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Plastic fantastic

Jae Kang – creating art from plastic tubing

A tomato grower from Waiuku is being hailed as one of the most exciting emerging installation artists in New Zealand. Jae Kang has an extraordinary talent re-inventing irrigation tubing from her greenhouses into remarkable sculptural structures. ANGELA KEMP reports.

I have to admit I was sceptical when I first heard about Jae Kang’s large-scale installations using original irrigation material from her commercial greenhouse.

I’ve got quite a bit of the black plastic tubing lying around my block. It’s no longer useful, unrecyclable and an eyesore. And I’m always tripping over it.

Short of burying it, I have to accept its part of the lifestyle landscape and hope it will eventually be hidden by kikuyu. But after viewing the work of Jae Kang I am seeing those giant liquorice pipes with new eyes.

Jae and her husband James have been growing tomatoes in Waiuku for 15 years, ever since they immigrated from South Korea in search of a better life for their two children.

They had no previous horticultural experience: James was a maths teacher and Jae was a highly regarded sculptor and painter who worked on public art for the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

Their lives changed soon after with the arrival of son Taewon who was born with severe autistic and intellectual disabilities and needed round the clock care. “At the time the health services in Korea were not as good as they are now and we looked for another country where we would get the best medical help for Taewon,” Jae says.

Diverse works by Jae Kang. Photos supplied

Once they had settled on New Zealand the couple bought an existing tomato growing business despite having no prior farming knowledge. It allowed Jae to provide the fulltime care Taewon needed and plenty of open space for him to run around.

“We received a lot of help about how to run the business from neighbours and other members of the Korean community,” Jae says.
But, between work and caring for Taewon, she no longer had time for art and her considerable talents lay dormant for the best part of two decades.
That changed a couple of years ago when Taewon, now in his 20s, needed more care than his parents were able to provide and he moved into a residential home.

“I went to MIT to study for my Bachelor’s degree in creative art and while there I was approached to design an ANZAC memorial in Te Kauwhata.”

It was the first of several public installation projects Jae has been involved in, including designing public sculptures for the New Zealand Steel Mill at Glenbrook and co-ordinating mural projects in the Otara community.

Designed while she was a student at MIT, the Te Kauwhata Soldiers’ Memorial, was unveiled on the Village Green on April 11, 2015. It is constructed from five segments of concrete obtained from the Waterview tunnel project in Auckland.

The centre piece – two sentries leaning into each other standing over three metres tall – depicts the brotherhood of Australia and New Zealand. If one falls, the other one will fall too so they must continue to support each other.

Jae recently learned she had been selected to take part in next year’s Headland Sculpture on the Gulf on Waiheke Island, described as the foremost outdoor sculpture exhibition in NZ.
Her huge installation, made of irrigation pipes naturally, will measure more than four metres high and sixteen metres long.

“I looked at the pipes which are lying all around and I saw them as a giant scribble or line drawing. I thought I could make art from it and that’s how it began. I call them drawing installations.”

Throughout these various projects Jae has developed a sensitivity for space, and a way in which her drawings can become 3-dimensional, changing the way people can walk around, engage with, and be surrounded by an artwork.

“I am interested in engaging the public by putting them in an exciting environment and to impact on their awareness of that space to evoke people’s spatial imagination.”

She said few people recognised the re-invented irrigation pipes.

“No-one knows what they are and I always have to explain why I have used them. My interest in lines that occupy a space is in part influenced by my commercial practice of growing tomatoes.

“While involved in greenhouse growing, the work can consist of repeating a simple single gesture for up to 10 hours a day. The large amount of humble patience of labour creates an amazing power of growing life.”

Jae also paints stunning abstract watercolours and says her techniques are influenced equally by Western academic drawing as well as traditional Korean drawing which involves meditation and physical discipline.

Many of her paintings were lost in a fire in April which destroyed the family’s 100-year-old home leaving only the chimney breast standing.

“We lost everything but nobody was hurt which is all that really matters. We have been lucky to rent a house nearby while a new property is built and the Korean community has been wonderful, donating everything we need. Eventually I hope to make something from some of the materials left after the fire.”

Jae also works as teaching artist at Auckland Art Gallery, where she finds another outlet for sharing her passion for art, especially with immigrants and autistic children.

She is currently developing ideas on an interactive installation for the Maritime Museum in Auckland.

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