There are certain forces at play in the works of Jiha Moon. The Korean-born artist creates pieces that bring to mind a sense of evolving iconography, pan-identity—even mysticism. Her work fuses classical Korean, Chinese and Japanese signifiers with contemporary icons. Ornately created mashups of Korean fans, emojis and art deco cherubs, corporate branding, Indian gods and flying dragons, all populate her work. The touring exhibit, Jiha Moon: Double Welcome, Most Everyone’s Mad Here features about 60 works, including 2D, 3D and installation pieces. It opens this week at the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum, at Flagler College.
Moon’s work takes conceptions and notions of the high-brow-versus-low-brow route and creates a new path, one that addresses “who we are.” In Moon’s work, we find the answer somewhere in the middle, a third consciousness that develops between the awareness of certain heritage and fluid identity. The exhibit title was similarly inspired by a fusion of sorts.
“The title comes from the original Disney version of Alice in Wonderland. When she arrives at the tea party, that’s what the Cheshire Cat tells Alice,” says Moon, from her home in Atlanta. “I see it as a bigger force. Some people believe in religion and believe in God, but for me, the Cheshire Cat symbolizes a bigger force. It could be nature, it could be your mom; it could be something bigger than you that you rely on, but it’s not always super-nice to you. It can be confusing, it can be scary and it could be annoying.”
In conjunction with the mysterious presence of a higher power is the freedom in surrendering to the mental and emotional unknown. That sense of “madness” offers Moon a vehicle to drive her creativity to a new place.
“As an artist, you can only do painting, you can only do ceramics, you can’t use hair; ‘that’s a little too creepy.’ In my head, I’m checking if these kinds of ideas are all right. So that kind of gives me a kind of freedom, since everyone’s so mad anyway. It allowed me to do more crazy things as well.”
Moon is in full flight with signifiers both old and new in the 2014 pieces, Forever Couplehood I and II. Created with ink and acrylic, screen-printed on handmade Korean Hanji paper, these pieces are populated by traditional Asian signifiers such as peaches (which can symbolize longevity or immortality), Mandarin ducks and tigers offset with the Angry Birds and Facebook and Chiquita banana logos. “For me, the things that people recognize are a stepping entrance.” Merged together, these disparate elements create an effect of custom and the contemporary.
“I play with irony. Since you recognize one story in folklore, I will use that to tell a different story,” says Moon. “In Korea, Japan and China, the Mandarin ducks represent Couplehood; they get married and never separate. When one dies, the other never goes out and finds a different partner.” Even void of that information, the Angry Birds, ever impatient and volatile, appear to create a contrast to that traditional theme of calm fidelity.
Embedded in the Facebook logo is the folklore image of the tortoise and the hare. “We have a completely different story of the tortoise and the hare in Korea. In our story, the turtle is a loser—so there’s always a duality. There’s always more than one story.”
The Chiquita logo touches on Korean-American cultural barbs like banana, Twinkie—“yellow on the outside, white in the middle,” and FOB, i.e., fresh off the boat.
“My work isn’t fixed into identity politics or politics at all. I’m more of an observer,” Moon explains, citing that now, after nearly 20 years in her new homeland, she feels more American than Korean. “The identity thing isn’t just about race; it’s also about the generational gap, too. The older I get, the more I realize that gap is bigger than I thought, so I’m always trying to bridge that gap. The gray area [where] people are confusing and trying to distinguish who they are.”
In addition to the 2D pieces, the exhibit includes Norigae and Tal pieces. Norigae encompasses traditional Korean good-luck accessories for women; Tal items are masks used for both ceremonies and dance. These ornate handmade pieces are reverent and humorous at once.
“Humor is really important to me because it draws people in. They recognize these images and that draws them in to look at the work more and the bigger message. But I’m very serious in the way I make my work through my craftsmanship and spend a lot of time trying to make it more sophisticated. But that isn’t content; that’s just the method that I employ.”
In Moon’s artistic realm, where dragons and masks dance around Korean calligraphy as corporate brands rest on the branches of a bamboo tree, the familiar seems at peace with what was once exotic. Her work isn’t so much a matter of appearances deceiving us, but rather pulling us into a new encounter that defies our expectations.
“When you meet someone for the first time, all you have is their name and that first impression and appearance and I often talk about how wrong that is. In my work, I want to free all of those categorizations by mixing up something old and new, foreign and domestic. People realize that the truth is more complex and different and they see a different meaning.”
Jiha Moon: Double Welcome, Most Everyone’s Mad Here Opening Reception, 5-8 p.m. Sept. 7; artist's talk 4 p.m., Crisp-Ellert Art Museum, Flagler College, St. Augustine; exhibits through Oct. 27; flagler.edu/crispellert