Hyun Jun Im
In the humorous words of Louis Untermeyer, A ‘home can be a palace grand, or just a plain, old shoe.” Over centuries and across cultures the house, be it a one-room hut or a castle, has been a rich and persistent source of poetry and metaphor. A house is an archetype, always potentially a home. It can represent the family as a concept or a specific family, society, civilization, or culture — the aggregate of individuals that make up a culture, even, human life itself. The house is commonly identified with the human body, the dwelling place of the soul or persona. A house is descriptive of nurturance, shelter or safety. In some recent work of Hyun Jun Im, a Spring, 2013 Fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America, small fiberglass house structures suggest all these things, in particular, the fragility and provisional nature of the human journey.
Im links much of his work to the iconic one-room domestic structure, a form equally suggestive of a sophisticated contemporary dwelling or improvised shelter. Im’s houses are assembled from fiberglass slabs, with which he obliquely references both Phillip Johnson’s modernist Glass House (thought Im’s peak-roofed buildings are translucent neither transparent nor exactly box-like) and the ambiguous safety of fiberglass. The United States has recently declassified the material as carcinogenic, although the glass fibers are still recognized as irritants. Viewers may well consider that Im’s houses are refuges of dubious comfort or safety.
Im titled a 2013 show that featured these works “An Inconvenient Truth.” The phrase was not intended as a reference to Al Gore’s documentary on global warming, but the sense of threat resonates with Gore’s theme. The title of one work, 2 Minute Ago, suggests that what we think we see NOW may no longer exist. As Im has explained, this is a doomed structure or even, perhaps, the memory or ghost of one. Destruction has become so inevitable that conceptually it perhaps took place before our brains registered the image. The fragile little buildings, weighing around 4 pounds and permeated with ghost-like light, reminded one viewer of houses filmed during atomic testing, buildings that vanish so abruptly and so totally that one almost questions one’s memory of them.
At the base of some of these sculptures, Im has drawn the diagram of a traditional Korean children’s game, (in Romanized script ‘Ttang-tta-meok-gi’) which might be roughly translated as “acquiring ground” or, possibly, “gaining ground.” As familiar to Korean school kids as a hopscotch diagram is to Americans, it is engraved in the earth in the angle formed by walls of buildings. The pattern consists of radiating lines describing wedges. This sectioned quarter circle
functions as the center of a target flanked by radiating angled areas. Tossed pebbles claim specific areas. The projectile pebbles might even be thought as missiles or bombs.
With this common game Im calls attention to game-playing in the political and environmental arenas. He draws attention to the childishness of the way we humans treat these concerns and the persistence with which we have done so. Game patterns enhance the visual formalism of the houses and Im’s consistent interest in the ambiguity of linear forms and in the intersection of imprecision and precision.
Im has a sophisticated understanding of the drawn line, a marking, as a material object or element. He has used manufactured things like pipes made for ductwork as the basis of gallery installations in which the viewer is invited to recognize the pipes as linear elements and to understand them as potentially more than “invisible” parts of the built environment.
In the most amusing variant on this theme he assembled a section of ductwork pipe to loosely resemble a pipe for smoking. A written inscription “This is a drawing” makes a clever twist on René Magritte’s famous 1929 painting The Treachery of Images with its painted inscription (originally in French), “This is not a pipe.” Im says his work is a drawing although it is three-dimensional. Magritte made the point that his two-dimensional work representing something three-dimensional is not the thing it represents.
Magritte painted, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” in French, a language spoken in Belgium, his native land, while Im, who is Korean, wrote his inscription not in Korean, his native language, or French, the language of the work he parodies, but English, the language of the dominant art culture of the twentieth century. No doubt Magritte would appreciate these subtleties.
Im’s interest in daily objects resonates with Magritte’s ability to reveal the mystery that inhabits ordinary things. Im has cast a cushion and a telephone, among other objects, in fiberglass. The translucent material, suggestive of glaciers in its color and cloudy translucence, brings a contradictory sense of impermanence and transcendence, as if these things were Platonic ideals, material definitions to be filed somewhere. They might cause us to see the stuff of everyday life anew. In their status as art objects they make the lowly and temporary more permanent and consequential. As common daily objects evolve in fashion and technology, like the wall-mounted telephone in one work, Im’s sculptures will acquire a different level of commentary: less ironic; more nostalgic.
Written by Robin Rice