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Make, Break, and Reassemble: An Interview with Hae Won Sohn

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Hae Won Sohn likes breaking things. In her studio at Baltimore Clayworks, she’s constantly creating plaster molds, casting pieces, and breaking them to create new assemblages. Engaged in the dialogue between fine art and craft through sculpture and ceramics, these new works feel like precious relics unearthed in some sort of archaeological dig. For Sohn, the work is about process, evaluation, and experimentation. 

A graduate of both Detroit’s Cranbrook Academy of Art’s exploratory MFA program and the College of Design at Kookmin University in Seoul, South Korea, Sohn’s exploration of the limitations of plaster and porcelain runs deep. I visited Sohn’s studio this past February to talk about process and material and what’s next for her practice.

Suzy Kopf: How did these plaster works originate for you?

Hae Won Sohn: I’ve been experimenting with oxide pigments mixed into the plaster and I ended up with a lot of leftovers. That’s how I started to think, instead of just throwing them away, they’re also a part of my studio practice; they become a trajectory. It kind of indicates how my studio is working through the leftovers. These pieces are pretty fragile so they need an extra structure to hold it together. I was thinking about resin, so it kind of looks like it is floating inside the block. I don’t finish one piece and then move on—it’s more like they’re all working up at the same time and then finishing at the same time. I have a lot of pieces that are just maturing in the studio to see what the next step is.

I start with a basic form and then I make a mold out of it, break it, and splice it together to make the first prototype. Each of the pieces has separate molds. Then they get combined to make the prototype and then I make another mold, break it open and select one of the broken pieces of molds, and then combine it to the second prototype. So, each one of these is unique, but they’re building on the same process. It’s evolving through the broken pieces of molds. And you could only make one.

I started making molds in undergrad to work with multiples, but now it’s kind of odd since I’m using mold-making techniques in order to arrive at a unique piece. It’s an excessive process, but that’s how the form ends up really abstract because I don’t really have control over how the mold is going to break. It’s the material that’s doing its thing and I’m only doing this selection. 

Are all the works entirely made of plaster?

They are solid casts of hydrostone which is a kind of plaster that has less water absorption. It has some fiberglass mixed into it; it’s more of an industrial plaster that is really hard when set. I use hydrostone for the casts but I use normal plaster for the molds because it has to be easier for me to break open.

When I have some mixed colored plaster inside the bucket, rather than just draining it out or throwing it away, I pour it onto a glass sheet, and they kind of form a floral pattern in the center, and then they just naturally spread out. Then I flip it upside down and build a cuttle board around them and whenever I have a new batch of mixed plaster leftover I add it on to it until it fills up the block. I called this series my plaster paintings. They have very different aesthetics compared to my sculptures but it’s interesting how it takes the same concept but it comes out in different forms.

You’ve been so productive in the studio since the last time I visited a year ago! How do you get this much work done?

My process and my final product are always mixed together since I work simultaneously on many things. I don’t feel productive because I don’t always get to see it until I arrive at the final product. Unless I have an exhibition or a studio visit—that’s when I start to process what is actually done.

You recently had a solo show, Monologue Aside in New York at Emmanuel Barbault Gallery, how did that come about?

After I graduated from grad school, I lived in New York for three months to try it out before my residency at Clayworks began. I got a really small room in a shared studio space and the gallerist was doing a studio visit for another artist at that studio and he liked my work, but I was just out of school. I think he was casually like, “Oh, just keep me updated on what you’re doing.” I took it really seriously. Every month whenever I did a photoshoot of new work, I would send him pictures. And then I got included in the group show and he got good feedback regarding my work which led to the solo show.

I’ve seen a few of your shows now and it’s a very different vibe than looking at the work in the studio. In the studio, it’s a scattered wizard’s workshop and everything’s all together, tightly packed. But then in a gallery, it’s more pristine with a lot of space around each element. How do you think about that and decide to separate aspects?

I do go through a selection process. For example, a mold I’ve been thinking looks really interesting and it can work on its own rather than just being used and thrown away. But I don’t install it as is in the gallery. If I select the broken mold piece, I always do a recasting process where I cast it out of hydrostone, which has a similar texture, but the fact that I put effort into making another mold exclusively for this form—it changes the object for me. It has a history of itself. Even though it’s in the gallery and the viewers don’t see it, I know where this has been, so I have to go through the process of reading it and then adding new context, and I’m preserving its history by presenting it on its own. 

Do you photograph each element before it’s morphed into something else? Or what kind of documentation is there for a piece if it continues to change between the studio and the gallery?

After I have a recast of it, that’s when I do the documentation. Before I have shows, it’s rarely the case that I solely do the selection process. So I have someone else coming into the studio who’s showing my work and then he or she does the grouping and then I work with that selection.

I notice there’s a lot of squares within your work. Do you have a special relationship to squares or rectangles?

The squares come naturally from the mold-making process. When I do slip casting, I make molds using boards so I end up with rectangles a lot. It really depends on what the prototype is… but it’s important to have an even wall because if one part is thicker than the other, then this plaster won’t have the capacity to absorb enough water. I combined a piece and then cast the negative of it. And then again I ended up with another broken piece of a mold in that cast of the negative. So it grows without knowing but because the very first form was a cube size, my other pieces still stay that ratio.

One thing I admire about your process is that you’re not trying to hide any aspect of it—you’re just exposing the process all over again and again. You’ve moved far away from functional ceramics with these but as a result, I wonder how you decide something is done?

These works are taking a little bit more time for me to finish because I need to figure out my own process. I feel like it needs some practical structure, but also that structure has to be in line with the concept of the piece too. The element of recycling and reusing materials is important but it will not produce the same effect when you put it together again. Mixing the plaster together in another fashion changes it. I have to use whatever it became and improvise from there.

Are you preparing for your three-person show, rescheduled for December 2020 at the Korean Cultural Center in Washington, DC? What are you trying to make right now?

I am at the ending point of one show so I’m actually thinking of refreshing my studio. So I’m going to go through some of these broken mold pieces and do the selection process first. And then from there, I can incorporate this process again making a mold and then letting the form grow through that process.

You’ve developed a fairly unique process where instead of focusing on what the mold can make, you’re focusing on what the mold can be, and how many ways that you can break and recast the same idea is interesting. You’ve been working on this intimate scale, but I see you are working bigger and bigger. Do you have a dream of making a big one?

Yeah, I’ve always wanted to. I had two pieces in my New York show where I cast 40 by 40 inches solid hydrostone slabs which were about 200 lbs each. To transport them to the gallery, I had to rent a truck and then hold onto the pieces while someone else drove through Manhattan. The slabs don’t incorporate the breaking mold process which I do want to do larger. But because I’m one person, it’s hard to break these [bigger] pieces since I usually hold molds on my lap to create a cushion. I don’t want them to break too much. So if the piece gets bigger, then I feel like the language or the form of the breaking will change. I would just need more facilities or extravagant tools to make that happen. I’m looking for residencies that allow me to do that. I’ve applied to the Kohler residency in Wisconsin.

I want people to understand craft just doesn't stay in craft. I think the division of craft, art, and design is important, but it's transmittable.
Hae Won Sohn

This is going to sound strange, but I connect some of your work to classical sculptures. I’m thinking specifically of Michelangelo’s last sculpture, the Rondanani Pieta which some people say is unfinished because the faces are not fully realized and exist as human forms slowly emerging from the marble. Do you relate your mold-form sculptures to classical sculpture at all? Or is your work something else?

I don’t know if I relate these with classical sculptures because I don’t even know if I should call these sculptures. I get called out now that I don’t use ceramics a lot in my practice and I don’t work with the functional. I’ve kind of lost my title as a ceramicist. People have started calling me just a visual artist or a sculptor because my objects sit into the category of a sculpture. But the thing for me is I don’t sculpt them, sculpting is conceptually the opposite side of what I do. I have a hard time labeling my work. 

When somebody looks at this work and they’re like, “Okay, this is about mold making and plaster, this is about the process of exploring a material,” would that be a good enough read for you or is there something else? Is there a third or fourth element that you want people to get from looking at the work that you’re making right now? 

I still want people to associate the craft in my sculpting practice because, like every other visual art form, they have their own process too. I don’t want to just talk about the prep process, but I want people to acknowledge the craft behind the making. [Specifically I am talking about] the craft as associated with labor and the understanding of material. I’m not trying to blend the boundaries between craft, art, and design. I think those kinds of phrases are overused. But I don’t want people to remove me from the craft. In my practice, there is where I come from and the history of each object. I want people to understand craft just doesn’t stay in craft. I think the division of craft, art, and design is important, but it’s transmittable.

 

Why is it important for you that art, craft, and design be separated if they are transmittable? I think that people naturally develop hierarchies when we divide things.

I’m only trying to say there are different aspects and approaches within the three different disciplines, but that doesn’t necessarily create any lower or higher position within them. A sculptor can turn into a craftsperson, a designer can start to be more invested in material, and then turn to someone who’s more invested in craft, and can become a designer if they become more invested in planning their forms and associating strictly with industrial usage.

I went to undergrad in Korea, in ceramics, and then grad school in the United States for ceramics. The two programs had different approaches. My undergrad, because it was in Korea, it was really about ceramic craft and tradition. We made a lot of functional materials and the curriculum was designed to master each technique. So it was less about what kind of work and concept that you want to convey in the piece. It was more about the skills, which I appreciate. I’m glad that I have that in me, but at the end of my undergrad years I was more interested in exploring what the material can do rather than just exploring it more as a sculpture or having my ideas in the object.

That’s why I chose a graduate program specifically that’s more experimental. I’m kind of the classic case where I came to grad school for a whole new direction. I want to forget what I had in the past and then relearn things and find a new direction. But at the end of my second year, I  came back to the process, skills, and techniques, and then from there, I built my own language.

Is there anyone making sculpture today that you admire? Maybe their work is very different from yours but you relate to their process in some way? 

Not that I can really think of. I did an internship when I was in grad school in the Netherlands, it was at a ceramic residency called Sunday morning at EKWC. There was a short-term resident artist, Joris Link, and he’s a ceramic designer who creates modular plaster molds. He CNCs them first and then makes a lot of pieces from the same mold. He doesn’t do breaking but there is slippage between the molds which he leaves as an accidental aesthetic which opened up a new perspective for me that slip casting isn’t always about having a clean, industrial form. You can always work between the gaps and allow whatever happens in the process. It can be preserved as it is.

 

Hae Won Sohn (photo by Suzy Kopf)

All images courtesy of Hae Won Sohn unless otherwise noted. 

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