Gyun Hur is an interdisciplinary artist and an educator whose experience as an immigrant daughter deeply fuels her practice. Gyun’s work has been widely recognized for her floor installations comprising of hand-shredded silk flowers. Through her menial process of making and transforming materials, the artist constructs a visual landscape to evoke a sense of melancholia and diasporic narratives in loss and beauty.
Gyun completed NARS Foundation Residency, Bronx Museum AIM Fellowship, Pratt Fine Arts Residency, BRICworkspace, Danspace Project Writer-in-Residency, Ox-Bow Artist-in-Residency, Vermont Studio Center, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is the inaugural recipient of The Hudgens Prize. Her works have been featured in The Cut, Art In America, Art Paper, Sculpture, Art Asia Pacific, Public Art Magazine Korea, Hong Kong Economic Journal, Huffington Post, Brooklyn Street Art, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Pelican Bomb, Creative Loafing, Jezebel, and The Atlantan. Her interest in art making in public space led her to various artist presentations at the TEDxCentennial Women, Living Walls: The City Speaks, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, The New School, and many others. Gyun has recently contributed as an artist-writer in fLoromancy Issue 36, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Forgetory. Born in South Korea, she moved to Georgia at the age of 13. She currently lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Parsons School of Design.
Artadia: You received the Artadia Award in 2011, exactly 10 years ago. Could you speak a little bit about how your artistic practice has evolved since then?
Gyun: This mark of ten years has given me an opportunity to look back. A privilege of one’s career lasting over a decade is that you have this space to finally turn your head around, witness, and process what took place in those ten years – it is a long time, yet at the same time, not so long. And when I say ‘what took place,’ I mean both in your life and career. So many things happened that have informed and shifted me and the ways I think about my practice.
From 2013 to 2017, I lived and taught in Hong Kong as an expatriate. I saw Hong Kong’s protests in 2014, the youth and elders overtaking the city with yellow umbrellas. My partner and I traveled extensively all over Asia Pacific, from Southeast Asia and through China and back to my homeland of South Korea. I was able to trace and feel the residue of imperialism. The trauma of colonial history has left imprints across the landscape of Asia, and naturally impacted my personal, racial experience while living there. I saw the most clear evidence of that scar when visiting the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between South and North Korea for the first time. I stood for a few seconds in what is considered to be territory of North Korea in that blue room, and I felt emotionally split. These experiences expanded my knowledge and understanding of a historical backdrop in which my story inevitably has been situated within.
Settling in New York, after four years abroad, has been a defining journey. I started taking a few sociology and literature classes at The New School while teaching part time at Parsons. These courses led me to readings and discussions that cracked me open. I learned how diasporic narratives have largely constituted the American culture and psyche. African and Jewish American writers inspired me to reimagine the ways I think about my own story. While living in Harlem for the first two years, I walked along the streets that these authors were tracing from their childhood, which I found so moving.
My early years of career in Atlanta were an incredibly productive time as I had these facets of support and community that protected and nurtured me since I was young. I was able to take risks and make mistakes. Atlanta is the home of my youth. My parents and brother’s family still live there, continuing to root themselves even more deeply. Yet, returning back to the States after being away for a few years reaffirmed my complex relationship to the American South and my identity as an Asian-American woman artist. Even attaching these terms to the word “American” as a way to locate my identity, I sometimes find limiting. At the same time, as I process this inherited language that stratifies who I am, I recognize a sense of responsibility as an artist, a teacher, and an aunt to my nephew and niece.
I now use that as fuel to deepen my practice. I write more these days. I speak more with confidence knowing that I can formulate the language for my work, no longer reliant on other voices, especially those that are institutionalized or canonized. For so long, I wrestled with self-doubt struggling to find access and legibility to this world of art as an artist in the periphery. I now know that I can hold my own center.
A: You currently have a show at Wave Hill in Bronx, NY, So we can be near that is centered around personal histories and memories, could you speak about this show and how it came about?
Gyun: This project, So we can be near, was postponed for one year which gave me a longer period to simmer with the ideas of loss and beauty. And, of course, with the pandemic unfolding this past year, I knew this project would speak to both the visible and invisible grief that we all have experienced deeply. The Sunroom Gallery at Wave Hill makes me cry everytime I go. Situated right near the Hudson River, the way the sun enters the space reveals the gentle yet powerful presence of light and nature that has become an essential part of this installation.
As I was getting to know Wave Hill and its history being a private estate now open to the public, I was reminded of the garden that my mother-in-law tends to with her hands surrounded by the lusciousness of Tennessee. Whose right is it to own the land and how do we look after it for what reason? I was thinking about how much trauma this landscape of the South holds for folks generationally, and how my mother-in-law sort of entered into that continual narrative in America. Her careful work with the land, to me, reveals this incredible resilience and grace that I continue to seek in my practice. So she is in the photo montage on the floor as a goddess. The floor vinyl has fifteen layers of photographs collected to remember the landscape of my family’s migration – the most prominent image being the Delaware River.
In this exhibition, the presence of the river provides a spiritual anchor as I grapple with inevitability and melancholia. The hand blown glass vessels on the wall hold water collected from the Delaware and Hudson Rivers. I hand etched hundreds of lines on the mirrors surrounding the edges of the gallery to echo the imagery of the river. When I spent a few days in Narrowsburg right by the Delaware River in the winter of 2020, I realized that this river was teaching me the movement of letting go. Ultimately, I wanted to create an introspective landscape where I can dwell on this impossible task of yearning and grieving while hoping to stay intact.
A: In addition to So we can be near, at Wave Hill, you have two more upcoming shows, Rewriting: politics of care, at Bus projects, Melbourne, Australia and Maintenance of Way, Redux Contemporary Center & TSA GV, Charleston, SC. Could you talk about the development of these shows? Would you say these three shows are connected to each other? If so, what were some influences that made a deep impact while you were creating works for these shows?
Gyun: With these three shows, I have been given the opportunity to think about the mobility of my work in new geographic contexts. This has been an interesting exercise for me. At Wave Hill, I have gotten to know and fallen in love with the landscape of the Northeast. I see the Hudson River and the cliffs across from the gallery. I now understand how this landscape has inspired so many artists and writers for decades. The project in Charleston has led me to deeper research and thinking about the history and geography of the South. I’m excited to respond specifically to the site at Redux Contemporary Center and engage with the community members through a performance piece called, Holding Tenderly.
For Rewriting: politics of care in Melbourne, I’m working with a curator who is a good friend. Our relationship and trust have deepened through this collaboration. Initially, she asked me to transport and install a piece that is a decade old, A Replication of My Mother’s Wedding Blanket. In the past few months, we’ve exchanged an honest conversation about (im)mobility, care, and labor invested in my body of work that resists the institutionalized way of exhibiting works globally, mostly for consumption. The emotional cost of sending the work across the Pacific Ocean, especially during this pandemic, was the center of our conversation. This has led to a segway for me to offer writings and images that will be published in a book that accompanies the exhibition.
A: As an interdisciplinary artist you often construct public spaces where the floor is composed of hand-shredded silk flowers. Could you speak about why you choose such an element and what does it mean to you?
Gyun: I have been collecting and hand-shredding silk flowers for about ten years now as the primary material of my work. My initial discovery of silk flowers was at cemeteries where they were often discarded after wind or rain plucked them away from their dedications. The cemetary flowers are symbolic objects for commemorating our loved ones. Their material artificiality defies the idea of decay which I find quite fascinating, especially when my work speaks so specifically on the fragile and fleeting nature of life.
The long, relentless process of collecting and deconstructing these silk flowers is all done by hand. The resulting pigment-like material embodies this invisible, unforgiving labor. I approach my work that way because it makes sense to me, materially, emotionally, conceptually…as I shred these flowers bit by bit, I alter their origins, form, and value. In that laborious process, this material inevitably becomes so tied to my body. I think of the power that lies within this transformation of the material and my psyche.
Often, my works are installed in public spaces and the process is visually and physically shared with the audience. In Spring Hiatus, commissioned by Flux Projects in 2011, I worked with my parents both in preparation and installation of the work. Many friends and members of my immigrant community in Atlanta came together to create this monumental piece that was 16 feet by 40 feet.
I’m curious about how one’s intimacy can come in contact with the public. The work then can hold these soft, communal yearnings and memories. It is my understanding that these acts then turn into a display and a spectacle. And I still hold onto this belief that empathetic vulnerability, while protecting and sustaining it, can take place while experiencing my work in public spaces.
A: How has this last year affected your artistic practice? Has your relationship with your art changed due to the unprecedented circumstances?
Gyun: I think many of us artists have acclimated our expectations of life to be unsettling. Yet this past year was just so difficult. Two specific events, George Floyd’s murder and the Atlanta shooting, presented an undeniable demand for me to sit with pain and rage.
In the fall of 2020, I performed a piece called To Hold Gently at Green-Wood Cemetery as a part of the Immigrant Biennial. I sat alone for three hours pulling apart yellow silk flowers in a meditation upon the loss of lives caused by Covid-19. I thought of our doorman, Mr. Gerald who passed away as the pandemic was unfolding in the city.
During this time of what I consider a hibernation, I was able to have ample time for reflection and personal clarity. In the earlier part of this year, I completed a privately commissioned drawing, Untitled: with you. Throughout the pandemic as we were experiencing tremendous losses, this drawing gave me a place to go to when I didn’t know where to go. Over two years, I traced time line by line, alternating in black and yellow ink. A lot of shedding unnecessary things attached to my life occurred. And that helped my practice to be anchored back to where my heart lies.
A: And lastly, what most are you looking forward to in 2021 and beyond?
Gyun: Sun and the ocean. I am looking forward to traveling again. I have people I need to see, like my family in Atlanta. I need to see this dear friend of mine in LA, and we promised each other to have many cocktails by her pool in the backyard. THAT, I am looking forward to. Growing older has given me an ease I have not felt before, so I am continuing to look forward to that journey going beyond 2021.