Rooting for Life: Interview with Soljee Ahn
Jan 17, 2022
A human body is a container for thoughts of individuals, as well as a pathway toward the outside world. That is why it could not be defined in a single way, nor could it exist independently. Our bodies remember human history and that is why the status of the body is a memory or a trace of experienced history. Works of Soljee Ahn are mainly about “a body as a subject for thoughts and behaviors” and “memories and the status of bodies”. And these are connected to each subtopic, thereby creating a work that seems like a single scene or a play with several acts and scenes. This is well shown in her solo exhibition, Spout, Uncontainable in early 2021 at Artspace Boan 2 (Boan 1942), Seoul, where Those that are Grown (2021), Those to Be Seen (2021), and Those to Be Spat Out (2021) were presented. The three pieces were organically placed as if they were organs of the human body that serve an independent role but at the same time connected and collaborate with each other.
Ahn explains her works are “stories about a concept on fractional space and time that is formed due to relocations and a body that is tailored for a better observation". “Relocation” is also one of the essential and notable elements in Ahn’s works. If we think about the story of the aforementioned “body” under the context of “relocation”, moving to somewhere else can be compared to a situation where someone’s body is uprooted with or without their will, then moved to a new place to settle in an unfamiliar environment.
During the process, human bodies get accustomed to places and environments from the past, encountering experiences of “uproot”. These bodies then are relocated to a new place with the memories intact and must face new cultures, people, and surroundings. Fern, a plant, used in her installation Those that are Grown is a metaphor to show a human who goes through and experiences “relocation” and “rooting”. Ferns, Ahn says, reproduce by spreading out spores by wind which are located in the underside of their leaflets and success of reproduction depends on the soils they land on. Ferns used in Those that are Grown have invited small fruit flies into the tubes, not long after their installation; although the artist has provided artificial lights, water, and sprayed chemicals so that they could adapt well to the new environment, even though it was a short period of time. As such, relocation could be done with the unexpected help from others.
It is not always easy to understand Ahn’s works at a first instant. As her works are mainly about installation featuring various objects, there are a lot to see by just standing in front of the works, inviting many questions - as many as the objects that are used in her works - such as what are the meaning of glass tubes that seem to be found in labs; what are those plants placed in the tubes; what stories are those colored sand and pills that filled the tube intend to deliver? In the interview, we asked Ahn for answers. After a long conversation, we found out that she shows universal situations in humankind by weaving various multi-layered cases. Ahn does choose a direct way sometimes, but when she wants to show it in a subtle way, she uses a fictional character or people around her and places them on the boundary of her work.
eazel: In the previous interview with eazel, Immersive Studio Visit, which was conducted before Voyager, you mentioned that “frequent move to other countries puts you in a status of stranger", and that made you take an interest in topics such as relocation, body, and immunization. Before you started your career as an artist in Korea, you decided to study in the UK, voluntarily putting yourself in a position of a “stranger” again. What brought you to the UK for further study after your undergraduate in Korea?
Ahn: Since I was young, my family had to move around frequently due to my father’s work. Then, I came back to Korea and submitted applications for university entries. While I was an undergraduate, I thought it would be nice to stay here in Korea and continue my work after graduation. While preparing for my graduation exhibition, I had to write an artist’s statement, and my professor told me to refrain myself from site- or space-specific ideas and works. That was the time when I started to connect my vague thoughts about relocation, structures, and visible human figures with paintings and drawing installations. I began an experiment of drawing on a long tracing paper and attached it on a wall, a floor and a ceiling and hung it down, and that was the time I realized that what worked for me as a method of expression were installation, structures and drawings inserted in between them.
It was only after graduation that I realized that my situation is revealed through my works; that I could not settle down but float around. So, to continue my work as an artist, I thought, I should find an answer by myself, and that’s why I decided to travel abroad voluntarily for the first time.
eazel: What was it like studying in England? Do any knowledge and experiences from there have an impact on your current practice?
Ahn: Along with practicals, I had to take various classes in theory and philosophy that gave further insights to the contemporary, which I was not used to. So, in my first year of MA, I ran to the library after theory classes to review what I had learned on that day. Reading through related books, and spending lots of time getting used to their ways. Critic classes led by students were more about discussions on background knowledge affecting works. Knowledge that could be expanded from artworks rather than talking about what is shown “as it is” in works. As classes were conducted in such a way, I tried to learn theories, philosophies as well as various social issues and related knowledge around us. Through this process, I have learned to analyze works in various perspectives and how to develop them. As many discourses are still initiated in Europe and nurtured in the Western countries and then spread into Asian countries, I was able to directly observe a formation of this process in the back seat as a “stranger”. It was a meaningful and significant period of time as the experience could then reflect in my works.
eazel: Those that are Grown presented in Voyager made its debut in your solo exhibition, Spout, Uncontainable, in 2021 at Artspace Boan 2 (Boan 1942), Seoul. Could you tell us how this work started?
Ahn: Not long after I came to Korea, the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world and put a halt to many art exhibitions and events. People became cautious about even just meeting up with each other, cutting off opportunities to catch up with acquaintances and friends. This made me feel I did not belong here, even though I was back in Korea. As I continued with my work amid this situation, I naturally started to bring things that are unfitting and floating around without settling in, into my works. Also, on top of Aseptic Sanitising Room (2018) I had a thought that I should create a sequential work that is related to “Z”, a fictional character from my short story. While Z, in my previous work, had existed as an object, a mere being to be seen, I wanted to depict the character as more independent and proactive who leads. That’s why I have created works borrowing the format of “lab experiment” that consist of three processes which are led by Z with a setting of the pandemic and rumors around labs related to Coronavirus. The three processes of Those that are Grown, Those to Be Seen, Those to Be Spat Out are closely related but independent at the same time.
eazel: Your work centers around “symbolic objects” that represent vulnerable and imperfect conditions of human beings. For example, Those that are Grown uses an organic plant as one of the essential elements and ferns take on that symbolic role. Is there any special reason you chose ferns?
Ahn: Ferns reproduce through spores on the underside of their leaves, and their way of reproduction has a common ground on my works, as it metaphorically shows my art world when it comes to “relocation” and “settlement”. Wild ferns pop their spore cases and spread by wind; not every spore carried by wind becomes successful in reproduction. If soil where spores land does not provide the right nutrient nor homogeneous systems for its inhabitation, spores are not able to take root but rot. I felt that the way that ferns reproduce is not that different from our lives. If a place we newly moved in is an unfitting environment, we cannot settle there. I wanted to use fern as a substitute to metaphorically depict such stories.
eazel: Those to Be Seen installed in the lounge looks like a documentation on human derived materials collected from a crime scene. It is a record about who, when, where and what they saw. Are you the subject of this documentation?
Ahn: As the title of the work literally shows, Those to Be Seen is about records on “things that were seen” collected with the perspectives of myself, Z, and people I know. Artificial borders and standards built by our society create stereotypes in race and class and I wanted to talk about stories about these through Those to Be Seen. If a “body” is the backbone of my work, then the environment surrounding bodies, races, classes, and migration issues are subtopics that are inevitably discussed. Including Those to Be Spat Out which shows a trace of our primitive body, the series with three works talks about comprehensive stories of all the narratives with multiple layers.
eazel: The two new works, Liberation from the Rupture 1, 2 (2021) were presented in Voyager. We read from your note that the series is connected to your previous Loss series (2021) that was shown in This is Tomorrow, a two-person show. Could you elaborate more on your new work?
Ahn: Around the time when I was wrapping up on Those that are Grown, Those to Be Seen and Those to Be Spat Out, I wanted to try a new work away from the narrative of Z. Since Z is my meta ego and at the same time an independent co-creator, I didn’t want to deplete the narrative of Z until Z naturally shows up again in other formats or in later works. Liberation from the Rupture series began with the emotion of “demise” and “lost” that seeped through me while placing a pause on my existing works centering around Z. Although it was not traditional painting, I have tried to create a plane work that could be understood with various perspectives in my own way, and I have searched for materials that enable what I aimed for. The two-person exhibition that was on view at CAN Foundation (Space Can/Old House) featured Loss series which was also a plane work. While Loss series has more spontaneous scenes and mood, Liberation from the Rupture was planned when it comes to using materials for each section. The production stuck with the plan as strictly as possible, but at the same time, the work was adjusted for the overall balance, so that it could be an abstract scene when seen from afar. Ultimately, the work is about “status” where one tries to escape from the current status but fails eventually, however, (s)he keeps on trying even though an attempt ends up with failure. Liberation from the Rupture has a format of visual art but represents my desire not to follow the previous formats but to continue works by rupturing the existing ones with new perspectives. I am planning to create works that still have a structure but blur the boundaries between flatness and three-dimension and I would say that Liberation from the Rupture was an essential stepping stone.
eazel: As you have already told us in the Immersive Studio Visit interview, that a human body is “a container for thoughts or embodied memories”, it seems that structural formats found in your works represent how you think of a body. To a certain extent, Liberation from the Rupture feels like seeing the cross section of the organs in a body. We want to hear more about stories of “bodies” that you want to tell through your works.
Ahn: Through the structure of works, I wanted to metaphorically express a human body and show a body reacting to the work (structure), and a space that can sense these relations. The reason for introducing theatrical installation as one of the major ways of presentation is to take the variables the audience creates while they appreciate the work, as a part of the work. A case in point is using a motion sensor on the work. When the sensor captures movement of one audience and creates a light, the light makes an environment for other audiences to watch. By doing so, a structure that is somewhat connected but restricted at the same time is created. It experiments how our bodies could communicate with these structures and expresses various responses and narratives produced when bodies and their surroundings interact with each other.
Soljee Ahn received her B.A. from Kookmin University in Seoul and M.F.A. from Goldsmiths University in London. She has held solo exhibitions Spout, Uncontainable at Art Space Boan 2 (Seoul, 2021), Vacuumed Soma Phase 2 at Shift (Seoul, 2020), and Vacuumed Soma at Safehouse1 (London, 2018). Participated in group exhibitions including Voyager at ONE AND J. +1 (Seoul, 2021), This is Tomorrow at Old House, CAN Foundation (Seoul, 2021), I’m Not Your Dreams or Imagination at Lewisham Arthouse (London, 2018), Beyond the Borders: Joseonjok’s Ambiguous Identity at The Crypt Gallery (London, 2017), and others. Participated in the artist-in-residence program of JOYA: arte + ecologia (Spain, 2017) and GlogauAIR (Germany, 2019).
*This interview was part of the exhibition, Voyager at New Spring Project in Seoul from November 4-28, 2021, organized by ONE AND J. +1. This interview is one of the interviews with the three participating artists, and each will be published in an order during January 2022.