IN CONVERSATION: INSIL JANG & CHRISTIN GRAHAM
Brooklyn based artist, Insil Jang sat down with Christin Graham to discuss her recent online viewing room, A Hyphenated Identity. Marked within the layers of Insil Jang’s printmaking practice is a haunting and remarkable observation of human conflict. This unique presentation features a selection of recent paintings, celebrating the highly detailed and technically skilled work from the artist.
Christin Graham: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me and answer some questions! We are so thrilled to have your work as part of your online viewing room: A Hyphenated Identity. I was particularly excited to host your piece Mama Said My Body was a Temple in our latest in-person 10 year anniversary exhibition. Can you tell us more about that piece, and how it sets the tone for the viewing room?
Insil Jang: You are most welcome! Thank you for having me. Mama Said My Body was a Temple is a commentary on the hypersexualization of Asian women. As a Korean-American woman, I represent an underrecognized, marginalized and misunderstood strata of women. As such, I wanted to use my own existence in the work to comment on certain realities: that the female asian figure is not regarded as other female forms are and that asian figures are regarded as distinctly different from neoclassical female forms. I have been approaching art as a woman and as an Asian woman and I have yet to find familiarity in art history or in any part of modern institutions or museums. But with this work I have tried to find a way to coop classical language and to subvert it in a way that gives me a feeling of agency.
CG: In looking at your work from the exhibition and thinking about the work we saw in your studio back in 2019, there are a lot of historical references. How do you choose the images that appear in your work?
IJ: The images I choose to reference for my work come from a body of images I’ve been collecting over the years. The archive initially started with photos of my own family, dating back to sometime in the late 19th century. I could see a part of myself in the family photos I’d collected, even though the pictures were clearly captured during certain wartimes. I realized that a lot of my family history had evaporated, and I actually had very little evidence of my background. Photos, diaries, documents had been lost in time, so the collection became an opportunity for me to connect with myself and my ancestors. I started researching into my background and gained access to archives belonging to universities and institutions like, for example, the Library of Congress Prints and Photos, University of Southern California, UCLA, Princeton University and the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong. From there I was able to curate my collection of images that I use for inspiration and as reference points in my work. I like to work with imagery that portrays Asian femininity, but the images must always speak to my contemporary setting either in stark contrast to where I personally am in my life or as a reminder of where and from who I come from.
CG: When you were growing up what did you want to be?
IJ: When I was growing up I thought I wanted to be a doctor, mostly because being academic was expected of me, but in secret I really wanted to be a pilot - my father was a career military man, and maybe there was a secret desire for me to also pursue down that road. It seemed most natural to me that I would be doing something with my hands, but obviously…I did not pursue a career as either a doctor or a pilot.
Insil Jang. We Were I Was I Am. 2020. Acrylic on Wood Panel, 24 x 30 in (60.96 x 76.2 cm)
CG: The title A Hyphenated Identity sounds innately intimate and personal, can you expand upon the meaning and why you chose it specifically for this show?
IJ: ‘A Hyphenated Identity’ is something that any person of color has, and it’s something that I have slowly been coming to terms with for a while. Growing up as a military child in different parts of Asia and then finally in the US, became full of complexities especially due to my hyphenated identity. The term “Hyphenated American” was actually a slang term used in the late nineteenth century for any American that could trace their ancestry to another specified part of the world. As a Korean raised child being in America, it really became obvious how much that concept came true for me. I constantly needed to highlight that I was a “Hyphenated-American” - and in my case an “Asian-American” - in order to identify myself amongst American societal norms. I felt that this was the only way to express to other people where I came from, but I realized it actually came at the price of not being true to myself. My collection of pictures has really helped me to understand the culture my mother was raised in and the values she has tried to pass onto me.
In my work I am trying to understand the difference between being Asian-American and being American, between my Hyphenated Identity and the historical use of the term Hyphenated American. I hope to one day find balance between being American, Korean, and German - the same way my work should show that balance.
I am also trying to figure out why the use of the term Asian-American is prioritized to describe people like me in everyday use instead of just calling us Americans, and why others are called American without hyphenation. Ultimately, I hope to arrive at the conclusion that in this day and age we should not even have to use hyphenation to explain our identity. There should at least be a balance and an equality: Either we are all Americans or we are all hyphenated-Americans.
CG: What is your favorite part of your process when making work?
IJ: My background is in printmaking, so naturally the silkscreen and the painting of the details afterwards are my favorite parts of the process. When working with print you are able to see all of your mistakes and you immediately know why - you learn from those mistakes, you even learn to embrace some.
Obviously, you also learn how to fix serious mistakes, but it is a painstakingly detailed process - it is hard work and other silk screen printers will absolutely know what I am talking about here. The process is constantly teaching me new things and pushes me to be more ambitious and meticulous in the way I make my paintings. So when thinking about it, my favorite part is actually the meticulousness, the nitty-gritty detailing and technical process that interests me the most.
I STRIVE TO BE AWARE OF WHERE PEOPLE COME FROM IN ANY SITUATION AND I HOPE MY ART CAN HELP OTHER PEOPLE REALISE WHERE ASIAN AMERICANS, LIKE ME, COME FROM WHEN YOU MEET US
CG: What knowledge do you wish viewers were equipped with before seeing your work for the first time?
IJ: This is a two-part question in my mind. Firstly, there’s the cultural part of the artwork, that at first I did not even think the audience needed to know. I was surprised that so few people actually know much about Asian-American culture and what it means to be Asian. I learned the lesson the hard way, and I humbly hope, that my artwork can help inform the viewers on Asian-American culture’s influence on American society and be an addition to the diversity that is American culture. I hope that my work forces critical thinking about what Asian culture is, and if my work can help educate and inform, I will have succeeded.
Secondly, the process of silk screening is not common knowledge. At first glance, there’s no way for the audience to know how many hours of work actually goes into creating these pieces. And I hope that the technical aspects of silk screening will be recognized as it should.
CG: What place or role do you see your work having in the art historical context? Who are your influences?
IJ: Obviously, I have studied the greats, I know my art history to the T. But when it comes to actual artists my work is influenced by, there’s only a few artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Kerry James Marshall, and Laura Owens I will mention. Rauschenberg’s Warhol collaborations are epic and at the forefront of my mind. Large silkscreen paintings by Owens, and Marshall’s portraits are my go-to reference points when I need inspiration.
CG: What is your favorite movement in art history and why?
IJ: I always go back to the Bauhaus movement and artists like Wasily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The post-war exploration of artistic expression is appealing to me - what these guys did was so unexpected and shocking to their contemporaries and I feel that.
The Black Mountain College movement and the idea of art as a crucial and central element in education and people’s lives are so true. These artists were allowed to experiment and they made art for the sake of creating beautiful and fascinating works and were not necessarily concerned with commercial interests like some of today’s art.
CG: If you could collaborate with any artist living or dead, who would it be and what do you envision you would create together?
IJ: Jackson Pollock, so I could tell him to make better art. Or Yoko Ono, so I could hang out with the Beatles.
CG: Your artist statement (which can be read here) places your work directly in the lines of politics - was that always how you saw it or is it in part because of the larger conversation and awareness you want to have?
IJ: Oh, absolutely. For me, it is of the utmost importance to be acutely aware of your surroundings and the societal structures we move around in. First and foremost, I want to make great art, but there will always be a message I am trying to impose on the viewer.
My existence in itself is political, and if I wasn’t acknowledging that, I would be ignorant and in denial about who I am and what it means to be Asian. I strive to be aware of where people come from in any situation and I hope my art can help other people realize where Asian Americans, like me, come from when you meet us.
That being said, we are living in a time where it is dangerous to be Asian in America. This is the reality of things and a by-product of four years of bigotry from the White House and its administration. Asians did not cause this pandemic, and there’s no denying that there’s animosity out there on the false premise that Asians somehow did cause it. We need to fight that type of ignorance in any shape or form.
CG: The pandemic has been a horrible reality for people all over the globe for a vast number of reasons. In looking forward to the side of optimism, what do you think one positive change could come from it or that you hope to see in people and their way of living / thinking?
IJ: Hopefully, this period of time has taught us all awareness towards other people’s situations. It has hopefully taught us to be more considerate. It has definitely taught me to be more considerate and compassionate towards people closest to me and appreciate my close relationships. My family is spread all over the world, and this period has actually forced us to talk more with each other. Even though it’s over the phone, I really enjoy the newfound connection with the people in my life.
In the past year, my mother got COVID-19 as well as more members of my family. One of my closest friends even got shot coming out of his hallway in his Bushwick apartment - this has made me realize how precious those around me are to me, and I hope that that realization will stick with me for good.
CG: How do you see your work progressing over the years? What are you hoping to work on next?
IJ: I hope that my work continues to evolve into a larger and louder depiction of myself. I’m creating very honest narratives in the work that mirror my own experiences. Moving forward, I imagine I will be constantly exploring the best way to find a balance between my hyphenated identity and just focusing on making good work that will stand the test of time.
CG: What do you hope viewers take away from seeing your work?
IJ: I hope that viewers walk away from my paintings with a bit more compassion than when they first walked into the space and maybe a broader understanding of the human experience.
In my last body of work I was printing on acrylic mirror in hopes that the viewer would now be able to see themselves in my work, and be able to reflect themselves in the imagery. It was a more literal and demanding approach, and I am still experimenting and thinking of the best way to provide knowledge and impose these experiences on anyone viewing my work for the first time.
I have hope (a lot of hope!) that simultaneously, I will be learning from them and ultimately, my future work will reflect a journey towards a more balanced and liberated artist.
To view more of Insil's work please visit launchf18.com or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org