Ziran Muse: ann haeyong

Ziran Muse: ann haeyong

During the last few months of our time at RAiR, we lived on the residency compound with artist ann haeyong, her partner Haan, and their daughter Fay. To be honest, before they arrived I googled them and was excited to see that other Asians would be arriving... primarily because we could talk about food! I'm convinced all Asians are equally obsessed with food. 

ann is beguiling. On the surface she's a soft-spoken and quiet person. She quickly moves in and out conversations and is a bit hard to read. But after getting to know her more, and especially after seeing her work, it's obvious she carries an ocean of depth and thought that broods under her cool demeanor. She is a majorly talented artist whose work will challenge your views on progress, capitalism, what it means to be successful, and ultimately who we have become as human beings. She's not fake, she doesn't buy into facades, and she does things her own way. In an era of making everything palatable and easy to digest, I really admire ann's pursuit of the truth and uncovering what lies underneath a glossy presentation. She also likes to talk about and make delicious food so that's an added plus!

Her partner Haan is also a talented artist, with a focus on comics. As partners of the RAiR residents - and subsequent caregivers to our children - Haan and I would often find ourselves on the compound in the common area together. Kinda watching our kids and kinda having splintered conversations. Invariably the topic would turn to being Chinese and Taiwanese (the differences, similarities) and food we miss in LA and K-town (banchan! dessert! noodles!). If it hasn't been abundantly clear, Roswell is a complete and utter food desert. There is no Asian food other than a Panda Express. One day out of desperation we tried it and it was just terrible. Truly there aren't really Asian people in the town either (I was told by a farmer that I didn't look "oriental" at all). So to live with other Asians in such a remote and rural place felt a little bit like home and made life in Roswell more palatable. 

Here is the interview with ann, Haan, and Fay!

Some background!

I was born in Seoul, Korea and I lived there more or less until I was nine. And then I lived in Tokyo for about five years, came to the US, and went back to Korea for a bit. I had always made art, as any kid does. And then I did art in high school and college, and tried to continue making art after graduating from college and just couldn't really figure out how to do that with work and everything. So I kind of put that aside. Then in 2017, this was about ten years after I had graduated from college, I quit my job for various reasons. I did this ten week artist-run school kind of on a whim and rediscovered my love of art. That school really changed for me what I thought art could be, and how you could have a life as an artist. That was a major turning point.

Then how long after that did you go to grad school at UCLA? 

I started grad school in 2020 and that program was in 2017, so three years. 

A lot of your work is site specific. Are you gonna be doing anything like that in Roswell?

Yes, I’ve been thinking a lot about the desert and my misconceptions about what it would mean to live here and in a desert environment. I thought before coming that there wouldn’t be much here. That it would be kind of empty and desolate. But even from the moment I first drove up to the compound I was just amazed at how much life there was. So I’ve been thinking and reading about deserts and how the image of an empty desert has been constructed in the Western imagination.

I feel like this place is perfect for you and what you're into!

I guess what I'm interested in is ideas of the future and progress and when we say things like “progress”, whose progress is it? What are we progressing towards? What future are we trying to achieve? So something like the nuclear bomb, or atomic energy, or any of that which is considered this amazing human innovation… how much has it affected people and the animals and plants and everything in this region? It’s not talked about nearly enough. There's a lot of amazing activists doing work in that area, but I feel like the more people that we can get talking about it, the better.

Lets talk about some of your previous work that caught my eye - Homeostasis (2023) and How does an ouroboros go on strike (2022)? 

I'll do ouroboros first. I had been collecting stuff on the street like trash that's been left on the curb. I feel like in New York where I was living before, they pick it up so quickly so you never see all of it. But when I moved to LA, and I don't know if this was pandemic-specific, there were so many office chairs on the street. I don't know if it was pandemic specific in the sense that people were setting up home offices and things. I was seeing so many of them and I really liked the wear pattern on them. I liked the feeling that you could see the physical residue of a person, a body, that had sat there day after day doing work. A wear pattern doesn't appear overnight. It takes months or years of sitting and doing work at your computer or wherever. I really liked that the body was archived in this chair, and then thinking of the chair as a kind of worker itself. When it's no longer useful, it's too worn out, one of the wheels fall off, whatever, people just toss it on the side of the street. Very similar to how we treat workers who are no longer useful in the workplace. I liked that connection. So I started picking up all these chairs. And then the studio was just crammed full of office chairs. 

I was like, “what am I going to do with all these chairs?” So I got the idea to make a circular bench. I liked this idea that you could sit on these worn out chairs and have a conference or something. I started building them into a shape and then I felt like it needed a person. And so the woman that's like erupting out of the chair… she's eating the chair and also coming out of the chair. It was just this personification of the feeling of the endless work that we do. We're sitting in these chairs day after day, wearing them out doing work, and the work that we do is supporting the system, which then is the system that forces us to have to work. It’s a pointless cycle. So that's where that one came from. 

Then as I was making all of that, there were all these leftover bits of chairs. And when I disassembled the chair, it felt like butchering an animal. You peel the skin off, and then there's the foam that comes out and there's the bones of the chair. So I was taking all that apart and then feeling there was all this leftover. And so I was like, “how is this any different than tossing aside these useless chairs? I'm tossing aside these useless bits.” So Homeostasis came from not wanting to waste any part of the “animal.” Taking all of these leftover and sculptural pieces from these chairs and other projects. I kind of took it apart and then I stuck them in there. The gummy candies came from taking the chairs apart. There were lots of gross snacks and hair and all sorts of stuff inside the chairs. I liked these remnants of people sustaining themselves while working.  

Why are you drawn to the grotesque/horror/things that might make other people uncomfortable? 

I think that it's very beautiful. I understand intellectually that other people might find it disturbing and off-put, but to me I find it very compelling. I feel like there's a lot of beauty and optimism and hope in things that we as a society have decided are ugly, useless, inefficient or disabled. It’s like, we don't want them, they're trash. To me that is where I want to find my future and not this “progress” where we're destroying and consuming everything in order to make this bomb, or whatever it is. 

I want the future in the trash pile because to me it seems more hopeful. The shiny, the glamorous, the perfect thing is not real. It's hiding the reality, which is everything that was disposed.

How does being artists work with being parents? 

Haan: Fay's a very creative child and I would like to think that we encourage her creativity. 

ann: Because we force her to make her own toys! 

ann: I don't know if this is necessarily specific to artists, but something that we talk and think a lot about is not trying to push her into a career path. I definitely felt you have to go to college, and then business or law school, and get a stable career immediately. Art is just supposed to be a hobby. Part of the reason I stopped making art after college is that I didn’t actually understand how it could be a path. With Fay, we’re just trying to let her know that there are many paths to happiness and success, whatever that means.

What’s being Asian American in the art world like? How does being Asian American influence your art and experiences? 

ann: I'm very aware that I am Asian American. I think it was more directly something I was thinking about through my art much earlier on. And then I kind of stopped addressing it so directly. But it's still you, you can't never not think about who you are in all aspects of your identity. It’s manifested in different ways in the stuff I do now. Sometimes people say weird things. Like I've had someone ask why isn't my art more Asian? And I'm like, what does that even mean? If I'm making it, it’s Asian. 

I know what they're trying to say… Why aren't you capitalizing on your Asian identity in this specific way? I've had some good discussions with other artists about this topic and how Asianness and race generally, is treated as a commodity in the art world. And how problematic that is. 

Haan: I feel like also from a storytelling perspective, maybe for a mainstream white audience, they want to hear how you are different from them or how you are exotic. 

As parents, what do you take and what do you leave from your experience with your parents in raising your daughter? 

ann: I think, like my parents, we’ve encouraged her to be independent. For example, we let her climb on the jungle gym from a young age. We try not to be overprotective. Unlike my parents, we try to be excited about whatever she’s interested in, even if those interests are very different from ours.

Haan: Something I want to keep is for her to be aware of other people. Generally Asian people consider it important to be considerate of the people around them, which I think is usually a good thing. I’ve watched kids at the playground terrorizing other kids and have been flabbergasted that their parents don’t correct their behavior. But I think this vigilance around one’s effect  on other people can go too far. I think my parent’s policing of my behavior did make me feel like I don’t have a right to take up space or feel entitled to certain things. With Fay I feel like there is a balancing act between making her aware of people around her and preserving her self-esteem. I want her to feel like she has a right to have an opinion, to take up space, and to be a person in this world. But I want her to do it without being an asshole. 

We're all Asian American but we come from different backgrounds and our parents are obviously different. But parents kind of being mean and physically criticizing your appearance seems universal. If I ask my mom, why did you tell me I was fat? She'll be like, “well, if I don't tell you the truth, no one will. My friends tell me I'm fat and I’m ugly and I don't care. Why do you care so much?” Do I care because I'm American? Because of society? Do Chinese or Korean kids feel this way too? 

ann: I think they don't like it either! 

Haan:One thing that I want to teach Fay, if nothing else, is to know how to express her emotions in a healthy way. I don't know if it's an immigrant thing or a generational thing, but this was not something that was taught to us by our parents… The message that I got in childhood is that emotions get in the way of making rational decisions and should be repressed. What I’ve concluded as an adult is that emotions are key to how we make decisions, and being aware of and communicating your emotions is very helpful for navigating life.

Hi Fay! Do you like your parents' art? 

I dunno. 

Which piece is your favorite? Which sculpture or video? 

I like the ghost video. 

Why do you like the ghost video? 

Because the ghost looks silly. 

What do you wanna be when you grow up? 

I want a pet.

When you grow up you want a pet? Interesting. I did not expect that answer. 

ann: She used to say, “I wanna be a regular person.”

So Ziran comes from the eighth chapter of the Daodejing and literally translated it means “nature.” But the philosophy means, “natural, spontaneous, and free.” To push away outside influence and embrace your own authenticity. So it's when your ego is gone and you're just free and spontaneous. You can go anywhere and you're everywhere.

Personally and in your work do you feel Ziran? 

Haan: I feel like I'm pretty self-directed. I feel like my creativity comes from what I'm interested in and not really anything external. I'm responding to external information when I create, but I don’t do it out of wanting to be anything or to be like anyone 

ann: I like structure more than you do. But I'm also content to create my own art and artificial structures so they don't have to be externally imposed. But I do like creating little reasons to do things. 

If you were on a deserted island, you could only have two snacks and they were unlimited snacks, what would they be? 

ann: Rice cakes. 

Haan: Dumplings.

ann: Dumplings don't count as snacks. If you just eat one or like five, I guess that's a snack. I think apples and rice for me. Seaweed. I'm gonna change it to seaweed and rice cakes. And you can wrap them in each other. The combos!


Words: Kelly Wang Shanahan (@theziran)

Photography: Victor Yañez-Lazcano (@yanezlazcano)

Muses: ann haeyong (@ann_tbd) + Haan Lee (@leezusconleche)

Shot in Roswell, New Mexico. August 2023.