Seeing Suji Park’s installation Original Unknown earlier this year was to experience sheer wonder and curiosity at the visceral nature of matter transformed and metamorphosed in completely unexpected ways.
The sculptures filled Ivan Anthony Gallery on Karangahape Road, looking like they’d been cooked up in the lab of a mad scientist haphazardly combining unlikely materials just for the hell of it, or dug up by a team of enthusiastic archaeologists investigating the relics of a society existing at a time in the future when plastic waste has become embedded in the earth’s layers and is now part of geology itself.
Park’s sculptures explored and reversed this layering process—embedded in blocks of resin were organic and inorganic materials: chunks of obsidian, sparkling flakes of mica, plants, shards of pottery, iridescent plastic, upholstery foam and concrete. In her work there is always an unsettling ambiguity between the natural and the manmade, the precious and the throwaway. Smooth, highly finished surfaces clashed with raw, roughly textured ones—a shiny sphere that looked like a Christmas tree decoration sat on top of a crusty blob that looked like it had been fished up out of the sea.
The spray painted boulders on the floor of the gallery made you wonder if they were real or fake. In fact, Park cast these rocks in plaster, using moulds taken from rocks she found in a Kingsland workshop. They belong to a large family of works that Park calls ‘dol’, the Korean word for rock. The dols continue to appear in her work and came about through a ‘lucky break’ that changed the course of her practice.
In 2013 she made a large sculpture from plaster, industrial foams, fired clay, concrete and a wooden stool for an exhibition at the former artist-run space Ferrari. Sadly, the work was dropped and broken during installation. Park took it back to her studio and named it Igigi—a word she liked the sound of and made up at the time. Feeling upset and a little bit angry, she began to smash it up, and was intrigued to see the object’s inner layers revealed. She later discovered that Igigi was a term used to refer to the gods of heaven in Sumerian mythology, and the word became the title of her exhibition at George Fraser Gallery where she showed sculptures made using the new process of destruction and reassembly. “Deconstruction is so important to me—smashing up is as thrilling to me as making a new thing. I have that process happening at the same time as making new things.”
Park grew up in a family where art, music, dance and theatre were revered and she moved from Seoul to Auckland when she was 12 because her parents wanted the family to grow up in a more creative environment. She remembers seeing works by Nam June Paik when she was very young, and being moved to tears when she first saw Picasso’s Guernica. Not surprisingly, she says she’s a fan of the artist Eva Hesse.
Her art first came to notice in 2011 when she exhibited brightly painted, intricately patterned clay figurines with vessel-shaped bodies and squashed, distorted faces at Brett McDowell Gallery in Dunedin. They recalled carved, wooden Korean funerary figures, which often have anthropomorphic forms, and Park admits to carrying one of these sculptures in her pocket for a month before it was exhibited. She describes these figures as “very demanding” because they sucked life from her, and although she hasn’t made any for a while, she plans to exhibit some new ones in her September exhibition at Brett McDowell Gallery.
Although Korea has a fine tradition of ceramics, it would be a mistake to assume Park extends that lineage—she uses clay in a self-consciously crude and messy way. She loves its earthy smell, direct connection with the subconscious and the way it readily registers the imprint of the body. Clay was a natural progression from her past creative endeavours—at school she played the piano, and during her BFA at Elam she did nothing but draw, making a series of fast, intuitive drawings that documented her dreams and imaginings.
In June I interviewed her in her dusty Henderson studio, curious to learn more about her mercurial working process which leads her in many unexpected directions. She told me that making work in the studio never begins with an object. “It begins with the material—but as a raw material—as raw as I can get. I’m curious about how everything is made—where did it come from; how did it become that? So without necessarily referencing science or chemistry, I think about it and I ask a lot of naïve questions. I think and I walk in the street and I look for things—in conversations, on YouTube, anywhere and everywhere.”
Thus the mica flakes that you see sparkling and winking on her sculptures like magical angel dust originally came from India, though hers were bought at the local crystal shop—when she tried to source them from India she was told the minimum order was one tonne.
She says the materials and media she works with remain largely a mystery to her. “I think clay for me is still unknown, same as resin, same as music and drawing. Whatever physical material I’m using is unknown to me but I discover its possibilities as well as its limitations along the way. These limitations give me freedom to really experiment with the material—for example the resin I work with should not break or crack (the rectangular blocks of resin in Original Unknown look crazed and cracked as if they had been dropped or heated). That has happened because I’ve put too much catalyst in the mixture and it has overheated.” In other words, the cracks in the resin are a ‘failure’ of the material, but that ‘mistake’ has become part of the work.
Park began to work with resin a year ago after buying a fossilised tortoise shell and embedding it in resin. In many ways this highly toxic material is the antithesis of clay (one appears light and transparent, the other heavy and opaque; one is natural, the other manmade), and it allows her to layer different materials thereby mimicking geological and evolutionary processes that register the inevitable forces of nature and the passage of time. At the time she had become aware that plastic is part of geology now and could potentially form a marker horizon of human pollution on the geologic record. “A new type of rock called a plastiglomerate is formed when molten plastic hardens into the pores of existing rocks—that was a shock to me and I felt sad and guilty because at the time I was using something plastic,” says Park.
Park makes relatively small, freestanding sculptures, and it’s interesting to see her varying approaches to solving a formal problem—how to site these fragile works within the white cube so they’re not damaged or broken yet can still be experienced in a haptic way. In Garden, 2015 (included in the group exhibition Five by Five: New Conversations with Clay at Te Uru earlier this year) she suspended five sensuous ceramic forms from the roof of the gallery. Looking like pendulous root vegetables, these vessels were inverted and hung from lengths of coarse, hairy rope. When you stood underneath them you could see tiny, primitively formed faces pinched into their tips.
Although Park’s work has undoubtedly become more abstract—preoccupied with materiality for its own sake rather than its potential to tell narratives—the figures and faces still make an appearance.
Another inventive approach to siting the works involved an update on the classical plinth. The sculptures in Igigi at George Fraser Gallery were propped on stacked slabs of upholstery foam. The colourful, flecked pattern in the foam mimicked the layering processes evident in the sculptures and recalled granite and marble—materials much loved by classical sculptors. Later, the upholstery foam found its way inside Park’s sculptures.
Looking at her installation, Garden, 2015 (on Waiheke Island as part of Sculpture on the Gulf) you encountered partly buried vases, cones and ‘rocks’, and found yourself reaching for prepositions—words like between, under, in and through—to describe the ingenious ways she had placed and grouped the objects so they set up dynamic conversations with each other and with their environment.
“Formal problems give me all these challenges that I love, and that side of my work has developed in recent years I think. I’ve never had trouble with making processes, but formal challenges really taught me a lot – to look at my work objectively and to look at the exhibition and the site. That is always the challenge for me: how do you get this out from the studio and into the gallery?”
Recently Park received substantial Creative New Zealand funding to make a book deconstructing her studio practice, which is so fast and chaotic she sometimes gets lost in it. Curious about its rapid evolution, she decided to open the studio doors so writers, photographers and curators can document each step of her making process. Over winter her Henderson studio will become an exhibition space as well as a workspace, and when she takes up her McCahon House Residency in Spring, she will work in both studios, building new works and deconstructing old ones.
“I don’t think my work finishes as an object and it doesn’t start as an object either. So the start point and the end point are very mysterious—even to me. If you’re looking at an image of the object, or if you’re facing it, it gives you questions to ask—although not necessarily the questions I ask in the beginning—so I thought maybe a publication that shows the making of the work is a nice project. The studio practice is a crucial part of my making.”
A nice project indeed—and one that will give us more insight into the work of one of New Zealand’s most exciting young artists.
Suji Park will participate in ART-O-RAMA Marseille, at Friche, Cartonnerie with KimKim Gallery. Her solo exhibition is at Brett McDowell Gallery, Dunedin, from 25 September to 15 October. A major publication on her work will be launched in the middle of next year.
Published in Art News Spring 2015