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.”

Amerikka: Cildo Meireles at Galerie Lelong


Amerikkka, 1991/2013

Next week is your last chance to Cildo Meireles’s exhibition at Galerie Lelong in Chelsea. In it, the Brazilian artist’s show-stopping installation Amerikkka draws you into the main gallery space where a rectangle of poised gold bullets loom over a field of pristine white eggs. The eggs are plaster and intended to be walked on. Entering the space between these opposed forces, the threat of bullets overhead and the uncomfortable sensation of walking on eggshells below, puts the viewer in a fragile, vulnerable position. The viewer is a stand-in for society at large, as the title suggests by merging the words “America” and “KKK” (Klu Klux Klan).


The visual appeal of long, perfectly rows of small things draws one in. Given the solid plaster nature of the eggs, the sense of threat is somewhat stymied. The tilt of bullet-ridden ceiling could be opening up, or clamping down. Is the KKK a current or past threat, something beginning or ending, or per the title, embedded unavoidably in ideas of America? Recent events incline me to the latter interpretation.


The other works on view are more playful, even when they also reference social problems, such as the recent work Aquaurum. Encased in a vitrine are two tall identical glasses–one filled with water and one filled with gold. Meireles refers to water shortages in São Paulo inn this piece, but it could also be read in terms of duality and the philosophy of perception.

pares impares

Pares impares, 2011/2013

Themes of duality and perception are evidenced in the two large rectangles of starkly different content in Amerikkka, but also in works like Pares ímpares(2011/13), where two sets of identical glasses lay in a vitrine, with cracked lens on one side lit from below like spiderwebs.

Cildo Meireles’s exhibition is up through June 27.



Unlimited Metaphor: Robert Gober at MoMA


At least one person I know hates the way American artist Robert Gober’s work is displayed at his current retrospective at MoMA (up through January 18). Granted, she knows his work far better than I do, but I beg to differ. Perhaps because this exhibition was my first introduction to Gober’s strange sculptures, I appreciated the installations in themselves, not least because they often mimicked the highly specific way that works were originally displayed. The visitor gets a hint of this dynamic in MoMA’s atrium, taken over by a plywood enclosure, resembling a house’s unfinished walls, whose interior is only accessible from inside the exhibition.


Inside the show, careful facsimiles of sinks, impossible cribs, and anonymous limbs are the order of the day. It’s no wonder that Jerry Saltz describes how critics often have no idea what it means. The show’s title–“The Heart is a Metaphor”–speaks to the logic of dreams by which Gober seems to operate. Although it is difficult to nail down any specific meaning, certainly notions of home are evoked by his utilitarian constructions, and of the body by those limbs, often sprouting out of walls seemingly at random. A gay artist in the 80s, his works (such as the non-working sinks or Untitled (1989) featuring an empty wedding dress) are often seen as responding to issues such as the AIDS crisis or gay marriage, and certainly pieces like the chapel interior (Untitled, 2003-2005) in wake of September 11 attacks would also support a socially engaged reading. At the same time, his tubs and sinks suggest a more general cleansing just as his candles might suggest spirituality or hope. Such metaphors are multivalent, and it is hard to limit the possible significances.


What I found most moving about both sinks and limbs is the care with which the artist replicated both. On close inspection, they are clearly handmade, imperfect, but great care was taken with them. It produces an uncanny resemblance to the real, as if the artist was trying to create some Platonic ideal of a sink. At the same time, returning to this mundane object again and again in his work suggests some kind of idée fixe. Like a murderer who revisits the scene of a crime, I wonder what obsession brings Gober back to these things–what sort of totemic status must they have? Humble. Clean. Functionless. Yet there lurks some darker implication and some deeper function. But like in a dream after one wakes, it is unclear what that function is. Rat bait suggests something ugly but unseen. Bars on windows suggest home might be a prison, or a prison a home.



Some of the more complex works, such as an open briefcase on the floor through which flowing water, moss, rocks, and a tiny bit of bare feet can be seen, suggest the elaborate visual pun of Duchamp in Etant Donnes. What is evoked is the Surrealist language of Magritte et al. in contemporary and mundane guise. The domestic objects of sinks and cribs that formed the beginning of Gober’s career are circled back around to at the end of the roughly chronological exhibition, where a dollhouse sits in the middle of the room, a token from Gober’s initial livelihood in New York. The painting below, the final work in the exhibition, continues to focus on houses and interiority, echoed on a larger scale for the viewer, who is inside an exhibition space painted the pale blue of a baby’s nursery. Throughout, the contained spaces suggest a continued interiority of the mind rather than actual space, and these general symbols, rather than feeling like tropes, seem both personal and poetic, if not immediately fixed in specific meaning.