By Rebecca Chen, Research Intern, East-West Center in Washington. She is a graduate student at Georgetown University.
Note: this article originally appeared in the East-West Center’s Asia Matters for America/America Matters for Asia initiative on January 2, 2018.
On November 24, blind balloon artist HongSeok Goh opened his first US exhibit at Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum. The installation is a representation of the cosmos, with a massive elephant depicting space and a plodding turtle for time. The colors and shapes he chose are also allegorical – the elephant’s legs are the colors of the South Korean flag, and its trunk, which unfurls into the head of a dragon, symbolizes the universe expanding. The turtle’s head is covered with stars to represent the United States. The sculpture, which is 20 feet long, took a team of six balloon artists from South Korea and two from America six days to complete.
Though balloon art is typically short-lived, thanks to a combination of double-stuffed balloons and liquid sealant known as Hi-Float, the sculpture will remain on display for a month. According to Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum, the transience of the sculpture is part of its beauty, reminding us that life’s joys are of the moment. The American Visionary Art Museum is the perfect place for Goh to show his work. Every artist featured at the museum must be self-taught, as he is, and many of them have disabilities and work with unique materials.
Goh received a grant from the South Korean government for this trip, which allows him to represent artists with disabilities and not only serve as an ambassador for balloon art, but also to provide American audiences with an opportunity to appreciate a Korean artist and draw their attention to the richness of Korean art culture. Maryland is also the perfect place to showcase Korean artists – Yumi Hogan, Maryland’s first lady, is a Korean immigrant and accomplished artist who has had more than 14 solo exhibitions.
For years, organizations such as the Korea Foundation have promoted Korean art throughout the United States. The Korea Foundation alone has facilitated the creation of permanent Korean art galleries at 18 museums. It provided the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston with $30,000 for programming shortly after building its gallery and has continued to donate since; it also funded the creation of The Arts of Korea Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2014, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art displayed national treasures from the Joseon Dynasty. These examples illustrate the strength of South Korea’s cultural connection with the United States.