For artist Do Ho Suh, clothing is the “smallest, most intimate habitat that one person can carry. And when you expand that idea, it becomes architecture.”¹ Indeed, Some/One—a monumental armor sculpture made from thousands of military dog tags—embodies the architectural possibilities that Suh sees in clothing.
Answering the question “How much space does one need to be an individual?” Suh explores the relationship between individual and collective, redefining how we might perceive this dichotomy. Some/One in particular is informed by Suh’s experience in the Korean military, which is mandatory service for young men. Unified as one coat of armor, the chain mail-like sculpture is comprised of unique metal tags—each one bearing a sequence of random letters and numbers.² The sculpture somehow manages to defy gravity despite the imagined weight of its 30,000-plus stainless steel tags. Additionally, the piece’s large fanning base serves dual purposes: it supports the sculpture structurally, as well as makes physical and metaphorical space to consider the work’s footprint.
Dog tags are inherently a marker of individualism used to identify soldiers, but they also connect a troop to a larger collective and, ultimately, nation. In the words of the artist, “When you see a person, you don’t just see the person standing in front of you—you see their background, their family or ancestors, the invisible webs of relationship or information.”³ When we see one person’s tag, we see so much more than a name, place of birth, or unit—we see their life.
Further, the reflective surface and mirrored interior of Some/One underscores the artist’s desire for viewers to see themselves—literally and figuratively—in the work. Whether the sculpture serves as a monument honoring fallen troops or highligts the anonymity of their service (or carries other readings altogether) is willfully left open to the viewer. This work is not currently on view but it will be exhibited when the Seattle Asian Art Museum reopens in late 2019.
In Korea, gifts and food dishes might come wrapped in decorative cloths called pojagi. This tradition shows respect for the receiver of the gift as well as for the gift itself—and I wish my gift-wrapping game were this good!
SAM’s Korean Pojagi (wrapping cloth), Sango po (food covering), dating to the late 19th century, bears intricate designs stitched into bands of luminous color, all neatly organized. The rectangular pieces of fabric act like nesting blocks of diminishing size, each fitting perfectly inside the last as our eye moves toward the center of this carefully crafted textile. The little tab at the middle of the cloth would have been used to lift it off of a tray.
The five colors present in the Pojagi—blue, red, yellow, black, and white—corresponded to five blessings: longevity, wealth, success, health, and luck. Whatever your gift wrapping looks like this holiday season . . .
May all these blessings and more be yours! Happy holidays from SAM!
—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator
Image: Pojagi (wrapping cloth), Sango po (food covering), late 19th century, Korean (Choson Dynasty, 1392-1910), Ramie gauze: patched and stitched, 29 1/2 x 29 1/2 in. Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, Asian Art Acquisition Fund and the Korean Art Purchase Fund, 96.21
Beauty is often associated with symmetry; Order, even lines, and pleasing color palettes are all indicative qualities of something that aims to catch the eye. The earliest Western theory of beauty can be found in the works of Greek philosophers from the pre-Socratic period, such as Pythagoras. The Pythagorean school saw a strong connection between mathematics and beauty. Notably, they believed that objects proportioned to meet the golden ratio (two objects are in the golden ratio if their ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities) were more attractive. Many greats including Da Vinci and Dali have incorporated the number in their works. Artist Yee Sookyung—currently showing work in the exhibition Paradox of Place: Contemporary Korean Art at the Asian Art Museum—does not.
Rather than create pieces that follow this long-held belief, she takes existing pieces of art as well as broken shards, bits, and pieces of work made by traditional Korean master ceramicists (what she calls “ceramic trash”) and turns them into gold—literally.
“My concern is not about the history of Korean ceramics, but it is to play with the fragments which exist now, and this is different from the ceramics masters who produce all of the ceramics adhering to traditional methodology,” Yee said. “Korean traditional ceramic masters break almost 70% of the product that don’t reach up to the standards of masterpieces. So I put the broken bits and pieces of ceramic trash together, one by one, as if putting together a jigsaw puzzle. I covered them with 24k gold leaf, and I wanted to emphasize the crack. In Korean, the word for crack is also the same for gold.”
She describes the process of the pieces coming together in a rather romantic, predetermined way:
“A broken ceramic piece finds another piece, and they rely on each other,” Yee said.
The result is ultimately sculptural, anthropomorphic, and universally beautiful.
Watch the artist describe this process, the act of combining histories, and the many layered metaphors buried in her large-scale work. Experience Thousand and all of its perfect imperfections in Paradox of Place at the Asian Art Museum.
Upon arrival, we are greeted by cardboard boxes, carts piled high with paint, painter’s tape, dozens and dozens of lights, and AV equipment. It’s the week before the Asian Art Museum’s newest exhibition Paradox of Place: Contemporary Korean Art opens, and we’re going behind the scenes to check out how the installation is going.
SAM’s Exhibition Designer, Paul Martinez, was on hand to walk us through the exhibition install team’s progress thus far.
“The crew has their work cut out for them!” he tells us with a smile.
“Right now we’re looking at the tech specs for all of the artists—the things that the A/V people will need. Tantamount is clear communication, as we’re working with an international museum and artists,” Martinez says.
As we walk into the first wing of the Tateuchi Galleries, we see deep, crimson walls that are still bare for the most part, save for two gilded frames holding mirrors. The room will house works by artist Lee Yongbaek. The pieces incorporate video, sound, mirrors, and soldier uniforms decked out in floral print as a part of his work, Angel-Soldier. After viewing images of the uniforms, the myriad colors pop out and are so much more vivid in person. They are the perfect juxtaposition: camouflage that does not hide you at all.
“You can see them laid out here,” Martinez says as we walk into the adjoining room. “They’re stunning decorative elements, you want to wear one of the jackets, they’re pretty cool.” We agree completely.
We move on to the next, where we see a few of Jung Yeondoo’s pairs of photos from his Bewitched series have been hung. They portray young people of Korea in their day jobs and contrast their realities with what they would actually like to do in life, if money, education, and responsibilities were of no object. The photos are huge, taking up the majority of the wall space. We didn’t imagine they’d tower so high, but seeing them blown up to almost life-size helps us take in the details—to imagine what life would be like in our imagined realities, too.
The next space houses Lim Minouk’s large-scale multimedia installation, The Possibility of the Half. The work is not fully prepared or installed yet, and Lim’s assistant, Ms. Park Moonkynung is in town to help assemble the pieces. The detritus of what makes up a real newsroom is scattered around the room: an ON AIR sign, professional video cameras and tripods, and more lights, all borrowed from our local KING5 news station. The room is painted black, which will perfectly set the scene for what viewers will experience when the total sum of the work is up: a re-imagined Korean television studio, with screens showing visceral, emotional, and dramatic scenes of people grieving over the deaths of Kim Jong Il of North Korea and former president Park Jung-Hee of South Korea.
Standing tall in front of us is an interesting structure: a camera device composed mostly of a tall tree branch. Curious as to how it got here, we pressed Martinez.
“This request came to us in a single photo. ‘Can you build us one of these?’ he said. “It’s just what it looks like: a quirky representation of a camera boom. Our crew worked hard to produce an operable and dynamic boom to represent exactly what we needed,” Martinez said, as he moved the boom up and down, and left to right to show of its capabilities. “We went out and selected a tree from the Northwest, cut it to size, dried it for a long period of time, then fumigated. We started this back in the springtime. Then it needed the whole base, which we built in house, and our mount makers fabricated everything.”
“So this is one of a kind, and made for this exhibition?” I ask. “Yes, she’s (Lim) done it for other museums, too,” Martinez confirms. “The bottom rounds, not sure where they were purchased from, and not sure if they’re from the Pacific Northwest,” he laughs.
Lim herself is at the museum this week to help install her work. We can’t wait to see what the composite room looks once it’s up and finished for the opening this weekend.
I noticed that when everything is laid out in the room, including pieces that expand up entire corners of the floor, it seems that the work takes a great deal of space. “How are people going to interact with the installation and how close are they going to get to everything?” I ask.
“Much like The Mr. exhibition, (referring to the past exhibition, Live On: Mr.’s Japanese Neo-Pop), it’s a bit of an immersive experience,” Martinez said. “This exhibition will be the same way. They’ll wander through, but there will be obvious barriers. It’s meant to be something you enter, have an experience with while you’re in it, and then you leave.”
In the next room over, we’re greeted by some of Yang Haegue’s Female Natives sculptures. Outfitted with everyday materials—lights, artificial flowers, yarn, cord, bells, etc. piled on clothing racks—the structures provoke narratives about gender, politics, and human emotions. Her Gymnastics of the Foldables series of photos yields the same effect by way of engaging a clothes drying rack in calisthenics.
The last wing of the galleries is dedicated to the installation that has been worked on the least since the pieces arrived in Seattle. Tons of wooden boxes were piled on top of each other to our left and right, with Korean postage and stickers prominently affixed.
“I heard the handlers were taking apart and counting them, making sure they were all here today,” I said, referring to Yeesookyung’s work Thousand, composed of porcelain shards, epoxy, and 24k gold leaf.
“This one is particularly challenging,” Martinez said. “It’s a thousand pieces to look at,” he said. “How they come out of the crate remains specific as to how they’re laid out for the artist to access, it’s a very deliberate, meticulous unpacking and repacking and reassembly of the crates,” he confirmed. “And then of course the registrars are looking at each piece in detail, writing down the characteristics of each piece, and photographing them so they have a record of what they are and if they have any issues.”
The effort will pay off, though, as the total effect of one thousand pieces of porcelain on a platform is bound to dazzle—not only for the craftsmanship of the ceramics, but also out of respect for the artist who has skillfully arranged them all in their respective spots in the gallery.
“The artist will place them all herself, correct?”
“Exactly,” Martinez said. “We have the pedestal placed as she’ll need. She’ll place them all in the ways she likes on the platform. She’ll have all the pieces arranged by numbers. She’s installed it before so she’ll come with her method of reinstalling it here.”
I’ve read that Yeesookyung has said that working on this piece has helped her appreciate the process of putting together her finished works more than the actual creating of the work. Some interesting perspective on a work that no doubt took at least a thousand hours to complete.
The McCaw Foundation Library at the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park is open to all museum staff, docents, volunteers, members, and the general public. As one of SAM’s three libraries, the McCaw Foundation Library specializes in research materials supporting the museum’s Asian collection and exhibitions that occur at the Asian Art Museum. Anyone with an interest in the visual arts of Asia will appreciate the outstanding collection.
The SAM Libraries’ holdings number nearly 60,000 items, with more than a third of those being available at the McCaw Foundation Library. These materials include: books, exhibition catalogues, auction catalogues, serials, videos, and electronic publications, many of which are in Asian languages. These materials support research on objects in the permanent collection, research for special exhibitions, assist in docent-led tour preparation, and provide general information about the history of art in Asia.
The Museum’s general operating funds are the primary source of financial support for the McCaw Foundation Library. When the need for additional funding arises, the museum staff collaborates in sourcing the necessary funds.
Associate Librarian for Asian Art, Yueh-Lin Chen, recognized the need for additional resources in the library’s reference collection, specifically in the areas of Japanese and Korean art. With guidance from Xiaojin Wu, Curator of Japanese and Korean Art, and assistance from Librarian Traci Timmons, Ms. Chen applied for a grant from The Metropolitan Center for Eastern Art Studies. Founded under the auspices of the Harry G. C. Packard Collection Charitable Trust, and based at Hosomi Museum in Kyoto, Japan, the Center provides grants for advanced scholarship in the arts of East Asia.
The museum staff’s collaborative effort was successful and the library received a generous grant from the Center, allowing purchase of important resources on Japanese and Korean art. These books will significantly enhance the collection and are available for use in the McCaw Foundation Library. Examples of materials purchased with this grant money are shown below. Visit us to see others and discover the many other exceptional resources the McCaw Foundation Library has to offer.
– Kate Nack, Library Volunteer, McCaw Foundation Library for Asian Art