the other side, maintaining balance, self-regulation, and inherent wholeness.

This pattern can be found in various phenomena, including the structure of small atoms, the cross-section of an apple, the formation of tornadoes, the Earth's magnetic field, and even the structure of entire galaxies. Significantly, it presents potential solutions for addressing unsustainable global issues within human systems.

Empty Void 37, an abstract square artwork, hangs on a white wall. The composition includes geometric and organic shapes that radiate outward from the center, with light yellow and rainbow tones. The piece is criss-crossed throughout by strands of the artist’s black hair, which create a visual net over the composition.
Jayoung Yoon, Empty Void 37, 2023. Artist's hair, gouache, acrylic medium on panel, 12 x 12 x 1 inches. This painting is inspired by the Torus, representing the flow of energy in the universe.

When I watched this film, this concept profoundly inspired and excited me about my new project, Fabric of Energy, where I will utilize human hair, horsehair, and other natural fiber materials woven together. Related to this project, I hope to create a performance piece inspired by Sufi whirling. I haven’t done any live performative projects since 2016, but it has always been my passion, and I am eager to revisit and create new ones. I believe that this physical movement meditation of Sufi whirling aligns with the overarching theme of my new project.

Since attending a whirling workshop in spring 2023, I have been practicing. I have an idea to create a live performance in collaboration with Sufi dancers in the space where I will install my new hair sculptures. This performance will offer an experience that fosters mindfulness, reflection, and spiritual awareness.

Interview and editing by Jenny Gill. Learn more about Jayoung Yoon’s work at jayoungyoon.com.

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