South Korean-born Koo Jeong A is unique thing: an artist whose work, like herself, is whispered and restrained, and made near-invisible in plain sight. She takes everyday things and put a tiny slant on them, from almost empty rooms to glow-in-the-dark skateboard parks to explorations of the smell of a city before a storm. Her work is tricksy and layered, opaque and unyielding, offering no immediate clarity. Light, temperature, scents, opera, off-kilter objects and disproportionate scale are hallmarks of her fairytale-like works where a sense of mystery sits alongside scrupulous attention to detail. Jeong A’s sculpture and site-specific works seduce the viewer because they invite subjective discovery: it is non-prescriptive, intellectual work where stillness and contemplation is a kind of key.
Jeong A herself is a reticent interviewee - preferring to listen rather than to talk, giving little away. What intimacy and connection you do get from her work is through little tricks like leaving behind her personal traces in the exhibition room, or burrowing into corners and hiding, leaving only a papier mache shell. She is a self-professed nomad, denying roots, bound by nothing, curious about everything. Her work is a peculiar mix of ideas that explore emptiness and deliberate placement, precision and carelessness, and what is meaningful and meaningless.
From Seoul, Jeong A moved to Paris to study at the École des Beaux Arts in the early 90s. Her work since has had a heavy collaborative angle with artists including Tacita Dean, Phillipe Parreno, Carsten Holler and Hans Ulrich Obrist ( who is both her real-life partner and artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries).
She is also a smell and sensory artist: in 2011 she worked with perfumer Bruno Jovanovich on Before The Rain at the Dia Art Foundation in New York to create a scent of the steamy air of cities right before the impact of a rainstorm, and in 2015 she created a glowing skate park in Liverpool with help from local skateboarding kids and those who lived there in order to make the public art perform as a social interactive space. Scent as perception and memory appeared in her work in Odorama in 2016 when she took over two abandoned platforms of the Jubilee Line at Charing Cross station - unused for over 20 years, the platforms looked familiar but not-quite, the platforms heavily scented with woody oud. A decay, a disuse, a smell evoking a memory that isn’t quite right - this kind of off-balance scene is where Jeong A wants the viewer to start really looking. Not at her, though - she will be long gone.
Can you tell me a little bit about your early life - were you a kid that made things or saw the world a little differently?
When I was younger, I enjoyed adventures with other groups of people. I studied Pythagoras and the Godel Theorem at the age of 13, and I studied the falcon peregrines in close proximity on a tiny hill. When I was 18, I went on a one year trip to the European countries by myself.
When did you decide you wanted to make art?
I saw an alternative sustainable way of living in art by reading the atlas of the masters from the gothic through renaissance. I made a decision to travel to the western world to meet them all and then I discovered the art world converges deeply with science, literature and music at a very early age. The art-making came spontaneously.
Tell me about your work with smell on Before The Rain.
I perceived that the making of a smell can penetrate deep into nature, chemistry, and even into the magic in art. When the Dia Art Foundation invited me to meet with the people I would collaborate with, for example, Frederic Malle who introduced us to IFF (a fragrance company in NYC), there were possible narrations that could be conveyed by a dramatic event of Heavy Rain or Before The Rain. I was inspired by Hwang Soon Won's short novel 'SONAGI' and the films of Milcho Manchevski.
I perceived that the making of a smell can penetrate deep into nature, chemistry, and even into the magic in art.
There was a collaborative aspect in that work. How did you translate your ideas into smell?
I discuss with NOSE who are the engineers for the fragrance and they know how to build the smell by the chemistry order. I tell the story and the conversation follows to extract the reality. I have to know what kind of rain in which area on the earth I am thinking of, what time, which temperature, which surface the rain hits, etc. It has to be precise when I talk with NOSE, then it takes days and weeks to check the chemistry speed and that the order is right.
Generally, what senses are most important for your work?
The intuitive notion that I find interesting is my own force of curiosity and the demystification of that knowledge.
You describe yourself as living everywhere. Is there a version of home for you? What does ‘home’ evoke?
There is no home in my sense of living. ‘Home’ evokes always a freshly made meal.
What or who inspires you?
Most of the great inventions in human living inspire me.
Is your art about awakening people? Awakening the senses?
I am into bringing poetry into different situations. Awakening moments have different values and weight for each individual. Here, the question is how much my art can awaken myself and others.
What would you like a viewer to take from your work?
I share with the viewer my manual, the inspirations, the conversations, progressively researched moments on their own phrenology.