Returning home has changed Suji Park’s work in ceramics. She discusses the arc of her work with Claire O’Loughlin.
In 2016, New Zealand-Korean sculptor Suji Park took a brief trip to her homeland of South Korea, for an exhibition of her work. The exhibition was cancelled, but six years later she still lives there, reconnecting with her birth culture and language.
“I knew I had to stay,” she says over Zoom. “I had to face some things.”
“I’m Korean but I’m not Korean. I am a New Zealander but I’m not a New Zealander. Am I in between? Am I a combination of things? I’ve realised it’s much bigger than that. Everyone is very multidimensional.”
Park is excited by layers, by fragments, and by the way breaking something can let you see it in a new way. This way of making has been part of her work for years. The day before the opening of her exhibition Igigi at George Fraser Gallery in 2013, someone broke her exhibition piece. It was a pivotal moment: “I found inside there were layers of things that I had put in. And I could see the layers.” Breaking and mending has been a feature of her work ever since.
Dealing with fragments, Park finds she can explore more deeply and develop her work further. “When you have a broken vessel, you can mend it together. If you have a whole vessel, you can’t really move it around, you can’t expand it.”
ArtZone first talked to Suji in 2011, in the early days of her practice in New Zealand, (see AZ#40) In Korea she has continued sending new work to New Zealand, for upcoming exhibitions Meonji Soojibga | Dust Collector at Auckland Art Gallery in July (the wonderful title strikes me as both futuristic and cheekily frank as to the fate of much art) and Noise Collector at The Dowse in November. She is also completing a Masters in Creative Writing in Seoul, and undertaking a residency at the Factory of Contemporary Arts in Palbok.
Park, 37, moved with her mother, brother, and sister to Aotearoa when she was 12. They came for better education for the kids, while her father stayed behind to work. Her world was split in two, as she grappled with a new culture and language. This duality has been part of her life and work ever since.
Park speaks a lot in abstract terms, and I get the feeling that she ponders on every experience, drawing connections and constructing metaphors that are inevitably reflected in her work. There seems to be no separation between her art and her life.
Describing her childhood in Korea as “vivid with imagination”, she spent her time riding her bicycle around the apartment blocks where she lived with her family, and every day performed a ritual of walking on top of a nearby giant sculpture. Soon other kids in the neighbourhood joined her, giving her an early experience of collaboration, of making meaning together. Rituals and collaboration between people, involving spiritual forces and diverse materials, often feature in her work.
She’s also deeply interested in language as an abstract, creative concept. “Words, music, making work — they’re all language to me. Everybody has language that is broken, mended, pushed, pulled. Every person is a language as well.” She quotes Heidegger: “Language is the house of being.” In moving countries, she tells me, her language was broken.
Classical music was Park’s first language. “Ever since I was four, I’ve never not had a piano to express myself at.” She was a music scholarship student at St Cuthbert’s College in Auckland. Her parents wanted her to be a pianist, but she went to Elam to become a visual artist instead. For her BFA she focused on drawings and painting, mainly on paper. She graduated in 2010 and began exhibiting right away. It was only when she went back for her MFA in 2013 that she moved into sculpture, experimenting with every kind of clay she could find and branching out into other materials, like plastics and metals.
A prolific maker, she has exhibited all over New Zealand and in Korea, and at art fairs in Australia and France. In 2015 she had a residency at McCahon House and is represented in several galleries in New Zealand.
The tall, thin sculptures in her upcoming exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery are each made from several individual pieces stacked on top of each other and fired together, giving them an off-kilter, discombobulated look. Park made the pieces in Korea during the pandemic.
“I only had a very small kiln nearby. So I started slicing the piece to the size of the kiln. All these works are hollow.
“I slice them and fire them, but because I slice them, they are not in one form, they will not fit perfectly. Once I slice them, the rim will distort. Once I get them out, I will do something to them, like glaze them, or put them back in for a second firing. So all these distorted parts, sliced parts, come out of the kiln, and I’ll have them on the table, and I’ll put them together again with anything I can.”
The result is a series of figurative sculptures, distorted heads on thin, abstracted bodies. They are like totems, suggesting spirits, gatekeepers of another realm. They are inspired by the traditional doltap (stacked rocks or pebbles) that Park saw around the South Korean countryside. People stack rocks one by one in a small, collaborative ritual where each rock represents a wish.
From left: Suji Park, Ora, Fever Head, ceramic, glaze, 2022. Suji Park, Ora, Fever Head, ceramic, glaze, ceramic paints, 2022. Suji Park, Oya, Fever Head, ceramic, glaze, gold, 2022.
“I saw all of these totems, and all of this collaborative process, rituals, and I connected that with my childhood ritual, and I started building these works.”
Park has done a lot of walking around South Korea, observing and thinking, over the past few years.
“Once I got here, it was like something was waiting for me, and I had to just dig in and see what it was. I had this quiet moment of facing the streets that I used to walk as a kid. I went to many abandoned places. I had time to think about everything, about the process I had been going through, the artistic practice, the brokenness, the broken fragments that I had been collecting, and how I try to mend everything.”
I expect to find the figures unsettling, but to my surprise, I find them quirky and friendly, like Park herself. She says, “They’re very confronting because they are very reflective of me.” But they are also their own thing. “Sometimes it’s someone. Sometimes it’s of myself, but it always moves away. I heard the term ‘defamiliarization’. The process of doing that is a very difficult thing. Sometimes I wonder if it's like having a child, and accepting the fact that this child is its own being.”
Park won’t have to wonder about that for too much longer, as she’s just a few days away from giving birth to her first child. She laughs, embarrassed about how she used to talk about her work as having a baby, comparing it to the labour of making art. “I’ve never experienced actual labour so I shouldn’t have said that!”
Having had my own first baby recently, I tell her that it actually doesn’t sound naive. When birthing a baby, I say, I think experience making art does help because you know how to go to that quiet, internal place to connect with something, and then do the strong thing of getting it out of you. I say that labour, whether it’s birthing a baby or making art, takes everything you’ve got.
Park clearly gives everything to her art, which is constantly evolving. While she has continued with her visual art practice back in Korea, the experience of returning to her birth country led her to a new form of expression. When she arrived she started writing fragmented texts, and in 2018 applied for the Masters in Creative Writing at the Korea National University of Arts in Seoul, a highly competitive course which, she did not realise, accepts only three students per year. After a rigorous application process, she got in. She’s now in the final stages and is completing her thesis.
Having done her previous higher education in New Zealand, she struggled with writing in Korean and adhering to correct grammar, style, or formats. But this just gave her creative freedom. It’s the same creative freedom she feels with ceramics because she never trained as a ceramicist. “It’s all self-taught. I don’t actually know the terminology, proportions, or chemicals. I’ve never owned a kiln. So I have all this freedom.”
Dust Collector is the first collection where she fired the work more than once, and used glaze. In the past, she has stopped at bisque firing: firing just once, and without glazing. This kept her work porous and open, both physically and metaphorically.
“In Korean, we have a saying: “the breathing holes are not closed yet”, which refers to the first firing. But then from second firing, which is 1,250 degrees plus, it becomes closed, becomes waterproof, very hard material. This was the first time I’ve done that.”
She says that keeping her work porous may have been her way of avoiding making a statement, and I wonder if it is a form of self-protection. “I like not making a statement because I want that room, that freedom. But I’ve realised that’s maybe a fear.”
She’s in a new chapter in her life now. It’s clearly been challenging, but it’s also obvious her return to Korea has expanded her artistic practice and grounded her. While she’s still searching and processing, I get the sense that all the fragments of her worlds are coming together again, and she’s mending them into something new.
“Growing up, being a minority… when I was in New Zealand, my father wasn’t there, my family was broken, my language wasn’t there… maybe it’s because of that, I never really liked full-stopping my sentences. I wanted to leave my work open. But now I feel ready, ready to fire again, ready to close it.”
First published in Art Zone #91