Saturday, June 13, 2009

After Frank: Why I do what I do

[The teacup is done and I understand most of its flaws. N.B.: I started this post 3 weeks ago and never finished it, so it may feel clunky and weird.] I loved Frank's post and wanted to do the same but haven't been able to get my mind in gear. It's still not, but I also realize it might never be, so I will give it a stab while I wait for my hair to dry before sleeping on it.

First, what am I doing here in Korea? Before I arrived here, I either truly believed or deceived myself into believing that what I was going to do here had nothing to do with the rest of my life, that it was just a step over to an adjacent path, and that once I got back to the US, I'd hop back to the path I was on (which was about being an artist and figuring out how to survive as one). It was wishful thinking, since I knew that I was taking a BIG leap, and that I was terrified.

The easy answer is this: I am here to learn as much as I can about hanji.

My initial plan was to focus on how to make it directly by hand, with the biggest focus being on the actual sheet formation technique, since this a key part of Korean papermaking that differentiates it from Japanese papermaking (the two are similar in most other regards). I love that the elegance of the Korean technique and how it couples sheets to make a perfect whole. It is more time consuming than most other sheet formation methods, requires more precision and a flowing rhythm, and rarely does anyone at the end of the assembly line understand the process. My artistic process is similar, so I feel a particular affinity to this method.

However, I found very quickly that it would be difficult for me to find the right teacher, or anyone who would teach me without massive and unpleasant strings attached. So I branched out into other aspects that were part of my initial proposal, but hazy at the time. It became a way of making a nest for what I would eventually lay inside: the experience making hanji. The components of the nest were varied and numerous. A woman recently contacted me about "learning about papermaking" and I found this inquiry too vague, so I asked, "What exactly do you want to learn? History, the hanji market, making hanji, traditional aspects, contemporary aspects, applications (use in products, daily life, art, conservation, etc.), the state of active papermills and masters, ways of preserving? This is a sampling of ideas..." [this, along with a barrage of other questions, must have scared her away b/c she never responded.] Yesterday when I met with Esther and Carla, I found myself running at the mouth on a zillion different tangents related to hanji and realized, "damn, have I learned a lot this year!"

My subsequent goal is to take this knowledge and go back to the US (and the English-speaking world) to start a facility similar to the one that Tim Barrett pioneered at the University of Iowa. I want to create a site that specializes in the production of hanji from the ground up and in teaching people about hanji so that it gains attention outside of Korea. Here, I wanted to meet the people involved in hanji production, scholarship, marketing, and related art forms, to nurture a community that cares about the survival of high-quality hanji and to bring them to venues outside of Korea to teach and share information to a wider audience. I wanted to connect with everyone who cares about hanji enough to work hard to keep it alive in a vibrant way. Not in the imitation made-in-China way (though they're getting better and better at doing it in China. However, I don't think they are using the deckle-less, double-sheet formation method. Actually, not many Korean papermills do, either).

I want to do this work outside of Korea is because 1. I am American and forsee spending the greater portion of my life in the US and 2. Koreans often don't notice that certain precious traditions are disappearing until these traditions go abroad and are noticed by foreigners. Once that happens, these traditions then are recognized and re-embraced in Korea. This was the case for hanji dolls made by Kim Young-Hee, who went unnoticed in Korea, went to Germany and became quite popular, and now sells work at high prices in Korea.

If someone else takes my goal and runs off with it, I imagine I'd be pissed off at first, but then relieved. It's a big responsibility, and I'm truly amazed at how much difference a year of concerted effort makes. While preparing my Fulbright application, I contacted as many of the movers and shakers in the papermaking world as I could find to seek those with a specialty in hanji. I came up empty. The one woman who had done extensive research in Korea at two different papermills in the 90s was no longer working in the field. This made my work both easy and hard - I had no one to compete with, but no one to consult with. Now I suddenly find that I am a native English speaker with a strong grasp of the Korean language, who has a solid understanding of the hanji world today. I don't know any others. This is scary.

And this is where aspects of responsibility freak me out. Strangers have started to email me after doing online searches on hanji, asking for help and resources, all similar questions that I posed in the early stages of my research years ago. But unlike other art forms, it's harder to point people in the right direction. There isn't really any one place you can go to get what you need, and certainly very few outlets for those who don't speak Korean. Unfortunately, there's also plenty of misinformation out there since the translations into English are often inaccurate. In cities that pride themselves on their hanji tradition, like Jeonju and Wonju, it's easier to find places to visit and learn more, but not in Seoul. There are a couple of people here who have amassed large private collections of hanji-related objects, in hopes of opening hanji museums, but neither have opened yet (one will be in Jeju, the large island south of the peninsula, and the other may go to France).

After having spent such an intense year here on this project, I find myself recoil when people express a passing interest in hanji. I recognize that this is not a helpful reflex, but it's a natural one to have developed after investing this year into the health and well-being of hanji. There have to be various levels of resources and info available to sustain hanji production: the surface level for tourists and hobbyists, a deeper level for those who want a better understanding of certain aspects of hanji to do their own work, and the most in-depth for those who wish to devote a great deal of their time and energy to learning about hanji (in the capacity of apprentice who becomes a papermaking master, or teacher who perpetuates the form through students, to give two examples).

The hard thing for me is that the picture is getting bigger and bigger as I spend more time grappling with the present issues. The effort has to be concerted, coordinated, and done by a community of people. I have had a ton of ideas for how to bolster the craft, but they all require involvement by a range of people: the ordinary citizen, the government official, the tool maker, the designer, the marketer, the businessperson, the historian, the urban planner, the ecologist, the skilled laborer, the translator, the family of the papermaker, etc. There is no way I could even begin to propose these ideas without a team. Luckily, the government is sponsoring a project to help sustain hanji, but this funding is only secure for a year.

At this point, I want to walk away from the whole mess. Days before I left for the papermill in January to train, I warred with myself, thinking, "Why the hell did I agree to do this? I don't need to learn how to make hanji. In fact, I don't ever need to make paper again." I always do this before embarking on hard, life-changing adventures. But I always go, and the roads open up. Many people I've met have said that I must be on the right path, because I've gotten the help that I've needed. I hear a lot of "it was meant to be" in terms of my destiny with hanji. I probably relate to hanji's situation because of my life experience: being part of the Korean diaspora, knowing what it is like to be disregarded and misunderstood, and feeling like I had no advocate. But knowing somewhere that I had something to offer, that I was someone of worth, that investing in me was a good idea. I anthropomorphize things a lot, so I feel a kinship with hanji and everything that makes it what it is. The final sheet of paper is beautiful and perfect, but the real story is everything that leads up to that finished product, and everything that comes afterwards.

In that regard, I want to make this work tangible; a book, a film? The art will take years. A friend reminded me to stay present and not worry about how this research will integrate into my artwork, since it just will (whether I like it or not). About a year before I started my hanji research in the US, I had started seedlings of a language project in my artwork. I still have not wrestled with it, but keep gathering things for it. In the heat of thinking about it, I told a friend that I was terrified by it because I felt like it would become my life's work, and I didn't feel ready to start my life's work. Hilariously, I think I fell into a different hole while backing away from this project, and that was the hole of the possibility of my life's work with hanji.

In the course of my research, I've been unsatisfied with my art life. I came here identifying as an artist who got a funded year via a proposal to research hanji. I wanted the art part to be dominant and the hanji part to feed it like a tributary to a river. But nothing ever turns out neatly, and I spent a lot of time questioning what I intended to do with my artwork, since I had to spend so much time explaining what I did as an artist that made sense to people outside of the art world. I doubt I was convincing. Because I routinely lose faith and wonder what is going on in the art world that presents itself to the general public (and have been happy to get some respite from it this year), and then wonder why I want to have anything to do with it. Maybe I do, but only because I think I should.

[I had read an article on artists and mental illness, which I definitely took issue with, but thought a lot about this comment (mostly just the part I italicized):

An artist's tools are emotional faculties without the support of rational argument; this makes him vulnerable to attacks and rejection. This explains the more stable minds of scientists: they function in a rational way, which provides them with emotional strength because of their reliance upon rational argument. An original artist has much more difficulty to justify (also to himself) what he is doing, and much of the struggle to get there where he needs to be is a traumatic trajectory in which his normal human condition suffers from the unique position in which he has been forced by the interaction between individual and environment.]

The tricky part comes here: I want to make art to the very end of my life, and everything else is a means to this activity. But is that enough? I once met a woman who ran the artist residency program in Omaha at Bemis, which is a fantastic place. A few of us artists were talking to her about why she did this work (she's no longer there), and she said it was important to support artists because they were essential to making people think by exposing them to new ideas. Hopefully, these audience members would then learn, understand, and grow tolerance for new ideas. The final result on a large scale would be world peace. She laughed at the end, acknowledging how pie-in-the-sky this idea was, yet still held it as what drove her. I was surprised, because she articulated how I used to think about being an artist. I had drifted from it later, partly because I realized that I didn't believe that world peace was possible.

But thinking in such a BIG way can make a person crazy. It certainly makes me crazy, whether considering my future in art or in hanji advocacy. I have to remind myself that the important thing is what I do daily, in my community. That is the real responsibility. In the end, the "why I do this" comes down to the cliched phrase: this is my path. I've tried to run away from it and pretend it doesn't exist, or hope that there was a mistake and I can get another card dealt to me, but that's all just stalling. Like tonight's workout with Kelsey, parts of the path really suck. You cramp up, you feel like you can't go any further, you want to say fuck it and go home, you get bitten by monster mosquitoes, you feel like a fool. But you do it. And then you get to go home. And you can even shower if you want to.

1 comment:

  1. I like the quote. Quite a bit. Many thanks for sharing this. I too am contemplating the trajectory, but from a different perspective, the crossroads.

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