By Eliott Grover
“Where are you from?”
VCUarts professor WonJung Choi has received this seemingly innocuous question many times, but only since she moved to the United States.
“When I was in Korea, I never got that question,” Choi says. “Even living in the middle of Seoul, a big city, I was never asked that. And then I moved here and everybody asked.”
For such a simple question, she was struck by its complex implications about identity.
Choi moved to New York in 2002 to pursue a second MFA in Fine Arts. (She earned her first in Sculpture in Korea). Her migratory experience has fueled a longstanding interest in cultural identity and hybridity, themes she has explored throughout her prolific career as a sculptor and mixed media artist. Her latest project, a large-scale installation called “Where Are You From?” was partly inspired by contemporary society’s fascination with ancestral DNA testing.
In 2022, “Where Are You From?” won the prestigious Trawick Prize, a competition that honors D.C., Maryland and Virginia-based artists. This past February, the Trawick Prize marked its 20th anniversary with an exhibition at the American University Museum that featured most of the past winners. The celebration included a competition, the Emerald Award, to select an ultimate winner. When the announcer revealed the recipient, Choi didn’t recognize her name at first.
Choi was humbled to receive the award in front of so many artists whose work she has long admired.
“I didn’t expect to win at all, but I was so happy,” she said. “It was really great encouragement and gave me new energy after I spent over three years on this project.”
“I was just standing and looking around,” she says. “But people were looking at me so I was like, ‘Oh, that might have been my name!’”
Like much of her earlier work, “Where Are You From?” is a visually and conceptually striking installation wrought from a research and labor intensive process. Choi used computer modeling, digital fabrication, and mixed materials to create a literal family tree that portrays a genealogy descended from Lion Man and Venus, two of the earliest prehistoric sculptures. Imagining them as the primordial father and mother, Choi produced 30 figurines to show the evolution of five generations of this hypothetical lineage. Her positioning of the descendants on the tree highlights her penchant for metaphor.
“Family trees usually use branches, but I wanted to use the roots,” Choi says. “They’re underground. We can’t see them, but they’re changing and growing. It’s like DNA. We can’t see our DNA or our ancestry, but it’s there.”
Choi currently teaches an Arts Foundation course on Space Research. Her students develop casting skills, gain experience with installation work, and spend time researching their own identities. “It’s conceptual and technical mixed together,” Choi says.
“Where Are You From?” will continue to show in Washington until March 19.
“After that, the figurines and roots are coming back to Richmond and then maybe preparing for their next journey,” Choi says. “If I have a bigger space, I can make more generations or bigger roots. It’s growing. It’s not finished.”
Lead image: WonJung Choi accepting the Emerald Award, February 4, 2023.