Artist Erin Hyunhee Kang cultivates collective understanding in her exhibit: “A Home In Between”
In a word, MFA student Erin Hyunhee Kang is resilient. Her resilience is not only evident in the themes of A Home In Between, her current exhibit at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (BMoCA), but it is definitive of her character and perspective on life.
At the age of 15, Kang moved from Seoul, Korea to the United States. She began to experience a splitting in her identity as she adapted to Western culture, she recalled.
Kang eventually graduated with a BFA from Rhode Island School of Design and worked for New Yorker Magazine as a photography assistant, Tapehouse Toons on the visual effects team, Penguin Group USA as a book jacket designer, and the Boulder Valley School District as a visual arts teacher.
Now, she works as a designer for Penguin Random House, a children’s books illustrator for the Denver Art Museum, and a billboard artist for Denver Theatre District & Public Arts, while also working towards her MFA at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Despite her success, Kang felt disconnected from her Korean identity after assimilating to American life, she said. As a Korean American, she did not feel fully accepted in either Eastern or Western culture but existed somewhere in between.
Kang now thrives in what she has deemed the “diasporic space” between the two.
“Diasporic space is a reality for minorities like myself, but it is most often seen as an unwanted place that is occupied only through default where there is no other choice,” she wrote in her artist statement.
“It is a space of constant struggle between processes of diasporic social and cultural inclusion and exclusion.”
Even so, Kang’s resilience and adaptability enabled her to become comfortable in this uncertain space. The duality of her identity and her curiosity towards her relationship to diasporic space now lays the foundation for her art practice and attitude toward life, she said.
Kang’s work is a visual translation of the metaphorical marginal space. She creates fragmented landscapes in which her duality becomes something positive, she stated.
In earlier work, she accomplished this using bright colors and collaged abstracted shapes that create surreal architectural structures. Her process creates dream-like pieces that act as windows into her imagined world.
In her mixed media piece The Perfect Home Failure, she uses these techniques to create an architectural structure reminiscent of a home. In the fragmented, bright space, Kang embraces imperfection, Kang told the Daily Camera, suggesting that the home becomes a place of healing where the dichotomy of her identity finds compassion.
But late last year, Kang’s own home became a diasporic space, leading to a visually contrasting representation of the home, depicted in A Home In Between.
On Dec. 30, 2021, the Marshall Fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes and damaged nearly 150 more in Louisville, Superior and unincorporated Boulder County. One side of Kang’s neighborhood was destroyed, while the other side was virtually untouched, she noted.
Kang’s home sat right in between those homes destroyed and those spared. The fire split her home in half, destroying one side, but leaving the other undamaged.
Her home became a physical embodiment of the diasporic space—the tragic, yet perfect, parallel for the marginality felt within her identity, she said.
In A Home In Between, Kang explores her identity within the backdrop of her damaged neighborhood, through digital drawings. In this work, Kang’s usual surreal spaces become chaotic and dystopian.
We all have trauma and that’s OK. We can rebuild again."
Though deeply rooted in devastation, glimmers of hope remain conspicuous throughout her work, characteristic of Kang’s resilience. A Home In Between provides an immersive experience that connects the viewer emotionally to the work by making deliberate choices regarding color, medium, display and sound that mimic her own experience.
The black and grey imagery contrasts starkly with her previous brightly colored work. “I wanted to remove the juiciness of color and face it in black and white,” Kang said, referring to the loss of her home.
She also wanted to imitate the dark sky from the day of the fire, she added. This effect is enhanced by the dimmed lights of the BMoCA gallery.
While working as a book cover designer, digital drawing became a comfortable and accessible medium for Kang. Equating it to a sketchbook, she found digital drawing conducive to the flow of her ideas, she said.
Using digital drawing in A Home In Between allowed Kang to render her imagined spaces accurately without needing to divert attention away from the subject and toward technique.
The drawings are projected on the BMoCA walls, making them feel ghostly. The projections mimic the quality of floating ash, she said. Kang wants the viewer to almost “breath the work in and out,” imitating the experience of breathing in soot after a fire, she said.
Projecting the work also provides a sense of dynamism that nods to the passage of time and the fluidity of her emotions surrounding the tragedy, she added.
The exhibit’s soundscape echoes through the gallery space, amplifying the show’s immersive quality. Kang describes the sound within the context of her home’s restoration process.
She recorded the sound from her empty living room while construction workers hammered above on the roof. According to Kang, the emptiness of the space created a profound coldness. The contrast of the lifeless quality of her empty living room with the hopeful sound of reconstruction became yet another metaphor for the dualling qualities of the diasporic experience.
Kang is no stranger to tragedy, yet emphatically finds joy and hope throughout her life, as depicted in her work. Resilience is woven throughout A Home In Between in pieces like, God can only give you what you can handle, where smoke continues flowing from the chimney of a house submerged in water, or in the calm livestock of No One Cares But You, who casually graze despite billowing smoke in the distance.
Kang’s optimism is reflected most strongly, however, in My child’s walk to school. These pieces differ from the rest of the exhibit, aligning more closely with the compositions of her previous works.
The sketch-like drawings display pieces of collected debris Kang noticed while walking her children to school after the fire, she noted. She saw beauty in what she described as “little ruins.” Though incredibly sad, Kang saw the debris as pieces of history.
My child’s walk to school provides a newfound meaning and use to the discarded material, she said, adding: “Everything requires attention and love.”
“I know it sounds corny, but after the fire I felt like I just wanted to be a nice person … appreciate the simplest things in life … the ‘little ruins.’” This point of view is embodied in My child’s walk to school. Its celebration of the overlooked ruins is a symbol of Kang’s perspective on life after tragedy.
A Home In Between explores Kang’s life experiences and perspective while simultaneously commenting on the human condition. She freely shares her story with strangers who visit the exhibit, generating collective understanding among its viewers.
“I want to connect to deeper universal feelings of human nature,” Kang said. Through A Home In Between, the Marshall Fire becomes an anecdote of the diasporic experience. The immersive work explores the marginal space of Kang’s destroyed home. It offers a glimpse into her mind and successfully builds connections across cultural boundaries.
Kang put this idea simply, saying, “We all have trauma and that’s OK. We can rebuild again.”
Kang’s exhibit is on display until Feb. 19, 2023. Admission is free on Saturdays ($2 all other days).
Molly Pluenneke, who reviewed Kang's exhibit, is a student in the art practices program at CU Boulder.