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Interview: Sung Eun Park's Happy Funeral

Interview: Sung Eun Park's Happy Funeral

Lives and works in Monmouth, Oregon

Tell us about yourself, how did you become an artist?

I never thought of becoming an artist. I only wished I could do what I love for the rest of my life. Although it is always the most difficult to do work that I am satisfied with, I am on the journey of overcoming and striving to reach the place I want (creating somthing I like). Just as those who have persevered have become great artists, I would also like to choose a path that I am going to take and push through.

Pause (2018), Mixed media, 36"x48"x48"

What is your background? and how did it inform the focus of your creative exploration or the medium you're currently working with?

In my current body of work, I explore the conflicts between humanity’s desperate hopes and reality. Such conflicts occur between desire and forbiddance, desire and the ideal, consciousness and unconsciousness, and instinct and rationality in our human nature. In each piece of the work, nothing is compromised by its opposite; both sides maintain their own energy in the tension of confrontation. The power struggle between them is revealed through the visual representation. The exaggerated, yet unstable gestures of forms are constructed with found objects that stimulate humans’ five senses. The installation often comes from a drawing—the central source of my work—that started as collages of images I have found. These images are chosen from existing reality, but their arrangement is given over to imagination.

Studio view, Drawing studio, Western Oregon University (2020)

What ideas interested you in the beginning of your practice, which ideas have you continued to explore, and where have they led you?

My current body of work concerns the exploration of life and death.

Hearing the rhythmic sound of musical instruments playing somewhere, an old man suddenly realizes that it is the last day to see his first love’s final moment. It is a perfect ceremony for not only the dead but everyone in this small village. The man dresses to attend the funeral of the woman, who died at the age of 99. Death is the only certainty in life—we are aware that all living organisms die—and, fortunately, this is not the death of a child or a young man or even someone struck by a sudden tragedy. It is a peaceful death of a person who lived a full life, which gives way to a “happy funeral.” The scenes of the funeral in “Village of the Watermills” from Akira Kurosawa’s collection of short films “Dreams” (1990) is what greatly stimulated my interest to explore the idea of a “good death.”

Studio view, Indiana University Bloomington (2011)

Who were and are the biggest sources of your inspiration?

I've been reading books about death over the past few years and I find that it helps me to understand and come to terms with the process.

The Bridge of Hesitation (2020), Mixed media, Dimensions variable

Where do you find inspiration?

Artists (background, work experience, creative process and studio practice), books, films and my family. 

Is there are a single work, project, or series that is pivotal in your current trajectory?

The second series of my work, called the “Happy Funeral,” is stimulated by the scenes of the funeral in the “Village of the Watermills,” from the collection of Akira Kurosawa (a Japanese filmmaker)’s short films called “Dreams”. This story allows the viewers to encounter the “Good Death” of a woman who passed away at the age of 99. Her funeral ceremony is held not only to grieve about the closure of her life journey but also to celebrate her life.

Still life (2021), Mixed media, Dimensions variable

How did it begin? and how did it evolve?

Speculating about the meaning of life and death often reveals that they do not need to be extraordinary to be significant. To be alive in the present moment is only magnificent and remarkable when we all suffer identity crises, becoming a distinctive “someone” or a “nobody” who is completely merged with the crowd during the limited period of our journey. Death must honor the dignity of the person who has lived a life.

With the current pandemic, we would all be deliberating the concept of mortality. The intensity of this inevitable shadow forces us to accept the prospect of personal death, and this acceptance has an impact on how we live. How can we fearlessly but more consciously accept the truth of reality? What should the end of our journeys look like? Do we have the opportunity to genuinely grieve about the closure of life? Is it enough to show the dignity of death in the current funeral culture, whether it’s a cultural or religious ritual or a superstition? What does our body remaining as part of nature after death mean?

In each work, I weave a narrative that allows you to follow the journey through a surreal world, a journey that will drive you to stay immersed in the present, free yourself from the past and the future, and to contemplate the dignity and value of your life.

Still life (2021), Mixed media, Dimensions variable

What were important lessons in the process that you’ve carried forward with you?

I recently watched the interview of an artist (Park Seo-bo, born. 1931, widely considered one of the leading figures in contemporary Korean art. Credited as being the father of the ‘Dansaekhwa’ movement) and it made me reconsider core value when making work.

The most inspiring quotes from the interview- " I think conception is the key in art. What you should present the conception is through your emotion, your heart".

Studio view, Sculpture studio, Western Oregon University (2019)

What are you working on now?

I just completed my new piece and have been working on some sketches for the next project.

The Bridge of Hesitation, detail (2020), Mixed media, Dimensions variable

If you could go back in time to the very beginning of your art practice and give your younger self a single piece of advice what would it be?

Have pride in your work and always try to overcome the tribulations. If you persevere, your work remains.

Modern Death Landscape (2019), Mixed media, Dimensions variable

About the Artist

Based in Monmouth, Oregon

Sung Eun Park is an artist working across the medium of drawing, sculpture and painting. In her current body of work, Park explores the conflicts between humanity’s desperate hopes and reality. Such conflicts occur between desire and forbiddance, desire and the ideal, consciousness and unconsciousness, and instinct and rationality in our human nature. Park currently lives and works in Oregon.

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