Soonim and I met back in 2006 in an artist residency in Vermont. I was one of the dozen writers in residency. She was the visual artist from Incheon, South Korea. Small, serene and always with a smile on her face, she got my attention at first glance so we began talking. At the time Soonim’s English was pretty basic, thus our conversations were filled with short (or longer) pauses. From the start those pauses were warm and welcoming, and had nothing to do with the awkward silences people often experience.
When the residency was over, Soonim came to NY City and stayed with my husband and I for a few days. At night we drank wine and talked (or didn’t) some more. My husband enjoyed the conversations and silences too.
A few years later when Soonim finished another residency somewhere else in the US, she dropped by our place and stayed with us again. And then again. And again. And then there were no visits for seven years. Soonim was busy at some other parts of the world. Now and then she would reach out with a simple “I miss you” or a photograph of herself next to some installation she was working on at some far Asian place I haven’t heard of. “I miss you too,” I replied and usually asked: “When are you coming to visit?” The answer, when it came, was a very-Soonim-one: “When it’s time.”
Then on December 10th of 2018, it was time! I opened the door and there she was with her unforced smile and two big suitcases. We hugged. She entered and stayed for a week.
The following is the edited transcript of talks Soomim and I had during her latest visit in NYC.
KIKI: What’s the meaning of life?
SOONIM: The meaning of life changes. No?
KIKI: Does it?
SOONIM: Yes, it does. Now it’s being here at your place, with you, with your husband, your kids. Last night I dreamed about them.
KIKI: About my kids?
SOONIM: Yes. I don’t remember the exact dream but, in the morning, when I woke up I thought: Will they remember me? When I leave from here, I mean. I wished to be remembered by them. I have them in my mind and will keep them once I leave. And one day when I die, I hope they’ll still remember me. This is the first time I meet your kids. Last time I was here you had no kids. Now there are these three little people running around. So, to answer your question, yes, your kids are part of what life means to me at this moment.
KIKI: Then I could say that the meaning of life or better said your life’s meaning is very connected to the present. Your present. Right?
SOONIM: Yes, it is. Now I am here visiting you and your family, I sleep on the sofa in your office, among your books. I spent time with your kids and with you and this is where I am at this very moment and that’s meaningful for me.
KIKI: Hmm, I’ve never thought of it in such a way.
SOONIM: Maybe because at first the question seems so big, so important. But think about it; when you ask someone what’s the meaning of life you have in your mind this person’s entire life but if you stop and think then you realize that each life is made out of these little segments and each of these segments is part of a person’s entire life. Yes?
KIKI: If you put it like this.
SOONIM: Once you recognize that then you realize that every moment we spend is part of the whole and my intention every moment is to be present, to live and be right where I am. Of course, I am me, Soon-im, so I am here with you and your family right now and that’s meaningful but I am also thinking about my husband back home. How much I’ve missed him. And I think of my father too, he was sick when I left so I worry about him, he is in my thoughts and all these thoughts, all these people are meaningful to me at this moment.
KIKI: Then what you are saying is that the meaning of life and the things or the people you care for, are one and the same. Correct?
SOONIM: I believe they are.
KIKI: I think there is a similar approach in your work.
SOONIM: Yes, my work, which is a big part of my life, feels the same. For instance at i-park where I was these last 4 weeks before coming here I didn’t have the chance to meet a lot of locals.
The i-park residency is very unique because it’s a multi-disciplinary residency. The artists there come from different fields. When I was there, there was a music composer, a writer, a moving image artist, a landscape designer and me, the visual artist. So I was among these very talented people and I spent most of my time with them but because of this I didn’t meet many locals. I didn’t mix a lot with the environment and its people like I do usually when I am in other places, in other residencies. But I did have my studio and inside my studio when I ate grapes, for instance, I kept the skin and use that for my art. Look at these photos.
KIKI: Are these made out of skin grapes?
SOONIM: Yes! They are the skin of the grapes I ate at i-park.
KIKI: They look more like maps, or aerial pictures. As if you were on an airplane and took some pictures of the place below.
SOONIM: Yes, I guess they do look like maps, maps created by my encounter with the grapes at that space during the time I was there. Here in this one I used sunflowers. And in this one feathers.
KIKI: So you created all these with natural materials you found there.
SOONIM: Yes, I collected all these there. I walked outside and gathered whatever it was available to me. Of course it was the end of November when I got there so it was freezing cold. There were rainy days. There was snow. No much life outside.
One day I was out and began tying cotton threads around my studio. Here is the picture of that.
KIKI: Beautiful! Tied to a tree stump.
SOONIM: No, to a stone! It looks like a tree stump but it’s not.
KIKI: Ah! I see.
SOONIM: At first it looked nothing like this. As I said one very cold day after I was outside the studio I thought: why don’t I try to create something with cotton threads? So I began tying a few threads from the top of the studio to the ground. The next day I did some more of that and the next some more. Within several days I had enough cotton threads but as I was looking at them I realized that they were too organized, too symmetrical. They were too planned, too controlled, unnatural.
So I thought: I should break them. You see I’ve created such an order without even noticing, the kind of order that comes from the unconscious intention of the mind that wants to control everything, just because being in control feels good, easy. But nature is not like this. There is chance and openness in nature. There are all these things that happen without purpose, without any intention.
So the next day I began breaking the order little by little and while I was doing that I tried out a few other things and one of these things was to tie the threads into this stone, which happened to be father on the grown. Now I think about it there might have been some kind of intention behind that action too but it didn’t feel forced at all then.
KIKI: What was that intention?
SOOMIM: I guess I was trying to see if the threads could fit within that environment harmoniously.
KIKI: Did they?
SOOMIM: I think they did. A few days later, it was a very cold morning again, I think it might have snowed or rained the night before so when I woke up that day and went outside I saw my threads through this beautiful sunlight. There was lots of light that morning. Light in abundance! So when I saw the threads that morning I felt happy. They were crystallized!
KIKI: Yes, these look like crystals!
SOONIM: Right! But you see I was happy to see them like this because at that moment I knew that my art and me have mixed with the place and it felt good. That morning I knew that I didn’t just go there to change the order of things. I went there to become part of things. Somehow I had managed to become part of that place and that felt good. So I played with the snow too and make other stuff because I was happy!
SOONIM: This feeling I felt then it’s very similar to the feeling I have now when I am here with your kids and I see their faces so radiant, so joyful! Happy! They like being with me and I like being with them, it means that I am where I should be. You see I don’t like to disturb the places I visit. If possible, I want to make these places better, nicer because that makes me nicer too, it changes me.
KIKI: Does this happen with every place you visit?
SOONIM: No it doesn’t. Every place has its own energy. When I feel I shouldn’t be in a place then I remove myself from it. I take steps backward. I withdraw slowly without being noticed. I don’t want to distract that place with my departure so I try to leave gently because I know I shouldn’t be there.
Perhaps, I would revisit that place another time in the future when it feels right but at that moment I know I shouldn’t be there.
KIKI: You also use stones in your work. Why?
SOONIM: I like stones because stones live longer than humans. Stones aren’t ephemeral. And I like to touch them. Most people like round, smooth stones but I like the edgy ones, the broken. I think those tell a bigger story.
Now and then I find two similar stones in different, far places and I wonder how come they are so similar. Did someone bring them here? Or did nature do its magic? And why the rest of the stones around them aren’t shaped like these? Stones are the key of each place, like people. In that respect people are very similar to stones and vice versa.
If you think about it usually a small place, a village for instance, is often filled with similar people and then you find this one person who doesn’t seem to fit in. So you begin wondering how this person came to be like this. And why this person is so different from the rest?
Stones tell similar stories as people, only their difference is in their longevity. Stones can last much longer than people, thus a stone often contains a bigger, longer tale.
KIKI: You also used wool in your work. Would you like to talk a bit about your woolen sculptures? I haven’t seen any other artist using wool to make sculptures. How did you come up with wool? And when did you first start working with it?
SOONIM: When we first met! Back in Vermont in 2006. I was looking for cotton because I had worked with cotton before. So I asked around and everyone there said there wasn’t any cotton in Vermont. My last hope was the hardware store there. Remember? The one on Main Street.
KIKI: Yes, there was an old woman in that store, I remember.
SOOMIM: Florence. Her name was Florence. I liked her from the start. So I went to the hardware store and that very old lady was there, Florence, I didn’t know her name then. When I explained to her what I was looking for she looked at me and said: “You should use wool!” Then she explained that there was a thread wool factory near by and suggested that I should visit it and check the sheep out and ask for wool. And so I did.
First, I met the sheep. They looked kind and very curious. Then I met one of the women at the factory. I told her what I wanted to do and she said “if you want you can pay me and for the next 2-3 days I would show you around and teach you everything I know about wool; how to wash it, how to take care of it.” And that’s what happened. I spent 3 days with her. It was a great experience. I learned a lot.
Then I got some wool and tried to make Florence’s face. It felt right to start with her.
Florence was over 90 years old then, she was born there, grew up there, lived there all her life. Her face told the story of that place. Of course then I didn’t know that story but I knew I wanted to learn it. Also my English wasn’t so good then. But I knew I could have access to that story if I work on Florence’s head, face. I knew that if I spend time working on her sculpture I could come closer to her and to that place and that’s what I did.
KIKI: Are you still working with wool?
SOONIM: Yes, I have 17 woolen head sculptures and some whole wool body sculptures too.
KIKI: Isn’t wool too soft to carry on the firmness of a skull?
SOONIM: A head is more than a skull. Inside of each head the wool is very firm and hard. The softness of the wool is outside at the epidermis, the face. I think the face has to be soft because it changes with time. Inside in the center of every head/person the wool is compressed, hard, because in a sense it holds the will of that person, it holds what that person is. As you reach the outer part of that head/face, then you arrive at the softer/changeable part.
KIKI: Do you know from the start the person you want to make?
SOONIM: Usually I know whose sculpture I want to create but I don’t always know that person. When I begin to work with a piece of wool it takes me some time to turn that unprocessed piece of wool into a small firm ball. As I spend more and more time with it, I begin to understand the person I want to create. The more I understand that person, the better I understand my intention. What I want to say it that intention evolves as I work on that piece of wool. Of course I do have an initial intention from the start but it’s not 100% clear, I always want to allow that intention to change/grow. That change that happens in my work changes me too. In the end I feel that when I create something, that something creates me too. Does it make sense?
KIKI: I think it does.
KIKI: So mostly from what I understand you work with materials you find at the place you are. Correct?
SOONIM: Yes. You can say that my approach is a reaction to a situation, to a place.
KIKI: I don’t know many artists who do that.
SOONIM: Well, I am not one of those artists that if I don’t find something I have in mind I cannot work. I actually start with: what’s here? Let me see. And then I react to the things around me and that becomes part of the art I create. I try to see scarcity and loss as an opportunity to create something new, to learn something I don’t know.
KIKI: When did you decide you wanted to be an artist?
SOONIM: When I was little I was very good at math. I would spend a lot of time working on a math problem. Hours! I would lose myself in a math problem as if I wanted time to pass. I would work in a math problem and after 4-5 hours I would look at the clock and realized that a whole day had passed and that made me happy.
Then in high school because I was good at math I got a math scholarship and changed schools. I went to this school that had a very strong math department. Before going there I asked my school director at the previous school if I would also take some art classes there and if the art’s program was good because I liked art too. He said: “Yes, of course!” Once I was there though no one encouraged me to take art classes. Everybody wanted me to do math and nothing else. So I got really angry and started creating problems.
KIKI: What kind of problems?
SOONIM: For instance I remember I got obsessed with finding mistakes in our math textbooks. One day I did find one and was so happy! So the next day I went to school and in front of the class I asked the teacher if she could solve that problem. After a long time trying to solve the problem, the teacher got very confused and felt humiliated in front of the whole class. Once the kids understood what I had done they liked me much more. But, of course, the teacher didn’t feel the same way.
So I kept creating many other problems like these and in the end they let me enrolled in art classes but still neither my family nor the teachers wanted me to become an artist. It was not a secure career. Now I think about it I believe because of their resistance my desire grew more and more. It was as if the more they didn’t want me to become an artist the more attractive I got to it.
KIKI: You also teach, correct?
SOONIM: Yes, I taught for about eight years at Ewha Woman’s University and lectured in several other places (Kunkuk University and Daegu University). Teaching is fun!
KIKI: What is one of the most valuable things you want your students to learn when they take a class with you?
SOONIM: First, I want my students to learn the rules. To make art within the rules and then little by little to have the confidence to break away from those rules and create something that becomes theirs. I usually start by telling then them “Please don’t break all the rules at once! Please find patience!” Because I think that we have to respect the past because the past is important. Everything has a part of the past within. We, humans, do and art is no different.
KIKI: After leaving NYC where are you heading to? What are your plans?
SOONIM: You know I don’t like to plan but I have to plan so that I have time to play, create!
First, I am going back home to spend sometime with my husband. Then I am planning to organize my studio. In February, I’ll be in UNIST in Ulsan.
UNIST has built what they call a “Science Cabin”, it’s part of the Science Walden Project. It’s a special kind of house that runs by renewable energy, this energy is taken from people's waste. So UNIST wants to test this model-living space and they have invited people from many different backgrounds; scientists, philosophers, environmentalists, engineers, artists, etc.
We’ll all live there for a few weeks and afterwards we’ll give our feedback based on our experience and also show what we have created while we were there.
For now I don’t know much more about this project but I am very excited to be part of it. I am looking forward to it, learning something new always makes me happy.
In mid October of 2019, Soonim sent me the following links:
(This is her work after attending the Science Walden Project)
For more on Soonim go to: