In regard to the current pandemic, there was no specific date we experienced as a society when things suddenly and drastically changed and no specific date for when all of our lives suddenly got back to what we were doing before. So there was no bifurcation and there has been no collective and permanent “again” moment for us, a moment where we could all say that this thing is over and we have won and life will resume, as the pandemic insidiously drifted in and continues to linger almost two years after Covid-19 was detected. Yet, all of our lives were interrupted and each of us has had to either begin again or plan for this. Artist Seongmin Ahn focuses on beginning “again” as she presents her public art project around various neighborhoods in New York City.
Again is an ongoing multi-site, multi-media public art series involving murals, floor pieces, signage, paintings and prints. It first appeared as a vinyl cut installation at the Korean Cultural Center (NY) in 2020 and then at the Wang Cultural Center at Stony Brook University (Long Island, NY) and Dongduck Art Gallery in Seoul. It currently appears on multiple billboards partnered with Save Art Space and a community mural in Queens is coming soon.
What is the message you are trying to convey in your Again project?
The Again project began from a small “hybrid” letter painting, developed during the most trying period of the quarantine, in the spring of 2020 in New York City. It is my message to the public that we can begin Again, despite the devastation we went through and are still going through caused by the pandemic.
Are you conveying this message in a way that it is particularly relevant to the folks in New York City?
I painted the first Again painting in English and Korean, which are my two most comfortable languages. As I developed this as a public project, I wanted to reach out to diverse groups who speak different languages in their neighborhoods. Believe it or not, research shows that more than 600 languages are spoken in the New York metropolitan area. I used to live in Woodside Queens, neighboring with Latino immigrants, and then Forest Hills, Queens, with lots of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Currently, I live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where Italian, Polish and Hassidic Jewish folks make their homes. Diversity is the true character of New York and in order to reach out to these different neighbors, I wanted to visually speak to them in their languages.
In which neighborhoods are the murals being displayed? Which groups of New Yorkers are you reaching?
When I first developed this painting into a public project, I thought about neighborhoods which were hurt hard by Covid-19. So when I looked for mural sites, I was actively searching for walls in Corona in Queens, Longwood in the Bronx, Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, etc. But there were problems in regard to contacting building owners and getting permission. And then, as the pandemic lasted longer than expected, I realized that all of us were impacted by the pandemic in every aspect of our lives… those who lost their loved ones, to those who lost their jobs, and from front line workers to little school children who couldn’t go to school for such a long time, losing their opportunities for proper learning and socializing with peers. So, from that point I have looked at every possible neighborhood and location from streets in Harlem to walls of corporations and museums. I would like to have a balance between different groups of people with `different ethnic backgrounds, social and economic status. We all are essential New Yorkers.
It must be difficult for you to get feedback since strangers are looking at your work and have limited means to contact you. Have you been ok with this element of the project – not getting the positive feedback you might otherwise have received?
Well, getting feedback is always nice and encouraging. And sometimes I get inspired by feedback especially when it suggests a new idea for a future project. But for a few decades my art practice has been almost like a monologue. I would prefer to focus on the creating process to effect my vision instead of how the final product might be received. Once I put my artworks out in the world, I let go of them and move on to the next project, rather than looking back. I am just too busy thinking about how to realize new ideas into physical presence and how to solve technical difficulties.
How does your message reflect your personal experiences during the pandemic in NYC?
One of my most ambitious exhibitions in my 25-year career as an artist had to be shut down as soon as it opened due to the lock down in New York City in 2020. As it was co-organized by an influential non-profit gallery and a prestigious commercial gallery with a long history, we expected quite an amount of exposure in the artworld. We scheduled multiple events and lots of art professionals from all over the country were supposed to visit us. Plenty of public attention was expected as well. But nothing happened due to the lock down. So, I was devastatingly disappointed and depressed, even becoming physically ill. Again was also a self assertation that I can begin Again no matter what happened to me. I wanted to transfer the crisis into an innovative opportunity.
Also, during the lock down we were directed as to who should go to work, who should stay home. This whole conversation made me think “Are artists not essential workers?” and “How can I become more essential through my art practice?” So, I began to develop more public projects with an assuring message to contribute to the community that I belong to.
Do you see this project developing further into more neighborhoods or even cities?
The idea of using international languages to speak to different ethnic groups is more functional and feasible in New York as the city has the most diverse immigrant communities. However, there is no limit of possible locations. I select specific pairs of languages that speak better for the community where it is installed. For example, Elmhurst has large Indian population, so the billboard in Elmhurst has Hindi and English. I can expand this project to any city in any country. I just need to keep adding more languages.
How were locations actually chosen?
Getting permission for a mural was really challenging and it is also an ongoing struggle to finalize a location for an Again mural. I considered different platforms and all the locations possible except very wealthy neighborhoods. For Again on billboard, I have three locations in Harlem in Manhattan, Elmhurst in Queens, and Bushwick in Brooklyn. Harlem stands for my Black neighbors, Elmhurst has lots of Middle Eastern, Central Asian community members. Bushwick is very mixed depending on the blocks. I am currently working to finalize a location in College Town in Flushing, Queens for an Again mural. The Wang Cultural Center at Stony Brook University also hosted Again in a vinyl installation for their lobby. I want to have balanced platforms and locations considering different ethnic groups and ages and have diverse ways to send out the visual message.
How is this project a continuation of themes in your work and how does it diverge from what you have been doing?
My previous works were personal, emotional and philosophical searches to answer questions concerning my own struggles and questions. On the other hand, Again is my effort to continue a dialogue with the public, which naturally sprang out from social and political agitation in recent years. My first word painting was “Black Lives Matter; I was strongly impacted by the social movement caused by the death of George Floyd.
I still show a continuation in terms of how I value aesthetic presentation along with a conceptual idea. I am fundamentally a visual artist, not a writer or social activist. My work must be visually pleasing to me. The visualization process mostly begins from traditional visual languages.
Do you hope to do more public work in the future?
I definitely want to do more public work. Public work created different opportunities for me. It expanded my vision and capability beyond a small canvas and small studio space. Now I am looking at big open spaces in the park, or huge and nice walls of buildings differently. Also, a public project is a collaborative effort involving different bodies of people. As an artist, I initiate a project, but I must coordinate collaborative contributions from a funder, hosting organization, fabricator, my personal assistants, etc. Even this relatively small public work was sponsored by Café Royal Cultural Foundation and the Queens Council on the Arts. Save Art Space played an essential role to expand this project on billboards. As I plan to expand Again into a grander public project, I will need more professionals to collaboratively work together. This is a whole new experience to me, which I enjoy and appreciate.