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Chul Hyun Ahn became interested in space and matter while he was at university, working on 3-D paintings, and fascinated by architecture, geometric shapes, and structures. Soon, the canvas wasn’t enough for his exploration and experience of dimensions, and he started to create objects, eventually making work that, with the aid of light and carefully placed mirrors, created an infinite space, an infinite emptiness. Ahn, who is represented by C. Grimaldis Gallery in Baltimore, told Whitewall, “In the built environment and in nature there is repetition, scale, color, light, weight, and many other physical properties that define the boundaries of our world. Infinity is all about human ability. It is about the removal of a boundary that can reveal unlimited potential.” We spoke with the artist about the spirituality of infinite space and the ability to escape from reality with art.
WHITEWALL: Many people refer to you as a light artist, but you insist your work is more about space. Why is light a medium you chose to use to explore space?
CHUL HYUN AHN: Space is perceived by all of the senses, but I am particularly concerned with visual perception. For the most part, our understanding of the physical world is enabled by light and its ability to change our visual experience. The light is just as important as the mirror and the box. These elements combine to create a liminal space that I utilize as my medium. My hope is that the sculptures act as a threshold to this undefined space, where the viewer can travel mentally, spiritually, emotionally . . .
WW: When did you first decide to work with mirrors and light?
CHA: A mirror is such a fascinating object. It is a simple thing, glass coated in silver, which reflects light. I began exploring the possibilities of the mirror when my ability to expand space with oil and canvas reached certain limits. I was no longer content to explore space this way, so I tried another avenue. The mirror is loaded with a different set of cultural connotations than paint. A mirror shows us ourselves, but is also an instrument used to observe the extremes of our universe. Light and mirrors are inseparable partners, and in my early explorations I learned this rather quickly. In college I created a plywood box with mirrors on the inside walls. I then bored a hole into this space to allow my eye to observe the interior and what it might reveal. Immediately, I realized something necessary was missing. I then bored another hole in the top of the box to allow light to enter the space. In a way, the light created the infinite space inside the box; without it, darkness and nothingness prevails.
WW: Speaking of a piece you created, an eight-foot long work that created an “empty space” between two lights, you said that you thought that space was in fact not empty, but filled with something. What is it filled with, for you?
CHA: I say that the space is not empty because the light within it is literally energy, and this energy can be felt when viewing the infinite space. The emptiness is charged with potential for psychological and metaphysical transformation. I want to bring the viewer’s attention to this aspect of emptiness.
WW: Do you intend for your work to be meditative and almost spiritual?
CHA: Yes, I am talking about a spiritual journey. There are no clear answers to what lies beyond the physical limitations of our world. This is the crux of the work—the audience must bring themselves to the threshold and confront the infinite space to complete the work.
WW: How do you see your choice of color in light playing a role in your work?
CHA: The individual colors do not have specific meaning in my work; rather, the transition of one color to the next represents the motion of time. In the color-changing works, I am using the entire spectrum of visible light, and certain colors may elicit an emotional response on the part of the viewer. This response, I think, is embedded in our use of light as a functional or aesthetic aspect of our built environment.
WW: Railroad Nostalgia, a work currently on view at MOCA Jacksonville, uses railroad tracks and ties. Can you tell us about your process when working with other materials besides light and mirrors? How does that affect the perception of infinite space?
CHA: I chose to use the image of the railroad because it is a loaded image that can be unpacked in various ways, depending on personal experience. As I previously mentioned, I’ve always been interested in the way architecture and infrastructure utilize patterns and repetition. The railroad works perfectly, because within the mirror space it mimics our experience of the railroad in reality. When we encounter a railway, we often cannot see where it begins or ends; it is just passing through our space and then off into the unknown. It is also a particularly American symbol, which is quite ambivalent to us. The railroad allowed us to achieve progress and prosperity, but also led to the destruction of certain things. It is a complicated idea that can be revisited many times without conclusion.
WW: You’ve described the infinite space you create as something that is calming, but we also imagine for some viewers it isn’t calming but overwhelming, that idea of infinite space. Is that something you think of?
CHA: Yes, most viewers encounter a pleasant shock. They often wonder how the image is achieved, and this is the first stage, I think, of encountering the work. People seem to accept the illusion after a moment or two, and then they can allow themselves to move deeper into the visual and emotional recess created by the infinite space. I think it is natural for the void to elicit both fear and tranquility, because of our ambivalent relationship to nothingness. We are simultaneously repulsed and intrigued.
WW: You’ve described your work as escape from present reality. Do you think that’s what art should be?
CHA: No, I believe that all art tells different stories, deals with different agendas, and can serve different purposes. Art can clarify or obscure reality in different ways, and this is why it is important. When people see my work, they see something, but their mind can distort that image. I simply want to present the opportunity to perceive the infinite, and the viewer may leave reality on their own terms.
This article was published in Whitewall‘s winter 2016 Lifestyle Issue.