This is an interview with artist Hye-Soo Park and Miri Noh of Laurence Geoffrey’s Ltd., an art consultancy, based in Korea, on January 27th, 2016 at SongEun ArtSpace during the preparation of the artist’s solo exhibition, “Now Here Is Nowhere”.
Noh: Your recent works seem to be on a different track compared to those of your early years such as “The Depth of Time”(2000) or “The Time to Depth”(2004). To what can you attribute for such change.
Time for Depth, 2002-2003 Wood, photograph, variable dimensions
Park: “The Depth of Time” is a piece involving close observation of nature. I wanted to measure just how slowly time passes in nature, and to my surprise I found nature to change at an alarmingly fast pace. Those were the days when I would burn tree rings with a magnifying glass with sunlight, so I did not look forward to bright sunny days, because that meant I had to work. The log that needed to be moved was too heavy and conditions unfavorable to properly rest. I was pretty much following the sun, continuously through the mountains. I learned the hard and physical way that seemingly ordinary and unchanged scenes were actually the laborious and diligent handiwork of forces and things unseen. Prior to that, looking out of a train window all I saw were serene and peaceful landscapes, but after I began to think about the amount of work necessary to orchestrate such sceneries, how everything can fall apart if just one element did not do its part for the day, and so on. Living immersed in nature for over a year made me realize that I was in fact a city person. And it was also then that it dawned on me that human beings are also an element of nature. From then on, I began to incorporate “people” into my work, which I feel has consequently allowed me to explore more diverse avenues than before. A common theme that has penetrated my work from the very beginning and to this day is “gathering”. If I collected things of nature during my early days, now I gather stories of people. The gathering process is strictly observational, without any personal interpretations involved. At first it is all about gathering and observing anything and everything. After over a year of that, certain things stand out or become clear. My actual work begins with that.
Noh: The concept of “time” appears to be an underlying current throughout your work until now, expressed in various ways. Often time itself was the central theme like your earlier works or implied as part of the waiting process in obtaining feedback through questionnaires or viewer participation type works.
Park: No one escapes time, don’t you agree? How precious today would be, when faced with certain death tomorrow? It is advised to live each day and regard everyone with such sentiment in mind. I want to live a better tomorrow than today. I want to have hope, hope that tomorrow is not worse off than today... but too often than not, you find today to be awful and yesterday comes back being better. While wondering why this is so, I began to think about what it is that we lost in our past. You only live once, so it would be great if everyone gets to see better times. Time is an essential part of my work but also as a crucial part of my life.
Noh: Your inquisitiveness and curiosity towards yourself and people as well as the yearning to find answers about living from life drives you to confront yourself through the observations of others, the sum of which is wholly reflected in your work. Does this process ever present you a real answer?
Project Dialogue vol.3 - Goodbye to Love, 2013 The Collection of Memorabilia of Broken Heart
Park: Those around me tell me that I am a bit odd, but if you take a close look at people, how many could you really consider to be ordinary? In my opinion, people want to be ordinary but they also want to be special at the same time, which is probably the point I am trying to prove through my work. Differences between others and myself I can accept, so long as I can understand them. What can you do? People are different. For those things that I do not understand, I make an effort to understand them by asking questions or through my work, as in the case of the concept of “average”. My work began with the idea that “average” is an extremely contradictory concept, and the more I progress, the more I am convinced I am right. It baffled me as to why people blindly live as others do or others have, most not even knowing why they are playing the imitating game. It is one thing to intentionally emulate someone but that doesn’t seem to be the case. But after doing my Botong (meaning “average” in Korean) project, I began to understand a little better – people are not confident about themselves and don’t trust their own judgments. Knowing how fearful and apprehensive people really are, I was able to be less judgmental and be more sympathetic as I took pity on them. In Project - Goodbye to Love(2013), contrary to what people claimed about being able to painlessly discard ended relationship, diving deeper told me just the opposite – love was never easy to erase. There are such vast discrepancies between what people say and what actually is. When people talk about love, those around them tend to give negative or discouraging feedbacks, so people often become disappointed about love and form preconceived ideas about it. I came across such heart-wrenching stories when doing my “mementos of lost loves” collection that made me realize how diverse love can be, and showed me a side of love that makes my prejudices null. So in such a manner, I come to understand my hypotheses and questions through my projects, sometimes ending up somewhere different from where I anticipated, sometimes changing my perspectives or the way I view and understand people, and so on.
Noh: You ask questions and receive answers through your work, consequently experiencing a kind of transformation in the process.
Do you think the same kind of change is possible for others?
left) Dream Dust, 2011 Shredded research paper, paper-shredder, fluorescent light, typewriter, balloon, sound, electric fans, telescope, variable dimensions
right) Ancient Pharmacy, 2011 Mixed media, variable dimensions (cooperated with artist, fortune-teller, psychiatrist)
Park: I don’t know. The process of change is such a personal one. Well, once this happened during “Dream Dust”(2011). The collaborating fortune teller told viewers of their futures and many left the gallery deeply concerned. But if you think about it, it’s quite absurd for an absolute stranger to be able to tell you your future and for you to believe it.
I don’t expect viewers to understand what I am trying to say with my work nor for the message to leave an impression on them. A message is meant to be created between the artist and the work, and I can only imagine what sort of interactions viewers will have with a particular work. All I want is for my work to tickle that something in people that they have suppressed or buried inside themselves, so that rather than receiving answers from my project, they go away with a question for themselves. Answers, will need to be found from within their own lives. If “Dream Dust” was about asking the questions “What are my discarded dreams?” and “With what life goals must I live?” then Surviving as an Artist (2010) at the Seoul Museum of Art was about the contemplations on survival, each artist questioning themselves on their ways of making it through as an artist. In The Definition of Botong, it was about asking such compelling questions like, “Why must we be so insistent on being Botong?” “Why is it so important to be on that average mark?” “Is “normal” not important?” and “Is being aware of other people or things prescribed by society more important than my values?” I always wish people will be able to leave with questions for themselves. They must find the answers to their own questions by themselves, in order for that revelation to impact their lives. No art work or artist will ever be able to do it for them.
Poject Dialogue vol.5 - Surviving as an Artists/ Artist Fear, 2010 Mixed media, 300 x 400 x 80cm
Noh: Another common and deliberate element present in your works is text. It presents itself in the form of a survey, or participator submitted writings as in the project Goodbye to Love or Dream Dust, or at times in the form of selfwritten essays or as published works. Text obviously plays and holds an important role.
Park: I come across many artistic forms like film, books, and art, but the one form that by far has the greatest impact on me and leaves me the most lasting impression, is text. Naturally, I rely on text quite substantially for my work. In a way it’s the rawest form of expression, non-visual but abstract, leaving far more room for imagination. I feel writing, text, is the highest artistic form, and poems belong to the top notch of that. Music of course is undeniably a rivaling force but, while you absorb music through a rather indirect process, writing comes to you through your brain. Perhaps because I am more on the rational side, that is the process I prefer. And hence my immense respect for poets. City Poem(2015) showcased in this exhibition, includes texts taken from Yoko Ono’s poems. Her book Grapefruit(1964) is a minefield of good texts of which I have taken some, playing around with them for my work. Using text to articulate my insights or revelations of things seems to be the most effective way to communicate to audiences. A structural piece or sculpture would probably need to be accompanied by interpretations or narrations.
Noh: Are published works utilizing text in another context?
Project Dialogue vol.2 - The Definition of Botong (The 13th SongEun ArtAward installation view)
Park: When the volume of text gets to be too much, it becomes ineffective to use them to convey my messages in a gallery setting. For example in the case of a survey, there would be a minimum of five hundred participants, some exceeding even a thousand. It is my work to go through each and every survey, but audiences tire easily. When it comes to text, the reading issue is an obstacle I need to resolve. So many participants have unconditionally opened up to me about themselves, and I wouldn’t be doing them justice if I were to stop at select works. That would not be right. But on the other hand, there is no way of displaying all of them, so my solution was a publication – a medium that would hold all the participant materials in their entirety. The many participant responses I received but couldn’t include all in the gallery display would be included in full in the publication. In Dream Dust/The Dream Thrown Away, every single dream participant who had given up were put in along with a statistical drawing. The psychiatrist consulting with me since The Definition of Botong until now gave me a manuscript with her definition of “normality” and that is also due to be published. The poems written in collaboration with writer Taey Iohe using the open-ended audience responses to the Botong Test will be presented in this exhibition, and a separate book of poems is due to follow the exhibition.
Noh: Your work has involved collaborations with a psychiatrist, a fortune teller, a writer, and more. What was your very first collaboration and what meaning does collaborating hold for your work?
Project Dialogue - Archive, 2009 (Installation view, SOMA Drawing Center)
Park: My very first collaboration was for “Project Dialogue – Archive”(2009) at the SOMA Drawing Center. I collected comments from 50 people with all different jobs. I guess it’s less of a collaboration and more of a participation to be exact. My role was that of a researcher. I would set the direction and subject and hear what people thought about them. Much like a documentary director, I collected opinions from many people regarding the same particular subject. However, I felt this method was too superficial for me, where one party visualizes something based on the directions provided by the other. I believe a collaboration must be more proactive and involved than that. Both parties should be directly involved, each diving into different areas so that we work towards something unexpected together. Collaboration is in a way, being part of society – you meet with numerous perspectives to a single material or subject. Because the nature of my work is about diverse people, collaboration seems inevitable. It is impossible for me to find answers on my own without the input of others. In The Definition of Botong, I was desperate to get help from a professional psychiatrist because it was not about presenting something to others but about me understanding things I did not understand. To begin with, I did not even know the word “normality” nor was I aware the words “normal” and “ordinary” did not bear the same meaning. So the consulting psychiatrist helped explain many of my queries. I needed to first resolve all the questions I may have in order to proceed to the next step of my work. As for the poem piece done with Taey Iohe in this exhibition, I made initial contact to the writer as I am a huge fan and after working together on a few other projects, it was clear I wanted to work with her on a collaborative piece. At first, I received a short story from Taey based on the written responses from the Survey on Botong, but it did not fit entirely with my original intent for the project. I felt we were limiting the perspective of the viewers and what I wanted was to present an openended story about various people. So I suggested we change the format from story to poetry. I took excerpts from the poems I received from Taey, and came up with my own interpretation of them. When doing a collaboration, the most difficult task is assessing the individual dispositions and interests of those involved. The process is far from easy and at times may require a long time. But that’s precisely like life. You don’t know the end game but that is what makes it so interesting because there will always be anticipation. A person delivering exactly as planned with no surprises is predictable and can get rather boring.
Noh: What do you wish to say through you work in this solo exhibition?
Park: The overall theme that runs throughout the exhibition is the reality of the Korean society as I see it, especially about the standards that are taken for granted. What I found researching and running the survey on Botong was that people have high levels of anxiety within, being crushed under the weight of having to be at least “average.” And at the center of this anxiety lies competition. In the highly competitive society of Korea, people end up living like others do in order to succeed, even if they may not be sure of what they are doing. Pacifying the anxiety requires one to look the problem squarely in the eye, but being too scared people are unable to face their problems. Feeling there are no answers to their problems they are disoriented, imitating others for temporary measure and consequently making a bigger mess of things. Blindly following the paths of others, people end up lost, unable to find their way to wherever they need to go, thereby becoming desperately hopeless. An “average life” is neither natural nor “normal”, and I wanted to shed light on such things that are not entirely normal, things we have desperately been trying to ignore. Ironically the word “hope” is being widely used in society while in fact people seem to be losing faith that life will improve. Most believe there just might not be a brighter tomorrow. Sometimes, I imagine how great it would be to be surrounded by many people who make me say, “Wow, I want to live like them!” I would love to be that person that can arouse such inspiration in people as well. Then perhaps, we could all live happy lives. And when I say happy I don’t mean the absence of hardships or difficulties, but knowing how to enjoy life. Focusing on the now is as important, if not more, than sacrificing today in order to secure a better tomorrow. It is my hope to evoke such sentiments in people through this exhibition. I am trying to tell stories using multiple works in the exhibition, so from a structural point of view, it will be great if audiences not limit their experiences to what they see, to individual art works, but rather after walking through the entire exhibit can come away feeling like they have read a book. Whether this will happen, we will have to see.
Noh: When asked of future plans back at the 13th SongEun ArtAward exhibition two years ago, you mentioned that from the five themes of Project Dialogue – Archive namely dreams, love, art, botong, and money, you wanted to focus on money as a possible future project. Has there been any progress in that?
Park: Art is to me, a matter of living as well as a matter of trying to survive as an artist. The project has always been with me in my mind, but I am never confident enough to make it real, so it is currently on pause. Back in 2010, I was able to do the necessary research about “the life of an artist” with the support of the Seoul Museum of Art, but having been in my mid-thirties at the time and my artistic survival still largely undecided, I came to the conclusion that it was not the right time to address that particular subject. It would be an undertaking for when I am older, perhaps as my last project after having undeniably survived as an artist. I estimate I will be at least in my late fifties, an age befitting to talk about money. Artists of my current age group face numerous problems, what with fewer exhibition opportunities, inflating exhibition budgets that follow experienced artists, and therefore naturally having to trim down on living expenses. Once over the age of forty, basic survival can get threatened if artists don’t find paid employment or create sellable art. It seems for artists, the story of money is essentially equivalent to the story of basic survival and closely connected to surviving as an artist.
Noh: You spoke of money as being experienced by an artist. It seems attitude towards money will vary depending on one’s current financial status, or the kind of experiences one has had.
Park: I agree, which is why I am cautious as to how I will proceed with the story of money. As I usually do with all my work, I would start with the foundation question. I expect the project will not be easy as money is a topic many are greatly interested in, as you mentioned each with his or her experiences and philosophies. It is also highly likely that I will seek professional economic help to collaborate, as it is an area that goes far beyond my capacities. As for what I said about money in terms of “basic survival,” I think you can also approach if from a “value” perspective. For example, the objects used in Goodbye to Love were composed of donated things as well as objects that I personally purchased. But just because those objects were bought for say KRW 4,000 or 5,000 does not mean the entire piece should be valued at KRW 5,000. The piece made with such objects was actually sold to a gallery for a large sum of money, which makes you think about the monetary value of art.
Noh: Lastly, I can not not ask, what does art mean to you, or what role does it play for you? I feel it may be another core theme that penetrates the expanse of your work.
Park: That is a difficult question. I am a doer of things that I think must be done, and to me, art is one of those things. Art plays the role of reading and recognizing things people fail to do aside from chasing others. Susan Sontag says in Against Interpretation(2002), “Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience… What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” What is in excess in our times is not that of humanly nature. There is a distinct role people play and the most attractive thing people do that sets us apart from machines is our emotional abilities.
Horrific things may happen but they are forgotten by the next day. Knowing that nothing really changes, people simply turn away, tears are seldom shed, and our emotional capacities as human beings continue to deteriorate. People just move to extremities or stimulating things, losing the ability to react or think in a humane way. I believe art is what must step in and bring that part of humans back alive.
Noh: As you do, I hope art will fulfill its role to the fullest in this exhibition. Thank you for sharing with us your time and your thoughts.
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