Physicist tell us that light acts both as a particle and as a wave. Korean-British artist duo Kimchi and Chips explore the ambiguity of this semi-material to stunning effect.
“We received about two calls per week for dinner reservations,” says Elliot Woods referring to the time when the arts studio he runs together with Mimi Son moved to its current location in Paju Book City on the outskirts of Seoul. It was early 2018 and Naver Maps, Korea’s answer to Google Maps, had accidently listed Kimchi and Chips as a restaurant. “People misunderstand our studio name all the time,” explains Son with an impish smile. The error became so prevalent it sparked its own Instagram account: “@kimchiandchipsisnotarestaurant is where we share food photos taken during studio dinner parties,” says Son. “It’s a ‘Mokstagram’ account. ‘Mok’ is Korean for ‘eat.’”
Their official feed—@studiokimchiandchips—provides glimpses into a practice that is less cookery and more alchemy. There are robotic mirror matrices, makeshift mist machines, and lights behaving otherworldly, taking form and performing motion. “We describe our work as drawing in the air with light,” says Woods about a line of signature works renowned for their sublimity and sophistication. The latest edition of their installation Light Barrier, for example, beams 16 million individually calibrated rays of light into field of 630 concave mirrors to create an architectural-scale mirage. An experience the jury members of the world’s longest running media arts festival Ars Electronica found so “surreal” they honored the work with an Award of Distinction.
“Light is the reason why we have existence. It communicates solidity between atoms. The way people relate to the world and to one another emerges out of that.”
Son and Woods first met at a design conference in Denmark in 2009. Woods, a recent physics graduate from the University of Manchester with a penchant for exploring technology, had been invited to show a project he had developed with a friend. “It was this advanced 3D projection system that mapped light on a set of strings—I was really proud of it.” Son, who presented design research aiding children with autism, was less impressed. “Wow, that’s really superficial,” Woods recalls her saying to his face. “I never had somebody critique my work. I was shocked… and it made me realize the dialog that I was missing.”
“Gender, language, ethnicity… Elliot and I are polar opposites in many ways,” says Son about the unlikely alliance that formed shortly after their encounter, “but we never tire of exploring each other’s world.” Hers is one of craft, material, and Buddhist philosophy, whereas Woods draws on computational models and the teachings of Einstein. “The way we think is really different,” agrees Woods. He describes their creative process as asynchronous and diamond-shaped where, for each new project, the two diverge to explore ideas separately before merging them together in the end. “Mimi might be thinking about the space and audience positioning while I might consider the mathematics of an optical effect,” he explains. “We iterate from seeing each other’s artifacts and eventually have an idea of what we want to make.”
“Gender, language, ethnicity… Elliot and I are polar opposites in many ways, but we never tire of exploring each other’s world.”
A year into their loose long-distance collaboration—Woods was still living in Manchester and Son had returned to Seoul—things got serious when one of their projects got picked up by Korea’s biggest design conference, Design Korea, in 2010. The invite came after Woods visited Son in Seoul and the two decided to participate in an exhibition opening at her family’s cafe. “We wanted to do something that was socially connected with people coming to the cafe,” he recalls. “So we built a sculpture out of the cardboard boxes the coffee cups come in and allowed people to leave recorded video messages in them—a physical social network, if you will.” Named Link, the interactive installation used a custom projection system capable of mapping video to the surface of each box; a (then brand-new) iPad invited visitors to record video and select the box for it to appear in. Over time the sculpture became a flickering guestbook playing back dozens of personal stories. One of the visitors was a Design Korea representative and soon after, a scaled-up version of Link collected thousands of visitor messages at the conference’s entrance.
Link was celebrated in the design press for its computational proficiency—the projection system could map video onto 600 individual surfaces all at once—and was subsequently installed in Europe and South America. But the further Woods and Son explored light and emergent technologies the more conventional images disappeared from view. “We’ve been trying to give light form for a long time,” says Son of their progression. “We went from installations that enact images to ones that just allow—or encourage—them to exist.” Rather than projecting light onto sculptural forms, she explains, the two now sculpt light itself. “A video projector can be thought of as millions of tiny spotlights,” says Woods about the pixels that normally make up an image when they hit a surface side-by-side. “In our artworks, we scatter these spotlights, and then scan each individually to see how it travels through space.” Once traced, their path becomes computable and, through calibration and reflection, can be directed—or made to cross—at will. Each spotlight alone is weak and invisible, Woods explains, but when “teamed together” new types of images emerge where they meet. “Light has almost a digital feel to it,” he continues. “We can copy it infinitely or delete it, and yet it travels through space and we can sense it with our bodies. This ambiguity allows us to test out where the material and the immaterial overlap.”
Few works explore that boundary to greater effect than Light Barrier. Commissioned for the 2014 New Media Night at Nikola-Lenivets, Europe’s biggest art park six hours west of Moscow, neither the curators nor the artists knew exactly what to expect. In theory, a sloping matrix of convex mirrors should focus millions of individual projector rays into three-dimensional phantoms in the air. But the installation, which was too big for Kimchi and Chips’ studio at the time, had never been tested. “We only found out whether our idea worked on-site, shortly before the opening,” recalls Son. It’s a gamble that comes with charting new territory, explains Woods. “When curators commission a new installation and ask us what the result will look like we often have no answer,” he admits. “We have to build it to find out.”
Light Barrier’s theorized phantoms materialized eventually and to great effect. The display of foggy spheres and triangles left such a strong impression with audiences, it spawned two sequels. For the second edition, shown at the 2015 STRP Biennale in Eindhoven, the duo refined the setup with “custom-made concave mirrors and more of them.” The third and latest, commissioned by the Asia Cultural Centre in Gwangju, South Korea, saw them expand the idea even further. “To fill the enormous exhibition space,” Woods explains, “we pushed things as far as we could.” Towering at six meters tall and fourteen in width, the mirror array took on the shape of a tessellated cloud. Each of the 630 mirror segments had their own unique shape generated and arranged by an “artificial nature system,” reveals Woods. “It would calculate the dimensions and layout autonomously and we’d mill the parts in the workshop on-site.” All in all, about 80 people—architects, weldors, programmers—helped realize the construction. “In the end, we had created this perfect little universe,” explains Son, “where every parameter was considered and in control.”
Drawing in the air with light
A selection of works by Kimchi and Chips
Leave the controlled environment and the forces of nature are back in charge. When, after two years of preparation, the duo installed their most recent work Halo in the public courtyard of London’s Somerset House, they faced all kinds of unforeseen irregularities. Throughout June 2018, 99 robotic mirrors were set up to follow the sun “like sunflowers” and focus its light into a cloud of fine mist. Sprayed from four poles, the volume of tiny water droplets would provide a medium for the redirected sunlight to take form in. With enough mist and sun, a glistening circle of several meters would emerge: the halo. “But we didn’t account for wind,“ sighs Son. As the mist was dispersed more often than not, London’s “second sun” became as fleeting a visitor as its cosmic counterpart. “Another thing we didn’t anticipate was the calcium carbonate in London’s water,” chuckles Woods. “During our tests in Korea, evaporation was not an issue. In London we had to manually clean the mirrors from limescale deposits nearly every hour.” There were also pleasant surprises, however: in Korea Halo’s mist generator was hooked up to a noisy water pump, which in London was hidden underground. “We never knew how beautiful the sound of the mist dispensers was until the we saw the finished installation in action,” says Son.
“Halo became a public ritual. We’ve put together a set of elements which have an encoded intention. But only when the conditions are right—the sun, the mist, the wind—can the celebration begin.”
The biggest unknown was, of course, the audience. “Halo was a public artwork in the middle of London, running every day for a whole month,” says Woods. “That’s something we had no familiarity with.” Would it disturb people on their commutes? Would they have patience for something that, depending on the weather, denies instant gratification? “It was an opportunity to build up this long-term relationship with people because for many Londoners it was sort of on their way,” says Son. She remembers one lady in particular that admitted to outright dismissing the work at first. After she spotted the halo, however, she came to look for it everyday. And so did many others. According to Somerset House estimates, more than 20,000 people saw Halo that month. “It became a public ritual,” muses Woods. “We’ve put together a set of elements which have an encoded intention. But only when the conditions are right—the sun, the mist, the wind—can the celebration begin.”
Woods believes that it’s the shared anticipation of a cosmic alignment that made Halo work, and to the trained physicist, this is no accident. “Light is the reason why we have existence,” he explains. “It communicates solidity between atoms, saying ‘let’s stick together, let’s hold on.’ The way people relate to the world and to one another emerges out of that.” A few Halo visitors did inquire about the Kimchi and Chips restaurant, admits Son. But after ten years, the duo has no intention of changing their name. “I like the flippancy of it,” says Woods. “Kimchi and Chips are both humble side dishes. They can be amazing… but they never claim to be.”
Kimchi and Chips is the Seoul-based arts practice of Mimi Son and Elliot Woods. Fusing art, science, and technology, the Korean-British duo specializes in immersive installations that draw volumetric images with light. Son and Woods are Ars Electronica Distinction Award recipients and have shown work at major museums and institutions such as São Paulo’s File Festival, London’s Somerset House, and Beijing’s Guangtang Art Museum. More recently, British “Lighting—Illuminations in Architecture” named “Halo” the 2019 Light Art Project of the Year.
Kimchi and Chips’ piece “Line Segments Space” (2013) is currently on view at ZKM Center for Media and Technology in Karlsruhe, Germany, as part of the group show “Negative Space.” Featuring more than 200 artistic positions including Andy Warhol, Olafur Eliasson, and Erwin Wurm, the exhibition traces novel sculptural approaches across cubism, constructivism, minimal art, and present-day immersive installations.
Text: Alexander Scholz
Photography: Florian Grosse