Wade Carey Interviews Ginny Huo on the Eve of Academy 2011

By Wade Carey on July 7, 2011
Ginny Huo
Ginny Huo, April 2011, copyright Ginny Huo. Courtesy of the artist.

On June 29th, I visited recent MFA graduate Ginny Huo near her studio at the Maryland Institute College of Art to talk about her work and being a featured artist in Academy 2011 at Conner Contemporary Art. The 11th annual Academy group show of work from MFA candidates attending regional schools opens July 9th. Conner Contemporary Art is located at 1358 Florida Avenue, NE. The transcript of our conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.

Editor’s Note
This interview is one of four conducted by Wade Carey in his coverage of Academy 2011.  The other three interviews are with:

Wade Carey (WC): They haven’t mounted the Academy 2011 show yet, right? That’s happening this week. You’ll be there. You’ll have a big part of it.

Ginny Huo (GH): Yes, I’ll be installing soon. I am really excited. Have you worked a lot with Jamie and Leigh from Conner Contemporary?

WC: I have been a fan of Conner Contemporary and the artists that they show for a long, long time. And I covered the Academy 2010 show and interviewed some of the artists last year.

GH: That’s great. I saw that you did an interview with Calder Brannock.

WC: That’s right. I had a really nice interview with Calder.

GH: Yes. It was a great interview. He’s a good friend. He graduated from the same [M.I,C.A.] program. He was here a year before me. We went to Miami Art Basel with his Camper Contemporary.

WC: Oh, you were in on that?

GH: Yes! I participated by having a sculpture in the Camper Contemporary and with Calder’s help, several of the sculpture students drove down to Art Basel. It was an exciting experience.

WC: I went to your website and I saw “Mother’s Table,” the work featured in the Academy 2011 show, but I haven’t seen any of the rest of your work yet [looking at a computer image of “Whisper Down the Lane”]. Do you know any of the other artists in the Academy 2011 show?

GH: Some of the artists I know are Adam Junior, Caroline Covington, Virginia Wagner, and Woojin Chang.

WC: Do you know Sam Scharf, from DC?

GH: No, I don’t.

WC: He did a piece that is not like this but you could say they are distant cousins, as sculpture.

GH: Sounds interesting, I would love to look him up. The piece here is called “Whisper Down the Lane.” A lot of the work that I have been doing started off with stories that my mother used to tell me. They are based on Korean cultural myths such as “fan death.” There is a myth that if you sleep with a fan on, you will die.

WC: If you sleep under a fan, it will kill you?

GH: If you sleep with a fan on in an enclosed space, you will die from asphyxiation. This concept is something that kick-started my two years of research and art work at M.I.C.A.

WC: So, can you have it running in another room?

GH: It can be in the same room as long as there is a door or a window open for air to flow.

WC: An exhaust fan would be OK? Maybe I should discuss this with your mom!

GH: Right. The myth mainly refers to a fan in an enclosed space that is used for cooling such as a box fan or a ceiling fan. The idea is that there is a lack of oxygen or that the somehow the air gets trapped.

WC: Well, it’s true. A lot of people, especially in climates, like Korea, that can get cold, die every year in the winter because of carbon monoxide poisoning.

GH: Yes, so, that’s where I started off initially.

Ginny Huo, "Whisper Down the Lane," 2011
Ginny Huo, “Whisper Down the Lane,” 2011. Copyright Ginny Huo. Courtest of the artist.

This [Whisper Down the Lane] is the piece that culminates that work. I began with the fan death myth and I started to do more research on it. When I got married, my husband always used to leave the fan on while sleeping, not knowing about the fan death myth. When I told him that we couldn’t sleep with the fan on because it would kill us, he was confused and had no idea what I was talking about. He told me that he had always slept with a fan on with the door closed, and nothing had ever happened to him. When I heard that, I was really surprised and thought maybe the fan death story is not true. This opened up my interest and I began researching. I found that fan death is believed primarily in Asia, mostly in Korea. In 2003 to 2005, it was reported by the Korean Consumer Injury Surveillance System that twenty people died from asphyxiation as a result of sleeping in an enclosed space with a fan on. I have not yet found scientific proof of the fan causing death; but I have found documentation where Korean scientists disclaim this cultural myth. Much of my work has been based on the concept of myths and has been influenced by the Korean culture. So, “Whisper Down the Lane” is the piece that I did for my thesis show here at M.I.C.A. I collected a lot of the stories of other people’s myths. I had dealt with my own personal stories for a while, such as this fan death myth, and afterwards I decided that I really wanted to know more about what other people believe in. I am interested in the idea that someone can tell you something that has no scientific proof or evidence, but it can initiate a change in your behavior. I started collecting these stories from other people, and it was interesting to see how they impacted their behavior. One of my favorites was from a guy who said that he had a reading problem when he was six years old and his mother told him that if he wore this “HE-MAN” belt that he could learn how to read properly.

WC: Like “HE-MAN” and “SHE-RA?”

GH: Yes! He had this “HE-MAN” belt. He was behind in his reading group and he decided to wear this belt every day, even when he went swimming and when he was sleeping at night. By the end of the year, he said, “I learned how to read. It worked! I don’t understand it, but somehow it really worked!” There were really great stories, stories from all various people from different backgrounds such as Albania, Nigeria, Hong Kong—all over the world. This piece culminated everything that I had been researching. I was interested in the ways that stories are mimetically passed on and how they change through time. The idea came to me: the simplest way to portray these ideas was through using the telephone game. Each of the stories that I had collected was put on a card to be read by participants to play the telephone game. The phrases included, “If you sleep in an enclosed room with a fan on, you will die,” or, “If you wear a He-Man belt, it will help you read properly.” I have hundreds of stories in there. To play the game, participants place themselves underneath an air duct opening and whisper the phrase down to the next person. In the end, the participants gather together and the first and last people compare the phrase.

Ginny Huo, "Whisper Down the Lane," 2011
Ginny Huo, “Whisper Down the Lane,” 2011. Copyright Ginny Huo. Courtesy of the artist.

WC: Great. This is the better picture for me, the one that actually shows the process.

GH: Yes. It turned out to be really fun.

WC: Everybody looks like happy art consumers.

GH: A lot of my work is interactive and encourages participation, so there is always an anxiety. Is this going to work out? Will people participate? How are people going to react to it? I am really pleased when people enjoy the piece and have fun interacting with it.

WC: Let’s talk about “Mother’s Table,” the piece that is in the Academy 2011 show. Let’s talk about that process. When I talked to the curator, Jamie Smith, she mentions almost exactly what you have said, that you were exploring the things that your mother tells you, the ways that people communicate to each other—also, some of the quirky things, basically, in families. And how they radiate out from families into cultures and how cultures portray themselves in certain ways. Tell me where you started thinking about it and how you decided to pull together the parts that you pulled together. It is mounted the same way each time, am I correct? It is a piece that is static as sculpture? It will be the same thing from one gallery setting to another?

GH: Yes, more or less. What you interpreted initially from what Jamie said is spot-on. In a lot of my work, I am inspired by my own personal experience with my family. That is where I get most of my ideas. I also try to make it more universal in the end. It is not about making an autobiographical story about me. It is about finding universal commonality in what people experience.

Detail, "Mother's Table," by Ginny Huo
Ginny Huo, “Mother’s Table,” 2011. Table, tennis balls, and dog. Dimensions variable. Copyright Ginny Huo. Courtesy of the artist.

This idea for ‘Mother’s Table’ first came to be because we have a dining room set that looks just like this at my house. In our family, we are big tennis players so naturally we have a lot of tennis balls. My parents used these tennis balls, just like most people use some sort of protective method for items they value. When I was on break from school, I came home to visit my parents and half of the table chairs had nice protective coverings on the bottom and the other half had tennis balls. I told them that this was a really nice dining room set and they paid a lot of money for it. I asked them why they would want to put tennis balls on it. My mother said that it was just easier to slide the chairs on the wood floor.

WC: They are like socks.

GH: Yes. It was just easier to use the tennis balls to slide around without scratching the floors. I suggested buying nice coverings for the other half of the chairs.

Detail, Ginny Huo, “Mother’s Table,” 2011. Copyright Ginny Huo. Courtesy of the artist.

When I came back again six months later, the entire dining room set was covered in tennis balls. It was such an oddity, but I became used to it and didn’t think it was strange until I had friends visit. So, I found the humor in the idea that people spend so much money on buying nice materials and go through great lengths in order to protect them. I was interested in the absurdity in that idea. It was also ironic that, at the same time I was thinking about this piece, our family dog was dying. The timing of everything was very interesting. I was thinking about the concept of preserving the things you love. I was working one day and I was thinking about the table—that I had to do something about the table and the tennis balls. All of a sudden, I had the idea that I needed a dog.

"Mother's Table," 2011, by Ginny Huo
Detail, Ginny Huo, “Mother’s Table,” 2011. Copyright Ginny Huo. Courtesy of the artist.

This is actually a freeze-dried dog. It is not taxidermy. That is how this everything came together. It just clicked.

WC: So, this is a different dog?

GH: From my family’s dog, yes, a different dog. I thought it would be wonderful if I could include my family’s dog. I casually asked my mother if I could preserve our dog and she wasn’t too pleased about the idea.

WC: So, you were able to procure a freeze dried dog. I wondered how you could get a dog to sit that still. And then I wondered, maybe, the dog is, in fact, not alive. Do you have any more written on your website about the background of these works, because I couldn’t find out anything about the dog?

GH: Right. I just have a couple of sentences on my website. I like the mystery of allowing people decide if the dog is alive or preserved. Most people think that it is real.

WC: It is real. It just is not alive.

GH: It’s just not alive. And particularly, since it is freeze-dried, it is better preserved. If it were taxidermy, the coat, the fur, would look different.

WC: Interesting. It is very lifelike, obviously. It is very well-preserved. I didn’t even know that was an available process.

GH: Right. I didn’t either.

WC: And the eyes are very well made.

GH: I was very lucky to find this type of dog. That’s how this piece came about. It was very serendipitous. It happened very quickly.

WC: How did you and Jamie get together? Tell me a little bit about the process of being selected for Academy 2011.

GH: Conner Contemporary is a wonderful gallery. I really respect what they do. I love the artists that they show. I have been a big fan of their gallery. I was working as a program director assistant at M.I.C.A. for the Rinehart School of Sculpture program. We really love the work that they do and we wanted to learn more about the gallery. One of the students suggested having them to come up, and so we invited them to do a lecture and to critique our work. That is how I initially met them. I had admired them from afar, from what I had learned, but when they came to give a lecture, I appreciated them even more. They are just one of a kind.

WC: They are different, unique.

GH: Absolutely. They really are unique. I am extremely impressed with what they do.

WC: I think they are making a difference, too.

GH: The type of opportunity that they are providing for emerging artists is incredible.

WC: They are leading the way. It is happening more all the time, new MFA shows, and so on.

GH: It is wonderful and I feel grateful to be a part of it. I was thrilled when Jamie contacted me to put this piece in the show.

WC: Jamie knew the piece from here in Baltimore? She had seen it?

GH: I had shown her images of the piece. The piece was taken down by the time I got the chance to meet her.

WC: But she was able to see pictures of it and say that she would like to have it in the show? That’s great.

GH: I was very flattered and I feel honored to be showing with Conner.

WC: You have to go and set it up now.

GH: Yes, on the fifth.

WC: Good, you have all weekend not to worry about it.

GH: Exactly. It is going to be busy. But I’ve got all the flooring and I’ve got all the other pieces ready for install.

WC: It is a big enough gallery space so that you will have a comfortable place to put the piece.

GH: Yes. Hopefully, everything will go smoothly. It is one of my pieces that have involved fewer complications, so that is nice.

WC: It is about six by twelve?

GH: With the flooring, it’s eight by twelve.

WC: At Conner Contemporary, that will be no problem. It will be wonderful for the space.

GH: Thank you very much.

WC: East City Art, my website host, is particularly devoted to the art that thrives on the east side of The Capitol. Northwest DC is where most of the rich people live and Southeast and Northeast are much more mixed up. There are some pockets of affluence and then there are pockets of poverty. Then there is a lot of middle class and lower middle class housing. It’s much more like a real city, not like the Washington feeding off of the Federal government. That’s where the fifty thousand lawyers live, that whole thing. The kind of people who drive beer trucks and things like that, they live to the east. And also, because it is more affordable, that is where a lot of artists live.

GH: Right.

WC: Now, because of H Street, in Northeast, there are galleries closer to home. I also mean Mount Rainier and Hyattsville, Maryland, between the University of Maryland and DC, they’ve developed as artists’ communities there. Artists have moved there because the housing can include garage space and semi-industrial space, for studios. So, East City Art celebrates that. When Conner Contemporary Art decided to move to the foot of Florida Avenue, Northeast, it was a huge shot in the arm because of their reputation, but it has grown even more with the new gallery space. They have said that their location and the space itself have been great for them, too. Let’s break and go over to your studio.

[Recording pause.]

Rinehart School of Sculpture (housed in the converted B&O Railroad Mount Royal Station and Trainshed), Maryland Institute College of Art

[The interview resumed after a brief tour of the Rinehart School of Sculpture.]

WC: I thought, after we came over to your studio, after I got to see the environment—and it is really reinforced after seeing it—this part of the interview would be about how this phase is really over.

GH: [laughing] Yes.

WC: You are done. You are graduated. You have your Master of Fine Arts. You are packing up, putting stuff from your apartment in storage. What happens next?

GH: What’s next? It will be a bit of a whirlwind of a summer. I have some shows coming up. One with Holtzman Gallery at Towson University named, “Developmental Skills.” It will be up during Artscape and at the same time as Conner Contemporary’s Academy show. Right now, I am packing up to move to New York because I have been offered a job that starts in September.

WC: Is it arts-related?

GH: I’ll be working in an art gallery, in Chelsea, the George Adams Gallery, on West 26th Street. I am in the process of moving everything. I have to be out of my apartment by the end of June. For the next couple of weeks, I will be traveling. I will be going to New York and Chicago.

WC: Is that where you are from?

GH: I grew up all over the place. I moved almost every three years. Most recently, I came from Utah. That’s where I went to school. My family lives there right now. Before that, I lived in Illinois for eight years.

WC: Were you an Army Brat? Why did you move around so much?

GH: My mom and dad had children when they were very young. My dad was still going to school and getting his Ph.D. Every three years, or so, we would have to move.

WC: They were just going through their own youthful moves and you were going with them.

GH: Exactly. We were moving a lot with new jobs and new Master’s and Ph.D. programs. It was great. I loved moving around.

WC: You are going to Chicago to visit friends?

GH: I am a bridesmaid in my best friend’s wedding.

WC: That’s great.

GH: After that, I do have a show coming up in Chicago. It’s in the C33 Gallery at Columbia College. The show is called, “Dwelling.”

WC: So, you are going to mount the show in Chicago? When is that?

GH: I will be installing the show at the end of August. The show opens September 6th and runs until October 19th.

WC: Tell me your best case scenario for how you are going to continue to work as an artist.

GH: The idea is to continually be making. The way that I work is to start by research my ideas. As long as I can be continually making, and be surrounded by a creative environment, it will help me nurture my ideas. People told me that when I was in school here, it was really huge advantage to have two years to be focusing purely on art. Now that I have been busy installing different shows, and trying to find the time to make artwork, it really makes me appreciate the time that I had to focus on my art these past two years.

WC: To be one and only, nothing but an artist.

GH: Exactly.

WC: And to have the counsel and guidance of the faculty here. Tell me a little bit about who has been influencing you and what grateful shout-outs you have for the faculty or individuals who are here.

GH: Everybody. You know, these whole two years have been such a wonderful growing experience. I really mean it when I say that I could not have done it without everybody here. Every single person has contributed to my learning, making, and the way that I think critically about art. I’ve been very lucky to have Maren Hassinger as our program director. She was on sabbatical my second year and so Chakaia Booker, who is one of the artists-in-residence, was the interim director last year. As the program director assistant, I had opportunity to work with her closely. Maren, Chakaia and Ming Fay, the other artist-in-residence, have been critical in helping me develop as an artist. Each has their own unique process of working, which has directly influenced me on the various ways to create art. When we are working here forty hours or more each week, with the students in the studio, you learn and grow so much from each person. They are now like my family. I cherish all of these relationships. John Peacock, our Rinehart critic-in-residence, was also brilliant in the way he was able to teach me how to be more articulate about my work. That was absolutely crucial. This has been a two year development process which has taught me how to convey my ideas and meaning clearly. That is the most difficult part for me. There’s an idea that artists don’t need to talk about their work, we would rather just be making art. But I’m learning the importance of being able to talk about my work.

WC: That is why I like talking to artists. Some of them just want you to look at the work and say this is it, this is me, and I don’t want to explain it. But there is always more there. If you can figure out how to open an artist up to talk about what the process is, not necessarily the work, it can be a lot easier to talk about. How the work is made, or what is exciting about specific learning—about a medium or a discovery about paint or technique. Nuts and bolts. Breaking it down.

GH: Yes. Writing has a way of doing that–asking those questions and learning how to find the words to describe what you are doing. I have been able to understand more thoroughly what I am doing just by writing about it.

WC: Long term, do you think you will be staying in New York, if you can afford it?

GH: I am not sure. I am so used to moving.

WC: How have you thought about art as a business, as a profession?

GH: Of course, I hope to continue to make art as a profession. I would love to sell my work. Because of the work that I do with large installations and performance, I know that it won’t always be the case. I look for venues that support installations and other less traditional work. That is one of the ways that Conner is so great. They absolutely support that and I really appreciate it. I will have to find those places where they will support the type of work that I do. That would be the dream.

WC: Well, I hope the dream comes true.

GH: Thank you, me too. I worry about how I am going to afford this. How am I going to sell my work? But my program director, Maren always says that every time you think you can’t do it, there are other artists that are doing it.

WC: There are artists doing it and there are always going to be people who have resources who love art and can get connected to you. It is not easy. Sometimes it is a little “rough and tumble.” But it is a world in which some fairly sensitive artists have been able to live because somebody recognizes their unique genius and says we are going to let you make it happen.

GH: That gives me hope that there will be somebody will support me in making my work.

WC: Or a community of people. Have you though anything about collaboration or group work?

GH: I would love to do more collaboration with artists. I feel that what I do right now is already collaborative. When I am making my sculptures I am always working with other people. Whenever I am coming up with problems, I ask multiple people to help. The last piece that I did was absolutely collaboration with the people who helped make the ductwork, install the piece, and participated. For me, one of the most exciting ways to make art is when it is made collaboratively within a community; whether is done by sharing ideas, through the fabrication, or participation.

WC: I am looking forward to knowing that you find a community, or even a tight working group, a collaborative effort, that you can work with when you are on your own working in New York, or wherever you end up. I think that the recognition that Conner has given you means, obviously, that there is something there. We are all hoping for the best for all of the different students but, since I have met you, I am particularly hoping that you get everything that you hope for.

GH: Thank you very much. I really appreciate that.