Jihye Baek is an artist and photographer born in 1986 in Seoul. Currently residing in New York, she works on photography and mixed media on the basis of psychology and sociology. Please enjoy this interview.
Brady Walker: Can you introduce yourself to our audience?
Jihye Baek: Hello, my name is Jihye Baek. I work with photography and mixed media to reflect my ordinary yet extraordinary life. As a woman, I enjoy expressing the dual perspectives of feeling both inexperienced as a mother and being happy, but yet not entirely fulfilled. I have been studying photography for about 20 years, but I still enjoy experimenting with different approaches such as painting and other unique methods of expression.
BW: When did you start working on the Morph series? What prompted this motif?
JB: The Morph series started in 2019 when the pandemic actually began. In an instant, everything came to a halt, and children who used to go to school were now staying at home, and husbands were also at home 24/7. Life at home, in fact, becomes busier for women as there are more people around.
As a mother, there is an inherent sense of responsibility to take care of the essential needs of the children, although no one is forcing it, but it is the duty of being a good mother. So during the pandemic, I found myself moving around and being two to three times busier than usual.
While scrolling through social media at night as a gift for myself for some downtime, I was curious about how other mothers were coping with this situation. Then, a close friend of mine’s post caught my eye with a video of her playing with her children.
I watched the video closely and noticed a unique way of playing. There was a hairdryer on the floor and attached were multiple balloons together, creating a rotating motion with the power of the wind. In that moment, I saw myself reflected in those rotating balloons, and it dawned on me that even if the world stops, we, as humans, cannot simply stop and must continue living relentlessly, not just as mothers but as everyone.
Upon further research, I found that the pandemic era was an experience that even our parents’ generation had never encountered. In a way, I wanted to leave a record of how we lived through such a cold, worrisome, and sad time on this planet.
The pandemic may not be over, but everything passes as if it has ended. Even now, I will continue to spin the balloons as an artist. Like the balloons that cannot spin on their own, I am being moved by society, by someone else. It is a difficult but hopeful message that this is what life is, and that I want to keep moving.
BW: How do you create the Morph pieces? I always imagine there’s someone just out of frame throwing an inner tube in the air, but some of them seem impossible — like the grocery store one.
JB: When shooting at home, I also use a hairdryer to spin the balloons. And when shooting outdoors, my husband helps me spin them. The advantage of using a hairdryer is that it creates a perfect circle, but when relying on human strength, it takes quite a bit of time to create the circle. When there are no people, I take a shot, and when there are people and balloons, I shoot separately and later remove the people to create a quiet atmosphere. The important thing here is that the tripod should never be moved or touched.
BW: Which piece was the first of the My Perfume series?
JB: It’s Hydrangea. I was brainstorming the concept of Childhood at that time. When I was young, I really enjoyed playing with flowers and making fake perfumes. I would put petals in small bottles and collect flowers from the streets to make perfumes in my room. Eventually, those perfumes ended up smelling like a mix of random unpleasant scents. I think I was around 13 years old when I created my first perfume. After that, I forgot about it and lived my life, but when I tried to remember my childhood, those joyful memories came back to me.
My Perfume invites different kinds of readings with the addition of the more ambiguous pieces — there are three with big jars or vases with flowers, but the two I’m referring to are the baby blanket and the dolls’ heads.
BW: Were you attempting to hijack easy interpretation by adding these pieces? Why add them?
JB: Sometimes, when we think of perfume, we associate it with memories…nostalgia. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about the scent itself. In Korea, the phrase “evoking perfume” is used to describe what Americans would call nostalgia.
I am currently in my mid-30s, and I find myself reflecting on and living my life more clearly than ever before. The memories from my teens and twenties serve as a catalyst for bringing a small smile to my face. I wish I could have experienced more during that time. I have learned a lot in my 30s that I didn’t know when I was younger.
While I think back and believe I was truly happy then, when I delve deeper into my memories, I realize that not all of them were pleasant. It made me wonder if I had been brainwashed into thinking I was always happy or if it was just a case of mood-cellar syndrome. I don’t necessarily want to live my life remembering only the bad memories.
However, I don’t want to claim that my life has been nothing but happiness without facing those unpleasant memories. Because even those memories are like perfume, they become insignificant as time passes. I wanted to record the moments of happiness and sadness that have been engraved in my life.
BW: What distinguishes the Two Dots series from the My Perfume series?
JB: It’s an interesting question. I have a close friend who is also my mother. She is raising three children. She is someone I admire, as she lives her life with passion and enthusiasm. We constantly have conversations, drink together, and share stories from the past, discussing our experiences in our 30s and 40s. Her children are 9, 8, and 4 years old, while mine are 8 and 4 years old.
One night, while having a drink at her place after putting the kids to bed, she mentioned that she would throw away all the plastic toys once the kids grow older. Children love toys, but mothers can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the constant need to clean up. However, it is also true that toys can be a great help to mothers. There will come a time when we will miss this stage. If the kids no longer want toys, mothers will never buy them again. This too will become a perfume, a nostalgic memory. So, we collaborated and played together, just like children.
BW: Is there more of the Two Dots series to come? What can we look forward to with this series?
JB: I have about five more toys left. If there is someone, whether it’s just me, that person, or another mother, with whom I can connect well and who wants to feel and express the emotions that our children felt when they were young, I would like to set up a meeting and have a conversation to collaborate.
I am confident that when we are in our 50s and 60s, it will bring us great joy and wonderful memories.
BW: How has parenthood affected you as an artist? This could be related to time management, sources of inspiration, creative process, or anything else.
JB: My work began after I became a mother. Before that, I dabbled in art and drew inspiration from various sources, but it was only after getting married and having a child that I started to passionately express and seek empathy for what I felt.
Perhaps during the challenging moments of parenting, when I was given brief moments of time to work, I delved deeper into my art. It was like being caught in the eye of two tornadoes. One was something I had to do, and the other was something that helped me relieve stress. Both aspects were beneficial to me.
BW: How would you describe the work you make?
JB: I also consider my work to be surrealistic and somewhat documentary-like. It is incredibly personal yet relatable in certain aspects. I don’t strive to present things in a straightforward manner, and while my work is about motherhood to me, I also hope it can inspire others in different ways. I dislike being confined to one place or theme. Perhaps that’s why some people describe my photographs as resembling paintings, as they convey my story through easily accessible objects, despite their seriousness.
BW: What’s the most helpful thing you’ve learned in the last year or so that has helped you in your creative career? This could be a new habit you’ve picked up, something helpful in a tricky software, a new mindset, or anything else.
JB: I have never had proper communication with people on channels like Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube. I have made many attempts, but the reason I am sharing this story is because I have realized that I no longer want to work timidly on my own. I have a desire to communicate with people, show my work to them, and be happy whether they have positive or negative things to say about it.
I have discovered that I am someone who enjoys engaging with others and discussing with artists or people from different fields. The fear of talking to others has greatly diminished. I used to feel so stressed when talking at gallery openings, but now I feel much more comfortable. Just having the confidence to look into someone’s eyes has made my life as an artist much more fulfilling.
As a result, I had the opportunity to meet Phillip on MakersPlace, and I have been actively using Twitter. And now, I am even doing this interview.
BW: Can you share any specific rituals or practices that help you maintain your creative momentum?
JB: I believe that if I am curious about someone, they will also be curious about me. And I find that mindset to be very enjoyable. One thing I love is delving deep into something. When I have a thought, I keep digging and exploring until I am satisfied. Sometimes, this can be quite stressful, but when I watch movies or read novels, I actually read the beginning, the ending, and then go back to read the middle part, following the story step by step. I like to watch a movie from the beginning again after seeing the ending. This is my favorite hobby, and this behavior also helps me a lot when planning my work. It helps me understand what I want to convey and whether that story is present in my photographs or paintings.
On the other hand, I also seek to experience and observe things in quiet places like magazines, galleries, and nature. I desperately need my own time, completely alone, at least once or twice a week.
BW: How do you think about balancing the business aspect of making a creative career and the creative process?
JB: Actually, I haven’t thought about things from a business perspective much. Ultimately, if someone likes my work, I consider it successful, whether it’s owning an NFT or directly owning a painting. Even though not everyone can like my work, I believe that by approaching and expressing myself truthfully, I can attract people who appreciate my work.
BW: If you could pick the next artist to spotlight, who would it be? If you could pick the next collector to spotlight, who would it be?
JB: I’ve recently started exploring NFTs and while I don’t know many artists, I came across Parin, and her artworks instantly captivated me. Her daily line drawings and continuous growth as an artist leave a deep impression on me, and whenever I meet her, she shares wonderful stories that uplift my spirits. Her artworks and narratives are intriguing, and I find myself inspired by her passion and dedication.