Painting by Sooyoung Chung showing an array of bottles lined up against a brown background

Sooyoung Chung’s art shows what our belongings say about us

The artist’s new exhibition, Self on the Shelf, draws a link between the objects that people fill their lives with and their personal identity

Through her linen still life paintings, Sooyoung Chung shows that curators aren’t just found in galleries and museums. In fact, everybody is a curator of sorts. Chung’s works, featured in a new exhibition called Self on the Shelf at Maddox Gallery in London, illustrates that the objects people surround themselves with (or don’t) can speak volumes. This is skewed by the fact that we might choose particular items because of what we hope they will project to other people.

“Shelves are at once personal and social,” says Chung. “They’re a manifestation of an individual’s personality for others to see.” Her compositions are decided firstly by the personal story she wants to tell, and she then chooses objects that will capture it best.

The intricate planning involved in her paintings isn’t just for practical reasons – it’s emblematic of the careful consideration that goes into what we display to the world. The awkward, unnaturally flat perspectives in her compositions reflect this tendancy to present a certain view of ourselves to others.

Painting by Sooyoung Chung showing a deflated red balloon, an upside down rendition of Banksy's balloon girl artwork, and deflated basketballs
Painting by Sooyoung Chung showing vitamin and supplement bottles, a bonsai tree, books about wellness, a rendition of Damien Hirst's dots painting, and other objects arranged on three shelves

Born in Seoul, Chung initially moved to London to study an MA at the Royal College of Art and stayed behind after her programme ended. It was the first extended period of time she had spent apart from her family and she was new to speaking English. Chung incorporates recognisable objects and brands into her pieces, reflecting how images, symbols, and logos can transcend language to create a borderless form of communication.

Bottles of vitamins and supplements illustrate our near-universal preoccupation with health and wellness in the 21st century, while another painting filled with coins, lottery tickets, and money guidebooks does the same with regards to financial wellbeing.

In another artwork, Heinz products are packed onto a shelf above a rendition of René Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe – a nod, perhaps, to the often surreal experience of adjusting to different continents and cultures. (Other artworks contain nods to Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol, Banksy, and Kaws.) Meanwhile, the mug emblazoned with the slogan ‘Be nice or leave’ will chime with plenty of people who have relocated to another country.

Painting by Sooyoung Chung showing objects arranged across three shelves, including a rendition of Ceci n'est pas une pipe, a collection of books, a vase of flowers, a troll doll, and a mug that reads 'be nice or leave'
Painting by Sooyoung Chung showing objects arranged across four shelves, including Kaws figurines and colourful Nike trainers

The exhibition gives a fascinating insight into the different selves and stories that Chung has curated over time, with countless objects begging to be examined in closer detail.

But arguably the most concise route into Chung’s experiences is the expression ‘I shop therefore I am’, featured in a reproduction of Barbara Kruger’s famous 1980s artwork. Depressing as it might be, it captures how our belongings can shape our image, even in our most personal space – our homes. As the artist herself says, “I am the objects on the shelves, and the objects are me.”

Painting by Sooyoung Chung showing a vase of flowers, pefume bottles, a basket, and other objects arranged across three shelves

Self on the Shelf runs at Maddox Gallery, London until April 30;