Jae Hi Ahn's exhibition Terrarium opens at Brooklyn Botanic Garden (with support from the Brooklyn Arts Council Community Arts Grant, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs and Puffin Foundation) on December 3rd and continues through February 26th, 2012. We visited her home-studio in Bed-Stuy to get a look at the new work and discuss its origins.
Your sculptures and installations often evoke trees, vines, flowers and other organic forms; what attracted you to these shapes and textures initially?
The inspiration comes from nature, and, in particular, the nature I experienced in my childhood. My early life in rural Korea had an influence on the artist I have become today. My sisters and I were always wandering outside looking for things to play with. Our daily routine included gathering acorn shells to use as rice bowls, picking pine needles to make rice cakes with, and climbing trees to get mulberries. When I later saw Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro
I felt a strong connection to it. These are some of my happiest memories. Though these memories are from the past, making surreal and fantasy-like sculptures with reference to nature is one way for me to continue creating moments like these in the present and the future.
As I live in Bed-Stuy, which is still quite industrial, I sometimes feel the need to get away from the city to be closer to nature. (This might mean simply going to the Home Depot garden section to look at plants.) I still feel the urge to wander around in nature as it makes me feel peaceful and comforted. Consciously or unconsciously this I think is why I repeatedly create organic forms.
There's something almost funny about the way you use very artificial materials—polystyrene, PVC, wires—to evoke natural forms. Is that contrast something you're deliberately trying to make more extreme?
Not intentionally. Living in New York I feel like I am walking inside a human-made jungle. Looking deeply into objects like PVC tubes, Mylar, pins, and prefabricated plants leads me to discover a different potential for them. Sometimes the materials attract me right away, and I easily know how to use them, but other times, I have to play with the materials by cutting, wiring, pinning, or assembling until I find the right way to use them. It took me few years to figure out what to do with PVC tubing. The first time I saw clear PVC tubing I fell in love with it. I made a small sample but still wasn't sure what to do with it. Years later it became "Dreaming Plant," which is one of my favorite pieces.
Are there any plants or organic forms you haven't been able to recreate yet that you're interested in exploring?
Fortunately, nature has so many wonders that I can't really finish exploring. I am interested in exploring jungles, like the Amazon Rainforest, and creating an almost impenetrable installation filled with overgrown vegetation-like sculptures. In order to do that, I should probably visit it first. Mangrove trees, cacti and Joshua trees have been on my mind for a long time. And recently I have been fascinated by Air Plants that don't need any soil. I brought some from Miami last winter, but I accidentally killed them all. I still want to find a way to include them in my work one day. And then also I'm interested in microscopic organisms such as green algae that we can't see with the naked eye. These are all on my list.
You've been doing more works resembling terrariums lately; what about them interests you?
A terrarium is an ideal, or better than natural, environment made by humans for plants to survive in, but in the end it's artificial. I think in that way, there is something similar to what I do in my work. I try to take care of my materials and provide what they need—or what I think they need—to find another hidden potential or spirit. Just like watering, pruning, and feeding real plants, I feed wire inside the tubes, cut Mylar and assemble different parts to make my organic forms grow. When I first visited Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I thought it was the perfect place for my sculptures to be, coexisting with exotic real plants.
Are any of your new works for this exhibition inspired by plants you've seen at Brooklyn Botanic Garden?
Studio Visit with Jae Hi Ahn in Bed-Stuy
The sculptor's bright plantlike assemblages will be hanging at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden this winter.
Click to View 9 slides
Definitely! Brooklyn Botanic Garden has a beautiful conservatory, especially the Orchid Collection and plants in the Aquatic House. I have visited the Garden many times. Whenever I need inspiration to create my own plants (my sculptures), I go there. You can probably tell which one is based on the orchids. I put moss inside the plastic dome and assembled it with wire and PVC tubing. Every season is different, but in winter especially when I feel the need to escape the freezing temperatures, I go to the Conservatory. It's like escaping into a tropical forest. One of my other sculptures was inspired by the Red Flyer hibiscus. It has beautiful red petals, but I was more interested in the green bud before it blooms. I made a fluorescent pink bud with a purple stem. I have also been taking photos of plants in BBG and digitally working on them.
You use a lot of construction materials in you work; is there any material you're interested in using but haven't had the opportunity to explore yet?
Yes, there are a couple of different materials that I've wanted to experiment with. Combining Solar panels and LED lights with my sculptures would be pretty exciting. Also glass attracts me very much. I went to check out Urban Glass
last spring, and it was quite amazing how they blow glass. I hope I get a chance to work with it one day. I'm also interested in using stainless steel and aluminum to make public art with. I'd really like to create a fantastical playground for children. Recently I've been interested in biodegradable plastic, but I haven't found my own way to use it yet.
Are there any artists, exhibitions or individual artworks that have been especially important to you?
When I was studying traditional figurative sculpture in South Korea, I was introduced to < ahref="http://www.calder.org/">Alexander Calder's mobiles. This was my first inspiration. I liked the mobile because it was free from gravity.
After I moved to the U.S. my early work was influenced by Andy Goldsworthy
. Back then I was experimenting with organic materials, mostly edible things like rice flour, sugar, and spices. It's a bit ironic that I use plastics now.
My current favorite artists are Petah Coyne
and Tara Donovan
. When I saw Petah Coyne's work at Galerie Lelong
, I couldn't leave the gallery. It's quite raw and yet incredibly beautiful. And Tara Donovan, I like the way she cares for and treats ordinary objects and creates something special out of nothing. To me, she's like a practicing Buddhist monk.
Most recently I was attracted to Roxy Paine
" on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was fascinated by the way he transformed stainless steel into massive treelike forms.
(Photos by the author)