I distinctly remember my first meeting with Jung Ran Bae last year and her response to Samsung Hall. She was in awe of the space. As I learned about her work, so many possible project ideas entered my mind, from engaging her practice as a ceramicist in connection with the museum’s collection, to developing a project around time, which is an element that seemed to creep into many of her works. Trying to contain my excitement, I realized again that I had to give myself over to the artist and her process, keeping my own ideas to myself. The artist was going to have to drive the project. As we walked around the space, she puzzled, “How could I possibly fill up this space?” We talked about installation, light and sound. This question became the touchstone of the project, something from which Jung Ran Bae could build. As we embark on the final project of the Artists Drawing Club of 2014, I sat down with the artist to discuss her art, including her performance work and her upcoming project Breathe, which will take place on Thursday, August 28 at the museum.
Marc Mayer (MM): What is it about ceramics that appeals to you?
Jung Ran Bae (JRB): I consider myself a sculptor who works mainly with clay for its pliable quality. When I first went to school, I wanted to be a fashion illustrator or go into fashion business. In the curriculum, you had to take mandatory classes of 3-D art. I took a ceramic class and fell in love with the material. I was hooked by clay. Like when you fall in love with someone, you don’t know why. But I realized that one thing I liked about it was how malleable it is—you can create anything you want. In visual images like illustrations for sewing designs or architectural drawings, they use dotted lines to show an unfinished shape. When I work with clay and imagine a sculpture, I constantly see those types of dotted lines. Then, I can make exactly what I imagine with clay because it is moldable, supple.
MM: Are there any works of ceramics that are touchstones for you? What are some other sources of inspiration?
JRB: I have always really liked images of Salvador Dalí and surrealism. I find inspiration in Robert Arneson’s and Claes Oldenburg’s work. Viola Frey was my teacher. I was inspired by her passion, scale and devotion to her work. Later, Ann Hamilton’s impressive installations sparked something in me. I like life-size and large works with delicate details. Large-scale objects excite me and feel more real. I like for my work to give visual pleasure and provide visual impact.
MM: You were part of the affiliate artist program at Headlands Center for the Arts, in Marin, for two and a half years, where you started to develop a new performance-based practice. In what ways are your ceramics related to your performances?
JRB: In graduate school, I spent about seven months challenging myself by creating the biggest ceramic installation possible. This blobby piece was 12 x 10 feet and 8 feet tall. It was huge. I was so proud to show my work to my professor. She listened to my explanation and said to me, “Ran, if someone just walked into your space, what if they could sense your story through just an image or through their sense of smell? Wouldn’t that be great?” I was shocked. I felt like she was telling me this was not enough.
Yet her comment was a totally new concept for me and led me to experiment with exactly what my teacher was talking about. I wanted to experience performance art, because it seems it is the total opposite of making objects, and it made me think differently about “art.”
The environment at Headlands led me in a certain direction. I always wanted to do something more experimental and wondered how I was going to capture people’s attention. It was through performance. I later realized that my ability to make sculptures and my experimental mind in performance merged naturally.
MM: For you what is important about creating an environment that appeals to the senses?
JRB: Emotions play an important role in creating work, and my desire as an artist is to share that with viewers. My favorite part of performance art is connecting directly with my audience. Even though I don’t do as much performances these days, I still have the desire to connect with the viewer. So creating a sensorial experience offers the viewer a way to connect. Art is such an emotional and thoughtful practice. Whether viewers are aware or not, I believe emotions play an important role for artists. I like to create the same emotion in the viewer’s mind. If I’m able to do this, I feel like my artwork is fulfilled.
MM: TEAter-Totter and Human Betweens are on view in the museum’s Korean art galleries. Can you tell us more about each work?
JRB: Human Betweens includes several small houses with differently posed figures placed on top. The surfaces of the houses are scratched, textured. The figures do not have mouths. I tried to create a unique human experience through each of the gestures and postures.
TEAter-Totter has three stacks of teacups, ranging from 3½ to 6 feet. They are very stable as a piece itself but look off-balanced and unstable. It creates a sense of tension. I actually made this teacup tower as part of another installation. For TEAter-Totter to become an independent piece, a fulfilled artwork itself, is exciting. Somehow these components of the installation became centerpieces. It both pleases and surprises me. But again, you never know what life will bring when you do something new.
MM: Local Korean artist Yoong Bae was a mentor for many Korean artists in the Bay Area before his death in 1992. Can you tell me about your relationship with Yoong Bae?
JRB: I met Yoong Bae in my second semester at college. My first spring show was scheduled so I called and told him about my show. We hadn’t met at this point, but I had heard about him from the local community. I didn’t expect him to come but he came! When I visited his studio, I asked him what he thought was the most important thing for a successful artist. He said that if you can manage to go to your studio every day, then you are able to create work. If you are able to create work for a long time, then that is success. He wasn’t really a talkative type, but I could tell that he was sincere. I think he believed that it was his role to encourage young, enthusiastic artists. I am so honored that my new works are on view with his paintings.
MM: Time has a kind of haunting presence in Still, Portable Years, and TEAter-Totter. What role does time play in them?
JRB: There are a lot of elements of dealing with time in my work. Yet I don’t consider time as the initial concept for any of my works. Still took twelve years, but I never planned for it to take so long. For Still, I was excited by the contrast between significant and insignificant deaths, combining dead insects and obituaries. But if I only had a few of these together, I realized it was not going to have the impact I wanted. So it became part of my daily routine, a simple act of collecting an insect and cutting out an obituary. It was a small act, but after fourteen years it resulted in twelve long coffin-shaped frames filled with dead insects together with obituaries. To me, the most important part of this artwork is my experience over those fourteen years. It started out with simple curiosity but after three years, I had created an art form. I started feeling greedy. I wanted as many insects as possible, to fill up those twelve coffins. I realized that I couldn’t rush this process without going out and actively catching insects; I had to find a way to settle and feel satisfied with the daily ritual.
MM: Since long spans of time seem to be an inherent element in your process, do your works ever become “complete” or feel finished?
JRB: At a certain point, I do feel my works are complete and finished. Before I start any work, I spend quite a long time thinking about how I will frame this work into an art form. When I have a clear vision, there’s no hesitation at all. You just have to keep going, keep repeating. I’m not sure why, but I tend to accumulate a lot of stuff. I don’t think it’s about the material I’m collecting; I think it’s about that moment. I like to save or collect the moment. Whether I’m having a sad thought or good day, I am collecting my moments. Moments of reflection. Moments of thought. Moments of wisdom. Moments of insight. Moments of emotion.
MM: What was the inspiration for your Artists Drawing Club project Breathe?
JRB: The whole idea was inspired by the space and scale of Samsung Hall. It’s grand. I wanted the challenge to figure out how to fill up that huge space. I think the only way I could do it is with sound. The room is beautiful and elegant, but at the same time it is rigid and cold. I wanted to play with contrasts of textures. The room is Beaux Arts architecture, so it is very classical style. I wanted to continue to play with visual contrast by using some kitschy material in the project and tease those sensibilities a little. The fake white fur I am using is soft, playful and kind of cheap looking. I really wish the contrast of these materials with architecture enhance the beauty of Samsung Hall. Textural, visual, and conceptual contrast inspired me for the Artists Drawing Club.
MM: How would you describe your project, Breathe, for the Artists Drawing Club? What experience do you imagine a visitor might have?
JRB: Imagine walking into Samsung Hall and hearing the sound of deep, soft breathing or a heartbeat. Viewers will see a landscape of white fur hills, creating pathways through the space. While walking these paths visitors can touch the fur hills, feeling the softness on their hands or even their faces. Finally the path leads to a tiny house. As each person approaches this 7-foot-tall house, also covered in white fur, there is a small door at face height and the viewer is invited to open it. Looking through, he or she will see a breathing face at the end of the corridor, corresponding to the sound in the room. When visitors turn around, they will find a hidden heart on the back of one of the fur hills and can touch the gently beating heart and feel it beat. I want sound of breath and heartbeats to help make the experience sensual and give life to Samsung Hall. I also want to create comfort and inspire a sense of playfulness in contrast to the impressive architecture. For example the shapes of the hills look like some sort of creatures making humorous gestures. My desire is to create a sensory experience, much like a dream.
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