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The Space Between

by Carole VanSickle


The aim of Hwangbo's sculptures is "to occupy the space between two- and three-dimensional art. They utilize the interplay between pictoral image and spacial volume to create an intense, multi-faceted viewing experience."


In Antoine de St. Exupéry’s fable The Little Prince, the title character reminds adults that “what is essential is invisible to the eye.” He could just as easily have been describing Imi Hwangbo’s new series of sculptures, which make as much use of the empty space around and within them as they do the materials of their construction.

Hwangbo, a professor of sculpture at the University of Georgia, employs the absence of substance in the same way that most sculptors utilize the presence of clay or glass. She uses layers of flat surfaces — mylar sheets held in place by thin metal pins — to create artwork with real depth, reminding the viewer of the multiple ways to consider the simplest of things.

“In Western culture, emptiness is seen as a negative thing, like being in a state of want or need,” said Hwangbo. “In Buddhist thinking, emptiness is a state that you work to achieve, a state that is liberating.” The aim of her sculptures, then, is “to occupy the space between two- and three-dimensional art. They utilize the interplay between pictorial image and spatial volume to create an intense, multifaceted viewing experience.”

She begins with a hand-drawn design, frequently inspired by the architecture of Korean Buddhist temples or pojagi, traditional Korean “wrapping cloths” decorated with geometric patterns and symbolic floral motifs. These cloths were one of the few forms of artistic expression open to women in Korean history, and their meditative patterns are said to convey desires for fertility, prosperity, longevity, and harmony, said Hwangbo.

After producing a design, the sculptor scans it into her computer, where it is mapped into flat components and then printed on multiple sheets to be cut out — each tiny facet by hand — with a fiercely honed scalpel. Guided by a three-dimensional clay model of the future work, she then suspends the sheets on pins, creating “solid” structures out of the sheer, planar materials.

The results of Hwangbo’s hours of focus and devotion are dynamic; the different sheets flex slightly in varying air currents and each angle presents a new gradient of shapes and colors. Hwangbo’s sculptures may evoke thoughts of movement, feelings of tranquility, and a universe of possibility from every angle.

In reference to this dynamism, she has named multiple works “Lepidoptera,” after the order of moths and butterflies. “Variations in the floral pattern create an optical effect, a kind of visual shimmer. The alternating light and dark shadows make the pattern seem to be in motion, or as I like to see it, in the act of flight.”

Hwangbo also uses the ethereal quality and scale of her works to suggest “metaphors for the human body in architecture,” she said. “The human figure may be viewed as a portal that may be entered or moved through.” Thus, for example, a human-scaled piece hanging on a wall — generally being regarded as firm and unyielding — can suggest a door through which the human body may pass. “We can view ourselves as dense solid bodies or as defined by the space, physical and spiritual, around and within us.”

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