How tomato farmer Jae Kang got her art groove back after a 20 year break

Humble gestures

Artist Jae Kang – the woman behind a big new installation at the Maritime Museum – is also a tomato farmer and mother to an autistic son. In all these roles, she finds joy in meditative repetition and the power of turning humble gestures into something large.

A couple of years ago, Jae Kang, a tomato grower in Waiuku, looked at the coiled pile of discarded irrigation tubes and pipes and thought: ‘That looks like a giant scribble drawing. I can make art from that.’

And so out of a pile of recycled plastic tubing and irrigation equipment came what looked liked a massive, densely layered three-dimensional scribble suspended in space, filling the Franklin Arts Centre.

Called ONSIL (Korean for ‘hothouse’) it took 10 days to install, and some nights she slept overnight in the gallery so she could complete it in time. The local community of Korean tomato growers pitched in, turning up after a day in the greenhouse to help her stick fine pieces of plastic tubing on the walls, floors and ceiling of the art gallery.

There is, she says, a tradition of reciprocity in Korean horticultural circles; you help me plant my rice field, I’ll help you plant yours. “And as growers we do that here, and planting day is like a celebration of our community – we get together, plant thousands of plants together, have lunch and talk. So I asked my community to help me make art, and they were happy to – they were proud to have me show as an artist here.”

Kang is a tomato grower but also a trained artist, who completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts at Silla University in South Korea in 1985, where she specialised in sculpture. She has been making an idiosyncratic and spectacular mark as an installation artist in New Zealand in recent years. For Te Uru Gallery in Titirangi last year, she created Gurmon Sup, also out of recycled irrigation equipment which, referencing the local fauna (Gurmon Sup is Korean for ‘dark forest’) slid out of the ceiling, clambered around the upstairs gallery, and snaked through the circular stairwell. You were in an art gallery but you felt like you were wandering among the giant roots of the forest. 

She used similar materials at Sculpture on the Gulf this year with her sculpture ‘Whirimori’, a 5 x 27 metre three-dimensional swirling, curling calligraphic gesture, overlooking the Gulf.

 

Her latest installation, Knot Touch, on at the Maritime Museum, is a bit different. It’s a very tactile exhibition with a maritime theme, celebrating the versatility and traditions of knots. At Knot Touch, visitors are encouraged to touch, or push and pull, bounce, even clamber inside or over the artwork. It’s an inclusive exhibition, aimed at those who might be put off by the ‘look but don’t touch’ policies of most art exhibitions. This is important to Kang. “You might have beautiful artwork, but if you are blind, how can you see it, when you’re not allowed to touch it?”

This philosophical approach to art is partly inspired by her own son, Taewon (now aged 25), who is severely autistic and intellectually disabled, and who Kang has never been able to take to an art gallery. “He would want to feel the texture – for him, touch and smell are very important. So I’ve always wanted to make artwork that can be touched by anyone, especially children.”

Knot Touch could be described as a number of different rooms divided by hoops and transparent walls made out of fishing nets. One room is filled with giant-sized structures that look like jellyfish, based on the shape of fishing traps, suspended from the ceiling. Each one is made out of thousands of pieces of string that Kang uses in the tomato house, tied together with thousands of knots. Viewers are invited to climb inside them, to peek out through them. Another room features giant-sized monkey’s fist knots, one of which is so large it took three days, two men and a forklift to make. “It looks like a great, beautiful sculpture,” says Kang. In another area, dozens of ropes hang from a ceiling, each tied with a different style of knot. “I was amazed at how many different knots there are. If you really look at them, they’re all like small sculptures. All of them have a different character.” 

This is the kind of art she wants to make – art “in which people are submerged, which they can enjoy easily, art that has an easy language, an easy vocabulary.”

Kang is developing a reputation not only for her large-scale installations, but also for her drawing, a style of drawing influenced by Dansaekhwa, a monochromatic Korean style of painting focussed on repetition and layering. The term Dansaekhwa was first used in the 1980s to refer loosely to a group of largely non-figurative paintings in South Korea that emerged in the 1970s, a style of painting, says Kang, that has connections with an ancient Korean drawing technique she learned at high school in South Korea. It was a technique that required discipline; she had to learn how to meditate in preparation for drawing a line and then, following the breath, draw line after line after line. “It’s based on the philosophy that the universe started with a point, so if you draw from a point, your body and mind is part of the universe. And if your mind is busy you can’t see the point of the universe, or the beauty of nature.”

“It’s a kind of yoga,” she adds. “You meditate, you calm your mind, and then you can have a steady hand and draw a straight perfect line. We had to practise this, for thousands of hours, over six or seven months. Once you got the beautiful line you could move onto other drawing.”

 

Her drawings exemplify an exquisite mastery of the line. In ‘4000 Stains of Breath’, for instance, which won a Merit Award in the Parkin Drawing Prize this year, she drew (with a brush and in watercolour) what looks like a tapestry, drawn with perfectly executed 4.5-metre-long lines created out of methodical 30cm brush strokes, each drawn with the rhythm of her breath.

So how did she end up becoming a tomato grower? She and her husband James moved to Auckland in 1999, to give their son and daughter a better life. She was working as a secondary school art teacher in South Korea, and James as a maths teacher, but their qualifications weren’t recognised in New Zealand so they bought a tomato growing business in Waiuku. Neither of them knew anything about tomato growing; with the help of the Korean tomato-growing community, they quickly learned. 

The demands of tomato growing and the demands of looking after her son full-time meant that her art practice lay fallow for almost two decades. When her son was 21, he moved into residential care (he returns home on weekends) and she went back to university. “For over 20 years I didn’t make art, so I thought it would be good to go back to school, to refresh my mind and brain, to find myself and my own practice. I didn’t want to imitate contemporary painting, with abstract expressionism, or minimalism or whatever – so I started thinking about the practice that I learned when I was young. That is, repeating a humble gesture over time, and turning that into great things.”

 

At Manukau Institute of Technology, where she completed her Bachelor of Creative Arts in 2014, she began to combine her sculptural background with the Korean drawing technique, creating what she describes as “drawing installations”. She’s now finishing a post-graduate diploma at Elam School of Fine Arts.

“I feel more comfortable drawing on my culture,” she says. She’s drawing on an art practice that is based on the art of repetition, grounded in patience and humility and discipline, and which has much in common with other aspects of her life – such as the repetitive and laborious processes involved in tomato growing, twisting or de-leafing 6000 tomato plants, day after day after day. That meditative approach has also been useful raising an autistic child: it took 10 years to teach her son to call her Mum, and five years to teach him how to fold a towel. “For my boy, my tomato growing, for my art work – it all involves the same thing,” she says.

Growing tomatoes can be tedious. It’s not that lucrative, but it’s enough and frees her from the obligation to earn money from art. “I made that decision early on, that I wouldn’t go with a dealer gallery,” she says. “It doesn’t mean I don’t like dealer galleries, but I love to engage with ordinary people, people who can’t buy expensive art. I understand the minority in the art industry, because I am one of them. I am Asian. I’m the mother of an autistic child. I have a language barrier, I still find English difficult. So this is my political voice.” 

Jae Kang: Knot Touch is on until 29 April, 2018, at the New Zealand Maritime Museum

OTHER WORKS BY JAE KANG
The artist takes a meditative approach to her art.