Sunday, September 14, 2003


Kim Jee-un is carving 100 boats out of salt bricks to represent the "sweat and tears" of Korean immigrants to America. Her work will be part of the "Crossings 2003" exhibit at The Contemporary Museum, opening Oct. 3.

Ordinary objects,
extraordinary message

Salt bricks turn into symbols
of Korean struggles in an art exhibit

KIM JEE-UN finds inspiration in the mundane. When the Korean fiber artist was invited to participate in "Crossings 2003: Korea/Hawaii," she decided to create boats symbolizing Korean immigration. After unsuccessful trials with other materials, she found the perfect fit for her project: salt bricks from Waimanalo Feed Supply Store.

Kim says she wanted to include salt in her work to "represent the hard work and tears" of the Korean immigrants whose only desire was to make their fortune in America and then return home.

"These aren't meant to (symbolize) boats to ride in," she says. "They represent the hopes and dreams of those immigrants to go back home."

Kim is about halfway through carving 100 boats -- one for each year of the Korean immigration centennial -- that will be displayed at the Contemporary Museum at First Hawaiian Center from Oct. 3 to Jan. 6. She says each 4-pound brick, at about $3 apiece, takes about 1 1/2 to 2 hours to fashion into a boat.

The process begins with sawing the brick in half and then shaping the outside. Next, Kim digs out the inside with a diamond wheel blade and then smooths it out. Lastly, she refines the boat's shape with water and a scrub. As well as being labor-intensive, working with this material poses special challenges.

"Me, Myself, and I" is one of Kim Jee-un's works from 2003.

Today is the opening day of "Crossings 2003: Korea/Hawaii," a multigallery exhibition celebrating the centennial of Korean immigration to Hawaii.

Official ceremonies will take place at 2 p.m. today in the main courtyard of Honolulu Hale, where there will be an installation by special guest artist Kimsooja.

Admission is free. For more information, call 523-4674. To see last week's story about the artist and the multiple exhibitions around town, see our Web site at 2003/09/07/features/index1.html.

"Salt makes everything rust," she says. "The bricks are hard, so I must use power tools, but they get really rusty." Then there's the bricks' dust, which lands everywhere.

"Right now, I'm very salty," she chuckles.

Kim says boats have special significance to Korean people because in Korean shamanism rituals, boats connect this world with the one beyond.

"Boats are a virtual vehicle. They have spiritual weight," she says. "They represent hope, and without hope you cannot live your life."

Artist Kim Jee-un's aim is to liberate ordinary materials from preconceived expectations. "Combing Her Memories" is made with gut and cotton thread.

INHERENT IN KIM'S WORK is the concept that hopes and dreams reside in the realm of the ordinary. Kim says there's a big debate in the art world over the value of craft vs. art. Painting, she says, is deemed an "elevated" art form, while anything defined as "craft" is called "low" art.

But Kim begs to differ: "Real craft is made for necessity, and still, the crafter is able to explore 'self' through decorating her work. I value that as high art."

Her appreciation of such artistic expression started when Kim was a young girl.

"I kept a patchwork piece my grandma made. She wasn't an artist. She wasn't educated. But I like how she put that patchwork together, so innocently, and the composition is perfect. She made it without paying any mind to it. The stitches weren't too good, but she made it for necessity. I really value that."

"Rule of the Game," a plastic net and copper coated plastic work, and "Scrub 3" at right.

It's not surprising, then, that the pieces Kim creates relate to women and their work. Kim takes "found" materials such as scrubs and purses and turns them into something new, "something beyond their function."

The "something beyond" is representative of the woman's state of mind as she performs ordinary, even mundane tasks.

"When I think of my grandma's work, I want to get into her state of mind. I'm very educated, so it's hard for me to be that innocent. I'm always thinking of composition, etc.," says Kim, a University of Hawaii lecturer with two MFAs under her belt. "To empty the mind, let it go where it wants to go -- I'm trying to get there. If I can draw one line without thinking, I'll be successful.

"It seems backward, but I cannot parallel the women who create beautiful work without mind. That's freedom. So in my work I try to liberate the materials that women use a lot, try to free it from function and show it beyond its (intended use)."

In applying this concept to her 100 salt boats, Kim says: "Making boats over and over again, eventually I might be able to do it without mind. Like any women's work, whether it's crocheting or knitting, you repeat it over and over, and there reaches a point where you don't think about it anymore.

"And when I can do that," she says, "I'll feel enlightened."

"Crossings 2003:
Korea / Hawaii"

Works by Kim Jee-un, Dana Forsberg, Ezekiel Chihye Hwang, Kloe Sookhee Kang, Diane Kim, Hyeyoung Kim, Jinja Kim, Wendy Kim-Messier, Byoung Yong Lee, Chang Jin Lee, Geoff Lee and Jooyi Maya Lee

Where: The Contemporary Museum at First Hawaiian Center, 999 Bishop St.
Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays and 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays, Oct. 3 through Jan. 6 (closed bank holidays)
Admission: Free
Call: 526-1322

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