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Ramen noodle sculptures make artist’s viewers smile

Sunday, February 16, 2014
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An artwork is made from about 2,000 unwrapped blocks of instant ramen noodles. Inset photo shows artist Sangwook Lee. (Karen Bjornland/Gazette reporter)
An artwork is made from about 2,000 unwrapped blocks of instant ramen noodles. Inset photo shows artist Sangwook Lee. (Karen Bjornland/Gazette reporter)

For Sangwook Lee, making art is joyful and fun. And he wants to share that feeling with the viewer.

Lee, a native of South Korea and a Skidmore College art professor, also wants you to think about where you came from.

“It’s cross-cultural, combining Eastern and Western culture,” Lee says, describing “Ju Money 2014,” his solo exhibit at The Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy.

After looking closely at the gallery, Lee created two new site-specific installations.

One of them is inspired by “bokjumoney,” pouches that Korean children would wear on the waist of their “hanbok” or traditional costume. In the olden days, children were given red beans for good luck, and they carried them in the pouches.

In Lee’s artwork, hundreds of hand-sewn red silk pouches are suspended from the ceiling by long strands of red yarn.

Gathered together, the pouches look like a multi-textured garden of rose blossoms, and their colors subtly change with the light from the gallery window. The pouches are filled with angora rabbit fur, a nod to the American good luck charm of a rabbit’s foot.

‘Ju Money 2014’

'Ju Money 2014'

WHAT: Exhibit by artist Sangwook Lee

WHERE: Main Gallery, The Arts Center of the Capital Region, 265 River St., Troy

WHEN: Through March 30. 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon.-Thu.; 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Fri.; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.; and 12-4 p.m. Sun.

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO: www.artscenteronline.org, 273-0552

The other installation is made with instant ramen noodles, a material he has been working with for more than a decade, including a 2012 installation in the Courthouse Gallery at the Lake George Arts Project.

In Troy, he has placed about 2,000 unwrapped blocks of noodles around a column, like a wide square collar or bib around a person’s neck.

Lee visited a Japanese noodle factory to see how instant ramen is made (it’s fried in oil), and he read all about Momofuku Ando, the businessman who invented the quick comfort food in 1958.

Sixties art, especially minimalist and repetitive styles, interests Lee. Among contemporary artists, he likes the work of Tara Donovan, who uses large amounts of everyday manufactured materials, like straws and toothpicks, in large-scale sculptures.

Lee earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art in South Korea, and holds an MFA in textiles from the University of Georgia. Before he came to Skidmore six years ago, he taught sculpture at Georgia College State University.

He lives in Saratoga Springs with his wife, Yujeong Ahn, and 13-year-old son, Daniel. Another son, Minseok, is a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh.

Lee has exhibited in many solo and group shows in the U.S. and Asia, including at Emory University in Atlanta; MOCA in Jacksonville, Fla; The Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia in Atlanta; and in the invitational group show “Pojagi-2007 Cheongju International Craft Biennale” in South Korea.

Q: What was your noodle installation in Lake George like?

A: When I went to Lake George, I spent a long time looking around because I had never been there. The gallery is quite small and has a view. I was enjoying the view, the lake, the waves. And then I was looking at the gallery floor. I could really see the waves coming through. Ah, it’s so beautiful, Lake George. And so quiet. I was surrounded by nature. So I covered the whole floor with ramen noodles. My piece tried to mimic the water.

Q: How do people react when they realize that your art is made with noodles?

A: One word I can say: Smile. I like that. I’m having fun making my work, discovering ideas and things like that.

At a distance, they don’t look like ramen noodles. Then you start to discover. It looks very familiar. It’s kind of funny. But at the same time, they say ‘what is this? I’ve never seen this before.’ Most people have had the experience [of eating instant ramen noodles]. They know how one dollar can make you so happy. I’m trying to share that. They come in and start smiling and they talk about their experience. Also, when I look at it, it’s sort of like me. These ramen noodles are totally Asian. Most people have experience eating them. But they don’t know exactly about me. I am from Korea. They don’t know exactly how to react to me.

Q: You feel a personal connection to the noodles?

A: The ramen noodle in Korea, in Japan, is so important. They are my culture. All my good memories are eating with friends, all together eating ramen noodles. We find a place with good ramen noodles, we drive two hours, it doesn’t matter. It’s so important to Asian culture, especially in Korea and Japan. Here, it is not a big deal.

Q: And not just instant ramen, but all kinds of noodles?

A: Right, right. Not just instant. There are all kinds of ramen noodles. Or just noodles in general.

Q: What’s the challenge with this material?

A: It’s not an easy material to work with. It’s food. I am not trying to change it, the pure quality of the material. I was thinking about dyeing the noodles, about spraying them, adding something. In the earlier stage, I’d break it and glue it. I used to do a different style, like sculpture. But I discovered that just by itself it’s so important. I was losing the power of it. So I started with installation, putting it together in massive amounts.

Q: You’ve done bigger noodle installations?

A: At MOCA, Museum of Contemporary Art, in Atlanta. That was my biggest show, a huge structure. That was seven or eight thousand ramen noodles. I don’t remember the exact number. In Atlanta, I went to all the Sam’s Clubs, I bought all the ramen noodles. That was funny. In the future, I want to do a documentary about buying the noodles. Every one wondered why I wanted so many ramen noodles.

Q: Do you have a massive amount of noodles at your house now?

A: No. First of all, I don’t have a good place to store them. Because it’s food, it’s better just to throw it away.

Q: But you eat them at home?

A: Oh yeah. All the time.

Q: What kind?

A: A Korean brand, mostly. This (the ramen in the artwork) costs less than a dollar. But Korean ramen are expensive. A different taste. You can only get it in New York City.

Q: Did you grow up with art?

A: I was jealous every time people have an artist’s talk, and they are talking about how they became an artist. They have beautiful, beautiful stories. My father was an architect, blah, blah, blah. I don’t have that. My father worked for the government and I didn’t see him much. He was always working. I guess I was totally influenced by my mother. She didn’t have any art background. She didn’t go to college. But one thing she liked to do was sewing when I was young. It was an old sewing machine. It didn’t have a motor. I loved that sound. Later, when I was getting older, I had the memories, the sounds of the sewing machine. Maybe that’s how I started.

Q: What does your family think about your art?

A: They think it’s crazy. In the family, I’m the only one doing art. My brother does business. He always asks me: How much is that? Is anyone going to buy those things? They always say: Why don’t you do a painting or something so I can put it on my wall?

Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197 or kbjornland@dailygazette.net.

 
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