Hide & Seek, 2020. 56 metal barrels, eco-friendly paint, stainless bolts, metal plates, and eco-friendly synthetic grass, 7.5 x 21 x 7.5 ft. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Out of the Ordinary: A Conversation with Sook Jin Jo

Sook Jin Jo’s unusual and moving aesthetic depends on materials collected from the street and put to use in sculptures, installations, and public art projects focused on social responsibility and collaboration. All of these works draw strength from the past lives and uses of their components—abandoned industrial materials, discarded wooden furniture, building fragments, and sometimes cast-offs from the natural world. Restoring value to the overlooked and seemingly worthless, her constructions pair found simplicity with weathered elegance while exploring relations between space and form, destruction and rebirth, the material and the immaterial. Though rooted in a skilled, intelligent use of Modernist strategies such as the fragment and the nonobjective, Jo’s work operates at the intersection of abstraction and human need, creating intimate spaces and experiences of peace and solace that acknowledge emotional or spiritual connections.

Color of Life (detail), 2018. 70 metal barrels, wood, metal bar, thread rod, cement, and oil, 12 x 18 x 6 ft. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Jonathan Goodman: You were raised in Korea and studied painting at Hongik University’s Graduate School of Fine Arts in Seoul. Then, in 1988, you moved to New York to do a second MFA at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. How did your experiences at these two schools affect you?
Sook Jin Jo: I developed my plywood series during my graduate studies in Korea. All of my professors worked in a Minimalist language. Looking back, I can see that their ideas influenced my work, as did works by my fellow students who searched in the spirit of conceptualism and materials. While I was experimenting with plywood, one of my professors, a leading contemporary artist, dismissed my choices, saying they were “not good art materials.” His comment made me realize that this was undeveloped terrain and something to be explored. Another professor, however, encouraged me to keep working with plywood. My first solo exhibition, in 1985, featured a series of the plywood works. Both professors became supporters of my work and invited me to participate in major exhibitions. In 1987, I was included in a three-person show in Japan, curated by the well-known critic Toshiaki Minemura. At a museum near Kyoto, I had the opportunity to see a Jonathan Borofsky exhibition. This was a turning point, and I moved to New York to challenge myself and expand my artistic exploration.

Pratt provided me with a great platform. I connected with a prestigious gallery in SoHo a few months after I came to New York, and a solo exhibition was scheduled. I was busy creating works for the show and working three jobs to support myself. Pratt had a diverse offering of courses that I found very interesting, including Collaboration Between Art and Architecture, and Space, Time, and Drama. These classes inspired me to expand my work into the realms of architecture, theater, photography, and other genres.

JG: You have been living in New York since 1988 (with frequent trips to Korea). What were the first 10 years like?
SJJ: It was very challenging because I came here in the face of strong objections from my parents, with only one semester’s tuition and living expenses. I had to struggle with constant financial hardship. But I had a solo exhibition almost every year, so I was very busy creating works and applying for grants for financial support. My first solo exhibition in New York was at OK Harris in 1990. It was well received and included in the Art Today video magazine, a documentary featuring 13 artists including Jenny Holzer, Ilya Kabakov, Cy Twombly, Jennifer Bartlett, and Cindy Sherman, and reviewed in Art in America. When OK Harris director Ivan C. Karp came to see my work at Pratt, he said, “Your works will be hard to sell, but I really like them.” He sold three large pieces out of the eight works in that first show.

JG: Your sculpture often incorporates found materials, particularly discarded furniture found on the street. Was this an aesthetic choice or the result of poverty?
SJJ: Both. I started to use cheap plywood in the 1980s because I couldn’t afford to buy art materials. I felt free to experiment with plywood. I wanted to create my own work and language, something no one had done before. So, I used my situation and listened to my intuition, feelings, and ideas. I drilled holes into the wood, and cut, broke, burned, dyed, or painted other portions. These actions led me to break the boundary between painting and sculpture.

Then I got involved with discarded wooden objects found on the street or in dumpsters. They hold a great attraction for me because of their humble and collective history and humanity. Because people look down on them, I wanted to bring out their inherent aesthetic elements. In these materials, I found a lot of possibilities for sculpture and beyond. I wanted to expand people’s fixed concepts of what art is about and invite them to become more open to sculpture’s spiritual undertones, which can only come from experiencing an artwork rather than simply looking at it as an object. I also hope, in a personal way, that it breaks people’s prejudices toward discarded and humble things in life.

Work for Meditation/Being and Non-Being Create Each Other, 1997. 10 drawers and 1 chair, 93.5 x 78 x 18 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

JG: Over the past 20 years, you have completed many public art projects. Which ones stand out for you?
SJJ: My first public art project was Color of Life (1999) at Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City. Using 70 metal drums, I created a space for contemplation and play, contrasting individual exploration with a sense of communal interaction. In one public event, participants were encouraged to climb into the drums and meditate on their mortality. Recently, I rebuilt the piece permanently in Changwon. And another variation was installed inside the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea in 2020.

Meditation Space (2000), set in the middle of a hillside forest at Stone Quarry Hill Art Park in New York, was conceived as a space to foster contemplation. In 2017, I designed and built a similar kind of spiritual space in Tipitapa, Nicaragua, in an abandoned carpentry shop on the grounds of a school. Inside Art House, I set up Chairs, an installation using discarded school chairs that I found on the site. It is an art chapel where everyone is welcome to find healing, hope, and inspiration.

Wishing Bells/To Protect & To Serve (2009) was commissioned for the public entrance plaza in front of the L.A. Metro Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles. The new jail was a controversial project involving city planning, the LAPD, and the Little Tokyo community. I wanted to create harmony between the stakeholders and to change people’s perception of jails, so I created an inviting space. The concept is based on the Japanese Buddhist tradition in which the new year is brought in with the ringing of bells 108 times to establish a sense of freedom and new beginnings.

JG: You have also participated in many residencies, and you’ve used some of them to initiate collaborations with area residents. Why is working with local people important to you?
SJJ: As urban settings become more individualized and multicultural, it is increasingly necessary to embrace communities, their cultures, and the specific characteristics of the site or environment. Collaborative art projects have the ability to bring people together and to create a more open society. My first residency was at the Sacatar Foundation in Brazil in 2001. Seeing a run-down school in an impoverished community, I wanted to contribute something before I left. We transformed a washed-out wall into a mural called Let’s go to School. After I returned to New York, I received a letter from the principal saying that the collaboration had done great things for the community and the students’ self-esteem. People were amazed that so much beauty could come from ordinary found objects. For the first time, the City of Itaparica began to regularly clean the road in front of the school.

My most recent residency was in Örebro, Sweden, in 2019. I developed an idea after accidentally visiting a cultural center for people with special needs. Recycling plastic bags and discarded objects, we transformed a dead tree into something quite special. There was no obligation to work with local people in either of these residencies. But both works were inspired by what I discovered in their culture. I returned what I learned to the local community.

Both projects enhanced previously marginalized sites, while contributing cultural richness to the local environ- ment. Working together is a wonderful, inspiring, and heartfelt experience. I have learned how collaborative art projects can bring lasting benefits to the community and to the artist. These projects can change perceptions, open minds, inspire creativity, and offer hope.

Vamos ã Escola (Let’s go to School), 2001. Found objects with cement, 11.4 x 19.6 ft. Collaboration with students of João Ubaldo Ribeiro School, Itaparica, Brazil. Photo: Courtesy the artist

JG: You have produced sculptural paintings, individual sculptures, and installations. What do you
think separates these genres from each other?
My work is sort of a hybrid of painting, sculpture, installation, public art, and architecture. All of the works come from time, space, available materials, and the conditions I experience or am facing. I create artworks in relation to them. I allow myself the freedom of not being confined to the limitations or dimensions of any genre. As a result, some works are sculptures, some works are installations, and some are in between. When I want a work to connect with people genuinely—physically and spiritually—I create an intimate space or a particular environment for the installation, so that people can experience and interact with the work. People experience the installations instead of just looking at them as sculptures.

JG: You could be described as a spiritual person. Does your work reflect religious insight, or would that be an exaggeration? What do you want your sculptures to say to people?
SJJ: I value the spiritual. I believe in the existence of a world beyond the material, and I am open to wisdom from any religion. I try to bring out the spirit of my materials, exploring their relationship to the spiritual and finding their interconnectedness. Influenced by my Korean upbringing, I began with the Taoist philosophy of interconnectedness with the whole of creation. This has evolved through my contact with Buddhism and Christianity, which added a new and focused dimension to my work. My hope is that my work touches people’s hearts and resonates in viewers’ minds long after they have seen or experienced it.

JG: You work in Korea as much as you do in the United States. What differences do you find between them? Is there more public support for sculpture in Korea than in the West?
I am fortunate to be working in both countries. During the last 10 years, museums and art institutions in Korea have been organizing interesting projects for artists who have been active for two or three decades. I have been invited to a number of special exhibitions, including the Changwon Sculpture Biennale (2018). It is challenging and time-consuming, but I really enjoy the development process. These opportunities inspire me to create new works and experiment with different mediums.

New York, on the other hand, has projects intended for emerging artists, and they have to apply for them
as part of a juried process. There are few public art projects for mid-career or established artists. It is by invitation only and complicated. Some experimental galleries and smaller institutions want to organize shows for these artists, but they don’t have enough of a budget.

Art House (interior view), 2018. Found school chairs, bricks, stones, concrete blocks, glass, transparent roofing panels, steel rods, metal tubes, lighting, designed wooden door panel, two benches, and crushed stone, International School/Christian Mission Academy, Tipitapa, Nicaragua. Photo: Courtesy the artist

JG: Is this a good time or a bad time to be making sculpture in New York?
It is difficult. The art world has been too commercially focused. Many artists have had to leave the city because the rents are so high, and smaller experimental galleries haven’t survived. There are many works I want to realize, but opportunities and funds are limited. I try to do my best with my circumstances. To me, art-making is a lifelong process. I am more interested in how I can develop further creative potential in my life.

Whatever role we hold in the art world—artist, gallery owner, critic, or art professional—I believe we are remiss if we aren’t mindful of society’s well-being. I hope we can have better systems in the art world, so we can all coexist for art’s sake. Whatever the situation, artists should be able to keep working and to find good resources.

JG: Have your gender and ethnicity been advantages or disadvantages? Do these sorts of designations even matter?
Not really. I never think that way. I never think, “I am an Asian Woman Artist.” I’d rather think of myself as an individual artist and international person expressing what I want to share. It is more about the work. But I do consciously try to challenge and overcome perceptions of gender and regionalism in a quiet, indirect way in my work. For instance, I created large pieces early on in my career in order to break the prejudice against women artists in Korea. When the work of art speaks, all these issues disappear.

JG: Sculpture seems to be changing. Conventional beauty no longer seems to matter so much. What are your thoughts about these shifts in the field?
Broader ideas about art materials and the development of technique have greatly expanded the scope of sculpture. Though the concept of traditional beauty seems to have changed—and ideas of beauty have changed throughout history—I think it still plays a role in the aesthetic of sculptural forms. Conventional beauty remains important and is still respected. It’s a cycle. Who knows what comes next? It depends on what the artist is attempting to accomplish and what emotional response is anticipated. The means and methods are changing, and a widening spectrum of expression challenges prior notions. That is the unlimited beauty of creativity.