BioLath, 2017. Metal lath, Plexiglas, and light, dimensions variable.
Starting with ordinary materials such as chain link
fencing, Soo Sunny Park’s sculptures and installations
“catch” and interact with natural light. In a radical
twist, changing light, rather than the work itself, is
central to the viewer’s experience. Park’s most recent
work reconfigures normally hidden construction
materials such as rebar chairs, which support rebar
within concrete, and metal lath, which reinforces
plaster walls. Viewers entering her installations find
themselves within consciousness-altering spaces that
combine changing perspectives with concepts from
physics, geometry, psychology, and aesthetics.
Jan Garden Castro: You’ve pointed out that Lygia Clark’s Creatures
(1960–61) and Abyss Mask (1968) challenge “the ways we ordinarily
experience space and the things that inhabit it.” Why is this concept
so important to you?
Soo Sunny Park: As an installation artist, I don’t think of myself as
presenting viewers with things in space so much as offering them
new kinds of spaces to inhabit. You can’t do an installation without
putting things in space, of course, but I hope that the things I put
there transform the entirety of the space into something it was not
before. Works like Clark’s Abyss Mask and Sensorial Gloves (1968)
are things that we see and touch in a different way. I try to create
environments in which viewers feel their senses work differently.
Sometimes, shadows are just as important as objects; sometimes
light, rather than what we see by means of it, is the main element
in our experience.
I am fascinated by interstitial spaces—spaces that exist only
between other spaces—and they have become a theme in my
installations. Fences and glass usually divide, but in my work, they
are forms that fill space. In more recent work, I have used tar paper,
usually found in roofs, and metal lath, usually found inside plaster
walls, to shape the viewer’s space. In Boundary Conditions, viewers
occupy a space between a form and its projections. Smaller works
sit somewhere between drawing and sculpture.
JGC: How did you conceive BioLath?
SSP: I wanted it to be about projecting active shadows onto the
wall. I don’t use the word “moiré,” but it’s about light changing
the natural projection of the shadow. There’s no longer a drawn
image of a shadow, but there are layers of sculptural forms with
their animated shadows on the wall. With this piece, the shadow
itself is moving.
JGC: How did you make that happen?
SSP: I mounted strong LED lights on four 12-foot-long tracks facing
and crossing each other in 70 feet of space. The lighting is angled
up and slowly moves across. Metal lath forms project the shadows
onto and across from each other. Because the tracks are moving in
different directions, the viewer sees through them. They have edges and are crushed into boulder forms of different
sizes. The shadows have different thicknesses
and widths and are not even
patterns. People think that the shadows are
floating like water. It can also feel aerial or
as though you’re under a shelter like Stonehenge.
The forms are lower to the ground
and project toward the ceiling; the shadows
stretch into the air. It’s interesting to think
about space in time and how our perceptions
change. I use light as my collaborator.
The angle at which light hits the piece
changes it—or the viewer can be caught
between the light and the shadows. I
wanted the shadows to be more dominant.
Unwoven Light, 2013. Chain link fence, Plexiglas,
and natural and artificial light, room: 15.5 x 44
x 40 ft.
JGC: Unwoven Light uses fencing and dichroic
glass to produce ethereal prism effects.
How do you install this work in different settings,
and how do viewers interact with it?
SSP: Dichroic glass, which dates back
to Roman times, is a fused material with
reflective, iridescent properties. It comes in
many spectrums. I use the greener tints.
Capturing Resonance, the first version of
what became Unwoven Light, was installed
in a narrow, two-story-high space at the
deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Massachusetts. The space is transitional, including a stairway
that connects the upper galleries to the lower ones. One side
is a huge plate-glass window, so it gets lots of direct sunlight from
different angles throughout the day. You can view the space from
a lookout above, from the stairwell, from below, and even from outside
the museum, but there is only one narrow walkway through
it. The piece had to be structured to interact with viewers as they
walked that narrow path. Sound artist Spencer Topel set up sensors
that played sounds depending on how many people were at different
points along the path. This gave the piece another dimension,
allowing it to change as people walked through it. Because the
space is so narrow, I had to construct a scale model before we
showed up; otherwise it would have been impossible to install it in
a reasonable amount of time.
At Rice University, the first stop for Unwoven Light, the space
was a very large open box with a glass front. Viewers could walk
among the different parts of the installation. There, I could lay
the parts out, try something, and change it. It was important to get the artificial light just right, because there was less natural
light to interact with the piece. I liked the vibrancy of the reflections
and shadows in Unwoven Light. It can also be homogenous
and ghostly—like having different personalities. In effect, the
piece generated drawings throughout the day as the light interacted
with it differently.
All of these installations aim to make light a central element,
so the cast chromatic shadows and reflections are as important
as the fencing and Plexiglas, if not more so, because they are
what really transform the space. Dichroic Plexiglas is an interesting
material because it can appear colorless, but once you look at it
from different angles, or shine light through it, it reflects greens
and yellows while transmitting purple and red shadows.
JGC: In Boundary Conditions, mesh and colored Plexiglas compete
with painted images, light, and shadows. How do viewers
respond to being inside these correspondences and differences?
SSP: In Boundary Conditions, I decided to draw some shadows
myself. After the piece had been installed, we projected light
through it from different angles and I painted those shadows on
the wall. The piece casts its own shadows, too, responding to natural
and artificial light throughout the day. The interesting part
is that most people don’t initially realize that the shadow paintings
are paintings. They think they are real shadows. Once people
realize that they are looking at paintings, their sense of the work
changes. It’s not a three-dimensional object suspended in the
atrium or a painting on the wall, but a new space that challenges
your expectations concerning what you see. I want viewers to
understand the woven Plexiglas, the paintings, and the real projections
as structuring a new kind of space. I recently installed
a variation on this theme in a smaller space at the Kate Shin
Gallery in New York City.
JGC: Silver Linings is one of your “darkest” works in terms of the
density of materials. What was the concept behind it?
SSP: I did Silver Linings while I was the Martin Shallenberger
Artist-in-Residence at the Cheekwood Museum in Nashville. It’s
similar to Boundary Conditions in that a steel mesh is woven with
differently reflecting materials, but it’s also different because I
moved from transparent Plexiglas to two opaque materials—tar
paper and Mylar. Here, instead of projections through the piece,
I want the viewer to focus on the contrast between the black tar
paper, which is a very good absorber of light, and the Mylar,
which is an excellent reflector. Neither material has much local
color to it, but the tar paper frames the mirrored pieces, which,
in turn, capture the black of the tar paper while also reflecting
the people who move through the gallery. I wanted this piece to
get people thinking about light and how it helps us to see.
Silver Linings, 2015. Stainless steel, tar paper, Mylar, and natural and artificial light, 9 x 58.33 x 19.916 ft.
JGC: Could you talk about your explorations of dimensionality?
Was Harpeth Perforation inspired by Lucio Fontana?
SSP: I’ve been experimenting with a few different ideas. Fontana’s
cut canvases are amazing hybrid objects that occupy space like
sculptures. I’m indebted to him, and most of my non-installation
work occupies a space between drawing and sculpture. I made Harpeth
Perforation for the T Magazine series “A Picture and A Poem.”
David Baker’s “Pastoral” is filled with grief, and the words are presented
in a grid. In response, I covered white paper with wax and
graphite, drew a grid behind it, and then punctured it from behind
with an awl and a clay tool. The result is that the insides of the
paper reach out to the viewer, and the marks are made not on the
surface, but with the insides. At a quick glance, the “picture” looks
as though it’s a stone tablet with an inscription.
In other work, I let the depth of a piece affect how it is presented.
Some pieces layer Plexiglas with honeycomb aluminum, so that the
appearance changes as one moves around them. Others make use
of mirrors and moving reflectors. My work is a metaphysical expression
of an idea—an imaginary space within. The viewer’s relationship
to the work is important. It’s not about the image. It goes back
to Malevich’s “Black Square” series and the idea that there’s a space
within the black square. Fontana’s “Concetto spaziale” series
responded to Malevich’s work by saying it’s not about the red
on the canvas but about the actual object in space.
JGC: You’ve had many prestigious residencies, including one at the
Rockefeller Center in Bellagio. How do different locations affect the
genesis of new projects?
SSP: I find it inspiring to move away from my studio periodically. If
I can, I like to go away for at least a month each year. I bring some
materials, generate drawings, interact with new people, and try
to work up new ideas. Things I work on during residencies take root
in my work about two years later. At the Rockefeller Center, I worked
on a large, dark drawing, because the space they had for me was
just the right size for doing that. My proposal was to study reflections
on the lake. Watching how light fragmented the water, I did a
series of white porcelain and clear plastic models about the breaking
light. This, in turn, led to the “Unwoven Light” series. Together,
the Bellagio drawing and the Mylar work also planted the seed
for Silver Linings, completed at Cheekwood, which, unlike many
residencies, is geared toward producing large-scale installations.
JGC:Which location had the most unusual light conditions?
SSP: When I arrived in Solf, Finland, for the Ateljé Stundars residency,
the sun would not set. It was July, and I spent two months
working with Mylar, lace patterns, and forms inspired by reindeer
lichen I found out in the woods. The nearest store was five miles
away. It was a big change from mountainous, small-town New Hampshire to flat, small-town Finland, and the light was amazing.
I would see people out for strolls at two in the morning, during the
long twilight. By the end of my stay, it would get dark at night—
experiencing that transition was disorienting and inspiring.
JGC: Could you describe Luminous Muqarna (2016) and your experiences
with the Sharjah Art Museum?
SSP: Sharjah, which is part of the United Arab Emirates, hosts an
Islamic Arts Festival each year. The curators seek artists whose work
relates to the annual theme in interesting ways. That year, the
theme was architecture, and I made an installation using Plexiglas
forms set in frames that I welded out of chair rebar. They reminded
me of something I had seen but could not place. When I looked into
Islamic architecture, I realized I had been thinking of a muqarna,
which is a decorated arch made out of repeating patterns. I was
thinking of installing these repeating forms in an enclosed space
and cut the Plexiglas in an Islamic-inspired pattern. The installation
is a Luminous Muqarna because the illuminated Plexiglas glows at
the edges and casts amazing shadows. It was shown at the Brattleboro
Art Museum earlier this year.
SSVT Vapor Slide, 2007/2012. Brazed chain link fence, plastic cups, cotton strings, river rocks, iron oxide, and natural and artificial light,
9.833 x 23 x 42
ft., 12 x 30.916 x 29.166 ft.
JGC: Do natural conditions play a role in your work?
SSP: Moving to the Upper Valley from St. Louis in 2005 was a big
change for me. It’s much colder and snowier, but it’s also very
muddy in the spring, completely beautiful in the fall, and lovely in
the summer. The first house I rented had a very long, steep driveway
that was treacherous in the winter. SSVT Vapor Slide (named
after South Strafford, Vermont) was directly inspired by these conditions.
I imagined the ground covered in snow and tried to build a
piece that would allow the viewer to occupy the space between
the two. This was the first time I used welded chain link fencing—
before I got into Plexiglas. I was inspired by seeing plastic cups
stuck in a fence. I welded the fence into an undulating pattern,
filled its spaces with plastic cups, and suspended rocks from the
center of each cup. Viewers could wander between the “snow”
overhead and the ground below.
Another thing about living in the country is that it gets very dark
at night. When I moved here, I noticed the brightness of signs
made with retro reflective paint when you pass them in the car.
I incorporated retro reflective paint (which includes glass beads) into
a couple of pieces. I am currently working on a project that involves
showing large-scale retro reflective paintings in dark spaces where
viewers are given flashlights.
JGC: How do you discover the materials you work with?
SSP: I am always looking into new materials, asking for samples,
and trying to do things with them. Usually, I find materials that
occupy interstitial spaces to be the most compelling because they
have been designed to serve one purpose but can be transformed
to do something else.
Transforming materials, which is time-consuming and difficult,
is often at the center of my pieces. Welding chain link fencing is
dangerous, backbreaking work. Before I got access to laser-cutting
facilities, I learned how to cut and sand Plexiglas using woodworking
tools. I used to cut delicate patterns into Sheetrock, and BioLath
uses one of the most ornery materials I have encountered to date.
Wall lath reflects light beautifully, but it is sharp and abrasive.
It took many hours to figure out how to shape it into biomorphic
forms, and at least as much time to figure out how to sew it closed
and turn in its sharp edges. Making the Plexiglas melt around it
and then figuring out how to rivet it without breaking it were also
difficult. But meeting these challenges of transformation is just as
important to me as the conceptual side of the work.
Jan Garden Castro is a Contributing Editor for Sculpture.