The work of Won Ju Lim explores intersections of memory, fantasy, and real and imagined spaces, drawing inspiration from sources as diverse as Baroque architecture, science-fiction films and the contemporary urban landscape. Last fall, Lim was named the 2013-14 Henry L. and Natalie E. Freund Teaching Fellow in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. This spring, she will debut a new exhibition as part of the Saint Louis Art Museum's Currents series.
We sat down with Lim to discuss her work, the upcoming show, and her impressions of St. Louis.
Where are you from?
I was born in Gwangju, Korea, but my family emigrated to Los Angeles when I was eight. I grew up in Koreatown until sophomore year of high school, when we moved to Glendale. My mom was a teacher and my dad was a professional soccer player.
Wait, really? A professional soccer player?
Yeah, I grew on the soccer field. One of my first memories is watching my dad practice. You could barely see him, kicking up the dirt and dust... After we emigrated, he started a Korean soccer association in Los Angeles. He coached and refereed games.
So what drew you to the visual arts?
I was one of those kids who are always drawing, always making things. But I never thought about being an artist professionally—it was just something I did. As an undergraduate I studied architecture, and I worked in practice as a draftsperson before earning my MFA.
There is a lot of architecture in your work. I'm thinking specifically of your Broken Landscape pieces.
LA is quite hilly, and when you're landing at LAX, there's a lot of bluish and amber light. The view from my studio, especially at sunset, there's an amber, sepia tone to the whole landscape. I thought it would be interesting to create something with that kind of lighting, and to think about the Los Angeles landscape in general.
The Broken Landscape sculptures have two sides to them. One side is a realistic fabrication of actual neighborhoods. But on the other side, the structure and material of the sculpture are revealed. In a way, that's the more truthful side, because it shows the reality of sculpture-making. How does this thing stand up? What's the relationship between the skin and the skeletal system?
Your work also makes use of light and projection. Tell us about the Memory Palace series.
A "memory palace" is a mnemonic system in which you remember things by mentally "placing" them within an architectural space. It started with the Greeks, but was brought to China by an Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci.
In my work, the memory palaces are light boxes, about 20 inches deep and up to eight feet wide. I was interested in creating a relationship in which the viewer is denied a direct experience of the sculpture. So the front of the box is frosted Mylar. Inside are sculptures of terraces and landscapes, based on certain parts of LA—and anywhere from six to 20 LED and incandescent light bulbs.
Everything you see is a shadow. If the room is bright, you don't see anything at all.
They feel a bit like stage sets…
When you walk into one of my installations, you're totally inside the space. In the case with the Memory Palace light boxes, there's a one-to-one relationship between the viewer, the sculpture, the shadows, the Mylar curtain... It is a theatrical experience.
For Baroque Pet Shop, you filmed seven historic cathedrals across Northern Europe, while 24 Seconds of Silence uses footage you shot in Beijing. Talk about the role of research in your work.
The artist Haim Steinbach once said something like, "The studio is everywhere." There is a research aspect to my work, and there's the actual making of things in the studio—but these are really the same thing. When ideas come up, I save them.
Baroque Pet Shop was inspired by a pet shop in my neighborhood. It was filled with chickens, goldfish, birdcages... The space felt very Baroque, and for 10 or 12 years, I knew I wanted to do something with it. Then, in 2007, I was awarded the Rockefeller Film and Video Fellowship. I spent a year looking at Baroque architecture, identified cities I wanted to visit, and shot a lot of raw footage.
So those things came together—my interest in Baroque architecture and my experience of being in that space.
Last fall, you spent a month at the Sam Fox School, working with students in the Graduate School of Art. What were your impressions of St. Louis?
It's romantically melancholic [laughs]. St. Louis is quite big, quite spread out. There are parts that are flourishing, parts that seem almost abandoned, and parts that you can tell the city is trying to renovate. Architecturally, it's very beautiful, very European.
You'll return to campus for a second residency this spring, and in April you'll debut Raycraft is Dead at the Saint Louis Art Museum. Tell us about the show.
George Raycraft was my neighbor, who died a couple years ago. He was very elderly and, in the period before he died, a bit senile. He would come into my house—which is built on property he used to own—pick fruit off my trees, stuff like that. And I thought, I wonder if I could make art out of this?
I started making models, measuring the house, drawing floor plans. And I realized that my house is really wacky. There are spaces between walls that don't make sense, corners that don't line up, places where the wall is two-feet thick—spaces that I own, that I pay mortgage on, but that I can't access physically or even visually.
So, without going into details, the piece has to do with the relationship between architecture and occupier. Interests and ideas that I've been accumulating for years—about Gothic architecture, about Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, about the spaces we don't occupy—are starting to come together.
In both Poe and Lovecraft, there's a sense of architecture as having a life of its own.
Yes. The house has a history separate from the occupant. The house will be there after you. The house is a witness.
Won Ju Lim, Baroque Pet Shop, 2010. Mixed media sculptures and five video projections. Dimensions variable. Created with support from Tribeca Film Institute Media Arts Fellowship funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, New York, NY. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen.