Venerating Ancestors: A Fabric Sculpture by Soon-Hee Oh

Soon-hee Oh, “Snow Flower,” 2006, ramie and silk (photo courtesy Asian Art Museum, SF)

Soon-hee Oh fashions abstract fiber sculptures using techniques that reference traditional Korean fiber crafts. Somber and elegant, her pieces venerate the human hand in the textile tradition.  In “Snow Flower,” Oh has linked the ramie (fiber made from the Boehmeria nivea, or flowering nettle plant) squares together by using maedeup, the complex three-dimensional knotting technique traditionally used in Korea for passementerie.  The black string against the white fabric suggests calligraphy, an art form Oh studied seriously in the 80s. This subtle reference to human activity reinforces the sense of respect in Oh’s pieces for traditional arts.   

The main element of “Snow Flower,” the accordian-folded drape, is angular and rigid. The vertical drape is “violated” by the smattering of boxy globes, seemingly irregular, but comprised of regular square elements. The folded fabric of “Snow Flower” suggests the drape of an invisible person, and its totemic shape reinforces a spiritual presence. Viewing the piece becomes a meditative act; my thoughts wander from the whole of human culture to specific persons no longer alive. The white ramie evokes purity and thus veneration; it also speaks to the silence and emptiness of snow, which of course is reinforced by the piece’s title. I wonder about the significance of the title: did Oh’s inspiration come from Korean Buddhist iconography? The lotus flower is the ur-symbol of Buddhism, denoting the eternal cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth. After long searching I find precious few references in my sources to either snow flowers or snowflakes, but the transformational nature of flowers has suggested there is more meaning locked in the sculpture. 

Transparency and light are clearly at play in this sculpture. To that point, in reference to the forces that drive her artistically, Oh once remarked: “My ancestors’ eternal spirit remains in me as light.” 

More Soon-hee Oh

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