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[ZOOM KOREA] Expressing humanity through tigers

Feb 27,2018
Tiger artist Go Sun-rye works on a tiger sculpture in her workshop located near Hajeom-myeon in Incheon. [PARK SANG-MOON]
1. Go Sun-rye looking at one of her white tiger sculptures. 2. Go’s piece “Heeheehoho.” 3. Go sculpture “LOVE.” 4. Some of Go’s tiger sculptures stand in her backyard. 5. A sculpture titled “Conversation between a tiger and a magpie.” [PARK SANG-MOON]
What is the significance of a tiger in Korea? A long time ago, the country believed that tigers were mountain spirits to worship. In the famous “Myth of Dangun,” a bear and a tiger appear as main characters. Even the two mascots of 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, Soohorang and Bandabi, originated from white tigers and Asiatic black bears. Moreover, tigers were thought to bring luck and were regarded as guardians who drove away negative energy.

Known as a tiger artist, Go Sun-rye depicts tigers in an unusual way; she anthropomorphizes them, pouring her life stories, such as her loneliness, troubles and distress, within the tiger sculptures that she makes. Although each piece contains her inner sadness, every tiger also looks cheerful and cute.

After graduating with a degree in sculpture, she assisted her husband who also majored in sculpture at Seoul National University in making pottery. She devoted herself to ceramics for ten years but realized that it didn’t match her skills, so she changed her trajectory and started working on making prop dolls. She worked hard and the response from her customers was surprisingly good.

She started working exclusively on tigers in 2001. Before then, she had worked on creating pieces that resembled various animals, such as horses and dogs. But after realizing that her favorite animal was the tiger, she has been working only on them ever since. She calls the tigers she creates “Mascots that spread love and bring good luck.”

When Go first started to work on tigers, she always made two tigers that were a couple and gave each a story to complete the work. Nevertheless, the tigers by themselves sometimes seemed aesthetically unbalanced, so she decided to add something else to make the sculptures more interesting. After going through series of alternations, she put a magpie on top of her tigers and the pairs seemed to be more harmonious. This is how her classic “Magpie-tiger” series was born.

Magpies and tigers now take up the majority of her working hours. Her tigers are not the beasts that one often imagines them to be, but comical creatures that bring smiles to people’s faces. Magpies also represent a messenger that brings hope. The magpie and the tiger always communicate. Their communication is filled with love. While working on her pieces, she always wishes for good things to happen in people’s lives.

Of the many varieties of big cats that she can make, white tigers are Go’s favorite. In many traditional tales, white tigers signified a new king that had risen during difficult times and helped his nation and people flourish.

The magpie and the tiger are humane, and Go’s pieces do not merely depict the pair as animals. They contain a pure image of bonding and a relationship between nature and humans. Their untainted and playful expressions convey trust and love.

Many of her sculptures of magpies and tigers are made out of clay. She uses the techniques she learned through pottery to bake the clay at 1230 degrees Celsius. This is the perfect temperature to create the colors she wants and give the pieces the antique look that she wants the sculptures to have. The base colors are normally ones that can be preserved for the longest time. Go then adds the five traditional colors of Korea and finally bakes pieces in a kiln to produce the final result.

The artist puts all of her effort into every piece she makes and pours heart into each of them. She is not used to being around many people, so she doesn’t have many friends. For Go, her sculptures have always been her world. Since the artist herself is small, she creates the tigers to be massive and gallant.

Since her works contain so much hope, they bring many people joy. When one client who was suffering from an incurable disease saw her work, she found a way to laugh for the first time since her diagnosis.

Another miracle occurred when a couple who struggled for ten years to have a baby gave birth to a healthy child after they acquired one of her tigers.

To Go, tigers represent her dreams. The dreams she had not been able to achieve are realized through her work. She loves to travel, but she usually can’t due to her dedication to her work. So, instead, she hopes that her tigers can go far into the world and have experiences that she never could. Sending off her tigers for her is the same feeling a mother has when her daughter parts from her to get married.

PARK SANG-MOON [moonpark@joongang.co.kr]

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