ART & CULTURE

Bear Balloons, Project That Delivers Art to People
We sat down with Im Ji-bin, one of the most sought-after artists today. The interview compelled us to reflect on the role of art and its mass appeal.
The art market is driven by gallerists and collector. There doesn’t seem to be room for the general public. It’s rare for an ordinary person to go see an art exhibition once a year, let alone once a month. And as art becomes more and more distant from the public, the art market takes on an increasingly haughty air.
And in the field seemingly full of arrogant people, Im Ji-bin is one artist who actively engages the public. And his effort has paid dividends, in the form of increased attention from the market and the mass alike. Brands that don’t have any common denominator, including an international beverage brand, an overseas sports brand, a premium automaker and a luxury goods brand, have all collaborated with Im. It’s a clear indication that Im is a perceptive artist, someone who can successfully produce works that align with their brand values without compromising their popular appeal.

‘EVERYWHERE in Venice‘, Variable installation balloon 2019 © Im Jibin

‘EVERYWHERE in Chengdu‘, Variable installation balloon 2016 © Im Jibin

‘EVERYWHERE in Hong Kong‘, Variable installation balloon 2016 © Im Jibin

Inspired by Bearbricks, Im launched a sculpture series exposing the face of the consumer society and installed Bear Balloons across Korea and other parts of the world, taking their videos and pictures as part of his ‘Everywhere’ project. Im defined his project as being ‘Delivery Art,’ as he brings art to people. Once you see Bear Balloons standing on streets or stuck between buildings, you’ll see why Im has been so beloved.
Making Bearbricks

Q. COVID-19 forced art exhibitions and other cultural events to be canceled, and this has been a challenging time for artists.
A. I’ve had projects and exhibitions either scrapped or postponed. In particular, a lot of collaborative projects with corporations were canceled. At least I got to hold a solo exhibition about three times.

Q. You had your first exhibition as a college student, right?
A. I really worked at it while I was still at school. I thought long and hard about what to do for a living. Then I got the top prize in sculpture at the Grand Art Exhibition of Busan, and then I started thinking I could make a career out of art.

Q. Student-artists can have exhibitions but not everyone grabs attention.
A. That’s correct. I think I was able to generate some interest for a couple of reasons. As a college senior, I participated in Arto Art Fair Busan, and the director for the Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai liked my work. I got to take part in the Animamix Biennial held at that museum.

Q. How did you end up doing what you do?
A. I’ve always been interested in characters for brands like Michelin and Pringles. You could say it meant I’ve been interested in consumerism. Then in 2006, I saw Chanel’s work with Bearbricks. Those bears have their own price tags, and depending on which brand or artist they work with, their value can shoot up. People draw different looks from others, based on which car they drive and what type of clothes they wear. I wanted to tell such stories of consumerism. I thought Bearbricks would be a good medium for that.

Pieces on display inside the studio at Gana ArtPark in Jangheung-myeon.

Q. You put fake logos of luxury brands on Bearbricks at first, and that turned a few heads.
A. In the early days, I put in a bear inside the Louis Vuitton logo and put something fake. But if people didn’t pay close attention, they would have thought those were real. Next, I did a series on wild water buffalo horns. Today, we flaunt our power and status with money or certain talent. Back when there were no such things as money or assets, I figured physical strength and hunting skills would have been the symbol of power. So I used actual horns or painted antlers. It was an extension of the luxury series.

Q. You’ve left fake logos behind, and Bearbricks are now wearing real Gucci. How will you balance these two areas?
A. I didn’t start the project to be critical of people judging others based on logos. Just like everyone else, I am a consumer, too. I just wanted to translate that into art to tell stories. And I really enjoyed working with luxury brands. I always want my ideas on the kind of art that I want to pursue to be easily accessible for the general public, and this was my opportunity to make it happen.

Im has his finger prints on every piece.

Q. This reminds me of your brand of delivery art.
A. I think it’s important to lower the entry barriers to art. Of course, I have my own messages worked into my pieces, but I hope to make it appealing to the mass.

Q. You’ve worked with several brands and it must have been difficult to get on the same page with different partners.
A. From their perspective, they want to get their logos or brand identity out there when they work with me. I try to minimize that type of exposure and approach those projects purely as art. It’s difficult to meet them halfway.
 

Working within the single framework of Bearbricks, Im expands on shapes, textures and themes for his pieces.

Q. Do you name your Bearbricks? How do you settle on the title of your pieces?
A. I don’t name those characters. And because I mostly deal with human desires, the word ‘slave’ often comes at the front end of the title. It’s followed by subtitles, and it goes like, ‘Slave-You Broke My Heart,’ or ‘Slave-You’re Not Alone.’

Q. I was surprised to learn that you do everything all by yourself.
A. Since this is all work of art, I think it’s important that the artist himself does everything. Using a 3D printer would make it more convenient, but I am not just building a toy here. Bearbricks are just a part of the work I do. The process starts with doing some basic work with clay, making plaster mold, sanding, filling and building silicone mold. Repeating these steps is a part of my life. It’s time consuming but I think it suits my personality. I enjoy doing repetitive work.

 
Art Brings You Joy

‘EVERYWHERE in Taipei’, Variable installation balloon 2016 © Im Jibin

Q. Was it 2016 that you turned Bearbricks into giant balloons and send them around the world? What inspired you to start Everywhere project?
A. I felt art shouldn’t be so distant and unapproachable. Since people don’t go to art exhibitions, I decided to reach out to them, under the concept of delivering art to people.

Q. How many cities outside Korea have you visited?
A. I think I’ve covered a lot of countries in Asia, such as Japan, China, Taiwan and Vietnam. In Europe, France is one of more than 10 countries I’ve visited. I’ve also been to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and had exhibitions in the state of California.

Q. This project has been ongoing for a long time now.
A. I figured it was something that had to run for an extended period of time to develop any sort of staying power. I was willing to go anywhere as long as I could show my works to people. It’s similar to street art, in a way. Just as graffiti artists put their initials or some sort a pattern to leave their mark, I take photos of my installations for posterity.

‘EVERYWHERE in Sharjah‘, Variable installation balloon 2019 © Im Jibin

Q. I heard you have your own set of rules that you stick to when doing projects.
A. I try to visit five cities a year, and stay for at least a month in each city. At first, I wanted to publish a magazine with photos of my works, and give them to artists and other people that I meet in different cities as gifts, but…

Q. It would cost you a bundle.
A. Accommodations alone would cost a lot. A company once offered to fund my trips, but I am paying my way around because I wanted to preserve the integrity of the project. I am usually on my own, and I’ve had to come up with ways to travel light. I have to put my works, compressor and cameras, plus other tools, all into a 28-inch suitcase.

Q. Do you decide in advance where to install your pieces?
A. I often stay at an Airbnb, and I ask my host for recommendation or I tour the area and pick a spot. I ride taxis or use public transit to get around, and so it’s not easy to go too far out of town. While staying in one city, I move to a different Airbnb every three days. And since I do all of that on the spot, I often run into trouble. I’ve had my passport confiscated, too.

Q. What are some of the things you consider when selecting your spot?
A. I try to find spots frequented by the locals, or landmarks in the city, or places that really represent what that city is all about. It’s not always easy to do it, because most people think I am weird. But once it’s set up, they all love it.
Art Galleries Are All Around Us

‘EVERYWHERE in Viet Nam‘, Variable installation balloon 2016 © Im Jibin

Q. What are some memorable stops from Everywhere project?
A. I was in Hanoi once, working in an area earmarked for redevelopment. While I was putting up my piece, there were some kids riding their bikes around it. They were curious. And I told them they could play with it, and they stayed there for an hour. That really left an impression on me. I thought there are places that could use artworks like that. That particular place in Hanoi needed things that the general public could relate to and fall in love with.

Q. It must be disappointing to you that you can’t keep your installation on for a long time, because it’s important to see it in person on that very spot.
A. Exactly. I make announcements on social media where I am going next with Everywhere project. I’ve received direct messages from people, and some others have shown up at the site. Unless I am told by local authorities to take it down, I get to keep it on for about half a day.

‘EVERYWHERE in Paris‘, Variable installation balloon 2019 © Im Jibin

‘LIKE‘, Variable installation balloon 2020 © Im Jibin

Q. Is there a place that you’d like to visit but haven’t?
A. When I went to the U.S., I wanted to set up something in New York. But then I was scared. This was right after the U.S. presidential election. An Asian man lugging a large suitcase and inflating balloons with all that noise… I would’ve been easily mistaken for a terrorist. I thought something bad could happen. Once the balloon is done, people all enjoy it. But they just have no idea what’s going on while I am working on it.

Q. You said you’re paying for the project out of your own pocket. And you’re not selling those Bear Balloons. How have you been financing your trips?
A. Corporate clients have purchased Bear Balloons. I’ve been working on this project because I wanted to reach out to people, and some companies that had seen the project came up with proposals for collaboration. There’s some added value there. And once I make enough money, then I fly out again.
 

‘EVERYWHERE in Gangneung‘, Variable installation balloon 2018 © Im Jibin

Q. What are some other things you’re planning to do?
A. I just want to continue holding exhibitions that people can relate to and enjoy. Art museums can do that, but I also want to see permanent structures, like public art. I plan on setting up trees under the name ‘Ephemeral Garden Project.’ I also want to build air bounce inflatables that children living in areas with no access to art can enjoy. It will be a work of art and portable playground at the same time.

Q. What kind of an artist would you like to be?
A. I want to be someone that people want to find out more about, and an artist who interacts well with the public. As soon I finish a piece, I upload photos on social media. Some people wonder why I waste such precious photos like that. But I don’t mind people seeing the work I do that way. I want to get closer and closer to people.
 

EVERYWHERE PROJECT ©IMJIBIN

May 2021 Editor:Jung Jaewook
Photographer:Kim Zun

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