As one of two Chicago-based artist on the current season of Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, Young Sun Han has been kicking ass (in the nicest way possible) all season long. The 29 year-old photographer, sculptor, performance and installation artist has won half of the challenges to date, and heads into tonight’s finale (Bravo, 8 p.m.), as the favorite. The A.V. Club sat down with the finalist to talk about playing nice with the competition, using arts as activism, and getting the “crazy bitch” edit by TV producers.
The A.V. Club: You confessed to being a bit of a reality TV junkie and really enjoying the first season of Work Of Art before deciding to audition for this season. Did your experience of being on a reality program square with your expectations?
Young Sun Han: Honestly, the biggest surprise for me was not having this super villain. I was really ready to be attacked or have to deal with some crazy bitch or whatever, so I was really surprised how levelheaded the contestants were. I wasn’t too surprised by our crazy hours and challenges.
AVC: Your cast was a bit atypical of reality TV, in that no one’s attitude was to be cutthroat or stonewall one another, despite the fact that you’re all competing for a prize that can really change your life.
YSH:You know, I think artists, more so than other professions, are very kindred spirits. We understand that it’s hard to survive as an artist, and we’re also very critical about things. Fashion is about clothes; if you’re a chef, it’s about food. But art is literally about whatever you can think of on the planet. Since we’re all very critical; in a way, I think [the contestants] had an “us vs. them” mentality, as far as being in the reality machine and working with producers. We know there are several filters placed on how we act in real-time versus how we’re edited on the show. I think that made us very protective of each other.
AVC: In almost every challenge, you all actually helped one another with projects, even if that project might beat your own and send you home.
YSH: We exchanged time, like, “I’ll help you for 10 minutes if you help me for 10 minutes.” Everyone was very open.
AVC: What happens to your daily routine and personal privacy when you join the show?
YSH: We’re pretty much in the Work Of Art planet the whole time that we’re there. That’s kind of what drives us to bond, but it also creates tension because you have no other outlets except each other. We had very limited contact with friends or family. I think you see Dusty [Mitchell] calling his wife in one of the episodes, but pretty much any phone call made is limited and has to be done on camera and recorded, so there’s no sense of privacy. We also didn’t have Internet connections, despite working on computers. We were pretty cut off.
AVC: Without Internet as a research tool, it sounds like you were limited to the knowledge in your head.
YSH: Everything is drawn from your own source inspiration. There’s no reference material; you can only rely on what you see with your eyes. So, no Googling how to mix cement or cast resin material. You pretty much come in with the skills you have already and pick up the rest there really quick.
AVC: Did that affect other contestants on the show, as far as being limited by not knowing how to perform a technique or work with certain materials?
YSH: I think you saw that a bit with Bayetè [Ross Smith]; he had trouble translating his main skill sets, which were photography and videography, to some of the challenges. Everyone comes there with very different skill sets. Some are more well-rounded than others, but in the real art world, you have at least one thing you do really well and spend the rest of your life doing that. So, you have different kinds of artist on the show, the kinds that represent the jack-of-all-trades.
AVC: You won the “Make It Pop” challenge with a piece about Prop 8 and the “Ripped From The Headlines” challenge with a piece about Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. How do you think art is effective for approaching and unpacking other complex social or political issues, like Prop 8 or Occupy Wall Street?
YSH: I think art and activism is always an interesting dynamic—and how do you merge the two? There’s sort of a philosophy that you can only be an artist or only be an activist, but I think artists are really good at bringing attention to social issues. That doesn’t mean artists can solve these issues or always have a definitive statement, but what I saw the other day was a projection of a 99 percent logo on the side of the Verizon building in New York. It kind of looks like a Bat-Signal; it’s a simple thing, but it’s a really creative way to draw attention to Occupy Wall Street and the whole thing that’s happening right now. Artists have this way of bringing visibility to things that are invisible or forgotten. A challenge is that once we’ve highlighted an issue, how do we actively participate and affect that issue? With the Ai Weiwei piece, I reached out to the creators of this new feature-length documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. It’s going to come out sometime next year and focus on his life and his story. I’m hoping that, as a resident of Chicago, I can help organize screenings locally, so it’s another way for me to be active, and it’s an extension of my Work Of Art project. It was nice that I had that opportunity to do something on the show, but now, outside the show, I can stay involved.
AVC: Being reality TV and all, did you ever think some of the contestants were chosen overwhelmingly for their personality quirks and less for their artistic ability?
YSH: I think with someone like The Sucklord, his art really came through in his persona, which really does tie into his own real-world life, which is the CEO of [Suckadelic] Enterprises. He’s always kind of always performing in his role outside the competition, and that was so enjoyable on the show. But that skill set, in having so much personality, didn’t always translate into the challenges. Someone like Kymia [Nawabi]—you can already see that she’s an amazing drawer, or that someone like Sara [Jimenez] is very good with watercolor; Michelle [Matson] is very good with paper … I was very impressed with everyone’s very specialty techniques. But I think with any reality show, with casting, you have the competitors, the characters, and then the canon fodder, so viewers can kind of argue where everyone falls in that spectrum.
AVC: During the competition, we learn that you lost your father just before filming started. You don’t reference it a lot, but did that affect you during the competition?
YSH: It really heavily affected me, and you don’t really see too much of it. It was really on my mind because it had only been a couple of months [before filming started], and I hadn’t personally worked through all of my emotions and gone through and accepted that loss yet. It was always on my mind in some way or the other, a lot of dreams about it. My dad was only 56 when he passed away, so it was … it was really on my mind, for lack of better words. But because of winning some of the prize money [from challenges], I was able to pay for his headstone, and it was his one-year anniversary Nov. 8 this year, so it was a kind of special experience that my time on the show could actually do something for him in my real life.
AVC: Now that you’ve been back in the real world for several months, do you feel different as a result of show?
YSH: For that moment in time, when I went on the show, it was a big transition period for me: being on the show, being in a new relationship, being back in Chicago, losing my father. It was the jump start I needed to get back into a regular mode of making work, because there were a lot of changes in my life at that point. I don’t think it’s changed me as an artist, but it’s given me a great jump start.
AVC: You can’t talk about how far each contestant went, so what about spilling some of your favorite contestants?
YSH: I really admire people who know how to be themselves and work really hard on their projects. When I initially saw everyone’s self-portraits, I was really impressed with Kymia and Michelle’s—just their skill level. I think you see Dusty and I really bond for the first time in the team challenge for street art, but I bonded with everyone in really different ways. I probably learned the most from Leon [Lim] because he taught us sign language, and it was cool for me to see another Asian male contestant on the show who was from Asia. What I loved about Leon is that we were writing messages back and forth to each other until he said, “No, I’m going to teach you sign language.” He was really great about forcing us to understand where he was coming from. He assigned nicknames in sign language for each of us, which was really cool. I really loved Kathryn [Parker Almanas] as well, and was kind of sad to see the “crazy lady” edit that she got. But she’s actually very sweet and down to earth. I keep in touch some of the other contestants. But I think everyone on the show was very open to understanding new things and, despite the drama that happened on occasion, everyone was very supportive of each other.
AVC: Based on what you’ve seen so far, are you pretty pleased with how you’ve been represented on the show?
YSH: I think it’s a pretty fair representation. Because so much time is distilled down to a 60-minute episode, you can’t represent the complexity of every person. I think there are really strong characters on our season, but I was happy to just back away and get to work. I don’t want to be a pop-culture icon, or a celebrity, or a TV person. I just want to be an artist, and that’s what I came on the show to do. Now that the show has aired, I love reading the feedbacks and criticisms on different blogs about the show. I see that as one of the best things about the show: that you get people’s brutally honest opinions. I love, love, love comments. You get a lot of “what a pretentious, pandering jerk” comments, but you kind of have to ignore the highest praise and the worst insults; somewhere in between is what people are thinking.
AVC: You keep an arts blog where you’ve talked about challenges facing young artists. From your experience as an artist, and now from being on a high-profile show, what advice would you give other up-and-coming artist?
YSH: It’s such a good question. I recently blogged about arts education and filled out a national survey for arts alumni [about] how the arts have affected their careers to date, and it’s interesting to read the survey: Only about 7 percent of artists who filled out the survey that went to art school are currently working in the arts. Obviously, it’s a huge challenge trying to sustain a career as an artist, especially during an economically depressed time. But I think you have to realize that it takes a while. Being an artist is a lifetime thing; it’s not a quick career that happens even in 10 years. You have to find ways of giving back to the arts community so they give you support.
For me, I’ve always volunteered and worked for art galleries and museums. Working for other artists is a great way for young artists to understand what it’s like to work as a studio artist and manage staff, if you get to that level of having assistants. As many different kinds of artists as you can meet, figure out how you can apply their way of managing time and resources, then you, of course, figure out your own way. Again, I bring up Sucklord as another interesting model as someone who’s in the art world, not in the mainstream art world as far as being shown in galleries, but he’s figured out his own way to do what he wants to do and support himself financially. So there are really a lot of different models for being an artist, and they don’t all rely on being represented by a gallery. Artists are going to always have to supplement their income by teaching or doing other side jobs that are non-art-related or working in arts admin. If you want to do it and you want to make work, you’ll find a way.