At Mills, Local Korean-American Artists Embrace Multiple Identities

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Nicholas Oh, Installation view of 'Justice or Else,' 2015-16 and 'Chinksugi,' 2017. (Photo: Phil Bond Photography; Courtesy Mills College Art Museum)

Chinksugi is a life-size figure made of ceramic, wood, resin, and paint -- the title is a play on kintsugi, the Japanese practice of fixing broken pottery. This technique uses lacquer mixed with gold or silver dust to highlight cracks and embrace the flaws of the piece rather than conceal them. From head to toe, Chinksugi boasts stereotypical Asian motifs: a Japanese cherry blossom on one of the ankles, a china plate design across the chest.

“This work,” says artist Nicholas Oh, “is about how Asian Americans are perceived and generally assumed to be foreigners. My work aims to fight some of these generalizations by embracing stereotypes.”

The work Oh refers to was specifically made for In-Between Places: Korean-American Artists in The Bay Area, an exhibition organized by Mills College Art Museum and independently curated by Linda Inson Choy, a contemporary Korean art specialist, with consultation from Hyonjeong Kim Han, associate curator of Korean art at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum.

Jung Ran Bae, 'The Days Like Feathers,' 2017.
Jung Ran Bae, 'The Days Like Feathers,' 2017. (Photo: Phil Bond Photography; Courtesy Mills College Art Museum)

“There are times when someone looks at me and makes a preconceived judgement that I am a foreigner from Asia," Oh says. "However, in reality, I actually identify with American culture more than my ancestral Korean culture, putting me somewhere in between.”

The Bay Area has long been a hub for Korean culture, but the reality of being a Korean-American person means reconciling with the nuances of an ambiguous identity. In-Between Places -- the first exhibition to decidedly acknowledge that Korean-American art is Korean art -- showcases a wide variety of media (sculpture, painting, ceramics, video, textiles, performance and installation art) from Bay Area Korean-Americans responding to and reflecting on the multiplicity of their identities.


Minji Sohn, the artist behind Turn Right, Turn Left, a four-channel video installation that asks visitors to stand on a platform and follow screen prompts, says, “All my life I flew between continents every few months or so, living in-between countries and cultures. This nomad-like experience and in-between-ness have played a major role in shaping my character. It is also a subject of many of my recent investigations and performances.”

Minji Sohn, Installation view of 'Turn Right, Turn Left,' 2017.
Minji Sohn, Installation view of 'Turn Right, Turn Left,' 2017. (Photo: Phil Bond Photography; Courtesy Mills College Art Museum)

Her installation takes stock of and questions the act of categorization by continuously volleying between two options: "turn left" and “turn right.” Sohn chooses a familiar voice of authority that is often met with steady compliance. For the artist, Turn Right, Turn Left is a manifesto proclaiming, “Let us not be limited by meaningless, quantifiable labels of age, sex and race or use them as excuses; or let us use those labels to empower and inspire us.” It's a fitting sentiment not just for Sohn's work, but for the exhibition as a whole.

In-Between Places features artists at various stages of self-actualization -- both in respect to their artistic practice and in coming to terms with their heterogeneous identities. Their ages range from their 20s to their 70s.

Artist Kay Kang falls somewhere in the middle of those extremes. Her beosun (or socks) made with cast plaster and recycled linen represent a longing for family, decades after she immigrated to the United States. In her piece From East to West, visitors are met with a seemingly haphazard pile of delicate white socks. “For these beosun,” she says, “I recycled Korean bed linens, or ramie, which my family used during hot and humid Korean summer days.”

Kay Kang, Installation view of 'From East to West,' and 'My Journey/Bahljhachwee,' 2017.
Kay Kang, Installation view of 'From East to West,' and 'My Journey/Bahljhachwee,' 2017. (Photo: Phil Bond Photography; Courtesy Mills College Art Museum)

"My work," she says, "is a series of footsteps representing every significant step in my journey over the 46 years since immigrating to the United States -- a journey filled with myriad hopes, joys, sorrows, fears, and expectations." Kang adds that the beosun describe a life journey, and the evolution of women's roles over the course of that journey.

From East to West captures Kang's sentimental relationship with Korea. It's a place she left long ago, but a place that continues to influence the makeup of her identity.

The inclusion of multiple generations of Korean-American artists only further illuminates the fact that a case of ambiguous identity isn’t one that’s necessarily cracked in the time it takes to read a Nancy Drew mystery. It’s a condition that requires diligence, time, constant scrutiny of the status quo, and a supportive community. In-Between Places is a snapshot of a critical juncture in the ongoing journeys of eight very different local Korean-American artists, creating a temporary community that can serve as a buoy throughout the duration of this often introspective and isolating process.

'In-Between Places: Korean-American Artists in The Bay Area' is on view at Oakland's Mills College Art Museum through Dec. 10, 2017. For more information, click here.