Installation view of Ambient Sound (detail), 2009 by SungJin Choi
On May 15, Sung Jin Choi talked with arts writer Eleanor LeBeau about his SPACELab exhibition, art school in Korea, and the hundreds of miniature plastic figures he cast for world-renowned Korean artist Do-Ho Suh (see Art:21, Season 2). Chois sound-producing kinetic sculpture explores the visual and auditory nature of memory.
You list Marcel Duchamp as a favorite on your Facebook page.
[Laughs.] I like the idea of using everyday objects. Even though these objects are common"everybody knows them and uses them"some people have specific memories attached to them. I use everyday objects like Duchamp [did], but I use them from a different point of view, as a private object with a private memory.
Tell me about AMBIENT SOUND.
I grew up with a lot of music at home. My father was a businessman and my mother was a housewife. She really liked music and she let me do the boys chorus. My sister plays the piano and went to a private middle school and high school. Right now shes in the music business in Michigan. So in my brain there is always music or some kind of sound.
What kind of music?
In my house we listened to classical music, very quiet and calm music. But during my teenage years I listened to heavy metal. I still have that classical music in my mind, but not always a whole piece of music"sometimes just a melody or a humming sound. Or bells. When I was young, my mother gave me small bells. Id always bring a bell with me when we went out, because I always got lost and shed find me by the sound of my bell. It was like an old-fashioned GPA. So the piece with bells [10,000 (2004), one of the works on view] is a way to remember my mom. I cast 10,000 bells for the piece, but in the exhibition space [here] I had trouble using all of them. I used an old-fashioned motor attached to a motion sensor, so the bells make sounds when people walk by the installation.
Whats the significance of the number 10,000?
In Buddhism, [the number] 10,000 means redemption. Sometimes people pray in the temple, and they bow 10,000 times for redemption. The piece [10,000 ] is a story to my mom, because Im living a life totally different from what my mom wanted for me. My parents still live in Korea, and I live here [in Brooklyn, NY]. Both of my parents children live here in the U.S., away from them. But from a psychiatric point of view, theres a kind of Oedipus Syndrome, you know strong connections between a son and a mom. And sometimes I get concerned that me and my mom are so close, rather than my mom and my sister.
Tell me about the ceramic pieces that look like everyday found objects"old vases, bottles of detergent and hand soap"in Trace of a Boy, the other piece on view in AMBIENT SOUND.
When Id go out with my mom and I had to go to the bathroom, shed give me a plastic bottle and take me to a corner. Id pee in the bottle and shed throw away the bottle. You can see that inside of the bottles [in Trace of a Boy], I put a small baby penis [hanging from a yellow string]. So the penis makes sound on the side of the [ceramic] bottles [when the yellow strings are moved]. All the bottles are cast in slip clay. I made plaster molds of the bottles and then did multiple castings of each mold. I wanted the objects to be ceramic. In Korean art history there are a lot of ceramics that look beautiful and make many sounds, depending on their size and the thickness of the clay. I will try later to cast out of glass, which is so beautiful, much better than ceramic.
Do these pieces represent a longing for your mother?
Yes. But Im thinking that Im too close to my mom. I dont like it. I was born to my mother but still Im trying to get out of that situation. But yes, these pieces talk about my relationship with my mom.
How does AMBIENT SOUND fit into your overall artistic project?
What I want to do is use sound, but not loud sound. I dont want to make a strong impact with sound; I want to make very low and quiet sound that will stay in somebodys head. You know, after seeing the piece, and after theyve left the gallery, the sound is still in their brain. People tell me that after theyve seen my piece, the sounds stay in their brains. Im still working on combining sound with found objects. The objects are a starting point for creating sound.
So are you more interested in creating a sound memory than a visual memory?
People already have so much information to see. Im not a sound artist, though. Im not a musician or a composer, but Im so interested in sound. Sometimes sounds cause images, and images cause sounds. Sometimes when I see an individual image, I can hear sounds.
Does your work, then, use unexpected or unanticipated sounds as way to evoke a reflective or meditative state in the viewer/participant?
Yeah. This all comes from my cultural background and even my art education. In Korea, my professors trained me in Minimalism.
Can you tell me a bit about that? You earned degrees in both Korea and the U.S.
Some of my professors studied in Japan in the 1950s and 60s; some of them studied in Germany. My university [Seoul National University] is so conservative; they teach a traditional curriculum. They taught me what they learned from the Japanese and Germans, which is so abstract and so minimalistic"kind of Donald Judd-style sculptures and conceptual pieces. At the same time, theyre teaching traditional sculpting techniques: welding, modeling with clay, stone carving. And then when I came to New York City, the education [at Hunter College] was totally different. Talking, talking and critiquing. And then you talk some more about where it [work] came from and what does the color mean and so on.
So the art education at Seoul University is the polar opposite of your experience at Hunter College?
Yes, they were totally different experiences. To me, it was a really good experience to get another MFA [at Hunter].
What kind of work did you do as a student in Korea?
I helped a lot of professors with their work, so I did a lot of welding and stone carving and polishing things. These were public sculptures in front of big buildings, like Tony Smith big metal sculptures.
Tell me about your own work.
I had several shows in my country, even drawings, but it was a little bit awkward because it [the work] wasnt really what I wanted to do. Thats why I came to the U.S. to get more education, another MFA.
How did your work change after you came to the U.S.?
The education from my country gave me a basic foundation and a lot of skills. Here, my professors asked me, What do you really want to do, and what do you really want to make? And I didnt have to make a traditional statue and things like that. I learned how to critique and how to put my own ideas into each piece. To me, my education from my country is a technical education, but here, especially at Hunter College, I learned to critique everyday. And the MFAs had a building to themselves, where I had a studio twice the size of my exhibition space here. I was able to build up a critical and art historical background to be ready to go out and fight, especially in New York City where there are art wars going on all the time, and dealing with the market.
When did you begin to experiment with objects making sounds?
For my MFA show in my country I made several different pieces. I used two six-by-six sheets of metal connected to a motor, and the metal sheets hit together [claps hands together]. I had six pairs of these metal sheets, and a speaker that broadcast the sound. It was an experimental piece; I was so confused about what I was going to do. But I wanted to use common objects"things that I can see. For my first solo show in New York City, I made a piece using power tools and kitchen utensils [The Creator (2008); see www.frontroom.org]. It explores my relationship with my father, and it quotes Michelangelos Creator [The Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapels ceiling]. I focused on the hands. In Michelangelos version, one han
Installation view of Ambient Sound (detail), 2009 by SungJin Choi