The first time I saw Dahae Song’s work in 2014, the medium-scale twin black-and-white paintings—a pair of self-portraits titled "iConography"—stood out. Amid the more eccentric pieces at a group exhibition, they were soulful and stoic. In the two years since that showing, Song’s work has evolved from stark illustration and painting to GIF art, screenprinting, sculpture, and mixed media. Most of it incorporates variations on anatomy, spatial solitude, and textbook-like drawings of figures. Her newest series—a collection of paintings and digital art that documents an ongoing obsession with self-portraiture and psychology titled “fragments, self”—is on display at Toronto’s Huntclub Studio, a cozy second-floor gallery on Dundas West.
Born in Korea, Song’s parents are child psychologists, and that influence is both apparent in her work and the way in which she discusses the ideas that shape her process. She’s an art school kid, but incredibly focused on building a body of work with the resources, time, and creative access that’s afforded to students at the Ontario College of Art and Design. This intensely prescient, or practical, approach to art practice has granted Song—and her work—well-deserved repute among Toronto’s ballooning art scene.
The 24-year-old artist spoke with The FADER about using emotional prompts as creative fuel, digital identity and why shaving your head is the key to getting what you want.
There’s a lot of emotion in your work. Where does that come from?
My relationship with psychology or ideas around mental health began early because my parents are psychologists. But, personally, I suffered from depression and anxiety. You don’t ever get cured, and that’s why I see art as a valuable tool for processing emotion; you can’t have a therapist with you for the rest of your life, but you can have creation, and creation on your own time. I think it’s important for people to work through things on their own. Art therapy isn’t as safe as your personal practice.
Was this something you had to discover or, because your parents are psychologists, was it an idea you grew up with?
I went to art school in high school, but my parents were against art as a career. It was the typical East Asian parent thing of—You have to be a doctor or you’re a failure! So I went to the University of Toronto for two years and took cognitive psychology. I spent two years pretending art was no longer a part of my life and that got me very depressed: I didn’t leave the house for a year and was suicidal for six months. I tried to do everything but go back to art. I got new groups of friends, changed my living situation, and I even went and lived in Africa for a year. When I got back, I was just tired of being sad, so I started to paint. But it took three years to bring me out of that state. It wasn’t just, Oh, I’m painting again and everything is good.
Why do you think painting is so healing for you?
It’s a control thing. You can’t control anything in life. You have to be such a strong person to even control your own thoughts. You don’t want to control feelings because feelings aren’t something you dictate. You can’t keep people, or shape things to be how you want. But with paint you can. It’s so immediate. Oh my god, the feeling I get when I’m painting is so intense; it ranges from pure bliss to anxiety-filled panic attacks. I cried, like, 17 times when I was working on that big red canvas.
So how does your digital art fit into this emotional approach to work?
There’s still a tactile satisfaction that comes with it, because I paint and sculpt and make etchings that I use as the basis for digital work. But when I get to manipulate things digitally, it’s just pure fun.
I’m really fascinated by the way you use Instagram to promote not just your art, but yourself as an artist.
If you know exactly what you want from a situation, nothing can be toxic. I like when people promote themselves on social media. My whole Instagram feed is selfies, but it’s for a reason. Maybe people think it’s vain. A friend told me that she thought my success is because I’m pretty, and that was hard. I used to use my Instagram to only post art but I had a lot of issues with image rights, particularly with works that were more graphic. I’d find them on other people’s pages, or on products—I don’t want to fight it, because I know that’s something I can’t control. If what gets put on my Instagram gets commodified then I’ll commodify myself as an artist.
Isn’t there a danger of conflating what’s for sale then?
That’s the reality of the art world these days, though. I really like Brad Troemel’s ideas of athletic aestheticism. Like he says, “If a Tumblr post has no notes, is it art?” It’s important to step back and look at the different parts of your life and determine what the power of others is. How can you take part in those things in a positive way? There are a lot of [fellow] students that don’t like to promote themselves online; [they] still love the idea of the starving artist. I don’t understand it. That’s a fucking fairytale. Art is a business, but at least you’re selling yourself and not someone else’s work or product.
It’s apparent that you’re curating a specific visual identity on social media, too. When I started following you, you had long hair and then all of a sudden your head was shaved.
I mean, I’m growing up. But also, when I had long hair the way other people saw me was not pleasant. Being an Asian girl with long black hair, wearing red lipstick and tight clothes meant I always got sexualized, and I don’t enjoy that. I don’t hate a lot of things, but when people overlook my intelligence, or my talent or how I think or feel and focus on my appearance? That makes me angrier than nothing else. I’ve never felt more like myself than the moment I came home and looked in the mirror after buzz-cutting my hair. I was like, Hey it’s me! I haven’t seen you in 24 years! Now, people react to my appearance how I want them to, and I get treated how I want to be treated. Apparently shaving your hair off is the solution.