An Interview by Amy Wilson
Editor’s Note: Jiha Moon’s answers have been transcribed accurately and unedited out of respect for her voice and identity.
Q: I see your work as being akin to that of a DJ who works with samples — you splice and cut up so many different sources, rearranging them and turning them into something new. For instance, you use yellow not just as a color, but as a reference to a slur for Asian Americans, and also — at the same time — as the silly banana peel the slapstick comedian slips on, as well as a sly reference to Andy Warhol’s Velvet Underground cover. Can you talk a little bit about your process as an artist in terms of acquiring these references, and how you choose which ones to work with?
I am obsessed with meaning (old and new) behind the iconography of cultural signifiers. For example, banana may mean sexual symbols for certain people or reference of Warhol, but it also has meaning of racial slur to call Americanized Asian here. New meanings keep on adding generationally and culturally and it gets me excited. I select and examine them carefully to visually explore in my studio. Another fruit that I am obsessively using is “Peach.” At first, I tried using it to reference “Chasing the bad spirit away” kind of notion which is from traditional Korean folk belief reference but, people kept asking me if I was using because I am from Atlanta, Georgia. I have been living in this city for so long, so now that is more of what it became: the symbol of Southern life. When you look at my ceramic sculpture though you will notice, those peaches also look so much like female breasts. I purposefully referring female beauty, power and motherhood through them. So, the list of images goes on…. and it really helps me think of my storytelling and meaning behind each work.
Something I find really funny about your work is the role that food plays — not only with the aforementioned bananas, but with dumplings and fortune cookies as well. But dumplings and fortune cookies are not only food associated with Asian culture, but they’re also formed by hand a little bit like clay, which in turn brings us back to the works themselves. Can you talk a little bit about the role of these items in your work?
Who doesn’t love food? I incorporate those shapes not only for its original reference but for love of food culture. We call Korean dumpling Mandu, but every country/culture has its own version of it: Gyoza(Japanese), Pierogi(European), Jiaozi(Chinese) etc. I get so excited when these things overlap because they naturally communicate with people. I try many different ways of making these from watching Youtube and read about them and ask people around. For fortune cookie… you know fortune cookie is American invention that is originated from the restaurant in California. I love the misunderstanding of what it is and people think it is Chinese. It is American thing. I use it for that purpose. My ceramic sculptures are cultural hybrid form of monsterish figurines. I want them to be serious as well as goofy and friendly.
I see your work as being very conceptual, primarily, but then you add in these very warm touches — like your sense of humor, or “goofiness” as you say, which makes the work accessible to a larger audience. Do you feel there is tension between these two parts of the work? Have you encountered people misinterpreting your intentions at all? I associate Conceptual Art with such utter, dry seriousness, but you’re having fun with it.
People often misunderstand my work but I see that as the very first step to start the conversation about some of the serious issues in my work such as what it means to be American, embracing and including diversity etc. To be honest there’s no right or wrong way to see art but there is an opportunity to talk about my story and the way I see it and I welcome that challenge. The conceptual underline of the work is important but I do not wish my work to be didactic or linear. I want the meaning of the work to come organically. Then, humor helps. I jokingly say that but it is so true; If I ever tell my own 14-year-old son what to do and he would be less interested in talking to me. Humor eases the conversation and I borrow that a lot.
I notice from your bio that you have primarily shown your work in the United States. Do you have plans to show this work in South Korea at all, and if so, how different do you think the reception would be there as opposed to what it has been here?
I am waiting to see opportunity to show my work again in Korea, when I am ready. I have shown my work in my earlier career there in 2006 and 2011. It was very interesting to see how people responded. My work seemed a bit too familiar to them. People expect my work should be more Westernized visually because I have been living in USA for a long time. My work talks about similarity and differences of two cultures in visual flux and similarity got caught too soon. When I used American folk art such as Hex sign and Pennsylvania Dutch, they thought they are looking at mandarin duck and Korean traditional color schemes. I was using acrylic paint on Hanji paper but they thought I was a Korean traditional painter. Sure, I said I accept the challenge of misunderstanding but I find myself explaining about my work too much and I realized that I wasn’t ready. Of course, my work has to be true to myself and I do not wish to make work thinking about audience in mind all the time, so I decided to focus on my career where I currently live first. It is one of my goals to show my work to many different places.
I don’t usually ask questions about personal experiences in these interviews, but I think it might be really relevant in this case. You were born in South Korea and went to college there, but made your way to the University of Iowa for your MFA. Could you explain how you came to study in Iowa, and what your initial responses to American life were like?
I arrived in Baltimore and attended MICA’s Post Bacc program at first to enter the country. I did that because I wanted to paint instead of taking ESL program only. Then, I reapplied graduate school again to get more scholarships to be independent from my parents. I came here as a young adult(age 26) and I needed to be financially freer. As a foreign student it is impossible to be that way if you go to art institute or private school in the bigger art cities like New York or LA. I went to U of Iowa with the big scholarship and teaching assistantship opportunity as a first-year grad student which was exceptional(that was part of the negotiation). I love art program in State University. You don’t need to break bank or get so much student loan or have to work under the table in my case. Plus, through three-year program my English has improved a lot. I now am all for supporting students in State University because I understand what it means to be working students. I am against elitism in art community and believe we make art for everyone. I am currently working as a teacher at State University as well. I find it so meaningful and fulfilling working at State University.