Ling Chun

Ling Chun (b. 1990) born in Hong Kong, a society that built upon a hybrid system of western and eastern. A foreign exchange program brought her to the United States at the age of seventeen. She then earned her BFA in visual communication design and ceramics from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2012 and her MFA in ceramics from Rhode Island School of Design in 2016. Chun has been focusing on the physicality of materials separating from their stereotype and cultural reference by questioning their authentic use and redefining them in her language. She has been an artist in residence 2012-13 at Seward Park Clay Studio in Seattle, Washington, a summer artist resident at Arquetopia in Puebla, Mexico in 2015 and c.r.e.t.a.rome, Italy in 2016. She is now a current long-term resident 2016-18 of Archie Bray Foundation, Helena, Montana, where she continuous her studio practice. Meanwhile, she is the founder of HIDDENFOODPROJECT, a public art project that runs across the country.

In less than a decade, the contemporary ceramic art scene has shifted. Although there is tension between what's viewed as " craft" or as "fine art," we need to embrace the concept of the liminal, showing how traditional practices and new conceptual approaches interact. I think craft and fine art exist horizontally, one informing the other. I want to share my perspective of what ceramics can do and encourage new ways of thinking about ceramics as fine art with respect for and understanding of its nature as craft. Born and raised in Hong Kong, a hybrid cultural city of east and west, I am the creation of its liminal cultural identity; I view current contemporary ceramics and my practice in the same way.

Interview with Ling Chun

Questions by Beatrice Helman

Hi Ling! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. I wanted to jump right in and see if you could give us a little background as to your trajectory in terms of location and almost in terms of mindset as to your relationship with your work?
Thank you for the interview. I was a beauty school dropout from Hong Kong. A foreign exchange program brought me to the United States about eleven years ago. I have been studied and worked in many different places in the states. I studied graphic design in my undergrad, but later after I graduate to find my real love with ceramics. I searched for working various ceramics studio for a work-study position, and I landed to Seward Park Clay Studio in Seattle, began my passion for ceramics with my one-shelf space. Within two years, I built up a body of work and started MFA ceramics in Rhode Island School of Design. One residency to another residency, and now I landed back in Seattle for my artist residency position at Pottery Northwest. My works are the playground for my curiosity scribble, no words I find to describe my greed with color. I want to have it all, show it all, everything I got.

How do you feel that moving physical locations has affected your work, in terms of both choosing which mediums to work with and what subject matter to explore?
When I spent two years of ceramics residency at Archie Bray Foundation, I am always in isolation with the long winter in Montana. This giant white snow canvas in Montana, suck out my desire with specular cityscape from Hong Kong. In result, my work becomes more and more vivid, and eventually, they are violently cover with my obsession of color in lust and greed; a rainbow of color, a ton of gold luster, and brightly artifact hair.

I’m fascinated by your use of mediums beyond clay and wanted to discuss that a little bit more, in terms of your process, the intent behind them and how the different mediums relate to each other in your work? I love metaphor in writing. I think the metaphor is a beautiful thing to describe the experience. I see my use of mediums beyond clay is my metaphor to introduce clay at a cocktail party as if others have never met clay before. Each other medium I use, I am telling a different story about clay that I learn from spending time with it; of course, I intend to make others love clay more.

Can you talk about your relationship to clay specifically? Clay is such a historically imbued medium and one that people seem to create deeply personal relationships with as a function of the form, the fact that it can be molded by our own hands.
One of my all-time favorite movies, Pulp Fiction, in the sense when Vincent and Mia at the restaurant talk about uncomfortable silent, and how to tell if someone is unique to you if you can “comfortably share silence”; I think that would be clay to me. Honest, direct, every thought and mind run through me just reflected back on clay. No need to over-explain.

What was your first interaction with clay?
My first interaction with clay is a question to my American high school’s counselor, I asked what ceramics is? It was my first year in America, my English was limited at that time, and only understand less than half of his explanation, my conclusion was that it must be a baking class.

Your work is so wonderfully colorful. Can you talk about your relationship to color, emotionally and in your work? I’ve always found that color is so vividly linked to emotion and I felt that in your work.
I have an obsession with lipstick color. I believe the color I choose to put on my lips would color the word I say; I think my word enchanted with magic only if they coated in color. I have a hard time to express myself, but with color, they all come together. So I imagine with my words are language enchanted in color, and my obsession/emotion/expression vomit into existence.

I read that you have in the past drawn inspiration from Bonsai planting, and was hoping you could talk a little bit more about that?
Bonsai is such a beautiful, timely collaboration between human and nature. I like the manipulation aspect of bonsai; you burn, bent, twist, cut, pick, repot. This is very much like ceramics, you roll, slap, pinch, push, pull, poke and bring the process into existence.

What are some themes or questions you keep coming back recently?
Authenticity/originality/cultural camouflage.

Can you talk about your HIDDENFOODPROJECT?
That’s a public art project I started about three years ago. I begin it with a couple of students from RISD as a group project for public art class. We placed ceramics food in the different city and set clues on Instagram as where we hide the ceramics food. The whole idea is a way to give people an unexpected gift in places where they wouldn’t except one, and encourage people to explore the city and engage more with the public space. It all began in Providence, Rhode Island. We took donut as the icons for Providence since Dunkin Donuts are just everywhere. We did two more cities, San Francisco and Seattle, in 2016 & 2017, and their city food icon is California roll & a slice of salmon. I am still looking for more funding to continuous HIDDENFOODPROJECT. It is definitely fun to see how others respond on Instagram from tagging us.

What are some of the push and pulls of formal education in ceramics, and what are some of the lessons or benefits that you’ve drawn from residencies?
The biggest thing I find between school and residency is that you learn how to critic in school; in residencies, you learn how to work with criticism.

You mentioned that your ceramic form is a “playgrounds for the glaze,” and I was hoping you could talk more about that! I love the use of the word playgrounds.
If the clay is a person, the glaze would be the personality of that person.

I think of making a piece from thinking the persona of the glaze, and the playground is where the glaze performs its own act and show its character ( runny, crackle, shiny, drippy, crawling, grippy ). It is fun to imagine myself as theater director; I designed the stage to allow each of my actor/glaze to perform the best of their character. The firing in the kiln is my rehearsal of the show until I am satisfied with the performance of my actor, I will just keep rehearsing/re-firing until they are ready to perform/to exhibit.

How do you challenge the roles and rules of ceramics, in the traditional sense of the idea of ‘ceramics’?  Can you talk a little bit more about your statement that “The permanence of clay transgresses the hair as the extension of a process and resets the boundaries of ceramics reflected by cultural standards? Ultimately, I desire to redefine materials to become the conductors of new meaning.”
When I look at the history of ceramics, lots of time ceramics is there to serve or to imitate other materials. I begin to think if I can make other materials looks like part of the ceramics. The big part of using hair is that hair itself have a strong string to race, identity, cultural; I look at hair in my work as a metamorphosis of glaze. I am not only curious if I can bring the medium of hair and convert it to be part of the ceramics, but I am also intrigued to see if I can strip down the idea of hair; how little we can look at a hair without think whom it belongs? Where it comes from? Same to ceramics, I am curious how far I can strip the material of clay but using another medium to represent “ceramics.”

It feels like there’s a tension between the idea of fine art and ceramics, and I wanted to ask your opinion on the way that the contemporary ceramic art world is changing? What is the relationship between fine art and craft?
Everyone has their opinion about fine art and craft. It even rises up the question of which is more superior than the other. I thought about that a lot, and I am still searching why do that matters. I like to think of both of them as students who are trying to solve a new math problem.

Fine art likes to ask the question. Craft likes to master all the existing math equation. They are equally essential to solve the math problem. Without knowing the equation, Fine art will have a hard time to come up with a “right” question to ask, even with the right question, there is no way to solve the math problem. Without questioning, the craft will do work that leads no direction to the math problem. This metaphor is how I see fine art and craft; they are equally crucial to the contemporary art scene. I see contemporary ceramics art in the same way. It is essential to know the way but also ask the right question. To contemporary ceramics art, I think a lot of them are proposing a fascinating question and knowing many methods to do; I believe two should be in a co-dependent relationship, and not differential through the price tag. 

There’s something so instinctual about your work and I wanted to ask about the actual physical form of your work and if you are drawn to certain shapes over others?
I physically draw from the form that provoke desire. Its shape ranges from food to genital.

Were you always a kid who liked to make stuff, or did that develop as you got older?
Since I was a kid, I grew up in an environment full of the idea to make stuff. My parents work in the clothing industry. When I was young, I spent a lot of time riding my tricycle down on an aisle with assembling line side by side. I was in a land of materials, and there went my ideas and playground for imaginary friends; all made out of buttons, fabrics, thread, zipper…..

How do you get over something like saying, feeling out of sync with your work or being unsure about where to go next?
Keep trying. Nobody knows where they would go next, or what “next” would take them. I don’t think there is a better way to get over “uncertainty” then keep making (I also think “uncertainty” make up the entire reason for object maker). I know for sure yapping about it won’t help.

Who are some of the people who were formative in the way that you think about ceramics and creating in general?
Glenn Adamson, Nicole Cherubini, Simone Leigh, Arlene Shechet, Laura Owen and Ron Nagle.

Can you talk about the physical process of working with clay - are there motions you return to over and over, do you find that the physical activity influences your mental state or vice versa?
Clay keeps my sanity. It is a very therapeutic act of process. Every touch clay remembers, like a diary/daily log of my emotion, experience, quote of the day.  

I feel like clay is such a unique medium because it usually does hold enormous emotional significance. Do you see that this level of the sentimental comes up in your work or process?
I think the best way to describe that level of emotion that I have with my work would be that old song you loved so much, and then revisit the same song many years later, all the emotions, and feelings that capsulated at that period reappear to you.

Ling with her work

Ling with her work

I’m really fascinated by the very act of working with ones hands, it’s so personal. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with your own hands?
The mind is connected to the body in a very subconscious way. When I using my own hands to turn my thought/mind into existence with clay, which remembers every move (even the erase one), that is an inception of a mind-blowing experience.

Do you find that clay has a connection to the past, and are you conscious of it in your work? How has your own history come to life in your work?
I definitely see work reflect the history of my life, especially the cultural influence.

My work involved in a very dramatic change of appearance. It is the reflection on my cultural experience in America. For the first five years, I think in Cantonese; which means I have to carefully translate Cantonese into English every time when I talk to English native speaker. For a while, I am an outsider in this western culture. I observed most of how others see me, my identity as Chinese, and what it means to them. Therefore, my early work is involved with a stereotypically cultural icon, particularly in the object of food. The style of my work is based on what typical “oriental” would look like. Until a restaurant incident happens, that altered my entire subject matter. I was with my America boyfriend to our usual Chinese restaurant for hotpot. Generally, as a Chinese person, you will receive hot tea with porcelain spoon and chopsticks; for my boyfriend, he got iced water with silverware. Except for that very first time, I also got iced water with silverware; am I an insider now?  More importantly, I actually begin to think in English. This is the moment I realize my observation of how others perceive my cultural identity is no longer valid because I start to blend in.

This is when my work becomes extra colorfully abstract. This part of history takes part in my work. I feel like I can finally express my identity awhile my native tongue and expression are slowly taking over by English. 

Ling in the studio

Ling in the studio

What is your work process like, from inception to execution? How long does a project usually take from start to finish? Has the way you approach a new project evolved over time?
Before I begin to work on a piece, I like to absorb myself and fill with ideas, colors, imageries, stories that I am interested in for at least an hour before I start working on a piece. The subconscious will take part in the most decision before I ever realize it. It usually took me from a month up to half years to finish a piece. I like to work a dozen works at a time and finish them in the same period.

What makes up the cultural landscape that you look to when you feel stuck?
The way I was taught about learning is to keep trying. When I was young, I enrolled in an intense boot camp for Chinese calligraphy. One of the best things I learn is repetition for improvement. I would just practice one stroke for the whole week, eight hours a day, hot sweaty summer. To say, instead of stuck at making one terrible sculpture, I would have made ten terrible sculptures.

What are some of the challenges that working in ceramics presents, or to put it differently, what are some of the limitations of the form and/or idea of ceramics?
Ceramics is very challenge topic, because it is so adaptable to everyone as a material, and the history of ceramics it is as long as human civilization, its concept, form, and usage are almost like a thick callus on our brain. Only less than a decade ago, ceramics began losing its callus and bring on its practice to somewhere else. The most challenging part to push through this limitation that is how far I can get out from the stereotypically use of ceramics but still consider as ceramics.

 Who or what are some of your larger influences?
Huge influence; Chef’s Table from Netflix.

What’s a typical day like for you?
I try to get to studio by 9am and usually work until midnight. I left all the computer work on Monday and focusing all studio work Tuesday to Friday. For the weekend, it is either a rest day or I would be taking some art related classes. Studio usually works including working in the studio, doing new work, and showing up for other artist openings, or doing studio visit to other local artists. I also teach varies places in town.

Do you find yourself interacting with social media, and do you find that your work has a relationship to it? How does something so physical interact with something so virtual? Do you see the possibility for any relationship between the two?
The social media makes up at least half of our cultural artifact for nowadays. As much as I don’t think my work has any relationship to it, however I am a heavy social media user, subconsciously my work reflects through my interaction on social media. I can see the possibility for those two to each another, for example, HIDDENFOODPROJECT is the use of social media to search for a tangible ceramics food object and give others an activity to engage with public space.

Do you have any projects, shows or residencies coming up?
I will be participating NCECA ( it is a national conference in education for ceramics art ) this year 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I will be the demonstration artist for Speedball company at NCECA booth this year, Wednesday 2–4pm. I am also part of a month-long group show—Other Object—during NCECA at Gamut Gallery MN, as well as Archie Bray Foundation Resident Exhibition at Creator Space, MN. In August, I will be at Resident Artist Exhibition with Pottery Northwest during the Seattle Art Fair week. In November, I will be giving out a lecture with a professional translator during the International week at Edmond Community College, WA. In 2020, I will be doing a Shunpike Storefront project in Amazon’s campus and my solo exhibition at Pottery Northwest in the following summer.

Thank you so much for talking with us!

To find out more about Ling and her work, check out her website.