Tell us about the concept behind the garden.
The garden is an evocation of Mount Jiri in South Korea, a primeval forest (the last remaining) rich in medicinal plants. It is a rare and beautiful place that has been protected from humans. I began thinking about the positive balance between humans and nature through the Jiri Mountain National Park, where unnamed valleys and mountain peaks exist, and where medicinal plants thrive in abundance.
In the east of Jiri Mountain, about 1,500 kinds of medicinal herbs grow naturally and the environment serves as a gigantic seedbank.
The restoration of the primitiveness of plants here in this primeval forest illustrates the coexistence and balance between nature and human, and my garden ‘A Letter from a Million Years Past’ is a message from the plants and rocks on Jiri telling us that we are linked, and our mutual survival is dependent upon each other.
Why is it so important to appear at Chelsea? How is it different this year from the last time you exhibited?
As a person who works on it, an exhibition is respiration. It is breathing. It is where I am most comfortable, and it is a time to be fully myself.
I have a small voice, but Chelsea gives me the chance to shout louder, and we hope that more people will listen to the message from ‘A Letter from a Million Years Past’ and be inspired by it.
It is different this time because we are older, and we are wiser and have learned more from the environment and possess a greater urge to share this message for the next generation.
What have been the biggest challenges in exhibiting in another country and how have you gotten around these?
I have waited for 11 years to showcase a Korean garden once again at Chelsea. The language barrier and cultural differences can sometimes lead to misunderstandings; however, understanding different perspectives, attitudes and thoughts can be as interesting as getting to know a new plant. The process of understanding each other through listening and speaking and learning the names of strangers is also one of the most beautiful things. Most importantly, when diverse cultures and environments come together it means we look in the same direction.
Since May of last year, our Korean and UK teams from various fields have been preparing the project and forming relationships with contractors I worked with on the DMZ garden 11 years ago and plant people who remember my garden here in the UK. The Korean plants that will be drawn in our garden were collected from Jiri mountain over the course of the last 30 years by two British plant hunters and have been grown in Wales. The Dry Tower in our garden is being constructed by a traditional builder in the UK, using the most environmentally friendly methods. It will be built solely with horse manure, hay, and clay, and all these processes involve experiencing relational aesthetics and time in art, whatever language we speak.
All these working processes show us that despite language differences, the garden enables us to interact on a humble level, opens blocked channels, and allows us to find contact points between multiple layers in disparate realities. I believe this is the role and function, as well as the power of art.
How did you liaise with the contractor about the message behind the garden?
We travelled together through the UK visiting the atmospheric place where the rocks came from in Scotland, to the different plant nurseries, including one that has had 30 years’ worth of links to Korean plants, and to the workshop in Cumbria where the Drying Tower is being hewn from coppiced oak. We walked through the woods there together, looked at plants and talked about the environment.
We are committed to working alongside each other as we create a more realistic portrayal of the Jiri Mountains and physically arrange about 200t of two-billion-year-old rocks from Scotland. Moreover, we are constructing the garden without the use of poured concrete to minimise our carbon footprint. The garden is being mostly built by hand over three weeks, and we will complete everything with our hands working side by side.
What do you hope visitors will take away from the garden?
It was natural for me on a very personal level to develop the idea of this garden, with the recognition that all the environmental and mental problems that we face in our lives today, are caused by our alienation or distance from nature.
If the visitors to the garden become curious about the subtle colours, intricate texture, and medicinal value of the small plants they encounter on their way back from visiting my garden, then we will have accomplished what we set out to do.