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by Yoon, Jin Sup (Vice President of the International Association of Art Critics/ Professor, Honam Univ.)

I. Culture Shock in Korea: Encountering Plaster Copies of Classical Busts

When I first met Korean-American artist Debbie Han, I noted her unexpected fluency in Korean. To my inquiry, she stated that she had made much effort to study Korean even in the States. What surprised me further was her deep understanding of tea culture, which seemed nothing short of connoisseurship. I surmise that most people are surprised twice when first meeting Debbie Han: first by her spiky, sprightly hairstyle then by her discrete attitude and humble manner of speech, which seems in total contrast with one’s initial impression. This rather unusual impression and experience I had of Debbie Han in a way helped me to understand her work. In addition, learning that she practices Zen meditation also enabled me to better understand her work, as it provided a direct insight into one of her representative works to me in particular, the ‘Terms of Beauty’ (2004- ) series. In Korea, there exists a belief that the way of working with clay is parallel to the way to enlightenment. For this reason, the art of ceramics is considered a most lofty art, and many ceramicists regard the process of working with clay as a path to spiritual realization. Tea and meditation naturally accompany ceramic art, the essence of which is to master earth and fire.

Debbie Han discovered the medium of ceramic celadon upon returning to Korea, and started to sculpt the classical bust of Venus in ancient Korean ceramic technique. I gather that her incentive for this choice of subject came after witnessing the systematic way students learn to draw classical western heads at art academies in Korea. Being educated in the States, the novelty of such an art educational system must have startled Han significantly. It resulted in the birth of the Eraser Drawing Series (2004): ‘Eraser Drawing-Venus,’ ‘Eraser Drawing-Agrippa,’ Drawing-Arias.’ These images are made entirely of eraser residue, the kind which piles up on each student’s easel when drawing those busts at art academies. I consciously describe these drawings as having been ‘made’ because the artist did not ‘draw’ these images; rather she ‘made’ them by gluing the residual eraser powder piece by piece on paper. Therefore, these are drawings ‘made’ of objects. The refreshing parody of the Korean art education system is notable, but what stands out even more so is the artist’s unique use of material.

Han’s first series of celadon Venus sculptures titled ‘The Almighty Faces of Reality’ seems to relate to ‘Eraser Drawings,’ considering their period of execution. Also, the photograph that appropriates a high school yearbook photo titled ‘Agrippa’s Class’ and another that parodies the westernized standard of beauty pageants titled ‘Terms of Beauty I’ were all from 2004. It was when Debbie Han was a resident artist at Ssamzie Space, a residency situated in an area known for its concentration of private art academies. The artist consequently encountered countless promotional drawings displayed on the facade of these academies, whose sole objective is to train students for college entrance exams.

Debbi Han

Debbi Han,goddesses of the world no[1].4, 45x45x4cm, lacquer, wood, hemp cloth, mother-of-pearl

Debbi Han

Debbi Han,goddesses of the world no[1].6, lacquer, wood, hemp cloth, mother-0f-pearl, 2008

II. Turning the Korean Society Up-Side-Down: The Strategy of Alienation

Debbie Han’s Korean-American bicultural background could work as an advantage or disadvantage to the artist. In the case of the artist observing the Korean society and its people, it adds to her work because of the distance it establishes. This could partly explain why most of her narratives seem to reflect a critical stance. Han has been dealing in her work with Korea’s distinct social system and Koreans’ dualistic attitudes. The representative works that displays those social contexts are ‘An Everyday Venus’ (2006) and ‘Graces’ (2007- ). In these photographs, Han replaces the figures of classical sculptures that are made according to Polikleitos’s canon of beauty 0.618:0.382, with bodies typical of Korean women. The heads from classical goddess sculptures are combined with bodies of actual women. The skin has been digitally altered to attain a smooth, marble-like texture. It is the culmination of artistic sensibility expressed through today’s digital technology. Furthermore, these photographs reflect the double-standard perpetuated by Korean society and how it manifests through the body gestures of young women. For instance, ‘Bowing Grace’ (2007) evokes a department guide in her obsient pose and ‘A Shy Grace” (2007), a socially promoted feminine virtue. They remind the viewer that in spite of the social progress women have made in Korean society, it still operates within the tradition of a male-dominant patriarchal structure.

Han subversively chooses the western beauty canon of Venus to parody the dualistic attitudes perpetuated in the subconscious of Korean women. Han’s strategy of alienation is a way to penetrate through social contexts to ‘invite’ the viewer, acting as a type of ‘booby-trap.’ It addresses the double-faced aspect of a society that breeds paradoxical situations within its system. Such practices as middle-aged men dating young school girls, phone-sex, internet meeting-sites, exclusive clubs and love-motels all illustrate commodification of sex. These businesses thrive due to a social reality that perpetrates men to carry strict exterior but at the same time, to demand pretty women, even at the expense of plastic surgery. Furthermore, being young and physically attractive are criteria for hiring women for most jobs. The burgeoning plastic surgery business implies a great demand; one statistics states that over 60 percent of Korean women in their 20’s and 30’s have undergone plastic surgeries. One can easily see women’s faces looking artificially similar to one another in cities. Debbie Han’s ‘The Survival of the Fittest’ (2006) reveals popular ways in which women desire to fix their faces. Through the icon of Venus, the artist questions the nature of beauty and its social standard.

‘Walking Three Graces’ hybridizes the heads of Greek goddesses such as Venus and Adriadne with actual bodies of Korean women. The figure with the face of Adriadne exchanges gazes with the Venus figure on the left, while the figure on the right looks away contemplatively. These ‘Graces’ seem to be engaged in a conversation as they’re walking together. Looking closer, one notices that this scene is witnessed more as a part of everyday life in Asian culture than western culture. In America for instance, female friends do not typically engage in such intimate body gestures such as walking in arms-in-arm or holding hands together in public. In this work, Han addresses diverse cultural perspectives from these societies.

Han’s hybridizes the East and the West through the act of ‘sculpturizing’ the three figures. What does the artist intend to convey by combining the Western head with the Asian body? More than anything, the ‘sculptural’ semblance of the work makes it approachable to the viewer. The seeming paradox resulted from alienation and assimilation explains why her work comes across as shocking but at the same time, intimate. In other words, by revealing that even the simplest gesture or act could in actuality be the outcome of a social tradition within a distinct culture, the artist opens the door to various interpretations and responses for the viewer.

In ‘Graces’ series, Han attempts to deconstruct the public perception of idealized beauty so as to restore the characteristic inborn beauty of women living in the real world. ‘Idealized’ beauty, according to the artist, is the western style of beauty seen in ‘art books or museums.’ Young Korean women today indeed desire a ‘sculptural’ face and western proportion for figure. Through the ‘Graces’ series, the artist challenges this social practice by challenging the viewer to face the reality. She seems to voice her invitation to focus on ‘here and now (hic et nunc)’ and acknowledge the distinct beauty seen in the lives of ordinary women. Perhaps this may be her incentive in combining the typical body of a Korean woman with the face of idealized Greek sculpture (as in the icon of Venus). It also explains the title of the series, ‘Graces.’ Han states her intention to examine the “aesthetical identity of Korean and Asian at large by depicting their cultural distinctions” not from a western perspective but by confronting the reality of Asian societies. This is why she “does not simply create an ideal harmony between the two cultural hemispheres but a conflicting reality as is.” Han raises through these works an important question on the ‘meaning of beauty in relation to one’s identity.’

Debbie Han’s unique style of working with a ‘twist’ reaches a climax in ‘Masturbating Grace’ (2007). How could one possibly even conceive of a goddess caught in such an act? Isn’t this a blasphemy against beauty? By hybridizing Venus with the body of a real Korean woman, the artist has actually given life to a fossilized canon. The series continues to evolve, culminating in a work like ‘Walking Three Graces’ which depicts social gestures from Asian cultures.

III. Parodying the Imperialistic Western Cultural Colonialism

Debbie Han has resided in Korea for nearly four years and has observed her native country. The intensity with which she has studied Korean language was not just a mere effort to assimilate but to come in direct contact with Korean society and its social reality. During this time, Han also went to America, Japan, Spain, Germany, and other countries for exhibitions and residencies. These experiences broadened her views on society and culture, and deepened her process of working. Looking over Han’s oeuvre, the works she created after coming to Korea display greater distinction as an artist: the works that incorporated the image of Venus such as ‘Terms of Beauty,’ ‘An Everyday Venus,’ and ‘Graces’ series, works that parodied the systematization of education as in ‘Agrippa’s Class’ and standards of feminine beauty as in ‘Terms of Beauty’ series. How did she arrive at the brilliant idea of sculpting the Venus bust in ceramic celadon? Or the idea of replacing the faces of an all-boys high school yearbook photo with sixty heads of Agrippa? I still remember the shock I felt when I first saw this photograph. The penetrating parody of systematized art education had a more shocking effect than any critical report could.

Since her early years, Debbie Han has liked to ask questions. The most frequent question she asked was ‘why?’ From adolescence, she not only questioned “the established social system and cultural practices” but sought after “the knowledge of self and the meaning of existence.” These questions eventually led her to a proposition, “Does absolute beauty exist?” The ‘Terms of Beauty’ (2004- ) series seems to reflect the artist’s perspective on this. These ceramic celadon sculptures ‘twist’ the norm by sculpting Venus heads with an African mouth, Asian eyes, Jewish nose, etc. Such manipulation serves to question how the beauty standard of a society exists ultimately as a cultural conception. This work also reflects the artist’s protest against imperialistic social colonialism.

Debbi Han

Debbi Han, seated three graces, 250x180cm, photography, 2009

Debbi Han

Debbi Han,terms of beauty vi,56x26x26cm,2009

Debbi Han

Debbi Han,two graces iii,150x170cm, photography, 2009

III. Parodying Advertisement and Male-dominant Culture

The ‘Beauty’ series executed in 2005 with elderly women as models also offers a strategic ‘twist’ on the establishment of cosmetic advertisement. As a way to subvert the gross strategy of capitalism surrounding advertisement, the artist invited women aged over eighty to be her models. Han made each woman up with glamorous make-up and styling while simultaneously enhancing each model’s natural grace and depth of expression, qualities reflecting their life experience. These photographs challenge the illusory nature of cosmetic advertisement photography which “endlessly fans desires and promotes cravings for seductive images.” Whereas the advertisement industry promotes only “western-style, sophisticated, and fresh” models for its commercial purposes, Han captures the beauty of these elderly women as a reminder that beauty lies in all ages.

Debbie Han’s inquiry into the meaning of ‘beauty’ embraces greater social and cultural contexts with the ‘Food and Sensuality’ series, which has been executed in Korea, Germany, and Japan since 2005. Han examines the role of female sexuality in advertisement imagery by incorporating food from these aforementioned countries in these works. Here, one must note the association of the word ‘eating,’ to the act of a man taking sexual possession of a woman. Using this metaphor, Han explores how advertisement imagery often serves a male-oriented perspective and questions this social practice.

As the artist states, “the transformation of food into a wearable product humorously exposes the social view of women’s sexuality being a commodity for consumption.” This is a clear irony which functions with a twist. Through this series, Han addresses the male-oriented perspective of society by parodying this social practice.

‘Food and Sensuality’ series (2005- ) utilizes representative foods from different countries: kimchi spices from Korea, sausage from Germany, sashimi from Japan, etc. The artist traveled to each of these counties in the last three years and invited ordinary women she came across at public places to participate in these works. This is an important aspect of the series because it subverts the way the commercial advertisement industry often utilizes the strategy of using famous celebrities to create seductive images. Other vital strategies used by the commercial advertisement industry are to create seductive images through the commodification of the female body, and to alter and enhance these images via make-up, styling, and digital touch-up. The resulting images play an important role in the business strategies of the commercial advertisement industry as they are used to create trends and promote advertised products.

The artist overturns these commercial strategies of commercial advertisement industry by working with ordinary women as her models. These women whom she met in everyday life are transformed into unbelievably beautiful models in her work. Han’s talent in styling and make-up creates a paradigm proclaiming that any woman can discover her own beauty. This aspect sets of her work apart from the popular politics of the body or feminist concerns regarding sexuality. Han desires more than anything to ‘explore the possibilities of the unique beauty each woman possesses together. The project becomes complete with the participation of others. For both the artist and participant, the process of making each piece is “a continuation of new experience and discovery.” The seventeen completed images are the culmination of the many complex procedures involved. The ‘Food and Sensuality’ series displays superior aesthetics and completeness of style. The sense of color and design in each image illustrate Debbie Han’s remarkable sense of aesthetics and formal abilities as an artist.

Ⅳ. The Birth of a New Venus Icon in Korean Traditional Lacquer Technique

In her recent sculpture projects, Debbie Han has been experimenting with traditional Korean lacquering and inlaying of mother-of-pearl. The ‘Goddesses of the World’ series could be considered a continuation of her ‘Celadon Drawing’ series from 2005. The western Renaissance tradition of oval-shaped portraiture painting has been reconstructed in traditional Korean craft, hybridizing western and eastern cultural components. At the same time, these hanging sculptures dissolve the boundaries of painting, sculpture and craft. Each oval form measures 60 cm long and displays a rendering of Venus. The faces display various facial features from diverse ethnicities. The surface of the figure consists of iridescent mother-of-pearl, inlaid in the particular mosaic technique invented in the Chosun Period in the 17th century. It creates beautiful juxtaposition with the mysterious, deep brown-black lacquer color of the background.

The ‘Sport Venus’ series on the other hand, carries on the theme from the ‘Food and Sensuality,’ and applies it to the domain of public sport. Venus is used again as a key metaphor to convey social conceptions and practices concerning feminine beauty. Han combines the global beauty icon of Venus with popular sports by hybridizing a Venus head with a soccer ball, basketball, baseball, and finally a golf ball. The busts are lacquered in the traditional technique, and the key design that identifies each sport is inlaid in mother-of-pearl. The soccer head for instance, has an alternating octagonal pattern around the head which is covered with pearlescent shells and black lacquer. They will undoubtedly become the artist’s new icon.

Debbie Han’s works from 1998-2003, executed in the United States, embody earlier conceptual works. During this period, she experimented with such materials as soil, sand, gravel, and sawdust to make basketball-sized sculptures depicting chocolate, as well as making lollipops out of human hair, and toilets out of chocolate, cake frosting and jellybeans. The pieces that stand out from these are the chocolate set made of dog feces titled ‘Sweet World I’ (1998) and a set of g-strings made of colorful condoms titled ‘free-sex-free’ (2003). The latter shows a great variety of design, carefully sewn together with various trims for each style. The very meticulous labor involved resembles a surgical job requiring great concentration, delicacy, and accuracy. The same kind of manual work carries on in ‘Food and Sensuality.’ Other representative works from this period are installations of cast metal and resin sculptures in shapes of used condoms.

Debbie Han possesses both an occidental thinking structure and oriental traditional philosophy. The first may have shaped her thinking during her youth and adolescence, whereas the latter seems to have consumed her consciousness after her coming of age. However, these qualities cannot be separated in the artist considering her bicultural experiences as a Korean-American. Debbie Han’s inquiry into ‘the established social system and cultural practices’ stems from her quest for ‘the knowledge of self and meaning of existence’ driven from by core of her consciousness. In this essay, I’ve attempted to examine Han’s views on the meaning of society and culture and of West and East. By no means, however, should we expect these works to be the answer to her question. Perhaps these are only a beginning, for her remarkable imagination and artistic abilities will branch out and grow as she “continues to meet new experiences and challenges of life.”

Posted by EYEBALL_Media Arts Webzine

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