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[ZOOM KOREA] Textile designer makes a natural statement

June 17,2019
Jang Jiu, artist and head of OMA Space, inspects silk drawn from wild cocoons at her design studio in Samcheong-dong, central Seoul. She was recently selected to participate in Google’s artist-in-residency program. [PARK SANG-MOON]
Jang Jiu holds a bulk of yarn in front of a piece she made while experimenting with fermented fabric. [PARK SANG-MOON]
Jang Jiu only uses natural materials and practices in her works. Above is a step-by-step demonstration of how Jang and her team usually process cotton. From left, cotton fiber is separated from the plant’s seeds; the fiber is rolled into cylindrical shapes with a stick; fiber is hand-spun into yarn; a handloom is used to weave cotton fabric. [OMA SPACE]
“The ‘Tree of Light’ is an interactive installation that features a dialogue between art and technology. Built on existing knowledge of textiles and Google’s innovative Jacquard technology, it encourages audiences to have a meditative and immersive experience.

The goal of this contemplative project is not necessarily for the audience to get closer to the digital world, but to awaken the individual sensations in their body and reconnect humans with their natural self.”

When the Korea JoongAng Daily met Jang Jiu at her design studio OMA Space in early June, Jang and her team were busy getting the “Tree of Light” ready for an upcoming show in Paris - the final presentation for an artist-in-residency program at Google.

In April, Jang and her OMA Space team had been chosen to participate in a highly-selective, technology-heavy residency program run by Google’s Jacquard project and Google Arts & Culture. Along with a French and a Mexican artist, OMA Space was one of three teams selected out of over 200 submissions.

For “Tree of Light,” OMA is planning to weave a large circle spanning 10 meters (32.8 feet) in diameter out of fabric. The installation will feature an innovative blend of elements taken from both tradition and Google’s Jacquard technology, which, once complete, will enable audiences to control the music and lighting with their bare feet as they walk over it.

Jacquard is a technology that integrates digital connectivity into textiles. Jang hopes that this artwork will pique the audience’s senses to the fullest as they observe how brushing their skin against the fabric leads to different visual and auditory outcomes. The “Tree of Light” is also intended to be a contemplative experience encouraging audiences to meditate on the sensations they feel.

Before running her own studio at its current home in Samcheong-dong, Jongno District, central Seoul, Jang spent many years studying textiles formally at school and casually during her travels in Korea and abroad.

Curious about textiles from a young age, Jang majored in textile design at university and spent her free time visiting local artisans in the countryside and experimenting with fabric dyes. Yet Jang felt that the subjects she studied at school were too methodical and began yearning for work with more natural and traditional elements.

In 2005, Jang went to study abroad at the London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London, majoring in fashion and accessory design.

But Jang still felt like something was amiss, that her studies focused too heavily on design and aesthetics without fully appreciating the intentions and creators behind the clothes. Jang realized that she wanted to dig deeper into the processes that went behind making the textiles themselves. She was much more interested in discovering which plants the textiles came from and who made them. Jang was certain that having a solid foundation of such knowledge would allow her to create works of higher quality.

Since returning to Korea in 2012, Jang immersed herself in extracting ingredients from plants and other natural sources to create unique and innovative works. A trip to Laos as part of a government project in 2013 to help local craftsman was particularly influential in shaping Jang’s perception of textiles. There, Jang came face-to-face with a huge range of natural materials and advanced craftsmanship. She also saw firsthand how tradition and local artisanry were gradually disappearing.

Today, Jang only uses materials that can be found naturally in the wild. Cotton, hemp and silk from silkworm cocoons are some of the most common elements found in her works. Jang refuses to process these materials using machines, worried that they will lose their natural beauty. This means Jang only uses cotton yarns spun by hand, even if they are less smooth and polished than those spun automatically.

Because Jang only works with natural fibers and practices, one of her biggest challenges is obtaining materials. In Korea, there are no longer any wild silkworms or places that make cotton thread by hand, leaving Jang with no choice but to get some of her materials from abroad.

The lack of available resources inspired Jang to dream of setting up a local community in the future where members can engage in producing the kinds of materials that go into her works.

In the community, Jang envisions that some could plant cotton while others weave fabric and create designs, thereby maintaining tradition while keeping the textile industry alive.

Jang’s dreams for such an interdependent community are reflected in the organization of OMA Space. As the head of her team, Jang conceptualizes the team’s textile, craft and design projects, while standing by her philosophy. Daniel Kapelian, originally from France, works as the art director and manages communications and music production. Designer Gil Kyoung-young is in charge of fabric development, design and placing the finishing touches on final products. Through their different roles, the team goes beyond just making garments by experimenting with other fields of contemporary art such as installations and interior design objects.

Jang says that all her works can be traced back to soil. She even goes so far as to claim that the foundation of everything is soil, and laments that people today are forgetting the most basic things in life. Jang says that just as her work helps her find her path, she hopes people who see her creations will ask themselves fundamental questions about their existence, even if just for a moment.

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