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Creating Light with Hanji

Interview with Setbyol Oh

Text: Suyeon Chang

Berlin-based artist Setbyol Oh prefers to refer to her work as light sculptures, not lamps. Her attitude toward light is evident in her brand, Oh-licht, a combination of her surname Oh and Licht, German word for light,. At first glance, her works have an Asian feel partly because they are made of paper, including hanji (Korean traditional paper). Nowadays, Korean crafts are gaining global attention, and Oh has been exhibiting in Germany for the past 10 years. We spoke with Oh at her studio.

Oh with her works © james.h

When did you start making light sculptures and what was your inspiration?

I started in 2013. At the time I was living in a place called Sylt in Germany, which is a typical vacation spot in the summer, but in the winter it’s harsher than anywhere else in Germany. It’s dark, damp, and hard to see a single ray of sunlight, so it’s no wonder that I started looking for light. I wanted to get lighting to illuminate my house, but I couldn’t find any I liked at all. I had some materials that I brought from Korea, so I started making a lamp for myself. I didn’t think about selling them, but one day a friend of mine came over and said it was beautiful and asked me to make another one for her. Later the friend’s friend saw it and contacted me to ask for another. I think that was the starting point.

 

Desolate, winter beaches on Sylt island

Loulou, named after the friend who commissioned the first piece from me.

 

Your early works remind me of Buddhist lotus lanterns. Are they perceived as a religious item?

I bought the materials from a Buddhist store in Korea. When I started working in earnest, I gave a change to the frames and experimented with different materials to create my own style. I don’t think it has a strong religious color, especially from a Western perspective. The biggest difference is the shape, but if you look at the details, the paper, like leaves, has different orientations. If it’s facing up, it looks like a flower, if it’s facing down, it looks like a fruit, and the feeling is different. If you glue the pieces together in different directions, you can feel the movement and speed, as if the wind is blowing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Susu, San, Reet, Sum, Hokusai

 

 

Do you source all your materials from Korea?

Yes, I get everything from Korea, and the paper shop is in Jeonju, a city that is famous for Korean crafts tradition. In Germany, hanji is called Reispapier (rice paper) or Japanpapier (Japanese paper). Both are made from mulberry tree, so the material is similar, but I call hanji mulberry tree paper because you can’t call Korean paper Japanese paper.

Hanji and rattan sticks as materials 

There is an increasing trend in the use of hanji as restoration paper, even in the Louvre. What benefits do you think hanji offers compared to European paper?

Hanji is very strong because it is made from the fibers of the mulberry tree, and the mulberry tree has the longest fibers. The fibers are delicate and strong because they act like pipes behind the bark to carry water and nutrients from the roots to the leaves, similar to human blood vessels. The weird thing is that even the same mulberry tree is stronger in Korea because it has to endure hot, humid summers and cold winters. Germany also makes paper from the mulberry tree, but it’s not as strong. It’s interesting to see the similarities when you translate the tree’s nature to paper.

Oh-licht watermark paper

How did you develop your expertise in paper?

I got interested in paper doing my work, so I did an internship at the studio of Gangolf Ulbricht, a paper master in Berlin. He has been making handmade paper for over 30 years. He makes 3g paper, which museums use for restoration, and you can’t make it with a machine. It’s also called tissue paper. It’s the same material as Hanji. That’s where I gained the knowledge of paper and really understood why Hanji is so good and strong. I think when you’re working on something and you’re interested in it, and if you fully understand it, you become more attached to it.

Gangolf's studio in Berlin 

What projects are you currently working on?

I’ve been working on my Fenster series, which is inspired by traditional Korean windows. I recently started a series called Gat (shade). Fenster is a German word for window, and I take those sliding doors from hanok, traditional Korean wooden house, disassemble them, and then reassemble them in my own way and use hanji to make light sculptures. The Gat series is adapted from old European-style light shades that you fold like a fan. I use very stiff, strong hanji, which is used for room floors, and fold and sew it, trying to transform it into different shapes.

The Fenster series

 

The Got series

 

 

All of your work is strongly influenced by Korean culture. How does it feel to return to your Korean inspirations after studying art in Germany and living there for over 20 years?

I think my work experience at the Korean Cultural Center in Berlin influenced me. It was established to promote Korean culture in Germany, so I was able to learn a lot about Korean culture. I was able to work on projects and interact with famous Korean writers and artists. I started reading Korean literature that I hadn’t known since I left Korea so young. I think I vaguely thought that if I were to do something in Germany, if I were to do something artistic, I would do something Korean because as a Korean, I have something that Germans don’t have, and that’s my competitive advantage.

What activities did you engage in as a craft artist in Germany?

I’ve participated in a lot of exhibitions and fairs. Craft fairs in Germany have a long history. I participated in fairs at the Grassi Museum in Leipzig, the most renowned craft museum in Germany, the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (Museum for art and industry in Hamburg), and in Berlin at the Zeughaus (the German Historical Museum). I also exhibited in many galleries. I was mostly active in North Germany.

 

Grassi Museum Fair, Leipzig

Duft der Zeit (Scent of Time) craft exhibition, Berlin

Have you exhibited in Korea too?

This year (2023) I had a group exhibition at Changchangdang in Gyedong, Seoul, and last year I had a two-person exhibition titled Still Leben at the Can Foundation in Seongbuk-dong, Seoul with Unui Jang, an artist I met when I was at the Hamburg University of the Arts. I also had a commercial exhibition at Yiyeha in Samcheong-dong, Seoul. In fact, because my work has a Korean feel, I tend to focus on Germany or France rather than Korea, and recently I participated in the Dubai and Abu Dhabi fairs for the first time.

2022 Still Leben at Old House, Seoul

2022 From Paper to Light at YiYeha, Seoul

How do you sell your works, and who comprises your main customer base?

I sell on the Oh-licht website (www.oh-licht.de) and in a few galleries. My customers in Germany are very loyal; some of them buy 5 or 6 of my pieces like a collection and give them as a gift, and introduce their friends. With them, I sometimes have a friendship that goes beyond the commercial relationship. Not the majority of people like crafts. But in Germany (or Europe), there’s an atmosphere where people value handmade goods more. They think that things have a soul. Even if it’s the same product, it’s slightly different, and if you go to the homes of people who like handmade things that have subtly different charm, there are a lot of really unique items. I think many of my clients have decorated their homes with things that only they can have, not expensive and famous brands that everyone knows.

I’m also curious about your story, how you got into the university of the arts in Hamburg at the age of 17.

I came to Hamburg after middle school, and I wanted to go to an art high school or something. But I found out later that they don’t give study visas to minors, except if you get a letter of acceptance from a school. I didn’t want to go back to Korea, so I did a language program first and then applied to the university because Germany has a university entrance exam, bet the art university didn’t require that, they just looked at your portfolio. I was lucky or unlucky (laughs), but I got in. I remember when the other students saw me at the university, their eyes widened and they said, "Why are you doing here?" I said it was bad luck because it was really hard to study. In Korea, when you think about art school, it seems like it’s more practical and technical, but here you learn really deeply conceptual, abstract theories, in a word philosophy. It’s hard even in Korean, but imagine a 17-year-old learning it in German. Of course, both entrance and graduation processes are practical. Especially nowadays, art is not about technique, so there were a lot of people who couldn’t even draw well in art school.

How does art education differ between Germany and Korea?

The biggest difference is that there are no departments. In Korea, you have painting, sculpture, design, and so on. But in Germany, it’s just one department called Kunst (art). Once you go in and you have an idea of what you want to do, and you have the technicians who support to realize the idea. That’s the Bauhaus style. You have experts in different fields in the university, and they give you basic classes and you’re free to do your own work. The professors are there to teach you art, not to teach you technique. Another thing is that there are no assignments. They don’t even check your attendance. You don’t even have to go to school if you prefer to work at home. It was a shock for me because I was used to the indoctrination education system in Korea. I realized later that it’s a good system because if you don’t have someone telling you what to do, you have to do everything yourself, you have to organize it, and if you don’t do it, nothing gets done. Artist is a freelance job from the beginning, and you can’t achieve anything unless you have a routine and you work consistently. I learned that in the art school.

Are there any artists you admire or who inspire you?

I like Anish Kapoor. I’ve made a piece of work named Kapoor. When I look at his work, I see that he is very focused on the material and I feel like I’m entering the world of the material, so I really like his installations.

Kapoor, inspired by Anish Kapoor

Now you’re working as a craft artist. Do you have any lingering feelings about painting?

I used to dislike looking at my paintings, but now that time has passed, I’m kind of okay with it. I’ll probably start painting again when I have more free time, but I don’t want to make a career out of it and be in the art world. I just want to do it for me, whether it’s painting or whatever medium it is. I set my path at such a young age that I didn’t realize how hard art could be. I still don’t know many things, but I do know that my personal preference is for clarity rather than ambiguity. You don’t have to necessarily convey a message, but I think when you have your world defined you can better communicate with the people who see your work.

Having lived in Germany for more than half of your life, do you feel more at home in Korea or Germany?

My home is still Korea, where I feel comfortable and relaxed with my family. But I’d like to do my work in Germany because the pace of society in Korea is too fast for me. Rather than having my work widely known or being famous, I want to be able to do what I want to do without much stress, within my means, and connect with a small group of people who like it, just like I’m doing now.

It was interviewed in Korean and translated into English

Original Version in Korean: Webmagazin Designpress:

https://m.blog.naver.com/designpress2016/223313174168

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