×

Artist Soo Sunny Park Seeks the Elusive Self in a Material World

  • Artist Soo Sunny Park, of Cornish, is a professor of studio art at Dartmouth College and is preparing her installation "Photo-Kinetic Grid" for the group show called "You Are Here" opening April 7 at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Park, framed through a section of "Photo-Kinetic Grid" looks over her 2015 piece "Harpeth Perforation," which was paired with David Baker's poem "Pastoral" for a feature in the New York Times. Park was interviewed by Emmajean Holley at her studio in Lebanon, N.H., Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Artist Soo Sunny Park, of Cornish, is a professor of studio art at Dartmouth College and is preparing her installation "Photo-Kinetic Grid" for the group show called "You Are Here" opening April 7 at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Park was interviewed by Emmajean Holley at her studio in Lebanon, N.H., Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Artist Soo Sunny Park, of Cornish, reflected in one of hundreds of small, see-through mirrors in her piece Photo-Kinetic Grid, is a professor of studio art at Dartmouth College. Each mirror is suspended by wire in a section of chain link fence welded to hold an undulating form. Live images of the sculpture will be projected onto it when installed at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Park was interviewed by Emmajean Holley at her studio in Lebanon, N.H., Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Unused pieces of mirror sit in a box in the studio of artist Soo Sunny Park in Lebanon, N.H., Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, March 09, 2018

Soo Sunny Park, standing in her Lebanon art studio, where her latest installation piece was under construction, ran her hands through her pink-streaked hair and grinned sheepishly.

“Sorry there’s so much stuff in here,” she said. “Story of my life.”

There was a lot of stuff, but that’s because she uses it all. There was stuff in file cabinets, storage bins and champagne boxes. There was stuff on top of her behemoth of a plasma cutter, and stuff under the tables.

Some of it was conventional: paints, adhesives and so forth. Then there was stuff like empty goose egg cartons, honeycomb scraps and — crucial for her latest project — countless very small plexiglass mirrors.

The story of her life also includes drywall and plaster, live plants and contact cement. Park, a professor of studio art at Dartmouth College, has also incorporated items that would otherwise have ended up in the dump, such as plastic cups, paper clips and window screens. She’s employed motion sensors, bicycle pumps and, lately, a lot of chain-link fencing.

But her favorite and most dynamic material to work with is, technically, not material at all.

It’s light.

“Light,” she said, swishing her hands through the air in her studio, “is this kinetic thing.”

She loves it because it’s so mutable. It’s a variable beyond her control, but she’s been able to harness the arc of the sun or the thickness of clouds to create artwork that evolves with its surroundings.

Park has parlayed her love of light, and other unconventional materials, into a career that has not only made its mark on a breadth of well-trafficked art spaces — the Currier Museum of Art, in Manchester, the Rice University Art Gallery in Texas, and the Botanical Garden and Museum of Art in Nashville, to name a small few — but has also expanded its reach well beyond the visual art world. The fashion brand Delpozo credited Park for inspiring its Spring 2017 line, presented during New York Fashion Week. In a recent Buzzfeed listicle, titled “22 Dreamy Art Installations You Want to Live In,” Park took the No. 1 spot.

On her website, she lists “daylight” as a material on a number of her works. But it’s artificial light — endlessly mirrored in a video feedback loop between cameras, projectors and the work itself — that drives much of the evolution in her most recent work, Photo-Kinetic Grid, which goes up this month at the North Carolina Museum of Art, in a group show called “You Are Here.”

The large-scale, immersive sculpture is made up of 20 panels of chain-link fencing, which she’s welded into sheets that warp like waves. Their gaps contain those small plexiglass tiles, which are actually translucent one-way mirrors — called “half-silvered” because they require only a thin coating of reflective particles — that reflect the shifting light and shadows of their surroundings onto those surroundings.

At the time of this interview, Photo-Kinetic Grid was lying in unassembled pieces amid the organized chaos of the studio, but Park describes the work this way in her artist’s statement: “The projectors will throw images of the grid back onto itself. These projected images are, in turn, reflected onto the walls, ceiling and floor of the gallery. But these projected images produce images of their own, which video cameras will capture and throw back at the central form. The end result is a feedback loop between the cameras, projectors and the reflective grid.” It takes a couple readings, and a little imagination, to visualize the final product.

It’s also worth noting that because the tiles are mirrors, their surfaces produce a fractured, dream-like reflection of the viewer, which will also get swept up into the cycle of recording and projecting. In this way, the viewer helps define the work in that moment, just by experiencing it.

“To me, it’s reminiscent of how frustrating it can be trying to understand ourselves. As we try to do so, we change, and so we’re moving targets,” she writes in her statement. “We want to occupy the liminal space between ourselves as a thing to be understood and as the very thing trying to gain understanding.”

These questions of selfhood have been on Park’s mind for some time. Born in South Korea, she immigrated to the United States, where her parents were already living, at 10 years old. When she arrived in Georgia, she went into culture shock.

“So I had my existential crisis a little too early,” she said with a laugh. “It was me and this one other Asian guy in my school.”

She was acutely aware that the way other people perceived her, from the outside looking in, was foreign to the way she experienced her own self, from the inside looking out.

“I was always conscious of that liminal space, in between those perceptions,” she said. (She loves the word “liminal,” which refers to the threshold between two states where the usual rules of things may not apply, and uses it a lot.) She started wondering about the self: whether it has a body, whether it’s different from the mind, whether it’s defined solely by first-person experience or whether definitions can be imposed on it from the outside.

It’s no coincidence, then, that she’s drawn to building materials that would otherwise spend their lives as dividers, trapped inside walls or between spaces.

Just as Park questioned her sense of self from a young age, she also moved around so much that she never experienced a real sense of place. As a kid she lived in Seoul, Georgia and Orlando, Fla. She moved to Columbus, Ohio for her BFA, then to a Detroit suburb for her MFA, then to a residency in Maine and to St. Louis, where she taught at the Washington University School of Art.

This changed when she moved to the Upper Valley, in 2005, to work at Dartmouth. Though there was a bit of culture shock here, too, — “I remember driving home and thinking, ‘Where are all the streetlights?’ ” — it wasn’t long before she found home. She met her husband, Dartmouth philosophy professor John Kulvicki, took up hiking and ethical consumerism, and now lives in Cornish.

“I think where you live seeps into you,” she said.

Her sculptures, though their forms are seemingly weightless, are the result of heavy physical labor: welding, shaping, hoisting, building, binding. Then there’s the hours and hours spent bent over each little tile — peeling their films off part-way, maintaining the spotlessness of the exposed surface, securing it to the fencing with stainless steel wires that must be twisted so that the tiles are slanted just so. She’s learned it’s best to wear two pairs of cotton gloves for this, with no ribbing to mark up the mirrors, and to wipe them clean from the outside-in.

Park has amassed a crew of worker bees to help her with this labor — including Sally Lee, a 23-year-old artist from Little Rock, Ark., and Lew Karbler, one of Park’s close friends of some 25 years.

“Wow,” Park marveled, doing the math. “That’s more than half of our lives.”

Karbler declined to comment for this article because he didn’t want to take attention away from Park, but his role in the studio is not invisible. He answered an initial email sent to Park’s address, and was cc’d on every email thereafter. He builds the 3D models, which replicate both the future artwork and the space it will occupy, that serve as blueprints for her final pieces.

During a tour of the studio, Lee came up to ask if Park wanted anything from the Co-op.

“Just the usual,” she said. (The usual was ginger kombucha and sushi.)

After Lee left, Park sighed. “Thank god I don’t have to do this on my own anymore,” she said. She used to regularly pull all-nighters to meet her deadlines, and sometimes slept in the studio because she was too tired or strapped for time to go home. There’s also a closet-sized shower hidden in a corner, in a back room; it’s unclear if it’s ever been used.

Having extra hands leaves Park free to focus on her art, and the abstract questions that feed it. It also means she doesn’t weather quite so many occupational injuries. She used to roll up her pant legs and marvel at the bruises that purpled her knees. Once, a piece of wire came loose and flew across her face, ripping open the skin above her eyebrow.

“It was bleeding everywhere. People were like, ‘You should go to the hospital,’ ” she said, laughing. “I just put some tape on it.”

She still has a mark, but it’s healed to a half-silvered scar. In order to see it, you have to step into the light.

To learn more about Soo Sunny Park and her work, visit soosunnypark.com.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.

 Correction

Soo Sunny Park immigrated to the United States when she was  10 years old, and is a professor of studio art at Dartmouth College. An earlier version of this story misstated the age at which she immigrated and the status of her professorship.