SUSPENDED WINGS 6 of sterling silver, stainless steel, feathers, 2004. Jewelry by Dukno Yoon. Photograph by Studio Munch.

Dukno Yoon

Raw Engineering and Incidental Beauty


Yoon had begun making his kinetic jewelry by carrying out an artistic exploration of the incidental beauty of machines: he had, in other words, treated the machine as something from which to abstract an unmotivated but nevertheless undeniable beauty.



Beauty can be found in most structures in which human ingenuity has negotiated with the demands of natural forces for influence over form. The graceful catenary of a cable suspended between utility poles is, for example, a visually appealing compromise between gravity and a tension introduced by human beings. For obvious reasons, this kind of beauty, which is neither the same as natural beauty nor exactly equivalent to the beauty of art, has tended to get short shrift in aesthetic discourse. If it were ever the guiding concern of someone suspending a power line, then perhaps it could be properly classified under the rubric of design. As the consequence of an entirely utility driven process however, the arc of the power line is less a reflection of human sensitivity to beauty than a fortuitously attractive by-product. But what if an artist were to appropriate this incidental beauty and begin to employ it to probe the nature of aesthetics? The result would obviously remain separate from the sphere of pure utility, from design in the aesthetic sense or from the process of abstraction from nature. Instead, it would be something like the work of metalsmith Dukno Yoon.

MEASURE RING WHEEL of sterling silver and stainless steel, 2007. Photograph by KC studio.

Yoon, who is currently in his second year as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Metalsmithing at Kansas State University, comes by his appreciation of incidental beauty as a consequence of the environment in which he spent his early life. A self-described “city boy,” he was born in Seoul amid the kind of all-encompassing urban milieu that can make of the manufactured and mechanical an effective substitute for nature. “The machine is really interesting to me,” he explains. “There are people, especially artists, who get inspired by nature. I was never much exposed to that, but I was around machines a lot.” Of course, as Yoon points out, the parts of machines are often analogous to functional forms in nature because they operate in relation to the same forces: gravity, friction, magnetism, thrust, torque. But machines are fundamentally different from organic forms in other respects, and responding to them as an artist involves attentiveness to a different kind of beauty from that which artists find in rolling hills, withered seed pods or the human body.

SUSPENDED WINGS 4 of sterling silver, stainless steel and feathers, 2003. Photograph by Studio Munch.

The body is not the subject of Yoon’s work but rather a collaborator with it. As an undergraduate in the Department of Metalwork and Jewelry at Kookmin University in Seoul, he let his interest in mechanisms and kinetics lead logically to an exploration of ways in which his art could interact with the body. “I started making a series of kinetic rings,” he recalls. “I dropped everything else and started developing things using hinges, thin stainless steel wire and sterling silver.” Excited by the possibilities of kinetic jewelry and wanting to continue his explorations on the graduate level, he contemplated studying abroad, preferably in Germany or Sweden. However, his principal professor at Kookmin University, Yong-Il Jeon, had earned an MFA at Miami University of Ohio and was an enthusiastic promoter of his alma mater. Consequently, in the fall of 2000, Yoon traveled to Ohio to commence graduate study with Susan Ewing.

At Miami University of Ohio Yoon’s work acquired a discernible focus when he began to develop a mechanism capable of translating the flexing of a finger into the flapping of a small pair of wings. The Wings works, which eventually became three separate series—the Suspended Wings, the Segmented Wings and the Constrained Wings—were initially distinctly different from projects in engineering, despite the fact that they served efficiently to harness a force and apply it to a particular task. Creating a device to carry out that task was not for Yoon a preliminary goal. Rather, the task constituted only one among many possible ways of employing a mechanism that was developed initially for its own sake. In other words, like the majority of fine art produced since the early modern period, Yoon’s Wings arose not from pursuit of a specific end but rather out of fascination with process and through a disinterested creativity. That kind of creativity is unconcerned with step-by-step logic. In fact it is messy, unpredictable and often marvelously surprising in its results.

SUSPENDED WINGS 3 of sterling silver, stainless steel and feathers, 2003. Photograph by Studio Munch.

Although Yoon’s early work possessed obvious parallels to industrial design, the disinterested nature of his creativity ultimately left his engineering raw, even primitive. Although Yoon habitually makes numerous skillfully detailed drawings of structures and has even worked out angles on paper, the expressive aspects of his drawings ultimately carry more weight than does any blueprint-type accuracy. It is no coincidence that Yoon’s drawings bear a strong resemblance to the engineering sketches of Leonardo da Vinci, particularly those in which the artist worked out the preliminaries for proposed flying machines. Leonardo’s famous drawings seem curiously paradoxical today, because they direct the utmost care and precision toward ends that to our modern eyes seem endearingly naïve. As we cannot mentally recreate the primitive frontiers of engineering that Leonardo inhabited, his drawings appear fantastical, as though their purpose were not, after all, to aid in some real world application of design but rather to revel in creativity for its own sake. Like Leonardo’s sketches, Yoon’s kinetic jewelry settles naturally into the realm of art, despite its employment of engineering principles, its orientation to movement and its mechanical constitution.

SEGMENTED WINGS 1 of sterling silver and stainless steel, 2004. Photograph by Dukno Yoon.

The Suspended Wings, the first in Yoon’s triumvirate of wing series, makes a clear conceptual separation between the carefully crafted mechanism and any specific practical purpose. The “wings”—which are in fact only feathers, the first set of which were gathered from the cage of a friend’s pet cockatoo—are visually distinct from the other components. As organic objects, they serve as polar counterparts to the finger, and like that removable element, they ultimately seem peripheral and replaceable. In the Suspended Wings, flesh and feathers occupy, so to speak, opposite ends of a process that ultimately seems indifferent to their presence. They relate, in other words, to a mechanism that could conceivably operate between any number of agents and objects. Even the perfectly synchronized movements between the flexing finger and the gently rising and falling “wings” cannot usurp the visual and conceptual primacy of the mechanical sterling silver and stainless steel structure that glides gracefully back and forth between them.

Like any artist—or for that matter, any engineer—who is driven by a perfectionist’s personality, Yoon has made of his Wings series an ongoing process of refining the essential structure with which he began. In the Suspended Wings this consisted of hinges, pairs of wires and rods, and two rings, designed to be worn on the second and third segments of the index finger. In the first work in the series, extension and retraction of the finger served to push and pull two thin wires, which in turn caused a pair of rods and their attached feathers to pivot one hundred eighty degrees. By the time that Yoon had constructed his fourth piece in the series, however, the design had become significantly more complex, with the ring on the third segment of the finger serving to hold an extended fulcrum in place as the ring on the second segment of the finger operated a lever. The result was a double movement in which the feathers slowly flapped while the pivot to which they were attached rose and fell in space.

Throughout the three Wings series, Yoon has adhered to an economy of form, avoiding ornamentation and restricting the physical components to slender, linear elements that suggest contour drawings in three dimensions. This formal sparseness was not always a characteristic of his work however. “The earliest kinetic pieces were more like robots,” he remembers. “Then during a critique one of my professors said, ‘You’re hiding everything. Why don’t you expose what’s inside?’ After that I didn’t hide anything. It was all mechanical structure. I came to really like that for its simplicity. Even though the structure is complicated, it doesn’t really feel that way, because it’s all very logical. There’s nothing really decorative about it.” At the same time, form did not simply follow function in Yoon’s Suspended Wings. Rather, form took on a specific function only after a general function, consistent with and even subordinate to Yoon’s minimalist aesthetic sense, had evolved through a disinterested process of experimenting with parts.

MEASURE RING WHEEL of sterling silver, brass, nickel, and stainless steel, 2006. Photograph by KC studio.

The Segmented Wings, the second series of Yoon’s Wings works and the last to depend for its motion on the human body, was in many respects an extension of the Suspended Wings, though it differed significantly in that the wings were no longer found feathers but rather skeletal metal constructions. The series represented a shift in Yoon’s conceptual process more distinctly toward engineering, since the problem became one of orienting a structure to the specific task of powering a semblance of wings. Made much more integral parts of the overall structure, the articulated wings set the scope of Yoon’s exploration: now form did largely follow the requirements of function. In response to those requirements, Yoon experimented with a variety of mechanisms. In one variation, for example, the structure is mounted on a bracelet, and the mechanism operates when the wearer’s wrist is flexed, causing the back of the hand to lift a lever and raise the wings. As the hand moves forward once more, the lever drops to its original position, permitting the wings to fall. In other versions the wings flap in response to the compression and release of small springs as the wearer’s fingers alternately contract and relax.

Yoon had begun making his kinetic jewelry by carrying out an artistic exploration of the incidental beauty of machines: he had, in other words, treated the machine as something from which to abstract an unmotivated but nevertheless undeniable beauty. In the process of developing his Wings works, however, he moved away from abstraction and began to embrace the machine itself as a starting point. As a consequence, the aesthetic outcome of his work became less a variation on incidental beauty as subject matter and more directly that incidental beauty itself. To put it another way, as his works became more like machines—more like mechanisms designed to carry out a specific utilitarian purpose—their aesthetic effect began to feel less like the deliberate product of an artist’s intent and more like the accidental beauty that can be found in the curve of a power line suspended in space. Of course, the Segmented Wings are quite unlike power lines, in that, despite their subordination to function, their ultimate purpose is not to serve as tools for a practical purpose but rather to exist as art.

The boundaries between these alternatives would, however, become less distinct in Yoon’s next series, The Measure Ring Wheels. These mechanical works consist of sterling silver rings serving as mounts for measuring devices that function somewhat like speedometers in automobiles. With each revolution of a disk—which can be rolled across a flat surface by the wearer of the ring—distance is recorded by means of a needle or needles and a dial that has been laser-engraved incrementally with tick marks or numbers. In the earliest versions, the Measure Ring Wheels incorporate bevel gears that change the direction of rotation by ninety degrees, but in later, more efficient, versions that incorporate fewer gears both measuring wheels and dials are located parallel to one another on the faces of the rings. Calibrated to measure distances in regular ratios between revolutions of the wheels and progression of needles around dials, Yoon’s mechanical rings function as precisely as clockworks to carry out their decidedly utilitarian purpose.

With the Measure Ring Wheels series, the results of Yoon’s work have become physically indistinguishable from products of mechanical engineering and industrial design, despite their aesthetic appeal. They respond, in other words, to a practical problem with an efficient mechanical solution, and their beauty seems primarily a consequence of that solution. On a conceptual level, however, Yoon’s status as artist rather than engineer poses some thorny questions about creativity and aesthetics, the most important of which is undoubtedly: How does one ultimately maintain a meaningful distinction between creativity and the incidental beauty that it engenders in purely utilitarian design and those same elements in the context of an art pursued primarily for its own sake?


Choi, Seul Gi. “Measure the Mechanical Structure.” J. J. Magazine 56 (March 2010): 38.

Cool, Lynn. “Emerging Asian and American Goldsmiths.” Metalsmith Vol. 25, No. 2 (Spring 2005): 51.

Lee, Sanghyun. “Promise of a Circle.” Jungle 22 (January 2009): 80.



Glen R. Brown is an art historian at Kansas State University, who takes a particular interest in contemporary art that incorporates ideas, techniques or materials from the sciences or technology. He finds the freewheeling form of engineering practiced by metalsmith Dukno Yoon to be fascinating, not only because of the questions that it raises about the boundaries between art and industrial design but also for the associations that it conjures with the deeply creative imaginations of aviation-engineering pioneers such as the Wright brothers. “Yoon’s work,” he observes, “is an effective reminder of how closely related the arts, science and technology are as products of human ingenuity—and of how beautiful that relationship is.”


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