Another way to adapt to different cultures: Drinking your surroundings By Joo Yeon Woo

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In a small fishbowl, a small world is decently built with houses, stones, trees, and other articles. Just as goldfishes think the small fishbowl represents their entire world, people also adapt themselves to a small part of the world. However, what would happen if we would face the opposite situation? I delightfully imagine that goldfishes would swallow the fishbowl and the world would be captured by a small cup.

Joo Yeon Woo’s artworks Drinking Your Surroundings starts with the sense of difference experienced from her immigration life. The motivation for the artworks came from the artist’s bold idea that she could drink up the new places and cultures so that she could understand and absorb. She first took pictures of architectures, trees, or landmarks during her trips, and then, to complete the art making, she placed these pictures in a cup of water and took photos of those.

Since 2004, she has worked with photography and digital media. The artist perceived the process of art making as act of collecting. Joo Yeon Woo, whose hobby is collecting refrigerator magnets and the cups during trips, just as other people may collect post-stamps or butterflies. Her work, Drinking Your Surroundings, is a kind of documentary to collect unexaggerated, small stories from daily lives, neither difficult nor philosophical. She works on real cups that she uses every day and the final art works are made in the actual cup size. It fits well with her artistic view, as she wants her works to be joyful to all viewers without detailed descriptions and explanations.

Joo Yeon Woo graduated from the Pennsylvania State University with a master’s degree in Drawing and Painting from 2003, and she is now an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. During her early graduate study, she studied digital media and became interested in photography and video mediums. In her MFA thesis show, she exhibited mostly video and photography works. After graduation, she has taught media-art-integrated painting to introduce students to various mediums of more liberal and experimental artmaking. During her visit in Korea while on summer break, she carefully collected teaching materials to introduce Korean contemporary art scenes to students at the University of Colorado.

“A couple years ago, I read the Geography of Thought, a book by Richard E. Nisbett. The book explains how people from different cultures think and perceive things differently through various experiments. In particular, it was impressive how Easterners and Westerners would recognize objects or the world differently. Although the difference in their views could be a barrier to communication and understanding, it sometimes helps one see what the others cannot see. This is why I would like to introduce Korean artists and art scenes to American students.”


Bold Imagination to Overcome Cultural Differences

The work Drinking Your Surroundings started from the artist’s perception of cultural differences that she recognized when she visited Bellefonte, in Pennsylvania. She took pictures of many Victorian architectures, parks, and old trees, which are different from those in her place of origin. When she came back from the trip, she was surprised that the pictures looked like those taken by a “traveler”. In addition, she found one common characteristic among travelers’ pictures. She said, “I became to think that I am merely a foreigner or a traveler, although I am living here. I was familiar with the life in the U.S., and haven’t had any cultural collision, but well, I was interestingly not able to get mixed up with my surroundings. I became to know that there are big differences between knowing the culture and absorbing the culture.” She has an awkward feeling that she wears someone else’s clothes, although she has lived in the U.S. already for six years.

Drinking Your Surroundings started from the artist’s question: Is there any simple way to completely absorb different cultures? Just as taking a vitamin pill with a cup of water, her wish to drink strange surroundings with a cup is reflected in the simple, but interesting art work.


Fairytale and Fanciful Diversity in Cups of Glass

The artist herself took the pictures to create the artwork. She recorded her surrounding landscapes and environments, including an old church, a large cemetery, and a big full moon. The artist, who was a stranger wherever she went, used her own imagination because she did not have any relevant experiences and memories with classic Western style buildings. A beautiful castle became a gigantic castle from a children’s book, and a dark Gothic church became Dracula’s dreadful house. The images in cups are fairytale, and sometimes surrealistic.

The artist printed the photos of collected images, which were about three to five centimeters, then cut the original shapes of these images and placed them in a cup of water, which distorted or exaggerated these images. Finally, the artist took pictures of those images. The artist digitally re-compositioned some of her works to express the story more narratively or dramatically. To express the tension at the door of an old building in more detail, she placed sea-objects, like fishes and seaweeds, inside some of the building. She expressed the feeling from each location with surrealistic or fairytale images. “I wanted to express the feelings of a simple, but multi-flavored cup. A fish in a bowl would think the small space represents the whole world. I think I am like a fish in a bowl. If surrounding environments do not belong to me, and I drink the surroundings in a cup, the situation is reversed. Although it is impossible for a goldfish to drink up the fishbowl in a real world, I wanted to show such an irony.”


‘Movement’ as the Theme from Her Immigration and Moving Experience

Another work April Calendar, which is a detailed version of Drinking Your Surroundings, is a series of documentary media works motivated by a diary, where the artist records her thoughts and works to do. In the diary, she recorded all places that she visited in April, created corresponding cups, and linked them to the respective date in a calendar. Different cups placed on different dates of the calendar represent the artist’s yesterday, today, and tomorrow as well as the artist’s own small stories and feelings. Like this, there exists a coherence of another life and movement.

Nowadays, she works with small envelopes and take-out boxes, which are easily found in Chinese restaurants in the U.S. Objects, which can contain others, are important themes for the artist, and cups, take-out boxes, and envelopes are objects with symbolic stories. Such objects have also meanings for the artist’s movement. Furthermore, they are easily applicable to various installation and photography works. Joo Yeon Woo said, “Because of workplaces and family as well as immigration, I have moved many times. So, I think that ‘movement’ became an important theme. This work is also my story that began from the process to adapt to a strange place.” – Soyun Kim


Soyun Kim (2009, May), “Interview”, Monthly Photography, Vol. 496, pp. 110-117, Published in Korean