Joungmee Do and Daehoon Kang on condiments, transnationalism and scale…
Richard: How did you come to settle in Australia?
Joungmee Do: I was born and grew up in Seoul, Korea. I studied Metal Craft at Kookmin University in Seoul. After I got married to Daehoon I started to learn the traditional Korean metal inlay technique, iybsa with Choi Kyo Joon at the Korean Traditional Handcraft Museum in Seoul, which I studied for about five years. In 1997 I came to Australia for further postgraduate studies.
Daehoon Kang: Yes, I was studying for my postgraduate program in Korea: Metal Craft at Kookmin University in Seoul. We had a lecturer visit from Australia as a residency artist. That’s when Australia first came into sight. Australia always seemed like this “jolly worker” place, or something like that… I had a chance to come to Australia to study. That gave me an opportunity to show my work to Australian viewers.
JD: It was around 1996 when we started thinking about studying in Australia. Before that we’d never really thought about living in Australia. Daehoon was a postgraduate student, but I wasn’t. I had graduated from my first course, but at this point I was just practicing iybsa …I was enjoying that. If Daehoon was studying here then I thought it was a good opportunity for me to study more too. The professors at RMIT saw my Korean inlay work. They took an interest in my work and suggested that I study at RMIT also. So I applied and was successful…
DK: …we finished the course and moved to Sydney.
JD: It was 1999. I saw an advertisement in Object magazine studio spaces in Pyrmont. I felt like I had to experience being a jeweller in the real field. I applied as a residency artist and luckily I got it. That was for one year…
DK: …at the time, as a silversmith, I was working on a much larger scale and needed a proper studio for silversmithing. I applied for the position of residency artist at Sydney College of the Arts. I got it and I was there for one year also, which got extended…
JD: …after being at the studio for a year I also applied for residency artist at Sydney College of the Arts and I got it. We were both in Sydney for around two years…we went back to Korea in the middle of 2001 and then came back in Australia late 2003. We moved back to Sydney—all of our things were there—and worked from a studio at our home. And then in late 2008 we moved back to Melbourne and here we are now.
R: Do you think living in Australia has changed the work that you make?
JD: Very much so…if I was in Korea I don’t think I could produce this kind of work, probably because the influences in each place are so different. If you’ve always lived in one place you’re not as likely to really see your surroundings…to take a close look. But if you go away to a completely different environment then you think about the original environment, and also your new environment, really carefully. Moving between Korea and Australia has made me think about and compare both places. They’re very different…
R: For you both, is your work a link to Korea—it’s traditions, customs, culture…?
JD: I think so…I can truly say that if I were in Korea my work would approach these things differently. Maybe I wouldn’t even do my work? Maybe I’d be a completely different person…
DK: My work would be different too. The work I used to produce was on a much larger scale, more sculptural. I’d never tried making work on the scale of jewellery before coming to Australia…
JD: Sometimes I hear him complaining, “Argh, jewellery!”
DK: But sometimes I do really enjoy the smaller scale! But other times I get really frustrated! And sometimes the scale is too small for ideas I have. Moving to Australia was the beginning of this shift in my work. Working on this scale, for me anyway, is more difficult than working on a larger scale. With jewellery the finish always has to be more accurate and particular. It takes more time. I hope one day to have the opportunity to make bigger objects again. But I do like jewellery. Most days I do think it’s amazing that so many ideas can be evident in an object that is so tiny. It’s taken me a while to get to this point though.
‘Bird neckpiece’ Steel, fine silver, pure gold (Joungmee Do)
R: Joungmee, can you tell me about the training you undertook in iybsa?
JD: Iybsasang Choi Kyo Joon taught me the traditional Korean inlay technique at the Korean Traditional Handcraft Museum, at the time he was teaching iybsa there. So I started in 1993 and studied until just before I came here in 1997. It seems like a long time, but it’s really not…especially for iybsa. My teacher has been doing it his whole life, from the age of 17. It’s not a very common technique anymore. Korea used to be very poor, after Japanese colonial period (1910-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953), so through all these things people kind of forget about our great cultural heritage because things like food and shelter are obviously a bit more important… So they kind of lose sight of what they have, it’s becomes a bit forgotten. Now people are thinking about their cultural heritage more, and about what they have. And iybsa is one of Korea’s cultural properties.
R: Do you think your work maintains or passes on some element of that cultural identity?
JD: Somewhat. The way I use the technique is not exactly how it’s done historically. I use something traditional but in a contemporary way. It is where I came from…but right now I am here. And that’s very important. For me it’s about coming up with something that includes what I had then and also what I have at the moment. They’re both equally important in my work. Daehoon also does Nugum…
DK: It’s a traditional fusing technique. I suppose not many people are doing it here… I’ve been working as silversmith for many years so I can say I use the traditional hand raising technique a lot as well as all other basic silversmithing techniques. Nugum is my specialised technique, which involves special alloyed metal wires fused onto sheet metal surfaces so that there is no visible join. I also like to explore new processes and modern technologies such as the micro welding machine.
JD: Daehoon never really talks about what he does and what he can do…he’s a weird guy! I like combining symbolic concepts with techniques that are kind of symbolic in there own way, like the traditional etching I use to replicate visual aspects associated with textiles, which gives a deeper richness and texture to the surface of the metal.
R: When you’re making pieces are you thinking about how a Western audience will respond to the Korean ideas and techniques involved?
JD: Obviously they don’t really know about Korean metal inlay or folklore, which is important to my work, so that’s an important point: how do they react to it? How do they read my work? And also how do they feel when they wear it? I’m interested in seeing how they interpret the Korean symbolism in my work. I would say my work and Daehoon’s work both fuse Eastern and Western ideas, aesthetics and technologies in their own ways. My themes are quite universal: my recent exhibition was about the Korean symbols for longevity and happiness, which everyone thinks are good things, yeah? I wasn’t always occupied with expressing positive things, but I’m becoming more like that… in this studio it’s just Daehoon and myself, so I’m always thinking of and hoping for the good things in life.
R: How is it working in the studio together?
JD: I sit on one side, and show my back to Daehoon. He sits on the other side and shows his back to me. When I work I’m very focussed and don’t really think about what Daehoon is doing. And I don’t know what he does; he doesn’t seem to be doing much, just taking it easy. But then I look up and he’s done. Mostly we leave each other be, which is probably best. We’re surrounded by lots of parks, trees and birds and I feel fortunate to work in this environment. It provides peace, helps me relax and keep focussed on my work.
‘Stud earrings’ Hand dyed plastic, sterling silver (Daehoon Kang)
‘Titanium rings’ Titanium sterling silver, acetal balls (Daehoon Kang)
R: Where does the imagery come from in your work, Daehoon?
DK: I often produce pieces where the form is underpinned by strong organic influences; yet sometimes the result appears to be quite ordered. But it’s usually something unusual or extraordinary such as plants, flowers, seeds, fruits—things from nature—that give me inspiration. For my upcoming exhibition the concept is exploring JangDokDae, which is also called the Condiments Bay. It is an arrangement of vessels that is traditionally located outside a house in Korea and contains the household’s condiments. I’m interested in the different shapes and containers…in every household it’s different. I’m sure there are similar customs in Australia. I suppose I was drawn to this because, on a technical level, I was doing some hammering and these vessels suited that technique. This work is quite different from what I have in e.g.etal at the moment, which is quite simple and colourful and fun. I don’t really get to hammer when I make that work, so the exhibition was a chance to do some hammering, which is more like what I was doing when I was working on a larger scale…it comes very naturally. In some ways I’ve reduced the scale of my older works. To make my older works I’d need a bigger studio, so the environment determines what I can make. In some ways it makes me resourceful. But all the elements of my older work are still contained in this new work. In a way this work is exploring how reducing the scale affects the technical elements and concepts of my work. This is my first solo jewellery show so I’m trying to make work that reflects what I am and what I want to do artistically. It’s quite challenging…but I’m enjoying the challenge.
R: How would you describe the change that has occurred in your work since you both began working with metal?
JD: I think it always changes and it will always keep changing…it never stays in one spot because ideas change and you always look for something new and fresh. The main concept is always in there but from that point I try to move forward. Maybe people can see and tell that it slowly changes…I hope they can. The idea changes as the techniques and aesthetics of my work grow and evolve.
DK: For me, going from really big projects to really small projects has changed my work. I’m a bit confused by my work. My previous work in Korea was very different in terms of design and thinking. I sometimes struggle to reconcile my ideas with working on such a small scale and for commercial reasons…but I make each piece one at a time and by hand and they all still contain elements of what I used to do. It’s just a different way of expressing it.
‘Brooch’ Steel, fine silver, pure gold (Joungmee Do from her exhibition Longevity)
‘Pendant’ Fine silver, fine gold, sterling silver (Daehoon Kang from his exhibition Jang Dok Dae (The Condiments Bay))