In my most recent work, I've taken the subject, both in form and imagery, of Korean historical landscape painting, (specifically so-called Longevity Paintings or Ship-Jang-Saeng-Do in Korean), which were typically made only by men for the Korean upper class known as Yang Ban. Printing patterns (using Western oil colors) on top of the landscape traditionally used in Asian paintings (using water-based colors) transforms the masculine initial layer, now seen through a feminine veil. The painting's surface, covered with glass bead work using shimmering rhinestones, speaks against the power of men in Korean cultural history and still prevalent in contemporary Korean society. The work is a construct/destruct/re-construct.
In all my work, I use my personal experiences as a woman who immigrated to the United States twenty-seven years ago, after living in Korea until I was twenty-eight years old. This almost equal length of experiences in two completely different countries makes possible a hybridity that presents both cultures through the eyes of my own particular feminist perspective: raised in fear as a woman, now living in complete confidence as a woman.
When I started my career as an artist, I used the dream of a butterfly found in the writings of Chuang Tzu, the Taoist Philosopher, as a symbol of female identity, of being a woman in the world. Later this also became a minority issue, not just about being a woman, but also being an Asian immigrant in the United States. I escaped from male dominated Korean society only to find that my new home has its own complicated versions of racism,sexism and classism. My longevity paintings, as with most of my recent work,represent both places with its many different problems and my own place between. So where then is the Paradise?
Ship-Jang-Saeng-Do contains ten elements of long life--sun, mountains, water, clouds,rocks/stone, pine trees, mushrooms of immortality (Bull cho), turtles, white cranes, deer along with bamboo and the peaches of immortality (replacing either mountains or rocks)--which represent a place of immortality, Paradise: a place of peace, spirituality,happiness and (especially) healing. In my longevity paintings, peace,spirituality and happiness are found between myself and the places created in my work. A healing process, one that can be re-created by each viewer, a "Paradise Between."
For me, it seems that childhood memories always remain in my heart like a strong magic spell.
When I came to America to study art, experiencing new cultures, foreign languages, people, and environments challenged me to find my real self, who I was and am. Confusion, struggle, anxiety, anger, pain and agony, and identity have become infused into my work and have evolved to different stages. While I still lived in Manhattan, 9/11 came and left unforgettable scars in my life. One of my friends died. My family and I were locked in for a week. It took 6 months to clean the air of death out of our neighborhood. Experiencing it all changed me and my work. I started to ponder life and death, self identity and meaning of being American, and, strangely, a healing. A memory of my childhood came up: my grandmother's garden and affections, its magical power over a little girl, the hope of healing.
I create to share experiences I've had in America filtered by the culture I grew up in. When people ask me what artists influenced my work the most and I mention old Korean paintings, it puzzles and confuses those with only knowledge of Western art and its artists. I know it especially challenges those who feel superior to Asian culture.
I use Sumi ink, water based colors, Calligraphic brush strokes, strange marks, and texts in foreign languages. As a result, they see waxy surfaces and numerous mysterious layers. A work that doesn't belong to any categories of art makes them wonder. Is it a painting or a print? Where is the root coming from? There is no connection to Western art tradition that they can easily refer to. The strange foreign object has something they never knew before. Something that they cannot clearly describe or explain makes them uncomfortable, yet curious.
Korean culture is especially foreign to some people. They barely remember the Korean War and the involvement of American troops. A female artist from that country who has lived here for about 18 years, who might have become an American by now, is still an alien in this country. Her language is still not perfect. She now has her own culture mixed between two, American and Korean. She doesn't belong anywhere, yet physically does in America. Relocation of plants I adopt in my work explains it. One of my pieces has 50 panels (10"x8" each) of plants transformed with texts in its own language and English. Each panel has a plant that I collected in each country I visited, first New Mexico, later Korea, Switzerland, and Italy. Experiences I had in each place exposed on plants I picked in a foreign soil and climate, imaginably in people who lived there. It is a symbolic object representing the whole culture of the place and an actual being that can cure certain diseases. Each place has its own unique plant: as I remember from an old Korean saying, "Our land always provides cures in native plants when we have diseases". I make them to awaken people to recognize different cultures and experience them through my work.
America is a country of immigrants and has been, with the exception of its native populations, from its political beginnings. Although there shouldn't be any superior cultures or ethnicities, we have had a long history of controversial conflicts. We still do. We are too busy to understand others or too proud to acknowledge other cultures and differences. We think our culture is the greatest one. What is our culture then? It is the culture we've formed and transformed out of many others. I want to evoke this idea through my work. I want viewers to be both challenged and acknowledged by my work.
I deal with spirituality, a subject that has long been disregarded in the contemporary art scene. A desire of healing is another important subject for me. In Asian philosophy, Chi is an important part of human life. The energy we can't see is the vital role of our body and comes from nature itself. Recognizing its power in modern sciences is a valuable change in our culture. One of the important scientific discoveries is about medicinal plants and acupunctural treatments as alternatives to traditional medicine. My work holds the power of spirituality. I want people to experience it, or at least to be aware of it.
The totality of the above is the work I make. As a result, it is a unique being, possibly a foreign and uncomfortable one, yet a peaceful one you can even meditate on. I want to challenge viewers to recognize them all in their own way and hopefully for them to create their own.