Artist’s passion, ideas fueled by contradictionsFor Debbie Han, paradox is a way of life. In her works she mixes ideas and objects that ultimately contradict each other, whether it’s through a box of chocolates made from dog feces or toilets covered in jelly beans and cake frosting.
The audience’s response to her works has taught Han, a 36-year old Korean-American artist, a theory on how strong visuals can dominate other senses of the human body ― and the confusion, repulsion or pleasure when one sense contradicts another.
“It was amazing,” says Han, whose exhibit “Terms of Beauty” is on display now at Gallery Ssamzie in Insa-dong. “Even if the materials are repulsive, people immediately smack their lips when they see chocolates in front of them.”
That experience has led the artist to focus on the cultural meanings of image and beauty in her recent works.
During her residency at Ssamzie Space, a branch of Gallery Ssamzie, last year, the artist created a spectacular series of Venus statues made out of Korean celadon. Close up, one could see the variations of faces representing people of different races and individuals the artist met on the subways.
The idea of Venus statues came to her mind when she first came to Korea two years ago. Near her studio in Hongdae, Han says she noticed hundreds of art institutes where high school students practice drawing the head of Venus for several years to prepare for an art exam to enter an art college.
She eventually took that idea as a sign of cultural assimilation in Korea, in which students learn how to internalize western ideals of beauty through their drawings of European statues.
In a similar series protesting the system of art education here, Han created a drawing of Venus and Agrippa using eraser debris. For the work, the artist scratched rough pencil marks on cartridge paper and erased them, then pasted the debris onto another piece of paper in an almost identical style to the students’ drawings.
The massive labor put into the eraser drawing was exactly what she wanted to question about the system of conformity in art, in which “odd ideas are idealized to become part of our reality.” In fact, the name of the broad title Han has given to the works she has produced in Korea is called “Idealistic Oddity.”
Much of Han’s works deal with contradictory elements. In her earlier series, the artist questioned the substance of the image in certain objects in contrast to their supposed meanings.
For example, she mixed bright pigments into resins to shape an image of used condoms that look like flavored candies, blurring lines between pleasure and danger, attraction and repulsion.
But on a deeper level, the contrast in Han’s works comes down to something much more personal, based on the gap the artist says she feels between “her race and her identity.”
Han, who moved to the United States with her family when she was six, speaks fluent English and Korean. And although the artist’s earlier series on sweets, condoms and female lingerie reveal an aspect of the artist’s cultural influences that are undeniably American, an image, which Han decides to show at the very end of her artist’s catalogue, is a photo of herself eating baked yams in a Los Angeles’ Korea Town.
“In a way, the idea of attraction and repulsion has to do with a place called Los Angeles,” she says, “because I became very sick of its material culture. I ended up spending most of my twenties absorbed into the spiritual world of eastern philosophy.”
For her latest series of projects, the artist has created a series of oval plates in celadon, which are reminiscent to marble plates that showed portraitures of members of the European elite during the Renaissance period. Han created drawings of female nudes based on photographs of ordinary Korean women. By doing so her work deliberately contrasted the reality where many Korean women alter their faces and bodies through plastic surgery to live up to a European ideal of beauty.
Technically, Han, who had no experience in ceramics, says she went through some disastrous failures to get used to the celadon plates.
“If I had vaguely known what the procedure of making a celadon plate would entail,” she says, “I wouldn't have done it. They were extremely meticulous and subtle on many levels, which I had no idea about.”
Out of hundreds of identical casts of Venus heads Han says she put into the kiln after the celadon glaze, almost two-thirds of them cracked or were unusable. The process of labor was such an experiment that the artist documented some of her efforts and displayed them in the gallery on computer screens.
In some works, process is part of the content. Han deliberately allowed the natural alternation of the material in the current exhibit by creating a separate series of Venus casts, in which the size of the faces appear slightly smaller than the standard statues. In the work, the artist played with the material nature of celadon, which reduces the scale of ceramics down to about 20 percent of the original size as they bake twice in the kiln.
The idea of Venus statues in celadon has led one art critic, Kim Hong-hee, to refer to the artist’s work as cultural fusion similar in Korean contemporary culture to “bulgogi burger or a kimchi pizza.”
The artist seems to identify with the point.
“They are almost a spiritual fusion,” she says, “like the variations of faces on the Venus heads.”
by Park Soo-mee
“Terms of Beauty,” an exhibition by Debbie Han runs through June 6 at Gallery Ssamzie in Insa-dong. Admission is free. To get to Ssamziegil building, take exit 6 at Anguk station on line No. 3 and walk toward Jongno. The gallery is across from the Insa Art Center. For more information call (02) 521-3323.