Interview with Gu Minja

Gu Minja is an artist living in Seoul, South Korea. She earned her MFA from Korean National University in 2007. In 2011, she was in residence at the ISCP studio program, in New York and for 10 months between 2010 and 2011 she was at the Gyeonggi Creation Center, Korea. Her first solo exhibit was housed at the Croft Gallery in Seoul in 2009 and she has been included in many group shows such as Doing at the Kumho Museum of Art (2012), A Cabinet in the Washing Machine at the Seodaemun-gu Recycling Center (2012), About books at the KT&G Sangsang madang (2012) No Peace, Only Adventure at the Busan Museum of Art (2012) and Has the line killed the circle? at La general in Paris, France (2012). She was also awarded the 10th annual SongEun Art Award in 2011. In general, Gu’s work borders on the intangible. I first met her when she was in residence at the Ssamzie artist residency in 2007 where she showed me works that could best be described as events. The small statements she was making, at a time when much, if not all, the work I saw in Seoul verged on the bombastic, was immediately compelling. Gu has maintained her quiet ephemeral approach and when we sat down to talk last winter I was most interested in how this artist manages to stay with her program in an unapologetically capitalist art scene.

The following interview questions, which where answered via email, are based on the conversation we had in January 2012.

Julia Marsh: In your recent works such as Atlantic Pacific Co. (2011) and World of job (2008) your labor figures prominently in the scheme of the work. As an artist what is the relationship for you between labor and making, and is it important that your audience grasps this relationship?

Gu Minja: “Labor” in artworks usually means how much work the artist did painting paintings or making sculptures. Of course there is an effort to create finished artworks for me as well, but what I am more interested in is how to match the general meaning of labor and the making of artworks, and how labor can be handled as an artwork in and of itself, also, what artists are doing, and what they can do in terms of labor. In fact, art often seems unproductive because the value of the artwork and labor is very different in general. Perhaps because the value of productive labor in society affects me indirectly, my works directly address “labor” by becoming part of the artwork, also I create labor as an artwork in the process of creating them. I cannot say it is unimportant for the audience to grasp this relationship, since I want them to think it is interesting when they see a little bit of strange “labor” in my work.

JM: When I first saw your work in 2007 you were doing performative works collecting materials and repurposing them. These works reflected a critique of different aspects of consumerism whether sustainability or convenience. At that same time you also conducted a seminar on love a la Plato. Can you say what led you to making works that are more ephemeral than tangible?

GMJ: Relatively, my work does not show tangible materials. But I try to show the moments we experience in our daily lives by inserting ideas or limiting elements or setting up a place for some kind of the action then document the process. I think my work might not seem very ephemeral because I show the process in the documentation. The question is eventually posed as to what the importance this has in my works and what led me to create such works. I simply want to comment on what I see in the conditions of the world. I would like to intervene in what is happening around me and introduce devices. Therefore, the process is as important as the momentary in my works. It is similar to traveling, while traveling time passes, but pictures and memories remain.

JM: Regardless of the ephemeral nature of your works they do offer a give and take for your audiences, who are often key participants in the production and completion of these works. Do you think of your participants as different from audiences or viewers?

GMJ: It is different depending on the works. However, audiences in general and participants who are involved during the production cannot be the same. In my recent work Atlantic-Pacific Co., the audience became participants in a passive way. In general, participants usually understand more about the work so their participation becomes more important and sometimes, my work is processed or finished by these participants. For example, Symposium was completed by the conversations I had with friends and friends of these friends who are all my age. In the case of World of Job, it was completed by participants who did not know they were participating in the artwork and sometimes the piece was ended by this lack of recognition. Inversely, in Happily ever after, a speed-dating project, the participants did not know they were participating in an artwork, but during the process they became aware . I, too, become a participant during the process. Because of that, I feel that I change a little while I compose, plan, process and exhibit my works.

JM: In your estimation what are the economies of art making today? And where does your work fit into such schema?

GMJ: It is not easy to connect my works to the art market and the art economy because I don’t have much practical experience selling my works. That is maybe why I am more concerned about economy in reality than the economy of the art world. The coinciding of the economy and the ability to live in reality is unavoidable, even though we may like to escape from it. There are a minority of people who live self-sufficiently, and also those who create another economic system within their own community, but I myself am not very independent so I need to follow along with the system. But because I can’t get away from it I am consistently aware of it. And also I enter it helplessly. For many artists the government or granting organizations are like an oasis, it makes them rely on these sources of funding. From my recent experience, eventually these funding arrangements require artists to negotiate and compromise and that process is hard but inevitable. There is, in this way, no place where support money comes without procedures and impositions.

JM: When we met you were preparing to go to Taipei for an exhibition in which you planned to have a concrete block from a nearby construction site on display. As much of your work is often unsellable in nature, due to its ephemeral basis—the unavailability of a product or residual materials from your work—how do you document or record your process? And in today’s art market is it a challenge to maintain you non-material stance?

GMJ: This was one of my ideas I had for the exhibition at Taipei Contemporary Art Center. I had planned on creating a monument with concrete floors removed from a nearby building to show labor and the value of labor. However, I decided to show other work because of many different circumstances. Even if that plan was realized and the floors were shown as “material,” the importance of it was the in stories behind this material and the subsequent documentation of the process. Like this, in many cases the result of my work is the documentation of it, but I try to use different methods based on the specific work. I use writings and drawings and also add different images or elements that can illuminate the contents of the work. The thing that makes me agonize to maintain my non-material stance is not only the art market; the process of making people understand and my concern for how to make products drives me to continue making.

JM: You recently did a residency at The International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP). How did you feel about working in NYC, and what effect do you feel that that visit has had on your current direction? Are there any differences that struck you between the Korean and NYC art scenes?

GMJ: Living and working in another city for a while was like being somewhere between a traveler and an artist. Therefore, it seems really hard to know much about the city and the art scene. What did strike me was that very experimental works were selling at galleries with prices clearly marked. I do not know much about sellable artworks in the Korean art scene, but I was surprised how all the galleries have a price list at the front desk.

Being in a residency program is always stimulates me and is good for me because I don’t have to think about anything other than the work, and in a new environment I am in the attitude of active looking. I do not know about the changes to my work in the long-term maybe because I tend not to see my direction in the bigger picture. But I did start to feel that I wanted to work in New York longer. When I came back I had just started to know the place and the art scene; I hope to have another chance to go there, again.