Have you ever wondered what a gallery or museum space looks like in the weeks before an exhibition opens? For most people, these are the in-between moments that are reserved for private access. But we’re here to change that. In this intimate and long-format interview, Hae Won Sohn paired up with us to discuss the times in a maker’s life that often fade into the background.
From questions surrounding artwork transportation to preparing for exhibitions, and the impact of visas on her creative practice, these are the behind-the-scenes experiences we’re grateful she shared with such openness.
This interview occurred over Zoom with Hae Won Sohn prior to Kinship + Craft’s on-site visits to her storage unit in Baltimore, Maryland (USA) and the Korean Cultural Center in Washington, D.C. Installation photographs featured below are from the Tertium Quid exhibition at the Korean Cultural Center, D.C., which is available for viewing online.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity in collaboration with Hae Won Sohn.
When labels simply don’t cut it
K+C — Hi, Hae Won! So, how would you describe yourself and the work you do?
I’ve actually been asked, without my intention of being labeled: “Do I consider myself a designer? Am I a sculptor? Am I a craftswoman, or am I just an artist?” So I think there’s a lot of confusion in dealing with the material and yielding objects. At the same time, in terms of scale, my work stays within a domestic size and way of displaying. But, my method doesn’t necessarily involve the designing process. Oftentimes, besides one specific body of work, I don’t know how most of the end product of my work is going to come out.
So, I don’t know if I have to find a label for myself. I describe myself as a maker or an activator of a material. But, for me, as for now, I identify myself more through defying or denying certain labels, rather than building one that’s true to me. If that makes any sense. It’s similar to the mold-making process where an object doesn’t grow in itself. It comes by copying or being molded by other pieces.
K+C — I completely understand. That makes a lot of sense.
I feel the same way about how I identify myself as an artist. I know that the word sculptor these days doesn’t necessarily mean that they sculpt the material, but I still feel like some of the nuance of a sculptor doesn’t align with how I approach my work.
K+C — Right.
Speaking of my work, I do have to get a little bit technical in the process because I think that it’s important to understand how my objects become what they are and how they’re presented.
K+C — Of course, please do.
So, I hold a background in ceramics, both in my undergrad and my graduate studies, and I really got into the slip-casting process. I don’t know how familiar you are with the process, but it’s basically using plaster molds using clay that’s been really watered down. Pouring the clay into the plaster mold, letting it sit, and then pouring the excess out. It’s a way of yielding these hollow, pristine objects. For example, sinks and toilets — they’re also made out of the slip-casting process. So, it’s also used to create mass-produced objects, whereas I use the process or techniques to yield unique multiples.
Basically, my work is about the mold. It’s of the mold; it’s also the mold itself or a recast of the mold. So that’s a significant entity and concept that evolves through my work, which it still revolves around.
I don’t know if I have to find a label for myself. I describe myself as a maker or an activator of a material. But, for me, as for now, I identify myself more through defying or denying certain labels, rather than building one that’s true to me.
K+C — Wonderful, and to clarify — when you did your training in South Korea, did you have to make multiples of the same? But not on a mass-production level? So you were hand building or your throwing ceramics. Is that right?
Yes, so in my undergrad program [at College of Design at Kookmin University, in Seoul, South Korea] they really focused on letting the students learn various techniques. It wasn’t just a specialization in slip-casting. I would throw and hand-build. There were sculptural ceramics classes and then there were industrial ceramics classes. So, it didn’t necessarily set a direction for the students. I just did the slip-casting more because I was interested in it. But even though they had those options for different classes, I think, in general, they still emphasized how skillful one person can be when it comes to ceramics. They wanted the students to develop in a way that they could become master craftsmen.
K+C — It sounds like it was a really in-depth program that evaluated all the possibilities of ceramics.
Yea, but I wanted to do something more for myself, so that’s why I came to the States…Many people in their graduate studies come to deepen their research and one aspect of their work. Whereas I really wanted a new direction, and in order to find a new direction, I just had to be lost.
So I chose a program that had a ceramic department and program that was really experimental in the way that they didn’t necessarily force the students to work in ceramics. As long as the students had some kind of connection, whether conceptually or personally, they didn’t impose rules. For example, it didn’t have to be made out of ceramics to be called ceramic art. So yea, for my first year, I did a lot of exploring with different materials.
K+C — Mhmm.
Thinking back, it was definitely helpful in the sense that I stepped away from the ceramic history and context for a moment. But I eventually came back because I thought I was just experimenting for the sake of experimenting, and I didn’t feel centered or genuine in that sense. So that’s how I returned to the basics of creating cups out of molds, and, from there, I encountered many failures. But I used those failures to actually repurpose the concept of failure as an element of the process. For example, could this be actually a system to create a series of objects? And that’s how everything started for me! (laughs)
Storage solutions, transporting tricks, and exhibition timelines
K+C — That’s fantastic! I love that you wanted to open up your world in a way with the type of Masters program you chose. Thank you for sharing that history. Well, we’re here to talk to you today about your work within the context of exhibitions, and you’ve got a lot going on right now. You’re going to take down the exhibition for the Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize Finalists soon at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. Then you’re going to install another exhibition at the Korean Cultural Center in Washington, D.C.
K+C — So, I wanted to ask…How do you typically prepare to install work for an exhibition or to dismantle it?
For me, I’m very manual. (laughs) You know, I don’t get involved with any of those big crates, like big artists. You know how they ship or transport their work? For me, it’s still very much like I’m taking care of my baby. There’s a storage space that I have in Baltimore, and I go myself — even though I get help from assistants when it comes to the process of installing and de-installing. But, when it comes to transporting the work, I’m very much involved. I had one experience when I had a show in New York and I was living in Baltimore at that time, and I carried the work on the bus. I actually reserved a seat for it. (laughs)
K+C — Nice!
So, I’ll make [the work] feel loved, and I’ll hold it in my lap. I really treat it in that way. I need space for it, and I have to carry it on with me. It’s not the most efficient, but for now, it’s what’s more comfortable and cost-efficient for me. I’m asking for free labor from myself. (laughs) Because, you know, no one is really paying for me; it’s just me dealing with this. But it’s interesting because there are two different exhibitions to deal with at the moment, which is really rare.
What else is interesting is that The Walters show has happened in a really short span of time. They announced the finalists in late March and gave us one month to prepare the show. That included selecting the show, doing studio visits, packing the work, curating the show, and installing. It was one month.
At the Korean Cultural Center (KCCDC), we, the three artists, proposed the show, and the KCCDC selected it through an open call. So we actually had enough time to prepare for the exhibition’s original start date one year before.
K+C — Was the KCCDC meant to be in December 2020, or was it even earlier?
Originally, it was scheduled for August of last year [in 2020]. Then it got postponed for three months due to the pandemic. Then, again, it got postponed another year. So, it should’ve happened one year ago, but it got delayed. I’m grateful, though. At least they didn’t cancel it. They only pushed it back and tried to find the safest time for it. So we actually got one more year to prepare for the show, but anything we worked on was in the last two or three months.
For me, I feel, unless it’s a really institutional project, where the venue is involved in putting the show together — like for both The Walters and the Korean Cultural Center show — I curate my own shows with my gallerist [Emmanuel Barbault] in New York. Or I work with the other artists to put the on the show together. We discuss the layout and how we want to contextualize it. So it feels more like the venue is providing space or support, but the show itself, it’s really coming from the artists…And unless there’s an institutional set-up, or they want to be involved, we pretty much figure everything out closer to the date.
It’s tough to plan it in advance because artists keep producing work, so, especially when the show is postponed for a year, there’s so much happening in that year — or even not happening — that still affects the work. It has to be closer to the exhibition where we can really, you know, meaningfully discuss how we want to put the show together.
Opportunities for a new narrative — working with gallerists and curators
K+C — Right, that’s understandable. How does the preparation change, depending on the type of show it is, the work you’re installing, or even how far away it is?
Yea, so for me, I’m slowly building up my exhibition experience, so I can’t really say that I’ve had the true experience working with institutions. Showing at The Walters Museum was the first museum show, like a national museum, and I didn’t actually have a lot of expectations of them. They’re specialists.
I think it’s important for the artist to be present and still be with the staff to make sure things go in the right direction. You can’t 100% just let them take care of it, especially in this context, because it’s an art competition. And you know, they appeared to step back and let the artists do it themselves, rather than the staff manipulating the context and affecting the overall award evaluation and jury process. It was understandable in that sense.
For my other exhibitions in the gallery that I work with in New York — I had a recent solo show last year in January — the gallerist also has quite a specific vision of how he wants to display my work, especially in his space. He has a strong say, which I really appreciate. That input is really for me and how I see my work at the same time. I spend most of the time with my work in the studio. They’re scattered around, just lying on the floor. At the same time, the curators or gallerists provide context for my work. That’s how I see exhibitions and how they should be. They’re not just a way for an artist to showcase their work and put up their résumés. They’re not just lines that go under the career, Artist. Exhibitions are actual opportunities to create a new narrative, see what other people see in your work and what I don’t see. They’re collaborations between the curators and the artists.
K+C — Mhmm.
I feel there’s only been one time when the curator took full responsibility for the installation. It was a special case for me; it was an artist-run gallery in Baltimore — Mono Practice — and fairly new. I had a two-person show there, and both of the curators took full responsibility. They had a vision of how to curate the two-person show in the space. I can actually share the photo with you of the exhibition. Compared to how people usually install artworks at a specific height, or on pedestals, or on the floor, they really played with how high or low to display the objects.
K+C — Oh, that would be great!
And they didn’t discuss this with me in advance.
K+C — Oh?
They knew what they wanted. So when they came to my studio, they saw how my objects are like lying around in the space, and I think they wanted to represent how they perform in my studio, but in the gallery space.
K+C — Nice! That sounds really cool.
Yea, so even though the curation responds to really minor architectural elements in the space, it also represents how I usually scatter my work around, and you kind of have to do a scavenger hunt to trace the relationship between the objects. Or how I’m actually working in the studio. It was fascinating. They never got to see me working in the studio, but it was such a good representation of how I navigate my practice. It’s really rewarding, in that sense, that those curators understood my practice. And, while they kept the context that I proposed for the work, they also created something new out of that. Then I, at the end of the exhibition, take that perspective and feed it back into my work.
It’s this constant way of developing through exhibitions or institutional support. And when I say institutional support, I’m not talking about the monetary or providing space. I’m really talking about the intellectual and the collaborative nature of being part of the dialogue, where it augments certain aspects that I haven’t been able to name myself in my work.
Exhibitions are actual opportunities to create a new narrative, see what other people see in your work and what I don’t see. They’re collaborations between the curators and the artists.
K+C — Absolutely. I can see that, especially when it goes as well as that specific experience. I originally had two other questions planned before this, but I actually want to skip ahead to touch on the individual history of objects for a moment.
K+C — This is one aspect that you’ve talk about on the conceptual side of your work — that you consider each of your objects to have an individual history. From how you develop them conceptually, to how you make each one and the process using the molds. But there’s also the photo documentation, selection process — whether it’s you selecting or the curator — packing process, and even setting up the show or dismantling it. So, I wanted to ask; where does the creative process end for you? Or are exhibitions also part of your creative process?
So, I don’t keep an account of where I’m going to show my objects. I don’t think I ever did a site-specific project that I recall. The display and presentation of my works come as an afterthought. Let me think…Yea, the creative process actually, for me, I think, and I don’t know if this is a truthful statement, but for now, I believe that it ends in my studio. So when I talk about the individual history of the object, I’m really talking about the physical development. For example, how it becomes the form it becomes.
K+C — Ok.
It’s an interesting question because yesterday I had my first virtual studio visit with Lucy Connor. She’s a curator/writer — and she really struck the foundation of how I perceive my objects. For me, the object-hood, like knowing what material the object is made of and having the physical object, is important. But, because it was a virtual studio visit, we were going through images on my website…There was this one work or image that she was really captivated by, but she made a clear distinction between the work and its image and how she saw it. I don’t think she was saying I should present the image itself or that she was trying to be prescriptive. However, I think she was trying to let me know that, for her, the photo of the image takes a new step for the object. It’s screening it from its physical state, but it’s also not denying it. So, that made me think of how I approach exhibitions and if my creative process ends in the studio.
I feel like my objects, even though they’re really condensed and stay within a handheld size, I see them as landscapes and universes unto themselves. So yes, they do have a literal history of going from one exhibition space to another, but I don’t think that eventually affects the work. It affects how I work in the studio and the new work I produce. But, for the works that I’ve already produced or completed in a sense, I think they only exist as empirical objects, where their universes and their landscapes clash with the landscapes of the exhibition spaces. But one doesn’t eat up the other. They overlap. Does that make sense?
K+C — Absolutely. I was thinking of history in the sense that they contain memories. Whether they’re memories of the making process, the inspirations that go into the work, or the environments in which they’re then shown to the public.
K+C — And it seems that for you, the history is very much grounded in the making process.
Continually learning about the installation process
K+C — Ok. I understand what you mean. So, then I’ll loop back to those two other questions. The first is whether you have learned any lessons while installing work — perhaps even learning the hard way — that you keep with you now each time you prepare?
Yea, I mean, I’m still learning…A lot of people may not see my install and deinstall process as professional because of minor things….You know, because I don’t consider installing and de-installing while I’m making it, I’m just like whatever. I focus on the object first rather than how to display it. Sometimes I have to drill a hole at the end or really struggle to level it out on the wall. But, for me, that’s also a process….Kind of like making the space and the objects collaborate with each other.
You know, we’re not moving into an apartment and curating our living space; it’s an exhibition. We don’t need to have everything all clean cut. In the leveling process, we find new possibilities. It’s a moment to learn for me, but at the same time — because I can’t deny that being an artist in some aspects is also a business — there has to be some efficiency and professionalism.
K+C — Of course.
I think it’s also important to mention that, because I’m focused on the object rather than the spaces that I do the shows in, I face problems in traditional ways of displaying objects. For example, still using pedestals or shelves or simply hanging on the wall or leaning [artworks] against it. The ways of displaying physical objects have already been done. So, in that sense, I’m still treating those shelves and pedestals as part of the space instead of the work, which I actively need to address now. I can’t just rely on those being separate worlds.
The relationship between object and space
K+C — That’s a fascinating idea and actually segues nicely into another question I wanted to ask. How would you prefer people see your work? I don’t know if you can answer this at the moment, because it seems that there are some changes happening, but up until now, have you thought about the ideal exhibition space? If so, what would it be for you?
So when you say how I want my art to be seen, are you asking about what kind of space, or more in terms of the experience?
K+C — The space. I was wondering whether it might be your studio space, or the white gallery space, or another kind of environment? But, focusing on the physical presentation and the environment in which you exhibit it.
So far, I think outside of my studio, I’ve only shown my work in a white cube space, like a museum, gallery, or artist-run gallery. Even a lot of alternative art spaces these days are still white. They’re indoor and not very far away from the traditional, institutional space. But I don’t have one specific idea. I’m actually open to all of it.
What I like to focus on is how to have the viewers experience the work the way I do, without them taking my spot as an artist. I’m not trying to invite them into the studio and experience how I work through the work.
K+C — Right.
So, for example, in one body of work that I’m exhibiting in the Korean Cultural Center, I have these really small plaster objects or forms. There are two hundred forty of them that I want to display on the floor. They’re really small and when packed together they fit on a two-by-six table that’s in my studio. I don’t know how the format will be, but they’re going to be installed directly on the floor.
My idea is, depending on the pandemic [restrictions], to bring a pair of opera glasses. I want to force the viewers to step away from the work — not come close, investigate, and kneel down. Instead, I want them to step back and see it through these opera glasses, magnifying the stage. Sort of like how they’d go to a national park and use binoculars to see far away landscapes. The viewers are there, so it’s still a very physical experience, but I think that represents how I see my objects in the studio. It’s not the same way of seeing, but I think the experience brings out the same nature of the object for them.
So yea, I’m more interested in those aspects. How the museums, or institutions, or spaces can set a new way of physically or conceptually approaching the work. Not just the space by itself, but how the audience navigates the work and how to create an overly specific distance between the work and the audience.
K+C — And through the opera glasses you’re trying to exaggerate that distance?
Yes, and even though they’re really small objects, for me, each one of them speaks as a landscape, literally. I know that sounds really cliché, but that’s how I look at it.
K+C — Not at all, that’s understandable.
So yea, I think having the opera glasses will give contrast with the wooden floors, and the object magnifies the wooden floor, as well. Playing with the scale provides me with context.
I can’t really say how it’s going to be because I’ve never experienced it myself, but that’s the idea: to magnify the object with the surroundings, so the surroundings then become a new thing, rather than just some space that you’re sitting in. You get to see the materiality in relationship with the work, and not just see it as a floor, but a contrast against what the work is providing.
The creative process and artist visas
K+C — That’s fascinating! I hope to see it. Ok, so to come to a close I wanted to ask about the impact of exhibitions on your creative practice. You’ve touched on it in a couple of different ways. However, it also goes back to the very beginning of our conversation, when you brought up the fact that 2020 really disrupted the exhibition scene — obviously because we couldn’t share spaces together. But, in the meantime, you’re still creating work, and actually, more 2D work because you literally couldn’t get into your studio space. So, did those cancellations or rescheduled exhibitions disrupt your creative process or your thoughts on developing work?
It was definitely a disruption. I’ve been dabbling on and off in 2D stuff, but I wasn’t going to be able to be in my physical studio space [which brought it back into focus]. The studios were locked down. So, there were a few months when I wasn’t creating at all — more retrieving and just taking care of myself, which is also good. But, in terms of the work that I have been creating during the pandemic…Well, the floor piece was one that I could manage in my home studio. The 2D work was also something that, because I didn’t have the ceramic facilities, was a project that had been sitting on the side for a while, and I was able to take action with it.
At that time, I saw it as a way to improvise because I couldn’t make physical objects. For instance, I wanted to find a way to create without bringing clay and plaster into my home. Thinking back now, it was a distraction that I needed. At that time, I was trying to escape and find an alternative way. But now, I think of it as taking its own direction.
I haven’t finished that project yet. I’m going to revisit it a second time, and it’s going to take a new stage from there. But, it’s a great starting point because it’s an image and I’m dealing with being skeptical of the physicality of my work. Although the image still holds so much of the physical nature of the piece. I’ll show you the images as well.
So yea, figuring out how this image — Is it going to transform into another physical object? A print or a drawing? Even though it’s 2D, it’s a physical thing in terms of space. But I think I drifted again…
K+C — No, no, you’re fine. You said that it disrupted your creative process, but it was a disruption that you felt you needed, and you’ll keep returning to these projects. In a way, the pandemic gave you distance from your ceramic studio work, which has become a helpful development.
K+C — So, the disruptions have also been opportunities.
Yea, but at the time, it wasn’t an opportunity. It was just pure disruption. Transforming it into an opportunity comes after it sits. It has to sit for a while for me to actually perceive it and contextualize it as an opportunity, instead of a disruption.
K+C — Yea, but it also seems very fitting for how you’ve dealt with your work in general.
Yea, it does. Now that I think about it.
K+C — I mean, in a way, there’s no such thing as a failure in your practice, which is fantastic.
Yea, I’m glad that you brought it up.
Some of Hae Won’s 2D work-in-progress pieces
K+C — So, I guess in the end, you could say that whether it’s the studio space getting locked, or exhibitions getting disrupted, it seems that they don’t hold that much importance to your creative practice. It’s simply the act of creating.
I don’t think so. And honestly, I’m still in the process of how I approach exhibitions. I mean, I do definitely have a standpoint right now, but it has to mature over time. I don’t think I’m ever going to reach an endpoint. You know, like saying: “This is how I deal with exhibitions in my practice.” It’s an ongoing project. But to be honest, when it comes to the reality of me working, as a Korean artist in the States, a lot of exhibitions that I undertake have to do with visa purposes. Even interviews, I would say. So it’s interesting how those kinds of things influence how my works get presented because I’m in this position where if I don’t take part in those exhibitions, I can’t prove myself as an artist in this country and I can’t apply for a visa and be in the States.
K+C — Do the exhibitions have to be in the US for that to count? Or can they be elsewhere?
They can be elsewhere, but being a US-based artist right now, my opportunities are mostly national and regional. So it’s really hard to be selective and say no when I know that one extra line in my C.V. (résumé) could be something official in my visa application process. It’s been a struggle to understand how much of that affects my practice, intrinsically. Right now, you know, I can’t really help and change this whole system, so I’m just going as is. The way other international artists deal with it, as is, and not letting the stress affect us too much mentally. But hopefully — since I just showed at a museum and won this prize — this will lead me to a position where I don’t need to constantly prove myself to the US government.
K+C — Yea.
And once I kind of have a settled position in the States — and be free, partially, as a person just living here — my work will definitely take a new direction. It will have a new relationship with these exhibitions because the reality part will be partially stripped off. If you want, we can talk about it. I’m pretty open about it. I think it’s something that’s important to address.
K+C — Absolutely.
The visa is one thing that I haven’t politically addressed in my artistic practice. I’m not trying to incorporate it into my work. But, when it comes to general artistic practice, there’s a lack of understanding of visas and how those procedures actually affect artists or how they carry on with their careers. Artists may not want to be superstars or celebrities, but inevitably they have to become that because it’s the only way to prove one’s artistic greatness to the USCIS (the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services). (laughing)
K+C — (laughing) Oh my gosh. Yea, I did have a couple of follow-up questions. I relate so hard to this stuff being an American in Germany! (both laughing) So, the first one. Do you have a quota for how many exhibitions you have to be part of every year for your visa?
I mean, the quality is important, but there’s no set quantity. There is a set of categories I have to fulfill. So like, exhibition history would be one category.
K+C — Ok.
That proves my practice. Publications, so interviews, could be another way of proving it. Recommendation letters.
K+C — Do they include interviews as part of proving your practice, as well?
Yes. How many interviews I’ve been doing or the kind of interviews. And, if it is an exhibition — is it a regional exhibition? Is it an international one? The same goes for the prizes I’ve won.
K+C — Right, ok.
I don’t know if they grade them with numbers, but they do put different emphasis on them. For example, I say: “Oh, I’m a prize-winning artist.” They then consider: Is it international? Is it national? Or is it just regional? They put that in the evaluation of whether they approve. Like, is this an artist that’s worth working in the States?
K+C — And would the international qualification hinder or help?
It would actually help because they would see it as more prestigious and more competitive. But yea, that’s one reason it’s really important for international artists who want to work in the United States to have institutional backing. It’s the easiest way to say: “I’m a safe person, and if something goes wrong with me, this institution represents me.” Those things factor in.
K+C — That makes sense. The last question is how often do you have to renew that?
Right now I’m under, we call an artist visa. It’s an 01 [Extraordinary Ability]. It’s not just for artists, but for athletes, actors, TV personalities, or people in the entertainment field.
K+C — Is this the exceptional…?
Yea. Exceptional individual blah blah blah.
K+C — Yea. (both laughing) I’ve been learning about this!
Somehow I need to be an exceptional individual. I don’t know if I really feel that way…(laughing)
K+C — Like, “Great! Another label for me to navigate!” (laughing)
Yea. (laughing) So, I can apply and the maximum amount of time I can get is three years. Although, it really depends on how I turn in my itinerary. The funny thing is, I have to submit a three-year plan in order to get my three years approved.
For example, I need to show I’m going to do this exhibition, say, in 2024. I have to provide a concrete plan, which is almost impossible for artists. So, they’re playing around when working with the lawyers. Instead of being too specific, they try to create a framework that they can play within; that I can play within.
So, yea, it’s three years. But there’s another green card version of this artist visa that has higher criteria for approval that would allow me to not think of working on the visa every three years. And I say every three years, but it feels like every one and a half or two years because preparing for the visa also takes up so much time.
K+C — Yea.
I really have to archive all my exhibitions into a portfolio for the sake of turning it into the USCIS. It really becomes this business, where I have to like make sure I keep all the receipts. (laughing)
K+C — Yea. (laughing) You’re triggering me a little. It’s the same here in Germany. It’s bureaucracies, in general, and, you know — kind of like this chicken and egg scenario. I mean, someone from the outside might say: “Yea, that makes sense.” But, ultimately, the logistics of actually making that happen is entirely different story. Thank you so much for sharing that!
K+C — Well, it was wonderful talking to you about your creative process and experience, Hae Won. I really appreciate the time you took. Thank you!
Disclaimer: Statements made in this interview regarding the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) should not be taken as official advice. The content here is for informational purposes only, and Kinship + Craft does not guarantee the accuracy of any statements or opinions made in this interview related to visa applications. Should you have any questions related to applying for a visa in the United States of America, please seek the advice of a professional or the USCIS.