Ran Hwang was awarded an MFA (1997) in realistic art from of the School of Arts, Chang-Ang University in S. Korea. The same year she moved to New York City where she received a BFA in 2000 from the School of Visual Arts in New York. Immigration issues prevented her from returning home when her parents died in Korea. “They are always in my heart.” To earn a living she worked in the New York’s garment district; she drew designs for embroidery patterns which were then transformed into machine made patterns. Hwang noticed boxes of unused buttons stacked in a corner and asked if she could have them. The answer was “take as many as you want.” Something about the buttons drew her, and the germ of an idea grew.
Hwang’s idea came to fruition in 2001. Her work was inspired by her Korean culture and the practice of meditation in Zen Buddhism. Working in her studio on 9/11, Hwang witnessed the destruction of the World Trade Center. She saw “tiny people falling from the upper floors” and could see the ashy remains for months after. “From that point my thoughts deepened around life and death, creation and demolition.” The tiny faces of people with staring eyes piling up on the sidewalk became the abandoned buttons. The buttons, like tiny faces with eyes, represented the millions of nameless people that make up human society. She would recycle the buttons that represented people and would in affect reincarnate them for a new life. The buttons also reflected the global women’s labor force whose intensive work was and has been a reality; many of them being Asian. Hwang makes her images from buttons individually hammered with pins into board, “the perfect material to connect anything. The pin is a relationship.”
Hwang uses her art to create a sense of peace and beauty that counterbalances the chaos and ugliness in the world. “Rest II” (2009) (108’’ x 60’’) resembles Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy and compassion. This figure, without specific details to identify her as Guanyin except for the relaxed seated pose, depicts a figure at ease and at rest. The gentle downward curves of the buttons and beads create a sense of calm and quiet. The grouping of buttons and beads subtly shimmer and generate a peaceful elegance. The work is mesmerizing.
“Sweet in Yean” (2010) refers to rebirth. The term Yean means to bring forth young, a specially to sheep and goats. There are no sheep or goats in this work, instead there are several panels of trees incrusted with brilliant red flowers. Hwang comments, “My immense wall installations are extremely time consuming and repetitive manual work. This is a form of meditative practice that helps me find my inner peace. I hammer thousands of pins into a wall like a monk, who, facing the wall, practices Zen.” Many of her works depicts birds such as the American eagle and the Asian phoenix, while others depict clusters of flowers on tree branches, another Asian theme. Her titles reflect the positive ideas she hopes the viewer will experience. “Whimsical Dreams” (2011), “Healing Blossoms” (2012), “Healing Temple” (2015), and “Love Blossoms” (2019) are some examples. She has a number of assistants working for large installation. In large installations, Hwang frequently leaves loose buttons on the floor below the work, perhaps to cause the viewer to think some had fallen off, or possible as a subtle reminder that petals eventually drop from real flowers. Life and death form a cycle.
“East Wind” (2012) (6’ x 10’) depicts a created reflection of the Old Palace of Seoul, Korea. Hwang made two different pieces for this work, each approximately the same size, and both taking five months to complete. She scanned old photographs into her computer and manipulated them to create the design she wanted. Most of the buttons in Hwang’s works are not pinned flat to the board, rather they are pinned at various levels and are left loose to allow them to create shadows and to shiver in order to change the light patterns.
Hwang has created a number of very large installations involving two long panels which form a walkway. As the viewer moves through a long passage of button walls, changing video images are projected and color lights and music create a dynamic panorama. These installations deal with life cycles and generate a slowly changing cycle of growth, decay and regeneration. Her use of large bird images of buttons are also used to discuss the idea of freedom, confinement and release.
Hwang uses a variety of types and colors of buttons in her works. Nature is a frequent reference. “Ode to Second Full Moon II” (2013) (39.5’’) is an example of her smaller works. Although smaller in scale, they are made with the same labor-intensive and meditative process. The detail of this work clearly illustrates the technique and intensity of Hwang’s process.
For the UNESCO building in Paris, Hwang executed “Beginning of the Bright “(2015) (106.5 x 86’’), a work combining images of the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel tower. The work is made from handmade hanjo paper that is made from the skin of mulberry trees. This paper making process dates from the Fourth and Fifth centuries in Korea. The paper could be used for drawing, but it could be fashioned into suits of armor, lamps and windows. “I used buttons made out of hanji. The components are actually Korean vowels and consonants. I think there’s a triumphal arch in everyone’s mind. So, if you look closer at the arch, I used a lot of ‘ㅎ’ [a letter of the Korean alphabet pronounced like an ‘h’ in English]. The sound of laughter usually begins with the letter ㅎ – haha, hihi, hehe, hoho. Sometimes, people laugh out of happiness or sadness or anger. The piece has three to five layers of hangi. The toughness and softness of the texture and the [white] color of hanji really seem to reflect the heart of the Korean people. So I combined hanji and [the letters of] Hangul, the Korean alphabet.” Hwang created this work in conjunction with Korea’s 2015 celebration of the creation of the Hangul alphabet.
Hwang has several exhibitions planned for 2021 and 2022. She has exhibited internationally and has made specific pieces for several companies. In 2017 she created an enormous permanent installation titled “Healing Garden” for the stairway of Royal Caribbean’s cruise ship Anthem of the Sea. In 2021 she will be a participating artist in Facebook’s Artist in Residence Program at its headquarters in New York City.
Some of her works purchased by individuals and museums will endure. However, many of her large installation pieces will be dismantled. She says that taking down her work is “heartbreaking” but “death is part of life.” Always conscious of the heartbreak of 9/11, she recognizes that the cycle of life is the reality. “And that is how it is for exhibitions that are gone. They remain in our hearts.”
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.