Phone Tag: Interview with HaeAhn Kwon

Sock, 2016, sock, human hair, feather, paper, plastic wrap, string, wooden fruit crate, 7 x 11 x 12 inches

Just before the end of 2016, I Skyped with HaeAhn Kwon. HaeAhn is an installation artist whose work with sculpture and assemblage uses common and inexpensive materials to attempt a poetics of space and relation. Previous Phone Tag participant Walter Scott knows HaeAhn because they both began the University of Guelph’s MFA program this past fall. Before her recent move to Guelph, Ontario, HaeAhn has lived in L.A., her native Seoul, Korea, and New York City, where she did her undergraduate degree. In the interview, we speak about her recent interest in ritual, a manner of working with perceptive responsiveness, and how moving has changed her relationship to materials.

 

Phone Tag is a generative interview format, where I ask each participating artist five questions (plus others as the discussion meanders). At the end, I ask him or her to introduce me to a working artist whose attitude and work they find interesting and inspiring, who I then interview with the same five questions.

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Bread Rolls, pipe cleaner, paper maché, oil pastel, road salt, 8 x 7 x 9 inches

Linnea West: “Could you briefly describe what your practice is? What do you make?”

HaeAhn Kwon: “I’ve been making sculptural installations using provisional materials that are found or cheaply purchased. It’s hard for me to summarize…not least because it’s in flux…but more recently I’ve begun incorporating a ritualistic approach. It’s ritualistic in the sense that American poet CAConrad puts it: ‘It brings a heightened awareness to the present moment.’ I think I’m using the provisional materials to think through the time we are living in, this waste culture, and the rituals in the work are about not taking the materials or actions for granted but to recognize something of their material abundance…”

LW: “It seems like there is also something humorous about the objects.”

HK: “Yeah, humor is a big part of the work. They’re lowly materials, discarded or discardable, and through quiet arrangements they bring a sense of humor and…attentiveness, maybe.

My work used to be much more spontaneous, but I’m changing the way that I’m making. It used to be more intuitively responsive to available materials. But these days I’m much more involved in taking a premonition, like instructions for myself from my subconscious, so that’s why I’m having a hard time trying to bridge these two methodologies…”

Bag, 2016, bag, marker, straws, 15 x 8 x 4 inches

LW: “Is this something that has evolved because of your time in grad school, or was your work already shifting this way?”

HK: “Earlier works from 2014, from Korea, are installations made using industrial materials that are readily available. Those were about encounters on the streets of Seoul where you see private gestures and arrangements of objects that people make for their personal use in public space. Like, an ad-hoc parking stop or a rack repurposed to dry food on. The particular way that they engage with materials in Korea, I think, has to do with the generation that experienced war and poverty like my parents’ and grandparents’ generation. They have a specific, more attentive relationship to materials that are around. Then I moved to Los Angeles, where I became very isolated not only in terms of attending a disjointed MFA program at University of Southern California but also living without a car in a city which I felt was built on the scale of cars; I totally shifted gears from walking around and salvaging materials from the street to working in a ceramic studio and working with relatively traditional art materials. That time was also such a weird pressure cooker for me because I had to constantly negotiate with myself and others about reasons and meanings for being in the school, which was under scrutiny from the art community.  The recent works seem to really speak about my desire to break from all the rationality or valorization, validating why I’m making them or what’s good about it. In that way, L.A. actually really changed the way I work with materials and my attitude toward materials.”

LW: “I could see that. To go from Seoul, to L.A., to Guelph…I can only imagine if you’re paying attention to everyday materials how intensely that could change things…”

HK: “Exactly. I was paying a lot of attention to the way people use materials in Korea, and L.A. changed that for me.”

LW: “What are you working on now?”

HK: “I’m working on sculptures that I now see as discrete objects. Previous works were a series of objects that became an installation. There were mostly fragile gestures that had to speak to each other to become more of a dialogue in the installation itself. Nowadays, they are much more autonomous. I see more separations happening in between them, although I still use impoverished materials, like pipe cleaners, papier mache, or mass-produced food items, like ramen noodle packets or bread. What I’m working on currently are sculptures that incorporate exchange with other people, such as somebody’s handwriting or a collection of hair. Something that the person I know has or is capable of attaining that is particular to them only, and I would have the idea of using that specific material. But they don’t necessarily connect overtly to their identity. It’s a weird state of making an amulet or talisman that is charged in between the maker, the collaborator, and the viewer in a way. It’s not neutral, the way that the object gets charged with meaning.”

From the series Parasite and Ghost, 2016, ceramic, instant ramen noodle, spray paint, rock, sleeping eye mask, dimensions variable

LW: “So the object itself has this kind of energy?”

HK: “That’s how I think I operate, with these everyday materials that aren’t imbued with significance. They get charged in a specific way that is not necessarily accessible or readable right away.”

LW: “Who has influenced you as an artist?”

HK: “I want to answer in two different ways:  I am influenced by those I am around, like who is in my life at this time. So, Walter Scott is influencing the way I look at words and narrative, and my partner Paul Kajander is a constant influence in how I make and see art, and Kirby Mages, my friend in Chicago who is in touch almost daily, always thinking and sharing about art in text messages and snapchats…

Kim Beom is an interdisciplinary artist from Korea, who has been a great influence. He wrote a book called Noonchi (2009), which is about caring for an imaginary dog. The narrator is a mediator; he is introducing you, the reader, to a dog and asking you to be introduced and be responsible for this dog and become the dog’s owner. ‘Noonchi’ is a Korean word that doesn’t have a direct translation in English, but it’s a kind of perceptive intuition. It also has a connotation of response, as in a social intelligence and responsibility that calls for a certain response in a given situation. His work is very specific in its cultural context yet he doesn’t didactically draw from the cultural identity per se. His relationship to language and to this idea of care and perceptiveness has been a great influence on me.”

Installation view of “What You See Is What You Make”, Samuso Space for Contemporary Art, 2014

LW: “When did you first think of yourself as an artist?”

HK: “I have a really bad memory…as if I’m pro-forgetting. Because of that quality, I have a sustained feeling of fleeting moments of being an artist. It’s kind of like when you’re aware of the banality and brutality of life but at the same time have a heightened awareness of the materials around you, the people around you, the gestures around you—those moments feel so precious to me. And that’s when I feel I can call myself an artist. Because I have a very ambivalent position about this title of artist, my doubts and convictions all get mixed in.”

LW: “What’s an ideal day in the studio?”

HK: “My studio is always in a mess. I tend to meander a lot. It’s a lot of inefficient, time-consuming labor that doesn’t really get anywhere. So the ideal day is similar to what [Phone Tag participant] Tiziana said—she starts working and wants to work for as long as she wants, and that’s how I work too. I do a lot of different things all at once almost to the point of distracting myself in a way, and I would have these surprising encounters. That’s the spontaneous thing in the process, where I’m surprised by things that I didn’t know I was going to do. It’s definitely more than six hours at a time, starting in the afternoon, because I get overwhelmed with daily tasks in the morning. So after lunch I get in the studio and meander for a while until things start getting loose. I’m listening to podcasts or talks or lectures online and doing things with my hands at the same time. At the end of the day, there’s something that you didn’t think that was on your agenda. That kind of thing.”

LW: “So you don’t plan out a specific outcome…”

HK: “There are plans, but more often than not they don’t come out as planned. That’s what the perceptive response is….you’re responding to how things are different than you expected.”

LW: “It sounds like you would have to have a lot of faith in the process. And that you would have to have the patience to sit with it.”

HK: “Yeah, I spend a lot of time waiting. It takes time for me to intuitively do something that I’m happy with.”

LW: “Is this ever in conflict with having a deadline, like for a show…?”

HK: “Yeah, I think so, but it’s kind of funny. I think I’m built on crisis, like South Korea is built on crisis. I really started thinking that I have this dualistic mode of being that is constantly in crisis. Somehow deadlines just push me to break down more often, maybe more efficiently.”

Which One Slab, 2014, 31 x 23 x 1 inches

LW: “I think you’re in a great position to speak to my final question, given how you’ve moved around lately. Do you think it’s more important for an artist to be in a big city where there are cultural institutions and chances to show your work, but it is busy and intense and expensive, or to be in a quieter place where maybe you can focus on just making?”

HK: “I’ve lived most of my life in mega-cities. I know that cities have vigor and diversity in communities, which are great. But having experienced these hubs, I’m really enjoying time away, having a distance from cities, especially because I understand now that I have a hard time listening to my own voice. I think it depends on the person and the kind of phase that the person is in, and I think our relationships to cities change. At the moment, I’m really enjoying more of a focused time in my studio, where I don’t have to worry about getting somewhere to be in the right place at the right time.”

LW: “Do you know what you’ll want to do next?”

HK: “I really like Toronto. I think I’ll stick around Ontario for a while. I’ve been jumping around; I did an undergrad in New York, went back to Seoul, then went to L.A., before finally coming to Guelph. I want to see what it’s like to be settled in one place—nurturing my practice, caring for those around me, and supporting a community.”

Constriction and Anxiety: Rashid Johnson at Hauser & Wirth

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Rashid Johnson’s large exhibition “Fly Away” takes advantage of monumental spaces of Hauser & Wirth’s gallery on 19th Street where the artist tries to confine broad, unsettled themes of race and distrust to the work of art. Yet their implications seep out, notably in the dramatically different opening and closing rooms of the exhibition. The opening room of black and white images hung on the wall read as overblown inkprints or cartoons at first glance. Between the somber palette, the loose grid, and the orderly arrangement across wide open concrete floors, the effect is stark, even before one gets close enough to reckon with materiality and influence, abjection and horror. In contrast, the final room is devoted to a large black frame installation dominated by plants and the jazz notes of a pianist encased inside the structure, like a living room TV stand run amok under the influence of the the 1970s and the jungle. “Fly Away” feels particularly timely with it’s Afro-centric cultural evocations citing the pressures on the black figure and the black person in the world. As others have noted–including the artist, the missing faces and erasures are poignant and pointed in light of recent events related to police brutality in the United States.

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The living plants and live music of Antoine’s Organ (2016) in the last room are almost the elements of a garden party, a contradiction with the serious implications of the installation. The black metal scaffolding contains books, video screens, mounds of shea butter, and plants in ceramic vessels built and decorated by the artist. Details such as copies of the satirical novel The Sellout by Paul Beatty suggest a darker element. The exhibition takes its title from the old hymn “I’ll Fly Away,” which ties into the performances of Antoine Baldwin, also known as Audio BLK. The pianist activates Antoine’s Organ from a perch for upright piano built within. When I visited, Baldwin’s playing was more melancholic than triumphal, avoiding the more transcendent note that the title “Fly Away” might otherwise suggest.

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The underlying limitations and negative significance underscore the stark impact of the first room, where six large-scale panels of white ceramic tile covered with dozens of agitated faces scrawled in black soap and wax. Johnson uses black soap as a paradoxical material: it is a cleansing agent that, especially when applied to white ceramic tile commonly found in bathrooms, resembles shit. Connotations aside, the texture contrasts between shiny ceramic and rich matte soap is elegant. The unhappy sketched faces recall Jean DuBuffet.  I felt there was poignant contrast between the black soap faces with mouths scratched across as if silenced or ravaged and the live notes spilling into the room from the artificial domestic jungle structure. The series builds on previous work called Anxious Men; these are called Anxious Audiences.

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In tandem with anxiety, constraint is the tenor of the show, as Johnson highly controls the tools of the trade within the confines of the traditional art surface. His cultural commentary, like his material fascination, is decorative re-presentation, a re-use of signifiers to touch on themes of escape and identity. While there is value in creating a space for reflection, and today’s political context demands just such reflection, it offers no alternative vision of what could be, and the music echoes off the cavernous white walls rather than finding or offering a way out.

Up through October 22 at Hauser & Wirth.

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Photography as Memorial: Karin Giusti at Smackmellon

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Entering Smack Mellon’s gallery immediately creates a sense of place distinct from the bustling DUMBO neighborhood outside. Pillars lit from within illuminate the high-ceilinged room, reminding me of architectural spaces like cathedrals and the permanence of memorial columns. The columns are neither architectural features nor permanent: they are an exhibition by Karen Giusti featuring images photographed, spliced together as if a kaleidoscope, and printed on a polyester film. The colorful nature scenes–and the soundtrack of birds and other noises–counter any sense of mournfulness. The meditative atmosphere creates a peaceful space to consider the imagery more closely.

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Looking more carefully at the photographs, one notices a highly specific sense of time and place grounded in the artist’s experience. Seasonal changes appear in landscape: snow, autumn foliage, bright green leaves and grass as Giusti highlights the passage of time. The artist has stitched together images in Photoshop that show her photographic process. Standing in one place, the artist would take a photograph looking down at her feet, then one shot straight ahead, then one looking above that to the sky, going around in every direction to create an embodied sense of physical place. In wrapping the grid of images into a circular column, Giusti forces the viewer into the position of outside observer. The interior of the column but also the memory of the place and time itself remains inaccessible to us. The hint we are given of those memories is in the landscape and the title of the installation: Honorem: Three Seasons at Black Forest Farm.

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Black Forest Farm is the remote farmhouse in upstate New York where the photographs were taken. Three seasons reflects the time period they were taken, during which the artist struggled with the loss of her partner. Honorem refers to her late partner Stephen G. Schwarz, a firefighter and 9/11 First Responder, who died in 2010 due to health complications from 9/11. While the precise location and time is a private memory of the artist, this public presentation transforms the images into a memorial not just for Schwarz but all first responders. Giusti hopes this latest installment of the work will create a wider recognition of the ongoing health repercussions of 9/11 for first responders and all those affected.

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While the installation has a distinctly personal origin, it serves as a reminder that all public monuments are made up of such singular, private tragedies. Writing about Giusti’s work in the wake of the attacks in Paris, it also reminds me of the many ways that terrorism, so spectacularly brought to the world’s attention by 9/11 and continued in less spectacular but equally barbaric attacks across the world, has repercussions beyond immediate loss of life.

Karin Giusti’s installation Honorem: Three Seasons at Black Forest Farm is up at Smack Mellon through December 13, 2015.