EUNAH KIM As tragedy shifted from art to life, her outlook brightened.
Eunah Kim, a Korean-born, Cambridge-based artist with advanced lung cancer, has focused her craft on dark imagery — a shaman's costume held together with what appear to be patches of crimson duct tape; a piece called Casket depicting an animal bone lying inside a miniature white coffin; and Bandaged Frame, a bloody bandage tied to a wooden frame with a length of surgical gauze. These works could be visual expressions of suffering from a person living with a debilitating disease. But the truth is, Kim produced all of them before she was diagnosed with cancer in 2007.
She calls that more than an eerie coincidence. "There is something unchangeable that we all have, like collective unconsciousness," says the 35 year old, her voice heavily accented. "I was expecting in the future, it's weird, it's a visualization. . . . So now I go through this process in real life."
Kim is exceptionally upbeat, considering her situation. She smiles and laughs often. She also has her hair — presumably because Kim currently isn't getting traditional chemotherapy or radiation treatments for her ailment.
"After [I was] diagnosed, my doctor showed me this chemo room and it was like entering into this other world," says Kim, who was living in New York at the time. "At first it felt very humiliating . . . and that was the first time I cried."
Kim abandoned chemotherapy after only two sessions. In 2008, she moved to the Boston area, where she began to see a healer named Tom Tam, who developed and practices something called Tong Ren healing, a form of faith therapy that's a mix of Chinese medicine and philosophy "based on a belief that disease is related to interruptions, or blockages, in the body's natural flow of chi, neural bioelectricity, blood, or hormones," according to Tam's Web site.
Kim also subscribes to the widely accepted notion that art can have a relieving, therapeutic effect on the disease, and so she continues her work.
Her autobiographical show "Happy Lungs" is on display at 55 Norfolk, a small Central Square studio space and gallery run by friends she went to college with at the Rhode Island School of Design.
The new show is sunnier than Kim's past work. Her interest in the body remains, but it seems that she is learning to appreciate its beauty rather than focus on its potential for breakdown. On one wall of the space, she's hung a collection of bronze medallions, such as those awaiting the winners of a swim meet. Emblazoned on each one, if you look closely, is a different body part, including, among others, the kidney and the lungs.
"People usually don't talk about organs unless something's wrong with them," says 55 Norfolk's Sean Brennan. "This is about empowering."
Kim acknowledges her recent creative change of direction. "It's lighter, more fun," she says. "I don't want to make the situation so serious. I want people to come to the show to experience some kind of fun and delight . . . I don't want the work to be overshadowed by my situation."
Eunah Kim's "Happy Lungs" runs through May 1 at the 55 Norfolk gallery, 55 Norfolk Street, in Cambridge. For more information, visit 55norfolk.com.