“I always wanted to find the earliest memory from my life”.
Bongsu Park is looking at me in response to a question I have just asked her about her strongest memory. We are sitting and chatting on the ground floor of the Hanmi Gallery at the small reception table near to the stairs, where she is showcasing a mixture of some old and new work. Her exhibition entitled; Before Lines, After Lines runs until the 1st of June. Its a gallery that is undergoing renovation,but the very bare and stripped back interior invites you to view Bongsu’s work in this raw state without any pretension.
Having grown up in Busan, the second largest city in Korea, she found herself questioning the meaning of life and death from a very early age, a theme that is prevalent in her works. She looks at me in deep thought and instead poses the question back to me. For a minute, I forget who the interviewer is as I proceed to answer with a memory of myself aged 3 in a room with my father and brother watching my bunk bed being made. However our role reversal causes us to question the fragility of memory. What actually is it? Is it possible to have a pure thought, or is memory mixed with images of photos that you see with stories people have told you rather than the pure memory itself. Despite this, she recalls herself aged six, in the temple being told to meditate by a monk on one thing she should not give up on. One senses there is a steely determination beneath the shy and humble exterior.
Bongsu is a deep thinker and it began from her childhood. She would question the intricacies of life causing her mother to think perhaps she should become a monk. Although if she did not do art today, she probably would have been in a rock band playing bass guitar.
“For a long time I could not find answers to questions of life and it made me very depressed and perhaps a bit dark. I love this world and did not want to be isolated. Creating art works is a way for me to look for these answers to the questions. I also find I can make a connection with people.”
She is an artist that likes to work in a variety of mediums. Having graduated from University in Korea with a degree in photography and fine arts, she went to live in Japan where she found photography a limiting medium.
“It did not really capture time based work and I heard that in Europe, with fine art, they worked in a variety of mediums and that sounded very interesting so I decided to study in France at Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux. There I began to experiment and work with sculpture and video installation art as well as other mediums.”
After this, she studied her Masters in London at the Slade school of Fine Art and began showcasing her work at various galleries, in group exhibitions, Mokspace, Barbican Trusts Art Groups, Arteco Gallery and The Crypt Gallery. Scoring her first solo exhibition at Mokspace, and then at the Rosenfeld Porcini Gallery with her performance pieces early this year.
This has become her favourite medium to work in.
“I really enjoy working with dancers and contemporary dance. There are lots of amazing dance shows in London which really inspired me a lot.
It is a direct way to express myself with the audience and there is an instant connection. Whenever I go to see a good contemporary dance piece – I wonder whether it is possible to create a feeling like that with two dimensional art.”
Her first performance pieces performed in 2011, were ‘Cord’ and ‘Cube’. As much as she loves the medium of dance, she does find the process stressful and talks about the pressures of live work vs work that is completed and finished.
“Once my installation, or sculpture or fine art work is done, I put it in the gallery. However Performance work is live and it can always change. You never know what the reaction of the audience is going to be like. I always feel nervous – but at the same time really enjoy it.”
This exhibition at the Hanmi Gallery is showcasing her first video installation with the EGG series. There are three of these at the gallery. One in particular focuses on five eggs in a row similar to a Newton’s cradle. The eggs start out as whole and reveal inner eggs, as they start to crack and break into each other. The visual as well as the sounds of the cracking and reversal are haunting and strangely beautiful. It is a piece that you cannot take your away eyes from. The video on a time loop slows down and speeds up at various moments. Bongsu articulates this as a reflection of one’s memories. I think back to what we discussed earlier about the memories from our childhood. Is this a comment on life, where we are the eggs and we are all destroying each other? She nods. However in destruction there is also creation and my favourite of the egg series, is where all the eggs are lined up in a row and one by one they are being cracked open and merging into the larger one that sits behind. I think of us as being individual, but we all part of something bigger, like a giant egg or ovoid, whether we know it or not.
This shape is a continuing image throughout her pieces, a symbol of life that pulsates develops and grows.
“With the egg shape, I am obsessed by its form. The moment we come to this world, to this place and its where we come from. Egg does not only mean egg, we are fertilised eggs, like seeds”
We talk about her piece ‘Granulation’ that is being showcased on the 2nd floor and where the idea initially ‘sprouted’ from. Similar to her piece ‘Germ’ she made for another exhibition where she had put seeds into a net. They burgeoned forth like a live performance but of course could not be preserved in time. However she wanted to capture this idea and hold it in a time frame.
I ask her what the most unusual reaction she has had to her work. Apart from someone likening her sculpture ‘Line-age’ to meat, most see her pieces as erotic. Of course the interpretation of art lies in that of the beholder and I am more fascinated by what inspires the creator to create and why and I focus on this in my question to her. Her passion for discussing her works and ideas with people really shines through.
“I love seeing the reaction from people at my exhibitions. I meet people I have not seen for a long time and I can feel their reaction to my work”
So what is the process of her work, and how long does she spend on her pieces ? She points to the piece that is sitting behind us. Entitled, ‘Line-age’ it looks like two giant tear drops connected to each other. Its the first thing you see when you enter the gallery. Bongsu started with a sketch on paper but there the lines do not meet. It was inspired by her marriage last year, representing her and her husband. However it can also be her and her mother. When she created the sculpture in clay, it took her a month to make and it changed from the drawing where the lines from one to another became connected.
“I don’t think about what I am doing when I carry out my work. I don’t plan it – I just have an image and I start working on that and its later that I can see connections in my work”
As artists experience highs and lows, using their life as a canvas from which to create, I ask her about a scary moment she has had and we talk about, Gawi or ‘가위’ in Korean. I find out later in English that it is called ‘sleep paralysis.’ Bongsu explains its a normal dream to have in either Japan or Korea. However when talking about it here in London, Bongsu experiences a very different reaction. “
People tell me that I need to go to hospital, and they look very worried. But its very common in Korea.”
So what exactly is it? It is a dream like state that occurs when your body is very tired, and although you wake up, you are unable to move and your mind cannot control your body. You tend to hallucinate, and see spirits or ghosts. These can be considered bad spirits.
To assure me that its not just her, she calls over the Director of the gallery, Heashin Kwak, who at this moment is in the background unpacking some boxes. As the gallery is currently undergoing refurbishment, she is doing much of this herself. She comes over and talks about her experience of this sleep nightmare where she has felt tired and unable to move her body. Intrigued and touched by this revelation from both ladies, I decide to reveal my version of “Gawi” where I find myself walking along on a street and I trip up and fall, but actually fall down a hole and continuously feel like I am falling and as I result I wake up sweating. For me its a horrible experience that ties my stomach in knots. Unfortunately the reaction receives a different one. Both Haeshin and Bongsu remark that these are typically the dreams of a child experiencing growing pains and that its nothing compared to that of Gawi. Slightly relieved that I have not experienced this dream like nightmare, I secretly wonder despite my 30 odd years of age, if my dreams are a way of my body trying to tell me I may sprout a few more inches in height.
The Director, Haeshin, soon returns to her work, leaving Bongsu and I to talk about Busan, and its ever changing scenery. Although Bongsu, who is married and residing in London, goes back twice a year, she is unable to find a place that does not change in her hometown.
“Even the seaside changes. I just want to a find a memory that I can keep when I am there.”
We talk about her most inspirational piece ‘Regeneration’ that is not being showcased in this exhibition, but it is one she produced for her degree show when she did her masters at the Slade school of fine art. She takes out her mini iPad to show me photos of these 28 beautiful laser cut glass pieces arranged in a circular fashion with mirrors above and below. What draws me in closer are these subtle white shapes that have been projected onto the glass. This shape turns out to be her liver, that according to doctors is a very strange shape. So how did this idea come about?
Unfortunately for Bongsu, her mother became unwell during her study abroad during her Master course and she had to fly back to Korea. She quickly reassures me that her mother is in good health now, but back then she had to give her mother 58 % of her liver.
“My mother was not very well and I had to go back to Korea for her operation. Because I had a very large liver, I could help her.”
Intrigued by her unique liver shape, she had only decided a month before her degree show to work with this.
“As an artist, great ideas lie all around you for your artwork. Including your body but I did not have those ideas at the time, it was just before. As I constantly think about the infinitive life cycle. It fascinates me that my body initially came from my mum and that some part of my body has gone back to her.”
What is also amazing is that two months past the operation, her liver grew back 99 percent to its original size! The piece also inspired the performance piece ‘Regeneration Live’, starring Kaajel Patel. A British dancer of Indian origin.
During our chat, people come and go from the gallery including some of her friends. I realise that this artist is a very private yet humble person and this comes up when I ask her about using social media to connect with her fans to discuss her work.
“I don’t use Facebook for my personal story – but I use it for my art work. Its useful.”
The regeneration work, can be said to be her only self portrait if you like, as she is showing a part of her body. We discount the hands that we can see in the video installation of the egg series that belong to her as those are not really the main focus.
The artistic life is a hard and lonely life and my question to her about what superpowers she would like to have if she could choose to suddenly seems superficial .
“I would not want superpowers, It would be great, but I prefer to watch superman, spiderman, batman. It would be a very lonely life”
I guess being an artist is lonely enough without having superpowers to further alienate you.
Choosing art as a profession was the right way for Bongsu to pour her energy and questions into. Her friend who met her recently said she be came very bright, but in spite of this, she is still searching for the answers and this is what continues to fuel her.
“I want to continue to develop my ideas but I have a long way to go”
Her next project she would like to work on is to create a liver shape comparison between her and her mother. Something similar to the double helix. She would also love to take up a residency in an exotic place where the culture intrigues her, perhaps India or the USA.
What is next for Bongsu? She returns to her home, Rosenfeld Porcini gallery later this year on the 25th July to exhibit for two months.
“They approached me at my degree show for Slade and am so thankful they found me. They have been so supportive and I am very pleased to work with them.”
Realising that we have been chatting for almost an hour, and that we could probably go for more, we end the conversation. I get up to thank Bongsu for her time, instead she thanks me for coming to the gallery.
All works referred to can be found on the artist’s website: http://www.bongsupark.com
All images, aside from DiMi ones are credited to the artist which are taken from her website.