Posted: April 27th, 2017 -
Interview with Debbie Han
Debbie Han, you were born in Korea and emigrated to the US while still a child. You hold a BA in art from the University of California and an MFA from Pratt Institute, and you have been a fruitful artist for a number of years now. Could you maybe tell us, what was for you the trigger, if there was one, that made you decide to become an artist? Was it something you wanted to do already as a child?
As far back as I remember, being an artist was the only thing I ever wanted to be. I was so in love with painting as a child that I secretly felt that that was my real world where I felt more free and comfortable expressing myself than in the “real” world. Art engulfed and enchanted me since my childhood, and it has been a passionate love affair so far. The strange thing is that there was no incident or person that triggered my interest in art as a child. I come from a family of physicians with no particular inclinations towards arts, so it has always puzzled me as to where my passion for art came from.
Could you tell us a bit more about your background? What was moving from Korea to the US like? And how was your family like as a child?
My father moved to Los Angeles from Seoul in 1972 to practice Eastern medicine in the States and the rest of family joined him at the end of the 70’s. Growing up in LA, I had to juggle two cultures and languages, which is typical of immigrant families in America. It was not easy growing up bicultural because you have a harder time finding out where you fit. My parents were always busy working, and being a middle child, I perhaps had more freedom to go outside of their radars than my sisters. They allowed me to do things my way and I became independent in thinking and running my life early on.
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You use a number of media in your work. Sculptures, photo manipulation, paintings. What was the first media you were attracted to work with, and why?
I was in love with painting from my childhood into my late twenties. I ardently pursued training in art from early on and received many awards and fellowships as an art student. Then I hit an impasse when I went to a grad school in NY at the age of twenty seven and couldn’t paint any more. I had been taking painting so seriously and felt that it had swallowed me. I contemplated deeply on such questions as “what is the meaning of art?” and “why do I create?” I no longer wanted to regurgitate what I had learned as an art student and seek approval from others with my art. I wanted to create the kind of art that palpitated with life, in the way that truly expressed who I was. I also started to really think about the communicative power of art. This leap of consciousness changed everything. From there on I ventured into the worlds of sculpture, photography, ceramics and installation, never repeating the same form or method of creating once a project was completed.
Are there any new media you wish to explore in the future?
I am very much in the process of exploring a new media right now. After seventeen years of working in various genres and media, I recently started to paint. This important decision came followed by a new vision. I felt the need to go back to my foundation as a person and an artist to get in touch with my core. I was also jaded with the overly cerebral aspect of postmodernism and wanted to work more from the heart and spirit. I then started to miss painting, and a breakthrough came in painting in 2014 when I moved from LA to NY. Although painting is not new to me, the way I am approaching it is new. I did not want to “go back” to painting. I wanted to discover a new way of painting…a way of approaching painting that defines painting in a whole new way. So painting is very much a new media to me now.
Your art seems mostly influenced by classical Western art forms and notions of beauty. Do you draw your influence from East-Asian or Korean sources as well?
The subject of beauty in my past projects served as a means to address a deeper philosophical questions of what shapes our perspective and defines our way of being. Traveling to Asia and Europe allowed me to explore their cultures firsthand and examine the cultural similarities and differences between the West and East, It also broadened my understanding of the construct of contemporary societies and racial hierarchy at a global level. I wanted to create a visual form to address critical issues from today but also allow many layers of meaning and interpretation to different people. Appropriating western classical busts or incorporating traditional Asian craft materials such as Korean celadon or lacquer in my work all constituted my exploration of different resources from different parts of the world into creating a new visual form to address the cultural dynamics of our time.
Your work asks a lot of question on matters of identity, race, gender, and sexuality. What has driven you to work on these sensitive subjects, very much of actuality? Why do you do what you do?
As an ethnic minority person living in the US, adopting to the mainstream Euro-American culture is an inevitable process of assimilation no matter what ethnicity you may belong. Being bicultural, I was always aware that there were more than one way of seeing things and doing things. Being female is kind of being a minority in most societies as well. As a person, I never accepted things for what they appear to be and never stopped inquiring into the deeper meaning of things. If you really think about why people do things the way they do and how people came to live their lives the way we do, you cannot help dissecting what we call “society.” For instance, on the issues of sex and sexuality, society promotes marriage and teaches us that it is the right thing to get married and that we should have sex only with our spouse. The social rules obviously do not fulfil the human sexual instincts, and sex is commodified in all societies. Not only in the ways of prostitution but you can see what runs most of commercial advertisements is ultimately a sex appeal. Consequently, people develop ambivalence towards sex, shifting from guilt and pleasure.
As for the subject of the notions of beauty in my work, traveling to Asian countries and witnessing the dominance of Eurocentric standard of beauty startled me. Examining the beauty standard of a nation can reveal the nation’s greater dynamics of culture, economy, politics, and foreign relations. We are surely living in an era of hybrid culture and globalization in one hand, but seeing the existence of racial and cultural hierarchy at a global level made me question the very construct of social norm and ideal. I was exploring female beauty as a metaphor to address what is happening in our worlds and to reflect what defines our time in history.
Can you tell us a bit about how you work? What is your creative process like when you start working on a new piece of art?
It starts with an urge or inspiration. Sometimes an idea or view sits inside me until it is ripe enough to come out. Then I try to find the most effective way of expressing it. Depending on what needs to be expressed, my project can take any form, genre, or technique as necessary. I feel that anything is possible and that every new project to me is like a new beginning. The biggest challenge in working this way is that I have to struggle through new skills or techniques all the time. When I master a technique or way of making something successfully for a project, it is usually the time to end the project. I never know how long my projects will go on. When I visited South Korea for an artist residency in 2004, I was overcome with a vision to revive ancient Korean ceramics, but not having had any experiences in ceramics before, it turned out to be a seven year long journey. The Grace photo series involved inventing a digital rendering technique in a way unseen before, and the entire series took more than a decade to complete.
In your opinion, what is integral to the work of an artist?
Authenticity of being. Your ability to cultivate a voice of your own as an artist requires a great effort to come to terms with your true self and see the world as clearly as you can through your own consciousness. I do not believe that skills or knowledge make great artists. These things will come in time if you have a true vision and endurance.
What role does the artist have in society?
An artist is some who wants to give to the society what it does not ask for. So you obviously do not do it for money or status or acceptance. The need to create comes from the inner, spiritual level. Art fulfils the human spirit and nurtures the very essence of who we are as humanity.
Do you have any favourite art work?
You mean my work? Since I have so many and different kinds of works, it is hard to pick a favourite piece. But certain pieces are more dear to me than others because of their significance in process or meaning.
One of your most outstanding works are the award winning Graces. Could you tell us a bit more about that piece? What brought you to work on that idea, confronting the male gaze?
I won the Sovereign Asian Art Prize with “Seated Three Graces” in 2010. This is one of the most importance pieces from the Graces series for its culmination of the form and message. Taking a popular western art theme from the western art history and reconstructing it with present day Asian female bodies challenges our familiar notion of ideal beauty and opens up a forum about contemporary dynamics of gender, race, culture, and identity. These “goddesses” embrace the paradoxical dissonance of being simultaneously western and Asian, past and present, and fiction and reality. It was a conscious decision to represent humanity through the female form in this series as in history male form always represented humanity, although the half of human population in the world consists of females.
The strength of this work also derives from its sheer visual power, the “realness” of the figures and their poses.
Many people after seeing this work asked me what material I used to make these sculptures. People thought I had made sculptures and photographed them. And this was exactly the illusion I wanted to create! It is entirely a photographic creation, where I photographed actual women posed in that way and prototypical classical sculpture heads separately, then combined the body and head together digitally. The most important part was digitally altering the skin texture to make them look sculptural, whereby every single pixel of the skin surface was touched up in the most meticulous and laborious way. This work took three years to complete.
Speaking about race, identity, and gender, how is it working as an Asian woman in the mainly White, male-dominated industry that is the arts?
There is definitely that, same as in most other professional fields. Looking at the way art world operates and the politics behind it of course can be discouraging. This is not where my inspiration comes from, but I am in it. I try to focus more on my work as I believe artist ultimately speaks with their art.
What is the main question you are trying to ask with your art? The one main thing you wish for those who see your art to ask themselves?
Who are you in essence and what is the meaning of life?
Do you have, amongst your art works, a piece which you feel a particular connection with, which maybe you prefer above the others or are particularly proud of?
“Battle of Conception” because the challenges of making this work became a sheer journey of life and it changed my life. What I endured to complete this work in seven years, I feel like I could write a book about… I even met my husband while working on it.
Finally, what do you think are the main challenges for any artists nowadays?
Since so much information and resources are available nowadays, I think it becomes that much more difficult to find your authentic voice. It is like when so much is allowed, how do you determine what is important and make people hear you out? In the sea of information, materials, and options available in today’s world, it is challenging as an artist not to be distracted by the superfluous and cut through the facade of things. But then, this has never been easy for any artist in any time in history.