Get to Know Camera Obscura Studio Resident Dahn Gim

April 18, 2019 9:34 AM
by Naomi Okuyama

Dahn Gim is in residence at the Camera Obscura Art Lab from April 24 through July 17, 2019. For her Camera Obscura residency project, she is archiving and transforming beach plastics into a series of sculptures, keeping this abundant material out of the waste stream and highlighting both the problem of “forever waste” and the overlooked utility of plastic as a resource. Riding with City beach cleanup crews on their tractors, she will gather waste “at the source” and bring her findings to the studio. She is also researching and exploring various materials that can replace animal leather such as gampi fiber, sausage casings and bacteria/yeast cultures, in preparation for creating her next body of work. As part of her public events at the Camera Obscura, she is leading a variety of craft activities utilizing recycled bottles, fabric/leather remnants and mechanisms to transform waste into usable materials.

Question: What drew you to consider waste plastic as a “precious” resource? How do you utilize it in your work?  

I’ve been learning about the life cycle of plastic and how much energy and chemical resources is required in the manufacturing process. Current packaging technology allows us to store liquid and solid goods, to package and ship them all over the world protected from moisture, light, vermin, leaking, shock and other forces. Most of these packaging materials are forms of plastic, conceived of as disposable but having little, if any, functional biodegradability. The breakdown period for most plastics in the environment spans decades or even centuries. And this is something we actively have to remind ourselves before using such packaged items, or items made of plastic that are supposedly “single-use.” The more I think about this life cycle, the more precious it becomes.

The ubiquitous consumption of plastic is something I began to consider more seriously as the concept for my own work when I began working as a lab technician with 3D printers. The sustainability of 3D printing as a manufacturing method has always felt questionable to me. At the moment I am doing research and sketching out the idea of plastic from a macro perspective: how its protean functionality defines its environmental impact.

Q: This new project seems like a departure from some of your previous works. Can you draw parallels and contrasts between the “precious plastic” work you’ve embarked on, and your other projects? 

It was my last sculpture series, “Names I Had You Call Me” (2018) that led me to search for material to replace leather, which was what I primarily used at the time. The series required not only intensive physical labor but also naturally delivered a very intimate relationship with the materials. I was transforming automobile mufflers, deconstructed and reskinned with soft leather to resemble the shape, color, and texture of limbs and organs. This intimate labor of carrying, pulling, folding, stretching, sewing, and dyeing leather inspired me to learn more about its manufacture process, as well as those of alternative materials.

Viewers experiencing Dahn Gim’s Names I Had Them Call Me, installation view, leather covered muffler, thread, audio loop, 2018

From that I moved on to growing large batches of SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast). When grown SCOBYs are processed properly, their texture and color resembles human skin, and my successful experiments sparked a curiosity into bioplastic. Through the process of creating vegan leather myself, I witnessed firsthand how much attention and time is needed to grow and process one batch of SCOBY into a sheet of functional material. At the end the material became “precious” to me. Bioplastic is what I plan to further explore during my residency and to share my research findings with a larger community. Ultimately, I hope to raise more conversation about “precious” plastic by sharing my thoughts and concerns about plastic whether it is made from plant or petroleum.

Dahn Gim, Rage Quit, Mixed media, audio kinetic objects, 6 minutes 35 seconds, 2015

Q: What about the immigrant experience informs your direction as a multinational art worker?  

I lived in Canada as an international student for a decade and became a permanent resident but soon moved to LA to become a student again. So it’s been hard to fully consider myself an immigrant, when I feel more ambiguous about who I am and what community I belong to. But my work always stems from personal experiences, reflecting the process of adaptation to constant shifts and changes of surroundings as I struggle to gain a sense of belonging. The contrasts and juxtapositions of my experiences drive me to explore the ambiguous realm between the natural and the artificial, and inform the combination of analog and digital techniques and materials in my work. I once thought of home as where my family is, Korea… then thought it’s where I live at that moment, and now I am not sure. I still don’t feel like I am settled anywhere yet. 

Dahn Gim, unspoken truth, mixed media sound installation, 2014

Q: What are the limits of sculpture? 

I still feel very new to sculpture though I am keeping myself close to it because I enjoy the fluidity and flexibility in the making process so far. I am not feeling limited in its structural, aesthetic and conservable integrity yet. Especially the materials I currently work with, which question all of these. For example, sculptures made with SCOBY will not conserve their form after few years; the muffler sculptures wrapped with leathers will darken over time due to exposure to light. I am not sure if there are limits but I think there are many challenges that allow me to be more deliberate and thoughtful about elements that choose to work with. 

Viewers experience Dahn Gim’s No Losers, digital print, scratch-off ink, metal panel, 2015/2017

Q: How does the experience of the public complete (or not) your work? 

Some of my past works works, like No Losers, which begins as a ~2’ x 12’ panel covered in scratch-off ink, is completely dependent on an audience. For that project, one brave participant is the first to scratch off the surface. Then many other participants join in and quickly uncover the rest of the panel. This process reveals hidden messages and graffiti under the ink, but it also leaves creative traces of images as the participants unevenly scratch off bits of ink from the surface.

Dahn Gim, Ours, digital print, Japanese paper, thread, needle, 2015-2016

Other works like The Ballad of East and West and Ours took about 80 hours of interactive performance to complete. My directions to the audience were placed on top of an empty chair and read, “Please take a sit and receive needles coming through. Then, exchange the needles with me to remove each word.” This work invited audience to exchange embroidery needles with me over printed characters, transforming them into a textile/installation work. It also opened up a dialogue of what is means to be physically present and “connect” expanding the notion of public vs. private, individualism vs. collectivism, and human interaction. Also for these works I tried to encourage tactile and creative participation from the audience to allow intuitive response, playfulness, and humor, violence, and improvisation.

Although the work I’m doing at the Camera is different, I think the way my public events engage with people will incorporate what I’ve learned from these past projects.

Dahn Gim was born in Korea, raised in Canada and now lives in Los Angeles. As an artist and curator, her work stems from personal experiences reflecting the process of adaptation to constant shifts and changes of surroundings as she struggles to gain a sense of belonging. In this process, Gim explores the ambiguous realm between the natural and the artificial, combining analog and digital techniques and materials. She is a fellowship recipient of University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), UC Institute and Research in the Arts (UCIRA). After completing her MFA in Media Arts at UCLA, she has been exhibited internationally including venues such as Steve Turner Gallery, Los Angeles; Currents New Media 2017: El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe, Santa Fe; Nuit Blanche: Art Souterrain 2017, Montreal; Dongdaemoon Design Plaza (DDP), Seoul; Barnsdall Art Gallery, Los Angeles; New Wight Gallery, Los Angeles; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Somerset House; London, and TAG bxl, Brussels. She was awarded 2016 International Emerging Artists Award (Dubai), Curators Lab Award 2017 from Fellows of Contemporary Art 2018-2019, and 2019 Kala Art Institute Fellowship.  

About the Camera Obscura Studio Residency program   

Santa Monica Cultural Affairs presents participatory art and culture programs for adults at the Camera Obscura Art Lab. Inspired by the camera mechanism, which has been beloved attraction in Santa Monica since 1898, activities in this community art practice space celebrate the power of art to change perspective. Residency programs invite local artists to spend time on the far western edge of the continent to create and explore ideas and practices in concert with the community. The resulting projects highlight the intersection of fine art and handcraft and offer access to a variety of artistic practice and instruction. 

Authored By

Naomi Okuyama
Cultural Affairs Supervisor