Artist Profile – Hong Seon Jang
Words: Eleanor Perry-Smith
This article ran in the spring 2012 print issue of Modern In Denver.
When 50 years worth of National Geographic came into artist Hong Seon Jang’s hands, he did what anyone would’ve done. He recycled them. However, Hong Seon doesn’t think the way most others think, and recycling to him meant repurposing the massive swath of material in his studio as opposed to dumping it at some city facility.
He spent months carving into the colorful pages with a blade, revealing layers of culture and nature along the way. The end result is “Geographic Wave,” a tsunami of information that looks like calcified oyster shells. This work highlights the factors involved in the South Korean artist’s interpretation of material. “My work is based on contradiction,” Hong Seon notes, and the paradox here is that new life sprouted from a man’s death—a friend who collected the iconic yellow magazines for five decades.
“There are all these conceptual layers to his work,” says David B. Smith, owner of the Denver gallery of the same name, “It doesn’t just look intriguing.” The staggering scale of Hong Seon’s installation pieces tend to have a powerful initial impact, but the truth is in the details. For instance, “Zip City” is a piece Hong Seon created from zip ties that represent an aerial city view, and the ties were chosen specifically because they are objects we only use once. Hong Seon utilizes matchsticks and fishing line for the same reason. The impermanence of human fabrication is an idea he uses to construct representations of nature. His artistic intention isn’t only in end results, but also in the essence of what he uses to arrive.
In another example of synthetic repurposing, Hong Seon chose Scotch tape to construct snapshots of the natural world. By layering thin pieces of tape on a green or black chalkboard, he created forest scenes that resemble drawings in their texture. “I don’t separate art from nature,” Hong Seon explains—a philosophy that is proven in each of his unique works.
“Prism” is a beautiful example of Hong Seon’s astute merging of artistic expression and natural phenomena. By spray-painting the rainbow spectrum onto pieces of fishing line, then stretching them in a tree, he emulates a light prism in a manner that is both whimsical and ingenious. And although it only took a few hours to create, the impact is lasting. David emphasizes the way Hong Seon’s work echoes in one’s memory when it’s experienced first hand. “You can look at images and you can look at video,” he says regarding Hong Seon’s installation works, “but you won’t get the same emotional response as if you were there to witness it in person.”
Hundreds of onlookers at the renowned Miami contemporary art fair PULSE would agree. Around 4,000 individuals come through the fair every day when it’s in session. There is a rapid flow of bodies and collectors who can purchase anything they want—and all eyes were on Hong Seon last December as he worked. He spent hours dripping hot black glue onto fishing line that resulted in a piece called “Black Mirage.” Against the backdrop of a white wall, it tricked the eye into believing that the floating mass wasn’t a construction, but simply existed on its own. Actor Adrien Brody (at the risk of name-dropping) was one member of the audience who could’ve chosen other ways to spend the afternoon, but he too was transfixed by the silent diligence of Hong Seon’s artistic hands. However, the excitement surrounding Hong Seon’s work is always coupled with sadness when viewers remember that the installation is temporary. Hong Seon is also saddened, but far more comfortable with the idea of impermanence than most.
“A human being itself is a natural phenomenon,” Hong Seon explains, adding that most of nature’s value lies in its finite quality. Like snow and sunsets, a human exudes beauty, then leaves, so it must be celebrated first in the moment, then in the memory. “I keep going back to the word ‘thoughtful’,” David says, describing the character of Hong Seon’s creations, “It’s so hard to give a sense of his magnitude.” Or his diversity. Hong Seon studied in South Korea before acquiring a masters in photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. His installations, and his collectable tape works, are testament of his versatile artistic artillery. It’s hard to believe that the same person who made a tabletop cityscape out of metal letterpress pieces also constructed a 15-foot faux marble sculpture from furniture and tiles that graced the prestigious Socrates Sculpture Park on Long Island. His diversity is somewhat reminiscent of German artist Joseph Beuys, a man who Hong Seon sites as an influence due to his insight and foresight. And like Beuys, Hong Seon hails from a part of the world known for its regional polarization.
In South Korea, every man is required to serve two years in the military, and Hong Seon was no exception. During his service, he spent a lot of time in nature, contemplating the dichotomy he faced constantly of North Korea versus South Korea, which led his thoughts to evil versus good, destruction versus creation and death versus life. For an outwardly peaceful man, his is a torrent of ideas within. “I bump into people sometimes because I’m thinking,” says Hong Seon, a man of such insightful expression it’s hard to imagine his experience as a soldier—an experience he certainly wouldn’t have chosen for himself. “I don’t want to be controlled,” he insists. He says control keeps one speechless.
Since leaving South Korea, Hong Seon has been free to travel, collect and repurpose the things we handle on a daily basis without fully comprehending their symbolic equity. Hong Seon aligns, shapes and contorts to such magnificent levels, that in the end, we the viewers are the ones who are left, in fact, speechless.