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.


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.”

Tea, Tradition, and Tom Sachs at the Noguchi Museum

Installation shot, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Installation shot, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Participating in a tea ceremony at the Noguchi Museum as part of Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony felt like a highly controlled experience from the beginning, as are traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. There were many instructions: fill out a form at least a week in advance, watch three videos detailing Sachs’ studio process (enjoyable spoofs(?) on rules: Ten Bullets, COLOR, and Love Letter to Plywood), show up an hour before the event, and then wait to see if you receive a text selecting you to participate. So for unprepared me, this meant a hurried bike ride to the Noguchi Museum on a Sunday morning and not a little bit of anticipation after such investment. “Greetings” came the text around 11:45 am: “You have been selected..”

Garden shoes for the Tea Ceremony performance

Garden shoes for the tea ceremony performance

I had applied for a 12 pm Tea Ceremony with Johnny Fogg because it appealed to my interest in Tom Sachs and how his work would translate into this kind of event, but honestly I had no idea what was involved. As I learned, these tea ceremonies, held Tom Sachs-style and hosted by Johnny Fogg, present long-standing and complex Japanese ritual in new guise, complementing the Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony exhibition on view in the rest of the Museum. The small retrospective of Sachs’s imperfect, detailed work shows culturally appropriation run rampant with motifs of NASA and McDonalds and objects in plywood, resin, and Sharpie.

I and the other guests were invited to don a garment like a cross between a lab coat and a kimono. We surrendered our phones to a locked box. We removed our own shoes and put on tabi socks and “garden shoes” to prepare ourselves to enter the tea garden. Our host Johnny Fogg introduced himself and led us outside. The tea garden (in this case, the first semi-outdoor rooms of the Noguchi Museum) featured the clearly distinct sculptural work of Noguchi and Sachs. Noguchi is present in minimalist works made from natural materials. Sachs applied his distinctive assembly of mass materials to create a plywood shelter and bench marked United States and three angular “rocks” of grey wood coated in resin. We sat down on them, looking over at a resin-coated cardboard pagoda and lit stove with tennis balls serving as feet for the structure.

Installation view, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Installation view, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Johnny Fogg introduced us to what was about to happen, encouraging questions about the ritual we were about to undergo. While formal, this ceremony would not follow all the rules of a traditional ceremony and that we as guests were not expected to come to it with any degree of knowledge of how to behave. Lucky for me! He offered us ceremonial tobacco, demonstrating the beautiful ember hidden in a mountain of ash, but there were no smokers in our group. The tea ceremony attracted a small group of onlookers who followed us as we paraded across the tea garden in our white coats and strange shoes to a gate. There were also lanterns, a koi pond and, perhaps less clearly related to Japanese tea gardens, an airplane lavatory.


We were formally led through the gate and instructed in how to cleanse our hands at the hand washing station. Then we were led to the tea house. Leaving our garden shoes outdoors, we entered through the low door on our butts and sat on tatami mats in a 9 x 9 foot room. A plastic kettle, a scroll painting featuring Muhammad Ali for a small shrine called a tokonoma (reading in characters: “It Ain’t Bragging If You Can Back It Up”), and a white plywood contraption labelled with numbers were the other objects in the room. We paused to meditate, the timer Johnny set to 90 seconds ending with a loud BUZZ.


Space Suit, 2007–11, Tyvek and mixed media

Finally, after this preparation, the tea ceremony could begin, not with tea–as I expected–but with sake. It appeared on a tray through the door behind our host in neat resin cups and saucers. Next came a Ritz cracker with a smear of peanut butter (“the brown wave”). Then Johnny Fogg placed an individual Oreo on its own small platter before us (“the sun at midnight”). Each course came on its own tray and required individual presentation. Then we arrived at the matcha–matcha, fine green tea powder, is blended with hot water to create a cup for each guest. The cups were uneven, handmade white ceramic vessels with NASA across the front, not particularly matched. One was simply all black. Johnny made each guest a cup of matcha, going through several steps of dusting off the already clean equipment, pouring water, and sifting matcha. It involved many pieces of re-purposed equipment, including a Yoda PEZ dispenser. We each drank in turn. We discussed the history of tea ceremony in Japan and, for newbies, our impressions of matcha. The watching crowd dispersed over time, and the quiet sounds around the room–of birds or wind–became more apparent. I felt more open to the other participants sharing this intimate space with me.

Installation view, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Installation view, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Finally, we played games. This was not a competitive environment. We each raked a rock garden in turn  and admired what others did before and after us. Then we were handed a Sharpie, presented brand-name toward us, and a sheaf of white paper. The game was to do whatever we wanted with these materials. I made a paper airplane, then started drawing. And kept drawing. Eventually Johnny’s voice rather than the buzzer interrupted us–he hadn’t wanted to stop us since we were all so intent, so he had turned it off. The tea ceremony was over, we exited, put back on the garden shoes, walked to the entrance, removed our gear, and said goodbye.

Installation view, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Installation view, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Japanese tradition and the forces of modernity appear both in the work of Noguchi and Sachs, albeit materializing in very different aesthetics. Yet it is invigorating to the Noguchi Museum to create room for such a comparison in their space. And the performative element of the tea ceremony really allowed the space itself to breath, creating an awareness of you the viewer in the space and the object before you, a consciousness that feels very in tune with Noguchi’s work.

Tea ceremonies with guest participants will be performed through July 24 as part of the larger exhibition Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony on view at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City.

Music & Mourning: The Propeller Group at James Cohen Gallery

propeller-groupThe film The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music, currently on view at James Cohan’s Grand Street location, takes the colorful funerary traditions of south Vietnam as a means to meditate on loss and mourning. Yet the emphasis is very much on life–on the people performing the rituals of mourning rather than the absent dead. To create the 21-minute work, first shown at Prospect in New Orleans in 2014, The Propeller Group attended and recorded the funeral ceremonies of several people. In doing so, they found not just ritual practices–extreme demonstrations such as balancing motorcycles on one’s head or sword swallowing–but a cast of charismatic characters, such as the leader of the brass band that processes through the film in white.

The film is full of dances with fire and snakes, feats of skill, flowers and processions, and, paramount to all, music. Music permeates the film. It is not just the auditory soundtrack we hear, although that is compelling in itself. The Propeller Group portrays musicians alone with visual references to karaoke and music videos. The pace of jump cuts matches the rhythm of the different Vietnamese songs, whose sad and trite lyrics are shared on screen in English captions. The lip syncing of featured individuals registers as slightly out of time with the soundtrack.

IMG_9291Swirling camera shots develop a sense of intoxication while the music acts upon the emotions of the viewer. The music’s emotive register reminds me of the sentimental pathos of Ragnar Kjartansson‘s work rather than tragedy, perhaps because the film uses signifiers of the dead without the dead being present. No bodies are shown. The viewer only sees coffins or, at most, pictures. The focus is on rituals that stress aliveness, as if the passage from death to life should be celebrated. And, in fact, the Propeller Group borrowed the tittle of the film from a Vietnamese Buddhist proverb, which calls for the playing of celebratory music for the dead.

timthumbThe Propeller Group shot everything in ultra-high definition video, creating a lush and convincing dreamworld for the viewer. Using both documentary footage and staged reenactment, the  film moves seamlessly between real and unreal space and time. Thus while the film is specific to local particularities, it becomes a poetic rumination on life, death, and the stages in-between. The Propeller Group has seamlessly worked in artificial effects, like the silhouette of a person being filled with CGI red fire (pictured in the image below). It works because the real footage is as fantastical and evocative as the artificial scenes that it blends with, and it is partly the lyrical movement between documentary footage, staged reenactments, music video style scenes, and computer effects that makes this film such compelling viewing. IMG_9284

Up through May 15 at James Cohan Gallery at 291 Grand Street.