Won Ju Lim, Artist
Won Ju Lim, the 2013–2014 Henry L. and Natalie E. Freund Fellow, is best known for compelling large-scale installations featuring video projections, along with architectural models, sculpture, photography, and drawings. The following is an interview with Lim, conducted by Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Tricia Y. Paik through a series of email conversations.
TRICIA Y. PAIK:
A common thread in your work, whether video, sculpture, or works on paper, is an interrogation of space and architecture, whether humble, grand, or somewhere in between. Can you talk about the foundations of your artistic practice and how you developed this interest in your surroundings and environment?
WON JU LIM:
My background is in architecture; I studied interior architecture before completing my MFA. My entrance into art was by way of thinking and making meaning through spatial and temporal relationships. I worked at a couple of architectural and design firms before I decided to practice as a studio artist, and hoped that I could carry over my interest and knowledge of architecture without the confinements and limitations architects often confront. They need to deal with clients, building codes, and gravity—not that gravity is not a major problem in my studio—that often compromise the final form of the architecture.
It seems as if your choice of becoming an artist over an architect allowed you the freedom to stay actively engaged with the three-dimensional world in which we live—with all its myriad complexities, from structural to cultural—but, as you say, without the practical constraints you mentioned, and of course, without the responsibility of actually having to build. Might you be able to expand a bit more on why you are so drawn to a sense of place and spaces of architecture?
Art, like architecture, is still about building something. It’s about making things that exist in the world by way of painting, sculpture, performance, or writing. The issue of practicality that’s inherent in architecture, and by practicality I mean an agreement based on consensus, can be explored or questioned in making art. So in some sense, there is freedom in being an artist, but there are other challenges and limitations. The difference is, I think, that those challenges and limitations can be pushed and developed both formally and conceptually in making interesting art so that the problematic becomes poetic. As an artist, I don’t feel obligated to answer or solve practical issues concerning space, but I do feel the need to expose and explore our psychological and phenomenological relationships to space.
I am fascinated by what you said about artists turning “the problematic” into something “poetic.” Perhaps that may be the one distinguishing factor between an architect and an artist? The architect has to literally fix
whatever problem may arise, but as you explain, an artist is not required to solve the problem—whatever it is, whether a formal aesthetic issue or something societal, cultural, or political. Instead, the artist can highlight it in any way he or she chooses, continuing to expose it, even further problematizing it. Can we apply your incisive observation to your recent work? For example, I’d love for you to define the kind of problems you examine in your 2010 installation, Baroque Pet Shop.
WJL: Baroque Pet Shop
started with my interest in this highly problematic retail space located down the street from where I live. It was a neighborhood pet store specializing in live feed. I first walked into that store about twelve years ago and found the place to be delightfully baroque. It was a foul space in every way: piledup pet toys, hanging bird houses, cages covering the whole ceiling, and years, perhaps decades of accumulated cobwebs and bird feathers with their own ecosystem. Most disturbing was the damp, dense smell from the sickly birds and rodents. But when I tossed the idea that this was a functioning retail space, and examined it using the elements of the Baroque style as a filter of a sort—scale shifts, discontinuous materials creating continuity, interiors within interiors—the space became quite interesting. For years, I watched the store go from foul to absolutely unbearable, which is to say more baroque, until I finally got a chance to do research on the history of the Baroque. I traveled to northern European cities such as Dresden, Vienna, Prague, and St. Petersburg to visit the architecture, such as cathedrals, of the late Baroque and to collect raw footage for video projections. I eventually made sculptures and added the video component, integrating the forms, scale, materials, and the sensation of historical architecture in northern European cities with that of this dilapilated retail store in East Los Angeles. Baroque Pet Shop
became a project where two ideas of the Baroque, one of history and another of sensation, level each other out without erasing one another, and coexist as a fantastical space. They are contrary without being opposites, and I think this is one of the ways poetry can function.
Baroque Pet Shop
Yes, indeed. The concept of merging two things as distinct as a pet store and Baroque architecture seems so illogical, even irrational, that it makes me think about Surrealism, and the ways that artists created such bizarre juxtapositions but succeeded in producing entirely new manifestations that stood on their own. I’m thinking specifically about the Surrealist objects made in the mid-1930s, such as Salvador Dalí’s Lobster Telephone
or Meret Oppenheim’s fur-covered cup and saucer. I think that’s what you achieved with Baroque Pet Shop
, a completely original large-scale spatial installation that offers unexpected, uncanny Surrealist-like juxtapositions. And as I’m sure you know, the visual movement of Surrealism was an outgrowth of Surrealist poetry, so here we can also apply your keen remark about the ways in which visual artists engender poetic moments from the problematic, whether in three dimensions or two. Let’s now talk about the present work at hand. Can you please explain the inspiration for your show?
This new body of work for my Currents
exhibition, subtitled Raycraft Is Dead
, started with a complicated relationship with my next-door neighbor, now deceased. This conflict grew out of a problem also about space, but of a different sort. Mr. Raycraft, who was once the owner of the property I own, was confused in many ways in his elderly state. He started intruding into my space, my property, which started an outburst of feuds between us. The whole experience got me to question the location of ownership, and the psychological relationship one has with their domestic space. Do we own the space to which we don’t have visible or physical access, and when we are denied those spaces, what kind of fantasies or anxieties do we project onto invisible spaces? What secrets are kept by the house, the house that is the sole witness to generations of families? I am interested in these issues of domestic spaces, all of which are entertained by Gothic writers such as Horace Walpole, Edgar Allan Poe, and H. P. Lovecraft.
While I’m intrigued by the historical inspirations for your projects, such as Baroque architecture and Gothic literature, let us close by talking about your shift from investigating the very public spaces of cathedrals in Baroque Pet Shop
to the very private space of your own home for this show. Did you have any hesitation in sharing so much about where you live? Do you view these works as biographical or in some ways universal? It seems that everyone who comes to see this exhibition can relate to the idea of one’s own home as a place that houses histories of the past, of the people who lived there before, as well as the emotional connections one can attach to such a domestic space, whether anxiety-ridden or nostalgic.
The works presented in this show are about the house, my house, but I’m not so interested in the warm feelings associated with the notion of the home. I’m more interested in exposing and examining the repressed, the disturbing spaces in the house that are hidden and manifest as a space of fantasy. If one is to take an anthropomorphic approach in examining the house, if the house is viewed as the body, looking at a floor plan or a section of it would be from a perverse position, much like from the position of a pathologist, a doctor, or a pornographer. The observer is the intruder.
Won Ju Lim and Tricia Paik would like to thank the following for their support and assistance in realizing this project: Brent R. Benjamin, Jason T. Busch,Simon Kelly, Molly Moog, Jeanne Rosen, Jeanette Fausz, Courtney McCarty,Chris Moreland, Philip Atkinson, Jon Cournoyer, Nick Smith, Fontella Bradford, Ann Burroughs, Nancy Heugh, Brian Koelz, Mark Macinski, Tim Kelly, Patricia Olynyk, Carmon Colangelo, Buzz Spector, and Anabeth and John Weil. We are grateful to the late Natalie E. Freund for fostering this collaboration between the Saint Louis Art Museum and Washington University, and especially to Michael Freund for his continuing support.
Won Ju Lim extends special appreciation to Matt Waller (sculpture fabrication), Cole Lu (photographs), Ted Chung (video editing), and Michael Zahn (3D modeling). Thank you, Jan Tumlir, for sharing your thoughts about Gothic literature and architecture. And most of all, thank you, Mr. Raycraft for a decade-long relationship, as disturbing and tumultuous as it was, that led to this fascinating project. May you now rest in peace.