“Shangri-La is dedicated to the suburbanization of the Asian soul and its capacity to overrun our planet like the plague.”
Interview with Michael Joo
born 1966 in Ithaca, NY, lives and works in New York, NY
“My background then was for very low-level research, but again because I grew up with it, the existence for me was a parallel kind of experience, one with an immigrant family that happened to be scientists. So within that mix somehow language became incredibly important.”
SM: Emblematic within your work are references to Korean heritage, to food substance, to ideas of the transference of power or of nature, and to unnatural or supernatural events.
MJ: Yes I agree. It’s a mix, and that’s what it’s always been about: not a contrast, because that’s too binary, but a mix of very convoluted but balanced and interwoven perceptions. My work is all autobiographical, it’s all drawn from experience and observation. I’ve never pointed it out before, but that’s probably the biggest link between my work and a scientific language, or a scientific approach to work: that it’s all from observation, but it doesn’t result in representation. When I was young we had ancestor worship in the house. My father was Buddhist originally and my mother was Christian. She came from the North and he came from the South. We had ancestor worship in the house until the Christian part in my mother began to see it as too pagan and had to expunge it from the household, and then eventually it caused my father to drift more and more towards a Christian existence, so we had Buddhism and Confucianism alongside of that, inside the household. And what was most ironic to me was that they were scientists, but they had a complete belief in homeopathy as well, so they would smuggle mushrooms over from Korea, steeping tea all night long for twenty-four hours – the house would stink – my father would dissolve bear gallbladder, and I would come home from school or soccer practice and I’d be sitting on the couch in an undershirt, watching some program, but eating this incredibly bizarre part of an animal …
SM: But isn’t this the strange, paradoxical reality of Asia, where you could be born as a Muslim but you go to church and celebrate festivals in the temple, and you’re not at all guilty of the fact that you are travestying or transgressing?
MJ: Exactly! I mention these things not because I find them fascinating or novel, or even because I consider them an important core. They just simply are. They’re very matter-of-fact, autobiographical Asian references.
SM: And quite organic.
MJ: Yes, organic – that’s a very interesting way to put it. It reminds me of what you were asking about New York as a space of multiple references. I think it’s specifically based on the realities that people are accustomed to within their own cultures. Here, invisible barriers have been set up around Korean Americans, which have shaped and affected the way people think here, in the way the Berlin Wall did perhaps. So I think we’re catching up to global and international realities, and that’s what interests me in a certain sense. Increasingly the terms become less important because of the ability to travel – you know, we’ve got a growing middle class here, and immigrant people are able to live in two places at once. They can be here fifty percent of the time and back at home, in Korea say, fifty percent of the time. Flights to Korea are so sophisticated right now. It’s crazy, they pack them in. These people are going to spend twenty-five to fifty percent of the time in their home countries, and that is completely new for New York.
Excerpted from an interview conducted by Shaheen Merali in New York, October 2006.