On April 29, 2022, I had the pleasure of interviewing the Korean-born New York artist Jaye Moon, whose second solo exhibition at Jennifer Baahng Gallery in New York had just closed. Moon is known primarily for her portable architectural sculptures and works made of Lego. Wings of Desire featured her recent body of conceptual work that utilizes a numerical system and the colors of Legos within the binary logic of Braille. Also exhibiting were some older works that have rarely been shown. This interview covers Moon’s career trajectory from her days as an art student in Korea to her most recent practice focusing on visual communication with particular references to film. Jaye Moon (b. 1963, Seoul, Korea) currently works in Brooklyn, New York, and is represented by Jennifer Baahng Gallery.
You came to the US thirty-two years ago in spring 1990, and it has been quite a journey to arrive at the point of exhibiting your work at Jennifer Baahng Gallery. I would like to discuss the evolution of your career as an artist coming from Korea and living in New York. I will start with your student years in Korea in the late 1980s. The photographs I have seen — works you exhibited at Yoon Gallery, such as The Face (1989), Figure #304 (1989), and Memory I (1987) — demonstrate a strong affinity for the Nouveau Réalisme of 1960s Europe, especially the junk aesthetics of your sculptures. I was reminded of Jean Tinguely, Arman, Anthony Caro, and John Chamberlain for their abstract expressionist aspects. What was your training in art school in Korea? How did you learn to master cutting steel and acrylic materials? This body of work is very sophisticated and refined for a student. Looking back at your early work, would you say that some elements foreshadow the direction and nature of your later work? If you had to choose one work that is important to you from this period, which one would it be?
I majored in sculpture. My school didn’t have a restrictive curriculum, so I was able to choose whatever materials and subject matter I wished. At the time, I was interested in found objects and industrial materials such as Plexiglas and metal.
My most important piece was Memory I (1987). I built transparent Plexiglas boxes into which I inserted all types of personal belongings, such as letters from friends, photos, shoes, toys and so on. Then I sealed the boxes so that no one could open them, but everyone was able to see what was inside. Also, by displaying these boxes on shelves, I revealed my personal possessions, thus there were both private and public connotations involved. I cut some parts of the shelves and combined them with transparent Plexiglas for aesthetic purposes. To make them level, I needed precise calculations. All of the shelves were assembled with nuts and bolts. I used to love assembling Lego as a child. When I look back, I really believe all my work derives from Memory I.
Memory I was a narrative work, but gradually, my focus shifted from narrative personal expression to structural abstraction. I cut metal with a welding torch in various shapes and painted them with enamel. Then I combined them with multiple shapes of clear Plexiglas. The paintings on metal could be seen through the transparent Plexiglas, creating spatial structures. My work revealed abstract expressionist aspects and was completed with nuts and bolts as assemblages.
Let’s talk about the early phase of your time in New York. What brought you to New York? How did living in your adopted city change you as an artist? Your MFA thesis show of 1995 shows that you went through a major transition. For your canonical works, such as Hammer (1992), Sink (1992), Milk (1992), and Bed (1994), you incorporated malleable and process-oriented materials, such as latex condoms, pigs’ intestines, and sand, along with industrial materials. This sort of eccentric abstract sculpture that evokes an immediate, visceral response due to its references to the human body reminds one of Kiki Smith, Robert Gober, Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, and Yayoi Kusama. Were you aware at the time of these artists? What was the motivation behind those works? Were you exploring issues related to body politics and sexuality?
I kept making different forms of metal sheets and painting on them, and combining them with transparent Plexiglas to create spatial structures. Even though the shapes were different, the process and techniques followed the same formula. I felt that creating abstract structures didn’t speak to me anymore. I wanted to break the habits of my processes, so I decided to come to New York for further studies.
I arrived in New York in 1990. Coming to New York allowed for a major transformation in many ways. Being alone in New York made me aware of who I am. It allowed me to express my inner feelings freely, and I started working on whatever I felt like. I made vagina and hammer sculptures in bronze. The Hammer piece came after the Vagina piece. I bought the penis toy in a sex shop and made a mold. The metaphor of a hammer illustrates thrust, pounding, utility, physical work, power, and abuse, among other things. The meaning is different depending on who is using it. Replacing the head of the hammer with a penis evokes feminist issues, but with humor. The handle was molded to my own grip to simulate phallic masturbation.
There was a personal motivation to the idea behind the Milk piece. One night, my kitchen faucet broke and was dripping water all night. I got annoyed by the noise and started thinking about the danger of the drainpipe system. We only know the surface of the faucet’s function, the visible open-and-close valves. We are not aware of the underground system. I thought, “what if the system breaks and something unexpected comes through the pipes?” It would be out of control. In my piece, viewers realize that the milk is coming from condoms, which suggest sexual desire. The condoms are also associated with safe sex, mass-produced objects, penises, female nipples, and cows’ udders; the natural aspects of desire and bodily function; industrial aspects with political implications of pollution, mechanical sexuality; and popular culture.
In 1992, this concept of pollution developed into the Sink piece. I used a sink I had found on the street. I attached three pipes to the sink, and then attached sausage casing stuffed with plaster, acrylic paint and sand to the pipes, thus giving the appearance of sausages oozing from the pipes and overflowing into a clean sink. It looked like human waste and contamination, actual food in association with gender and internal organs. I wanted to create inner feelings of bodily function through surrealistic images. I have often been sick with relentless vomiting from a stomach disorder lasting several days and sometimes requiring hospitalization. The trauma created a feeling of fear caused by uncontrolled bodily functions that threaten me as I try to free myself from agony.
The Bed piece came from the sorrow of my grandmother’s death. She had passed away after a long period of being bedridden. I found this hospital bed on a sidewalk and brought it to my studio.
I saw Kiki Smith’s exhibition during my Pratt MFA, and was influenced by her work. Later, I learned about Robert Gober and Yayoi Kusama. I loved their work as well. As a child, I saw Hitchcock’s film Pyscho. The shower scene with water draining in the bathtub caused trauma for me — this idea of being sucked into the drain. This trauma persisted into my adult life.
Identity politics, difference, and otherness were buzzwords at the time of the famed controversial 1993 Whitney Biennale. Artists made references to race, class, gender, sexuality, the AIDS crisis, and so on. As a female Korean artist working in the heart of the contemporary art world, did you feel you were encouraged by this celebration of difference? What was the reaction of the public toward your work?
I saw the 1993 Whitney Biennial. I was living in New York then, and my work did reflect some of the issues commonly dealt with at that time. Minority artists had been gaining more opportunities to exhibit. Among the themes then, one of the more common was cultural identity. Though this theme paralleled the increasing visibility of artists representing different cultures, I felt that subject matter of works by minority artists was somewhat limited to cultural identity, while white male artists could be free of thematic limitations. So, in my particular case, my work didn’t quite fit in with the perceived Asian perspectives common in art at the time.
What was your relationship to the Korean art community in New York during the ’90s? There were artists who graduated from Pratt Institute, such Sung Ho Choi, who founded the SEORO Korean Cultural Network, a Korean-American artists collective. You worked as a studio assistant for Bahc Yi-So (Mo Bahc) in 1994. What was your experience of working for him?
For the most part, I didn’t have close connections to the Korean art community at that time. Right after my MFA, I sent my slides to the Artist Space. Sung Ho Choi saw my work in the slide files and contacted me. At that time, he was running SEORO Magazine with Bahc Yi-So (Mo Bahc). My Milk piece was published in SEORO Magazine in 1994. Right after that, I became an assistant to Bahc. It was a great experience to work for him.
This time period was also when artists ran alternative spaces, such as Exit Art, Artist Space, and White Columns, and you mentioned that Bill Arning and Jeanette Ingberman visited your MFA show. What were their reactions?
Right after my MFA, I sent my slides to alternative spaces such as Exit Art, White Columns, and others. Bill Arning, Jeanette Ingberman, and Papo Colo were very interested in my work and came to my studio.
After graduating from Pratt in 1995, you went through a period of experimenting with a wide range of props, materials and media: body casting, furniture, boxes, and containers. That’s when you started using numbers in your work. I don’t think this part of your career is well understood. Tell us about this period of experimentation.
I was becoming confused. The more I became aware of refined visual qualities, the less powerful my work appeared. I felt that I was creating dried and polished pieces without power. The raw feeling was gone. I wanted to step back and experiment.
For example, shortly after my MFA, I worked in a flower shop. At that time, a friend who was working in a health clinic gave me expired medication that had been discarded. I found a wide range of objects — flowers, moss, medication capsules — that seemed to work well as materials for my pieces. At this stage, I just wanted to use media that I had access to by chance in order to make something out of only what I found around me.
At that time, I also visited a farm in Nebraska. I saw cows with ear tags. I was appalled that they were identified by numbers, and I wondered, “what if human beings’ eventual individual deaths could be identified by numbers?” I covered shoeboxes with artificial grass and put an ear tag on each box. I stacked them vertically, like memorial markers. Using numbers in my later work came from this ear tag sculpture.
Shifting from process-oriented sculpture to hard medium in geometric fashion — building portable sculptures in the shape of furniture, containers, and drawers while referencing houses and apartments — suggests that you went through a transitional phase, so I am glad that I learned more about your post-1995 works. Critics have compared these portable suitcase-like sculptures to modern architecture, most notably Marcel Duchamp’s Boite-en-Valise (Box in a Valise) (1935–41), his repurposing of a suitcase as a portable museum. I do think that these are great references.
Yes, I think these are great references too. Duchamp’s Boite-en-Valise suggests a portable museum. My suitcase sculptures with Lego windows and doors associate with curiosity or mystery — the urge to peep inside. I was inspired by the notion of an instant portable lifestyle, as globalism had become a prevalent theme around 2000. I wanted to express the idea of lifestyle and universality with Lego, which are industrial, readymade, and mass produced: it fits everywhere and for everybody.
When I think about your work, my mind goes to Louise Bourgeois’ Femme Maison (1946–47), her series of paintings addressing issues of female identity. Considering your eccentric abstract sculpture of the early ’90s, your reference to the body, and now the geometrically shaped and constructed sculptures referencing home, I am trying to find the connection between these two entirely different bodies of work. As immigrant artists to the US — women, mothers — would it be too far-fetched to compare your position at the time to Bourgeois’? Feminists read Bourgeois’ Femme Maison as a representation of the erasure of identity for women at home and within the family, but another interpretation notes that architecture symbolizes the social world that attempts to define the individual, in contrast to the inner world of emotion. I love Larry Rinder’s line characterizing your work:“Disney-fied vision of the late capitalist spectacle.”
Unlike my work from the early ’90s, the architectural portable works do not address female identity issues. I was striving to make works that eschewed identity in the sense being discussed here. The works are about contemporary lifestyles, universality, and consumerism, combined with an interest in architectural space, in a format of visual minimalism, fashion, and pop. I wanted to work with these concepts in an identity-neutral or non-identity context.
Looking through Lego doors and windows might arouse mysterious personal feelings, like spying on someone’s personal space. It’s not particularly a woman’s point of view. I had moved away from home and become an immigrant. The suitcases represent immigrant notions.
You talked about the removal of personal touch, detaching from cultural identity through this hard-industrial material. Did your new direction toward materials such as Lego reflect an attempt to erase multiculturalism, to find the most neutral, universal medium? Would you elaborate on this point?
After the Whitney Biennial, cultural identity and other related themes became mainstream in the art world. I liked the idea of a political focus in a biennial and continued attending to these themes, but I also felt that relying on a theme like cultural identity might restrict my work in some way, make it dependent on a political issue.
I wanted to step back and think about what worked best for my own work. I witnessed that cultural identity and multiculturalism have many layers, and they exist in every ethnic group and social stratum. I started thinking about intersectionality, how I can bring everyone together on a common ground and connect people from different backgrounds through universal elements.
Toys could be something common to everyone. I chose Lego because they are based on a numerical system and colors. It’s very objective and universal. At that time, I met a toy designer living in my building, and decided I would like to become a toy designer myself, so I created some board games. I started using Lego as an art medium in 1996.
When did you become aware of Braille? Would you describe the evolution of adopting Braille into your practice? How do you marry Braille to the Lego, or Braille to numbers? Is that an appropriation of works by Félix González-Torres and Tracey Emin? These works are not meant to be read by the blind, are they?
When I first came to New York, even before using Legos, a minister I knew took me to Hunter College for an ESL program. When we got into the elevator, I asked him about those dot patterns next to the floor buttons. He told me that the United States facilitates disabilities more actively than Korea. That comment stuck with me, and I also liked the patterns of Braille. As a newcomer to New York, I was very isolated trying to understand English. The idea of using Braille came from my own frustration.
Braille is a language based on binary logic that can transcend political, cultural, and social structures. Every language is based on the same system, so it is interchangeable and universal. Since Legos are also based on a numerical system, I can use the bricks to translate the Braille language into a visual format and physically manifest the process of connecting people across different identities and backgrounds.
Braille has six components. When I was learning Braille in 2000, I found that it was hard to recognize the positions. I started remembering them by the positions of the corresponding numbers, and thought, “what if I just use numbers as a form of writing, like ID numbers?”
In Gonzalez Torres’s clock piece, he expressed his frustration at not being able to be with his lover, represented by the two clocks. I replaced the clock numbers with the Braille number code spelling out ‘Perfect Lovers’.
Tracey Emin is known for publicly evoking personal experiences. I made her bold public text into a private notion by encoding the text with Braille number codes. By coding Emin’s confessional text into number codes, I turned her public piece to a private piece.
How would you describe your current body of work? Do you consider yourself a conceptual artist? What do you think you will do next?
In this solo exhibition, I showed sculptural Braille paintings. The use of Braille in my work brings awareness to a language often overlooked by people who are not visually impaired.
My work undergoes a process of multiple media translations. First, I translate a narrative taken from analog film into Braille, which is a binary code with some properties similar to that of computer language. The art piece then translates this Braille text back into a visual format by building the code with Lego bricks. The reason I use film as my art medium is that I believe films are a cultural communication tool that can facilitate diversity. In the digital era, the film industry is becoming increasingly popular for communicating and for mutual understanding. My work can appear to be something like abstract paintings, but with texts from movies, they become tactile language.
My work tries to suggest the idea of a mode that people coming from different situations might appreciate at the same time. Viewers will experience my work through colors, patterns, and the novelty of toys in this context. What they might find in the codes are the human stories that we all can share. At this point, I plan to continue working with the visual coding of language and text, keeping in mind the ideas of universal communication and mutual understanding.