REVIEW: Sunny Kim: Agony in Lines, Grainger Museum

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Sunny Kim: Agony in Lines

Thursday 18 May 2023 Saturday 3 Jun 2023

Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne

Gate 13, Royal Parade Parkville

Musician Sunny Kim’s collaborative exhibition, Agony in Lines, at the Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne, takes form via an aesthetics of entanglement. Kim leads audiences into a labyrinth of possibilities across time and space, guided by hypnotic vocalisations and contrasting artworks and documentation. For this site-specific project, Kim’s autobiographical experiences are referenced in parallel with aspects of Grainger’s own story. Australian-born composer, arranger and pianist Percy Grainger (1882-1961) was the founder of the eponymous museum and his own life story is marked by fame, pain and fetish. In this exhibition are reflections on trauma and creativity as intimately linked factors playing out in the lives of the respective artists. For Kim, who was born in Korea, identification with an Edwardian era composer such as Grainger may have felt entirely uncanny, but such is the nature of creative life that cultural background is far less a concern than the drive to self-expression. Extending from a residency undertaken by Kim at the Grainger Museum in 2023, the project ponders legacies of childhood distress, both at an individual level and as a perpetual cycle of compulsively repeated actions across generations. Encouragingly, however, ways to transform and transcend those legacies are also proffered.

The Grainger Museum, which opened in 1922 and was first conceived by Grainger as an autobiographical archive, is constructed as a series of radiating pavilions that meet at a central atrium. In each of these, save for the permanent exhibition space, Kim has presented interlocking collaborations produced with visual artists. Each are accompanied by sound recordings that feature Kim’s own vocalisations and the utterances of her aural collaborators. It is through these iterations, in which Kim takes the role of artistic director, that modes of healing and change are allude to and enacted. Working with a range of artists, including sculptural works by Katie Stackhouse, photography by Sung Hyun Sohn, motion graphics by Kyungwon Kim, sound design by Patrick Telfer and dance performance by Janette Hoe, Kim has created a project that transcends the conventions of single artist residencies. This is less a solo exhibition and more a curated project guided by biography, self-reflection and intuition.


In this regard, one really must begin in the room where Grainger’s ‘free music machines’- a mode of proto synthesisers – are presented, flanked by video screens reaching floor to ceiling. On one screen, serpentine forms akin to calligraphic brush marks writhe in perpetual motion, providing visual equivalence to the sinuous undulations created by the hand-wound music devices. On the opposing screen, a text poem based on Grainger’s words is paired with a recitation by Kim the University of Melbourne Jazz and Improvisation students. One might be forgiven for imagining that the constellation of machines and words point to the formal elements of sound, which Grainger equated with the glissando effect of waves upon the surface of a lake. Yet while the impression is pleasing, on entering the adjoining salon, sonic trajectories here mingle with autobiographical elements rendered in sculptural forms. One quickly recognises how the invisible physics of the audible provide a tangible metaphor for all modes of interaction, be it vibratory, emotional or residual.


Amidst the elements of Katie Stackhouse’s sculptural works, collectively titled Reveal, loop, traverse 2023, objects that hint at ritual and anguish awaits the viewer. On one wall, whip-like forms that reference the sadomasochist accoutrements of Grainger’s intimate life blend with the ritual objects of Korean shamanism, known as Seondo. In contrast to Grainger’s embrace of his preferred sexual fetish, linked moreover to traumatic childhood experience, the avenue of the shaman seeks release from inherited baggage. In guiding the production of this work Kim referenced her own great grandmother, Chilsoon Moon, an exponent of Seondo and a shaman whose presence persists through living memory. One is thus presented with two contrasting ontologies; fatalist-psychoanalytic on the one hand, optimistic and cathartic on the other. Moreover, in the looping abstraction of Stackhouse’s suspended sculpture, the possibility of untangling the trauma of life is dangled before the viewer, actions moreover that can be traced from one generation to the next.  


The possibility of change is extended into the accompanying presentation of digital photography by Sung Hyun Sohn, titled Listening, 2023. Across three vertical screens, highly detailed images of young people in deep contemplation scroll before the viewer. According to Kim, “The Listening portrait series captures the absorption of sound waves in the body. The images contain portraits of the moment when sound resonates through the body.” The significance of sound impacting the body is repeated via the creation of a meditative installation space replete with surround sound and singing bowls, titled Reconnections (With All That We Are Already Connected To), 2023. Visitors are invited to experience their own stillness and to reflect on past traumas. The accompanying soundtrack, which was recorded by David Wilkinson and mixed by Pat Telfer, is gently meditative, enabling a private moment within the landscape of the exhibition. According to Kim, the work “invites a contemplation of the ancient Korean Seondo philosophy, where humanity's purpose is to connect the Earth and Sky…. Guided by verbal cues, participants are invited to connect with the Earth, Sky, and their bodies, creating a collective exploration of interconnection through sound making.” The instantiation of humans as conduits that bind the celestial and the terrestrial emerges as a leitmotif for the project, wherein coordinates for existence are sought in the face of all that assails us.


In the final room, an archive of objects and letters pertaining to Grainger’s life are laid bare. Grainger’s sadomasochism, the death of his mother by suicide, and the composer’s lingering grief are vividly conveyed by the tableau. Notably, Grainger seemed never to have recovered from the grief caused by the loss of his mother. This is especially palpable as one contemplates Grainger’s forensic reconstruction of letters torn to pieces by his mother, prior to her suicide. These reconstructed fragments seem especially appropriate in an exhibition that makes sense of multiple trajectories and component. it is an abrupt finale, encountering an inconsolable grieving after travelling through an exhibition that provides so many signposts and methodologies for self-exploration and healing.



Dr Damian Smith

Secretary, AICA Australia (International Association of Art Critics, UNESCO sponsored)




Katie Stackhouse (sculpture), Sung Hyun Sohn (photography), Kyungwon Kim (motion graphics), Patrick Telfer (sound design), Janette Hoe (dance) 


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