Heesoo Kwon, Leymusoom Garden: New Sun, 2023. Single-channel video animation with sound, 14 min 21 sec (still). Courtesy of the artist.

Artist Profile: Heesoo Kwon

Lauren Sorresso: Since 2017, you’ve been exhibiting an episodic series of autoethnographic works about a feminist religion you initiated titled Leymusoom. These works include animated videos and games, archival websites, digital collages, multimedia installations, and performances or "rituals" that reimagine your personal/family histories across time. How has the Leymusoom "universe" expanded since then in terms of both your daily art practice and the different digital media used to produce the work (videos made using 3D scanning apps or 3D modeling software, photos altered through AI image generation, sculptures with digital or 3D-printed and hardware elements, etc.)?

Heesoo Kwon: I think of these technologies as shamanistic tools that allow me to travel between this world and the other world, 이 세상 (i sesang) and 저 세상 (jeo sesang) in Korean, to connect, remake, and expand my relations. I use lots of different programs as portals—Polycam, Daz 3D, Adobe Premiere Pro, and, lately, Adobe Firefly—to bring together real people and places from my life into a shared sanctuary. I invite my ancestors, collaborators, and converts to commune with me, unconstrained by the bounds of time or space and free from the traumas of patriarchal violence. So far, more than 250 people have converted to Leymusoom, offering their individual stories and feminisms.

Heesoo Kwon, Leymusoom Digital Shrine, 2021. Interactive game (still). Courtesy of the artist.

Expanding my world is a personal-communal spiritual practice. It’s continuing and ever-changing. Leymusoom started during graduate school at the University of California Berkeley; my studio there was the first church. It has extended to my home studio in San Francisco, my childhood home in Seoul, sites where I’ve exhibited work, such as a basement gallery in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a room in Oakland where I lived and worked for part of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Bong Sun Sa Buddhist temple, Golden Gate Park, and most recently, my family’s mountain garden in Korea. I actively cultivate these environments where I reside with my female relatives and fellow practitioners.

Leymusoom refers to the artworks and their larger religious community. They inform one another. The term derives from 무성별 (museongbyeol), the Korean word for agender. I wrote down an English translation based on the Korean pronunciation and then reversed the letters, emphasizing that there are no boundaries within gender identity. 

Heesoo Kwon, Premolt 17, 2023. Lenticular lightbox, 32 x 22.5 x 1.5 in (detail). Courtesy of the artist.

LS: The care with which you render specific details of those spaces—for example, the avatars’ recognizable likenesses or the inclusion of meaningful objects—in Leymusoom Digital Shrine (2021) is quite moving. In what ways does familiarity, or maybe proximity, influence your work? 

HK: I find inspiration for Leymusoom in the people and places around me or existing in my memory and family archive, as well as Korean shamanism and the iconography of Catholicism and Confucianism. Growing up in South Korea, though I lived among four generations of women, I was taught to obey patriarchal systems without question. In my Leymusoom practice, I have agency as both creator and historian to replace misogynistic beliefs and re-document these memories.

A Ritual for Metamorphosis (2019) is a pivotal work. I came across some old home videos, and while watching them, I was so angered seeing scenes of my mother and other female relatives relegated to subservient roles that I intervened in the footage, inserting my avatar and the human-snake deity of Leymusoom to reimagine patriarchal family and religious dynamics. It was so cathartic I modeled the four other women in my family, and the work grew from there. My process of recreating or reconstructing our collective memory began with that intervention.

Heesoo Kwon, Premolt series, 2019-2023, and A Ritual for Metamorphosis, 2019. Installation view from A Flower Strong in the Wind 흔들리지 않는 꽃 at Micki Meng in San Francisco, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

The Leymusoom figure reclaims the Catholic genesis story and the Mago myth from Korean folklore. Snakes are spiritual beings, God and female energies are the same, and female and male energy are related rather than binary in Korean shamanism. These stories, and those of the Christian tradition (my paternal grandmother was a devout Catholic who read the Bible daily with me and my sister), influenced me as a child. I reinterpret these memories within the work by combining elements of the different belief systems imbued with new meaning.

Heesoo Kwon, Mago Leymusoom, 2022. Installation view at re.riddle in San Francisco, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

LS: The Leymusoom godhead represents a theme of hybridity that carries through your episodic series. There are powerful connections between places, moments, conventions, materials, gatherings, et cetera—because you interweave them. I’ve been thinking lately about how our memories combine with experiences to influence belief and how that recurring accumulation can be traumatic but also liberating in its adaptability. Can you speak to the role of memory within your practice? 

HK: When I started researching my family history, I found a startling lack of public records about my matrilineal relatives. Because they were women who engaged primarily in domestic labor, the predominant culture did not consider their stories worth recording. This frustration led me to create an online archive for them with 3D portraits and biographical stories. 

During the process, I became interested in a house where I lived as a young child in the early to mid-1990s. I tried remembering the layout and connecting particular features like furniture but could only recall pieces. I had about 30 family photos of different parts of the home and decided to extend them using AI so that I could picture the rooms better. The program I used filled in the photos based on a collective database of stock images and other public archives, adding strange objects and even people. These became my 2023 Leymusoom Firefly series (2023). 

I was fascinated by the variances in perspective—between what I remembered as a young girl and what the original photographs suggested, and how the algorithm interpreted and enhanced the visual information of timestamps, clothing styles, faces, and such. The effect is haunting. The manipulated images are smooth, but the details don’t make sense. When I see these photos, it seems like I know the place, but I’m not sure if it's the right place, which is how I feel thinking about the details of my childhood. Is this my real memory, or not? It’s a version. That fragmentation—technology’s ongoing rearrangement and its shifts in capability and limitations, parallels how memory works. 

Heesoo Kwon, 90-12-16 (bath), 2023. AI-enhanced digital photograph from the 2023 Leymusoom Firefly, Il-won-dong 1990-1996 series. Courtesy of the artist.

LS: Leymusoom involves both personal research and collective praxis. Often, you host events or organize performances that activate installations, for example, a Ganggangsullae dance with Dong-Ji Collective for the opening of your solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art San José. You’ve invited artists to help produce parts of videos and installations. And you encourage people to engage with Leymusoom as welcome converts, sometimes featuring them in your videos. What is the role of collaboration in these works?

HK: One of the biggest motivations for my Leymusoom practice is to build community with my ancestors, family, and chosen family. It’s a liberated spirituality. For me, manifesting a shared feminist sanctuary, specifically in the digital realm, is a powerful form of resistance. When we conduct rituals of 탈피 (talpi), which means “to molt” and “escape from'' in Korean, we can transform beyond the burdens of generational trauma and patriarchy.

I am interested in reimagining religion as a feminist site that can frame alternative forms of belonging—both for the self and others. I want Leymusoom to keep growing and evolving, to include more of my world, and for the community to initiate their versions and queer their worlds. I believe that if you practice art or perform other kinds of rituals repeatedly, it will change the way you see and sense your life. 

From the early works I made at Berkeley to now, people have related to that message strongly, and more people have begun practicing and participating in Leymusoom. I am a part of a community of musicians, designers, ceramicists, curators, poets, tattoo artists, and teachers, many of whom appear in my digital works. I developed Leymusoom Gift Shop (2023), an installation at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Bay Area Now 9 exhibition accompanied by a publication, by working with around 30 collaborators. For my newest project, Leymusoom Mukkuli, I am working with a group of artists, writers, dancers, and our respective ancestors to develop a process that will allow us to heal from generational trauma together.

Heesoo Kwon, Leymusoom Garden, 2023. Installation view from Leymusoom Garden: Following Naked Dancing and Long Dreaming at the ICA San José, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

Age (if you’d like to share): 33

Location: San Francisco, California

How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?

In school—first as a self-taught hobby, then later as a daily practice and to exhibit 

What did you study at school or elsewhere?

I hold an MFA from UC Berkeley. Before that, I studied Business Administration at Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul.

What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?

During my undergraduate studies, I invented a new packaging design that disguised menstrual pads and started a company from the idea. However once I realized that I was profiting from the shame of internalized patriarchal values, I quit the business, began making art, and applied to graduate school. I wanted a different path for my life where I could discuss these feminist issues with other people. In addition to my practice, I am an assistant professor in the animation department at California College of the Arts. 

What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)

Right now, the desk in my physical studio has a keyboard, a vertical monitor, and two desktop computers. It sits underneath a large fiddle leaf fig plant, next to a big window that looks out onto a backyard garden. I work at home, so there are usually snacks and toys around. I’ve reproduced my workspace for a handful of Leymusoom installations and animations if you want to check it out.

Heesoo Kwon, Untitled, 2023. Digital collage study. Courtesy of the artist.