A conversation with Ran Hwang and Richard Vine (December 2017, New York, in the artist’s studio).
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
AHL Foundation: How do you know each other? How long have you known each other for?
Richard Vine: We’ve known each other since 2004, when I wrote a catalogue essay for a group exhibition at the Korean Cultural Service. [Ed note: Richard Vine, “Seeing The Light,” Green Light: Twenty Young Korean Artists in New York, November 11 – December 17, 2004.] It was a twenty-person show. She was one of the stars.
Ran Hwang: You’re kidding, right? I submitted a big Buddha head. It was a wall installation [Note: Beyond Language II-1, dimensions variable, buttons, pins, 2004]. From early 2002, no, middle of the 2000s, I was pinning directly to the wall.
Richard Vine: The work had real presence. Well, I had to rely on the work, because at that time, it was very difficult to converse with her. One of the things that is fascinating about her career is the way that it has developed over time, picking up different references along the way. At that first meeting, I was struck by the discrepancy between a seemingly spiritual work and the very fashionable persona of the artist.
Ran Hwang: It’s true. I love fashion. That’s why I use fashion materials. Before that show, I was working at a fashion embroidery company in the Garment District. I was interested in fashion materials – buttons, pins and fabric. I was a designer.
Richard Vine: I discovered when I made a studio visit, she made these boxes that had two layers and had cut outs –
Ran Hwang: They were collages.
Richard Vine: Yes, collages of the female figure, and references to buttons and threads and fashion. But even then, there was this awareness of the other side of the fashion business, which is exploiting labor, where one part of the industry is living this glamorous life but the products are being made in obscure places by people who are paid very little and doing repetitive labor. One of the links she found was in that repetitiveness, which could also have a spiritual element.
AHL Foundation: Was it the dark side of fashion that interested you?
Ran Hwang: Yes, sure. But it’s more from when I was young. I was a very lonely girl. When I was about ten years old, I wasn’t a very bright girl and I was very introverted. I needed friends, but I couldn’t do the talking to make friends. I liked drawing though, so I made paper dolls. When I drew at school, a lot of girls would surround me to watch. That shocked me. I would draw the doll, then a hat and a dress, boots and bag and so on. I would cut them out and color them. I would make friends that way. My interest in fashion grew out of that time.
When I was five years old, I went to a Buddhist temple with my family. I saw a lot of Buddhas then. Now I’m making a lot of Buddhas with fashion materials. I still do.
Richard Vine: Wasn’t there also that time in your life when you were living in a temple?
Ran Hwang: I was in an emotionally difficult situation at that time. I was about thirty years old. It was before I came to New York. I went to the temple with the intention of saying good-bye to everything in my life. But actually, in living the temple life, I decided I wanted to love my life more.
Richard Vine: How long were you there?
Ran Hwang: One month. I would get woken by a nun every night during my sleep at 1 am, 4 am, 7 am. Over one hundred women slept in the same room. The nun would bring a stick to hit us, saying, “It’s time to play, it’s time to play,” to wake us up to do a chant. You could say I was hit enough to ‘wake up’ by that stick during my stay. It’s unbelievable we did it every night.
Richard Vine: And is it after that when you decided to move to New York?
Ran Hwang: No, that’s when I decided to move to Seoul. I grew up and was living in Busan. The temple was in Busan. I went to Seoul, and I worked every day at making art. After I graduated school in Seoul, it was a few years later afterwards when I moved to New York. I was twenty-one years old.
Richard Vine: Was that a dramatic decision – did you come with the intention of emigrating or was it more of a see-how-it works situation?
Ran Hwang: Well, before I moved to New York, I was a realist painter. I had held three solo exhibitions in Seoul, but I had already decided I didn’t want to paint anymore. I wanted to pursue different contemporary art. I wanted to learn more. That’s why I decided to come to New York.
Richard Vine: When did you actually start working with buttons and pins and such?
Ran Hwang: In 1997, when I arrived here, I was studying English at an English school and attended the School of Visual Arts. I needed to earn money after school, and so I got that job in the Garment District. See, I found fashion again. I was drawing designs for the company. The store is still around. The company sold all different kinds of fashion materials, such as zippers, buttons, pins, scissors…. At the time, I was collecting very old buttons. I was interested in buttons that were around a hundred years old. I would find them in flea markets. Buttons have holes, which kind of look like people’s eyes. Like my glasses.
Richard Vine: At that point, were you making art exclusively by yourself?
Ran Hwang: Yes. I’d find the buttons and bring them to my studio. I would practice. Can I have one of the buttons and pins there? [Gets some buttons and a pin]. See how this button is much too big for the pin? When I put the pin through, it falls through. [Pin drops to floor]. It falls out. So, I use beads or another smaller button to layer it under the larger button, and the pin stays. [Holds it upside down]. I practiced this a lot.
Richard Vine: At that point, it was really meditation.
Ran Hwang: My work is always meditation. I got the idea from the temple. Always, every day, the monks would be playing their moktak [Note: a round, hollow wooden instrument held in one hand and hit with a small stick in rhythm with Buddhist chants or prayer] and my hammering of the pins would make a similar sound. Tok tok tok. I enjoyed making my artwork because it reminded me of the sound of the moktak.
AHL Foundation: But now you have a studio with assistants.
Ran Hwang: Well at first, I was making a lot of wall installations as practice. But I had to rethink it, because making a small-sized wall installation of fish took one year. You have to hammer one pin down about thirty times. I realized I needed assistants very quickly. Ten assistants would mean making ten artworks, right? Twenty assistants, twenty artworks. I had to teach my assistants. All my assistants graduated from art schools. The practice is very easy. [Looking at artwork behind] For example in this one, there are three parts. Each part has three people working on it. Nine people would work on it together at the same time. But you need someone to support the beads and pins and buttons while you hammer. So altogether you would have over ten people working on it. Now the process takes a few months.
Richard Vine: When did you start using the separate background support, rather than directly on the wall?
Ran Hwang: In the beginning, I didn’t have the money to buy a panel. You know, New York artists are very, very poor. Empty walls were great. I would think when I found a wall, ‘Ah! This is my wall. My place!’ Every gallery and every museum has a free wall. I could hammer away at all of them. I could even include the ceiling. I worked on walls for five or six years, using the free wall.
Richard Vine: Can you a sell a work like that? A work on the wall?
Ran Hwang: Oh no. After the exhibition, my work would all disappear. I was practicing. For me, the experience made me have a very strong art practice. I feel thanks to the galleries, including the Queens Museum for letting me use their walls. I think the Queens Museum wall installation was in 2006. [Note: Everything All at Once, Queens International 2006, October 1, 2006 – January 14, 2007].
Richard Vine: There were many years of this.
Ran Hwang: Yes. That was over ten years ago. I made wall installations but I was also making the small size collage works. My gallery was selling these. I was making mixed media works. Similar works to the boxes you saw in my studio at that time. My works were selling, just a little bit at that time. I made to order some work on wooden panels where each panel worked with each other. But after making that work, I realized I wanted to see the backs of the work. Wood panels have no transparency. I wanted to see the buttons in the lower layers. My pins are very beautiful. They are very thin, and the best, most beautiful pins in the world, and I wanted to see them. I started looking at different materials, not wooden panels. I discovered plastic.
AHL Foundation: Plexiglass?
Ran Hwang: Not plexiglass. I didn’t have that kind of money. Just transparent plastic. But using flexible plastic was too hard. After that I used a plastic similar to plexiglass and I used a drill to make holes. Each hole had to be drilled and it was not easy. I had to do a lot more research. Eventually I found I could make laser-cut holes using CAD. I could make a CAD drawing, put it in the program and then a factory could cut the holes with laser. This work behind us is made that way. I use glue, and then hammer in the pins. It’s very, very strong, as you can see. The pins can’t fall off. It’s professional glue.
Richard Vine: At a certain point, you were deservedly fortunate to have a couple of dealers become very supportive of your work.
Ran Hwang: I have very important galleries around me and they are supporting me in Europe, New York and China – all over the world. I have very good friends.
Richard Vine: There was a period when one or two of those people were investing in your practice out of faith in your work that really enabled you to develop, to take on assistants and start doing the work that everyone knows now.
Ran Hwang: I am so happy about that. After making plexiglass works, I started another search for materials. I wanted my works to move. My work was always stable and static, but I wanted the work to move. I thought about video work. Around 2007, I made a video production. Now my works are plexiglass with video. In 2014, I had an exhibition in New York, I did it with video. [Note: ‘The Snowfall of Spiders,’ Ran Hwang, Leila Heller Gallery, February 20 – March 21, 2014]. Then I had an exhibition at Hermès, Singapore. [Note: Becoming Again, Hermès, Singapore, November 7, 2014 – January 31, 2015]. I exhibited at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore recently. [Note: Joseon Korea: Court Treasures and City Life, Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore, April 22 – July 23, 2017]. Also for [the upcoming 2019 exhibition in Brussels] the Palais des Beaux Arts show in Brussels. Every show since I have included video installations with my work.
Richard Vine: I remember the most effective ones – the video installation of the water coming down and the spiders in your show at Hakgoje Gallery in Seoul. [Note: Illusion & Reality, Hakgoje Gallery, Seoul, June 9 – July 11, 2010].
Ran Hwang: You went to my show in Seoul. I had chandeliers in plexiglass, and waterfalls.
Richard Vine: A couple of things have happened in your practice. One is that these other motifs start to enter your work. For a long time, it was primarily Buddha. Then you started having birds, plum blossoms….
Ran Hwang: Not only birds. I made phoenixes. The phoenix represents the wish to live forever. That’s everybody’s hope. The meaning of plum blossoms is to represent how temporary our lives are. The meaning of these two motifs are opposite to each other.
Richard Vine: Different poles, actually.
Ran Hwang: Yes. We hope to live forever, but our lives are temporary. I am matching those two facts together.
Richard Vine: Plum blossoms are temporary, but beautiful.
Ran Hwang: I like beauty, always. The meaning of the plum blossoms is very serious, since it’s about how our lives are going to eventually end. No one knows when, but we will die. Knowing that, we still try to live beautiful lives. We hope that life is beautiful.
Richard Vine: The other thing that happened, more or less simultaneously, is that in some instances the work started coming off the wall and you started making full-blown installations that people could enter and walk through.
Ran Hwang: I enjoyed making those. The work can become very close to people when they walk around. My works at the Asian Civilisations Museum were like that. I like interactive artworks. Artwork breathes when with people. I want to share that.
Richard Vine: You were doing this when there was a certain critical fashion to disdain beauty, to make art very difficult, very obscure, and art writing was unreadable. Through all that, you persisted with your practice which was about the importance of making life beautiful, transient though it is, and engaging with the audience, drawing them into the experience of walking through the work.
Ran Hwang: I like beautiful art. It makes me happy to see something beautiful. I don’t want to make grotesque art. The meaning can be grotesque, but what is visible should be beautiful. That’s what’s comfortable for me. Artists make work in the style they like. You can make visually beautiful art that has a difficult meaning. I think that what is visible and what is not is always different. In my work, I may show beauty outside, but the message I convey is not about beauty, it’s about life, which can be hard and difficult. I don’t have to show that in its naked form. Just because I’m experiencing some hardship in life doesn’t mean I have to make something visually difficult to process. The grotesque makes the viewer unhappy. Life contains both beauty and ugliness, happiness and unhappiness. Why should I make something visually grotesque too?
Richard Vine: How did you get interested in architectural references that are appearing now?
I had a very important experience when I was young. Going to temple with my family, I saw a huge temple. It was an emotional experience for me. I actually totally forgot about that experience before coming to New York because I was so busy with my life in Korea. I came to New York in 1997 and a few years later we had 9/11. At that time, I was so depressed – of course, everyone was affected by that. That suddenly reminded me of the time I had gone to the temple. When I thought of the temple and of Buddha, it made me feel peaceful. I wanted to make artwork about my memories, which included the temple and Buddha. The temples and the five beautiful old royal palaces in Seoul have the same architecture. I wanted to give people a peaceful and healing place through my artwork. Similarly, my current show at Leila Heller Gallery is called ‘Sacred Space’. I wanted to share my sacred space with everybody. Everybody gets a lot of stress in life, right? I’m the same. I may be smiling on the outside right now, but inside, my mind is in such a difficult place. Life is so difficult but you have to live it. Everybody experiences that. It’s the plum blossom and phoenix all the time. See, every day, there is some form of terrorist strike in the world.
AHL Foundation: Is terrorism something you think about more now?
Ran Hwang: I think about it every day. 9/11 was an event that caused me big pain. I lived close to Wall Street at the time. My studio was nearby. I guess my current studio is still close to where it happened – it is just five blocks away. It is the reason why I felt so strongly about creating a sacred space.
Richard Vine: It seems to have affected you in less obvious visual ways. I know you did a missionary visit to Africa. When was that?
Ran Hwang: It was five years ago. I went to South Sudan in Africa for about ten days with my friends to support a Catholic mission. They were doctors but I was a volunteer for art education. You need to get five different shots to get there. The water there is terrible. You can’t drink it or even shower with it. Despite that it was a peaceful experience for me because of the children. They are so pure. I taught installation, drawing, painting to children as young as three years old to even adults almost twenty-five years old. They don’t go to school. South Sudan is still experiencing civil war, so it is very difficult for them. I had to take a UN airplane to get to the area. Many of them become refugees in Uganda. I want to go again, but to Uganda to help the refugees. That’s my next project. You know how people before they die make a bucket list? That’s on my bucket list. I want to teach art to the refugees and make them a sacred space. Do you see the black and white photographs up there? They are portraits of the refugee children I met. I’m making my funeral car [Note: bier] based on my bucket list.
AHL Foundation: Is that your next art project?
Ran Hwang: Yes. I’m in the process of submitting proposals to foundations. I need to get funds to make this happen.
AHL Foundation: This seems to be a rather large external step outside of your meditative practice.
Ran Hwang: After I stayed at the temple in my thirties, I felt I had a new lease on life. I thought about life again after 9/11. I have a few different projects like this I have proposed. One is in Uganda and another one is in Greece. There are so many refugees in the world now.
Richard Vine: What is the funeral car? Is it for you?
Ran Hwang: It’s an installation for my next exhibition at the Palais Des Beaux Arts. It’s my own funeral car with a video installation. My concept is to represent the cycle of life and death. People die every day, but babies are born every day. This happens every day. My work is always about life. You know, American funeral cars are black, but Korean ones are very beautiful with a lot of flowers. I will make my funeral car with lots of plum blossoms.
Richard Vine: Do you think of your place in the art community? Do you refer to other artists in your work?
Ran Hwang: I don’t think I really think about external forces. I do respond to different environments, such as the temple and 9/11. I think I do get influenced by other artists, such as El Anatsui. He makes work using bottle lids, ennobling those every day materials. I think my work is similar in that regard.
Richard Vine: How important is ‘Asianness’ to you? Do you think of yourself as an Asian artist? National identity has become important again in the dialogue. Is it something you consciously think about? Or do you think of yourself as a global citizen?
Ran Hwang: I’m not sure. I’m Korean of course, but I’m living in New York. I don’t think about whether something is Asian or Western, I’m just an artist. My philosophy is Asian, since I grew up in a Buddhist family, but I am not religious any more. I go to temples in Korea because they make me feel peaceful. I follow my feelings.
Richard Vine: We associate Buddhism with acceptance and passivity but you yourself are very directed. You have made your way as an individual artist to achieve commercial success. It feels like a dichotomy, but perhaps that is because of the way your work is sometimes approached. In a similar vein, do you see your work as feminist in any way?
Ran Hwang: I don’t think it’s important for a work to be feminist. What I mean is, art is art. You can’t start separating out artwork that is made by a male or female artist. It’s all art.