Interview: Dain Yoon on James Blake, Maintaining Illusions, and Art as Utopian Ideal

Images courtesy of Dain Yoon

The hardest part of profiling Korean illusion artist Dain Yoon is deciding upon an angle.

Do we concentrate on the deep dive of her recent pandemic works, and evaluate the visual properties of lockdown and isolation…or do we dig into her appearance in Snapchat’s upcoming original series “Fake Up,” and explore the realm of competing in a field she did much to originate?

Do we speak about her deciding to stay Stateside, first in Vegas and now in Los Angeles, and suss out the reasons for her relocation…or do we wonder over the canning of her own who-knows-what for Britain’s Tate Modern, and illicit a why behind Yoon’s using mid-20th century Italian avant-gardist Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’Artista as a springboard for such an exalted showing?

Do we peel away the story of her collaborating with Toiletpaper tagteam Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari for the New York Times Magazine’s most recent Tech Issue, and hear what she’s got to say about the essay’s dystopian take on internet selfhood?

Or do we get into how her kaleidoscopic array of colors are heard by some of the world’s most revered racket-makers and ask about the collidings with Halsey and James Blake, the rumors of a project for Beats by Dre, not to mention her being the subject of Irish songman Marcus Woods’ single “Dain Yoon”?

In other words, which angle will best reveal how the make-up artist became a shake-up artist and careen from internet sensation to bona fide art star? While we’re at it, just what’s behind the process that makes even hyperreality appear rather ho-hum? Or, in short, just what makes Dain Yoon so ultra vivid?

Finding out about each of the rapidly cascading amount of Yoon’s accomplishments does really seem to be the best way to discernment. But choosing just one angle of course leaves out the others. And omission is irresponsible. So we decided to risk asking her to expound about all that and then some. And—lucky us!—Dain Yoon most kindly said “Yes!” So without further hullabaloo, here’s what happened when BlackBook met Dain Yoon.


In a quick sentence, just who is Dain Yoon?

Dain Yoon is a classically trained painter who happens to use herself as her canvas.

How do you describe what she does?

Although my art looks Photoshopped, each piece is 100% authentic, painted by myself, in mirror image, on me. This can take anywhere from three to 12 hours, after which I take a final photo or video as some kind of performance piece…then I wash it all off and start all over again.

Is there one tag that you’d like people to drop once and for all?

Other than “photoshopped” or “digitally manipulated,” I’m pretty much okay with how people describe my work. I incorporate many different elements into my art, so in most cases the definitions are, more or less, correct.

What made you realize your art reached beyond the realm of make-up artist?

I originally started my paintings onto other people, when I studied scenography in art school. I was interested in making different characters, by working on all aspects of visual artistry: make up, costume, hair, etc. Even back then, I regarded what I was doing as “painting on people,” rather than “make up.” I eventually started feeling really bad for my models, who had to sit still for many hours, which is why I turned the paintbrush onto myself. And it seems like I had quite the talent for that.

Do you see any parallels with other forms of art?

When it comes to an art medium, I would say painting, performance, installation and sculpture. When it comes to art history, I would say surrealism, op art and conceptual art.

I definitely see that, especially your having an affinity for conceptual art and artists. Is that what compelled you to re-appropriate Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’Artista for your Tate Modern showing?

Yes, in my opinion, the one thing that makes the difference here is the presence or absence of an unique idea. Hence why I chose it as my inspiration for the Tate Collective project. As the godfather of conceptual art, being able to sell one’s poo for the price of gold is as brilliant as it is hilarious. And as my artist mother always advised me: “art and its artist should always keep a sense of humor.” My work here is both an homage to Manzoni, as well as a representation of the many ideas forever locked up inside my head that will never see the light of day.

Manzoni’s tins are now reportedly believed to contain plaster; do you want to reveal what’s in your tin cans?

No, I wouldn’t want to reveal [the contents], even if there isn’t any highly valuable poo inside, haha. Keeping the illusion alive is also part of conceptual art.

How did that showing come about anyway?

Like most of my collaborations, they followed my work online for awhile and reached out.

You’ve also done performance at Seoul’s Hangaram Museum. How does your work translate to the stage?

As my work is already a mixture of several different media, it inevitably has some level of performance in it already. I look at the display of my work on social media as mini-performance pieces. When I’m on a stage such as Hangaram, the performance just becomes longer but the creation of the visual aspect more or less remains the same.

Does this trace back to the theatrical make-up work you did in college?

Yes, my studies of stage design (scenography) definitely left their mark.

Were you using yourself as a canvas back then?

Initially I did not. As I mentioned earlier, I started by painting on other people, but that pretty quickly progressed into myself becoming the canvas (2015). That said, I wasn’t just painting or doing make-up when I studied ‘scenography,’ I was also directing and performing.

What is it about faces that make them such inspiring canvases anyway?

I’ve always felt that the face is able to convey the strongest emotions in life. It’s the first thing we see when we meet a person and provides us a powerful impression.

Is it best for you if a particular face already has its own strong character?

I’m most interested in a “unique face,” which is way more interesting than just having a ‘pretty face.” Even when you’re not considered the typical pretty in societal norms, a certain uniqueness can make you very beautiful and intriguing.

Speaking of unique faces, you teamed with Halsey for her “Graveyard” clip—how did that come about?

I got the request from Halsey’s manager last year. He mentioned she’s a big fan of my work and we talked about a collaboration. Inspired by her song, I came up with the idea of her being camouflaged in a bed of flowers while laid in a coffin.

What was she like to work with?

It was a great experience to work with an amazing artist like her. Halsey is an artist in every sense of the word. She’s a musician, a performer and she also paints, actually—so there was a great mutual respect and inspiration. The whole crew was a lot of fun to work with, which always leads to a satisfying end result and great memories.

Did you have a similar experience working with James Blake?

Working with James is a dream. He’s so friendly and considerate, and most of all, super patient. He’s also very involved in the creative process, which is necessary. You want the artist to embody the creation, not just be a passive canvas.
James’ own work is very inspiring to me too. He has a very unique style in music. Very true, honest and emotional. He follows his own path, separate from what pop culture thinks is cool. I have great respect for that.

Are there any more song collaborations slated?

I’ve been contacted by several music companies or famous musicians in the recent past, so it might very well happen again soon. I’ve also worked on a real fun project for one of the world’s most famous music brands, which was shot right before the pandemic but in a holding pattern now.
In general though, the commercial requests I receive are from every potential industry in the business spectrum, not just music. I’m very grateful that people see both the artistic, as well as the commercial value of my art.

Seems you’re not just a collaborator with singers but also a subject of their songs—specifically Marcus Woods’ “Dain Yoon.” What was it like to learn Woods had written and recorded a song in your name?

I am always happy to see when someone is inspired by me and my work. It’s a satisfying feeling. When you look online, there are many people who have picked up a paintbrush and started painting because of me. There’s even someone who has a tattoo of one of my art pieces on their body!

Are there any other collaborations confirmed?

Snapchat recently announced they’re producing a show about illusion art called “Fake Up,” for which I created the initial campaign art used to announce the show. We’re also in talks for me to potentially become the show host or a jury member. I’m hoping it will all work out, because it will be fascinating to see different contestants “battle it out” in this art form I helped create and mature.

What else is on tap for Dain Yoon’s near future?

Ever since I was very young, I had a great interest in “land art.” Projects like the Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson, or the current Roden Crater by James Turrell, for example. I find the enormity of their scale very inspiring and appealing. I actually recently started working on a 2.5 acre land art project in the hills in Malibu, California which will be very utopian!
The more work I do the higher and higher my expectations for my work become. This makes it difficult for me to create sometimes. But I always keep thinking and try to observe the world with a fresh mindset. As time passes, my goals for my work are becoming infinite. I really appreciate the state of mind I’m in right now.

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