As Freud reclined his patients on plush couches and asked them to recall their earliest memories, artist Jain Kwak presents her viewers with a wall of mirrors and asks them, “What does this remind you of?” Her piece, “Diagnosis”, is a room-sized Rorschach inkblot test. The wall of gleamingly attractive but ambiguous shapes is meant to evoke the forgotten memories of the viewer.
Her large installments are composed of miniature components arranged together. She uses mainly reflective materials such as mirrors or colored foil so that her viewers can “literally see a little of themselves in each piece.” Kwak’s aim is “to trigger different things for each viewer” and arouse the audience’s sleeping world of memory because she believes that memories are the “founding blocks” of new experiences.
The founding blocks for many of her art works are her own memories. “I am trying to make a common ground between my memories and the audience’s,” explains Kwak. “I want to invite viewers, ‘Here is a catalog of my memories, come see if you can find something of your own in it’.” As the viewer’s own memories are triggered by her exhibits, the viewer may see turning points and life trajectories that they hadn't seen before.
Looking back on her own experience, the 28-year-old artist marvels that plans do not always turn out the way one expects. Kwak came to the United States in 2002 from Korea to attend college and majored in psychology at Auburn University. Following the suggestion of a teacher who saw a creative streak in her student, Kwak began to take classes in graphic design. Then, missing an enrollment deadline for the graphic design courses, she had to take an art class to fill her course schedule. It was her first experience with studio art. After she walked through the door, she instantly knew that this was what she wanted to do. Laughingly, she recalls how hard she fell for the career switch. She became committed to “Art with a capital A.” After college she moved north to New York City where she could rent studio space in Brooklyn while she completed her masters in painting at Pratt Institute.
Sociologists would call Kwak’s migration to New York City a secondary migration. First, she immigrated to the United States from Korea (in 2010 there were about 1.7 million people of Korean ancestry in the United States). Then, she moved to New York City joining the 73,000 other immigrants from Korea as of 2011 (about 30,000 more New Yorkers say that they have Korean ancestry). About 18% of Pratt Institute students are Asian.
However, Kwak would be formally classified by census statistics as a foreign-born migrant from another part of the United States. In 2011 two-thirds of the newcomers to the city were domestic migrants, according to a report by the city government’s planning department. Most domestic migrants are professionals seeking to make it in the big city. In the processes of globalization more and more domestic migrants are also immigrants first, then domestic migrants.
Immigrants to New York City are a mix of classes that are different from that of domestic migrants. Immigrants also include a large number of people who are from the lower economic classes. Still, young Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and European immigrant artists are a noticeable presence in the city. Some like Ai Weiwei make a huge impact when they return to their native land. Others like the Shanghai-born painter Xu Jian-guo first make their mark here. Migrants, secondary immigrants and immigrants are major sources of religious, economic and artistic innovation in the city.
Though she still loves graphic design, Kwak enjoys the freedom that she has to “satisfy my own creative need” instead of creating for a client. She has a lot of determination to make her own way to success. She also relies on her faith in God, but hopes He can keep up with her aspirations.
In prayers she appeals to God to help her find a place in the art world. Confident, she told Him, “If you don’t make me an artist, you’re missing a great opportunity.”
So far, the details of an artistic career have been falling into place. Kwak has been been able to show her work at exhibits like the Governors Island Art Fair and most recently the NURTUREart 2013 benefit. In retrospect she admits that God might have helped her in her determined push forward.
“What if I hadn’t missed that deadline? What if my teacher didn’t suggest graphic design?” the artist wonders. Even the opportunity to be in New York City, a childhood dream, has convinced her that “God really was listening to every prayer.”
Christianity as self-expression
Viewers at her exhibits are surprised about Kwak’s religious faith and wonder if she is foolish or “brave” to openly state her faith in an art world that now considers Christian iconography to be kitsch and cliché. There is a feeling among some artists that spiritualties that emphasize self-discovery such as Buddhism are cool. Kwak allows that modern Buddhism, which may encourage a smorgasbord approach to religious beliefs, resonates with concepts of art as ultimately “a selfish act” of self-expression. “If there’s peer pressure in the art world, it’s to be introspective,” she notes. She laughs at some of the misconceptions that Western artists have. She recalls, “Especially because I’m Asian, I’ve had people ask me if I was Zen or Buddhist and be outright disappointed when I’ve said, no, I’m a Christian.” Many of the new immigrants from Asia are products of the boom of Christian belief in Asia.
To live with personal integrity in the art world, Kwak recalls the ways by which her parents cultivated a Christian identity in her and her siblings. One such memory is of her family’s nightly prayer time. No matter what she or her siblings were doing at night, they had to return home by nine to participate in family prayer. Though now half a world away from the rest of her family, Kwak continues to be disciplined in her faith by reading her Bible every morning.
Of course, Kwak also uses her art as an avenue of self-expression, and so her belief in God, though not explicitly stated, naturally radiates out of her work. At her installation of “Diagnosis” at the Governor Island’s Art Fair last summer, one visitor asked one of Kwak’s fans if the artist was a Christian. The woman explained that she felt a “light, positive energy” from the work, an energy that “just felt Christian.”
“I was delighted,” Kwak reflects. “If my work feels Christian, that’s a huge compliment, because it means that my believing in God is coming through.”
Some of Kwak’s work, such as her piece “Prayer Request” explicitly invites the audience to mingle their religious aspirations with her Christian self-expressions. Kwak got the idea of the artists and viewers comforting each other through a small everyday incident.
After injuring herself and searching at the 99-cent stores for generic brand elastic bandages, Kwak discovered that the bandages came in many different shades of pink, beige, and brown to match individual skin tones. Kwak got the idea that she could artistically use the differently shaded bandages to represent everyone’s pains. Wrapping over 200 bandages together into a foot-wide wheel, the artist bundles every pain together as a prayer wheel. Though one can’t know every person’s pain, the piece “is a prayer request from me to the audience, and from them to me” to keep each other in prayer for healing.
Kwak’s determination to go her own path means that she is now gathering new ideas and materials. “I don’t want the thought to be, oh, Jain Kwak does shiny pieces,” she says tongue in cheek.
No matter what the mode, though, Kwak expects to continue producing work for the next fifty years. Her biggest effort now is to build confidence in trying new things. “The other day I woke up thinking about doing a project on beards, the ‘hot new thing’. I don’t think I will, but I have to not tell myself that any idea is dumb. If I’m doing this for fifty more years I’m going to make some ‘dumb’ work.”
If her present work is any projection of her future success, Jain will have many years of great memories to look back on.
Kwak will participate in MERGE vol. 2 VIDEO/INTERACTIVE ART + DANCE, a hybrid dance and video/interactive art. Contemporary dancers, visual artists, and media artists meet and present a variety of their artworks and collaborative projects.
February 22, 2014 at 7:30pm
Center for Performance Art, 361 Manhattan Avenue
Tickets: $15 in advance or $20 at the door (cash only)