© 2022

Surreal, Natural Sculptures: With Jae Hi Ahn

Artist, Images JAE HI AHN / JHA



The installations by Jae Hi Ahn fuse ideas from natural environments with materials from man-made environments, to create surreal, other-worldly and captivating sculptures. Her own fond memories and experiences of nature are collated and reflected in her works, evoking feelings of nostalgia and connection. Terrarium, through repurposing everyday materials, reflects on the feeling of a bright spring, stillness, coexistence and memory. It brings with it an element of mystery and curiosity, and is a true testament to the intricate way she is able to create “fantasy-like” work that both grounds and allures you. We spoke to Jae Hi Ahn about her deep connections, thoughts and stunning sculptural installations inspired and based on nature. Jae Hi Ahn’s work will exhibit in Here Comes The Sun, showing at URSA Gallery, Bridgeport, Connecticut, opening 24 April 2021.

Have your physical surroundings and environments influenced your work and why you choose to focus on nature?

JHA Natural environments are amazingly therapeutic for me. Nature gives my brain a rest, so my ideas start to flow and my anxiety goes away. Whenever I take a walk  in the park looking at the trees or take a look at images of coral reefs on my laptop, I feel rejuvenated. I feel both mentally relaxed and physically healthy with the natural surroundings. It doesn’t have to be the Amazon rainforest or coral reefs, it could just be a plant, images of nature, or even artificial plants. These are the reasons why I create my works surrounding nature. If my work can help guide people to revisit or re-imagine nature that they have experienced or wish to visit one day, I would feel both delightful and lightened.

I’d like to spend time immersed in nature, places such as coral reefs, marine algae, mangroves, and the Amazon rainforest which are my favorite environments, as well as being amazingly inspirational and sustainable. Coral reefs are one the most beautiful habitats and  the most diverse of all marine ecosystems, with many ocean species depending on reefs for food and shelter. Marine algae are an essential part of a healthy marine ecosystem because they capture and use energy from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water to produce organic compounds. It has beautiful green shades and some seaweed is even edible. The Amazon Rainforest has a beautiful canopy layer, and is very useful in providing us with fresh water, plants, and oxygen. I am amazed by aerial mangrove structures, which are salt-tolerant trees and an important part of the cycling and storage of carbon in tropical coastal ecosystems. These environments are helping the cycle to maintain the balance of life in the oceans and forests.

Where did you find the inspiration for Terrarium?

JHA The Steinhardt Conservatory at Brooklyn Botanic Garden houses the beautiful Orchid Collection and exotic plants in the Aquatic House. The orchids are suspended from the ceilings and tree ferns, mosses, and an epiphyte-covered tree coexist even during the coldest month of the year. When I first visited Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I thought The Steinhardt Conservatory gallery was the perfect place for my sculptures to be, coexisting with real exotic plants. Some of my sculptures are inspired by the orchid collection. In winter, especially when I feel the need to escape the freezing temperatures, the Conservatory is the place to go. It’s like escaping into a tropical  forest.

What kind of ideas is Terrarium based on?

JHA A terrarium is an ideal environment made by humans for plants to survive in, but, ultimately it’s an artificial environment. I think in that aspect, there is something similar reflected in my work. I try to take care of my materials and provide what they  need—or what I think they need—to find another hidden potential or spirit. Just like watering, pruning, and feeding real plants, I feed wire inside the tubes, cut Mylar and assemble different parts to make my organic forms grow. For Terrarium, I put moss inside the plastic domes and assembled it with wire and PVC tubing.

In reality, to coexist with natural environments, humans need to change the way they think and behave. We often forget we coexist with every single plant, animal, tiny insect, and the planet itself. I think this pandemic will change us in positive ways.

The Terrarium sculptures are both intricate and surreal. Did your choice of materials and colours work to create this 'other-wordly' perception of nature?

JHA Living in New York City is like living inside a man-made jungle. I look at the daily and industrial objects just like looking at the exotic plants, jellyfish, or seashells on the shore. Looking deeply into objects like PVC tubes, Mylar, pins, and prefabricated plants led me to discover an alternative potential for them. I often re-purpose, reuse, and recycle objects from my daily routine. I experiment with the materials by cutting, wiring, pinning, or assembling until I find the right way to use them.

Terrarium was for the winter season, I wanted to provide to those who visited the Conservatory in winter that the feel of spring was almost there. The fluorescent lime green and magenta pink colors of cut-out mylar and neon color 3D paints evoke the memory of a warm, bright spring. One of Terrarium was inspired by the Red Flyer Hibiscus. It has beautiful red petals, but I was actually more interested in the green bud before it blooms, and so I made a fluorescent pink bud with a purple stem.

I grew up with the idea that every object has its own spirit,  inspired by the beliefs from Buddhism. So I try to figure out where it belongs physically and spiritually. As a result of that, they can often look surreal and mysterious to others.

You mention that viewers are "welcome to journey to wherever the piece takes them". Nature allows for individuals to build extremely strong and crucial connections. What connections do you have with nature?

JHA The nature I experienced in my childhood inspired my work in many ways, and I am still inspired by nature in my daily life. My early life in rural Korea had an influence on the artist I have become today. My sisters and I were always  wandering outside looking for things to play with. Our daily routine included gathering acorn shells to use as rice bowls, picking pine needles to make rice cakes with, and climbing trees to get mulberries. In addition to these, in our daily life simple things like sparkling branches and frozen snow, the elm tree’s broad canopy and intertwined branches were able to refresh my thoughts to create something new. These are some of my happiest memories. Though these memories are from the past, making surreal and fantasy-like sculptures with reference to nature is one way for me to continue creating moments like these in the present and the future.

Nature's unparalleled views, landscapes and environments are facing extreme changes. Do you think artists can play a role in sustainability and these environmental changes?

JHA The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that climate changes and harming the planet can be an immense threat to us. We can reconsider the way we think about the earth. I am not quite sure this planet can be sustainable for my son anymore, he is only five years old. I regret that he is never going to have the same memories that I have. I guess we, including myself and my son, have some sort of trauma from this pandemic. To prevent this from happening again, we have to coexist with environments and care for the balance of ecosystems. Concerning the existence of many different kinds of plants and animals in an environment, humans should always remember that we are part of nature too. Humans need to minimize any dramatic change to the surrounding ecosystems. Biodiversity is an essential part of the solution to climate change and simultaneously helps humans stay healthy.

The arts have an important role in helping society face the challenge of climate change and work to create a more sustainable future. Artists have the power to delight, educate, and inspire and we need their influence. Artists can use their work as a platform to raise awareness. I am aiming for both informing and opening people’s minds. I hope I can illumine a more sustainable future in some aspect from my current ‘Net Bag’ project, which involves the recycling and repurposing of ordinary objects for art projects to raise awareness of the plastic pollution in oceans, coral reef temperature changes and climate changes.

I also admire Patagonia for their initiative which involves the recycling of discarded fishing nets into a material called ‘Netplus’, then using this material for hat brims. Just like Yvon Chouinard who has influenced me in many ways, artists can evoke the public consciousness regarding climate changes, biodiversity, and sustainability. In Germany, the ‘Algae House’ has a bio-adaptive facade that uses algae within its glass-paneled facades in order to generate energy, and provide shade. As an individual, we can take action by simply reducing the use of disposable plastic water bottles and carrying a reusable bottle.

The environment constantly faces a struggle between balancing nature and man-made influences. Do you find that you are drawn to a specific environment?

JHA I am aware that the balance between natural environments and man-made environments should be taken into consideration carefully. Natural environments are inspirational and spiritual, I find nature is not changed or manipulated. My experiences with nature are therapeutic and spiritually connected. On the other hand, man-made environments inspire me practically and materially with the real objects that I am able to cut, glue, and assemble.

The idea comes from the natural environment or imaginary atmosphere, but the real elements which are part of my installation are from man-made objects. I think that is why I focus on making surreal and fantasy-like sculptures.

How important do you think nature is for humans, and their purpose as incredible, varied and multi-purpose spaces?

JHA Nature is just as important as humans. Maybe nature doesn’t need us, but we depend on nature for living. I admire ocean life, especially coral reefs and kelp forests. Coral reefs are the most diverse of all marine ecosystems. Many ocean species depend on reefs for food and shelter, and its vibrant colors are so attractive. I even created my Underwater Forest installations, a habitat for my Sea Flowers series (my sculptures). The Sea Flowers series is an incredibly colorful imaginary sculpture, which is composed of mixed plastics, mylar, prefabricated plants, 3D paints, wire, and pins.

Today, terrariums are widely popular. They allow for individuals to almost capture and nurture a small piece of nature for themselves. What do terrariums signify to you?

JHA A terrarium is usually a transparent enclosure for keeping or raising plants, or even small animals indoors. This contributes to creating an ideal environment for growing plants due to the constant supply of water. In addition to this, the light that passes through the transparent material of the terrarium allows for the plants to photosynthesize, a very important aspect of plant growth. For me, a terrarium is not only an enclosure where you can grow plants and create an ecosystem in a glass container, but a place to keep the plants and objects that reflect my memories or reflect ideas of nostalgia itself.

Are you currently working on any other projects?

JHA I am quite new to social media, and amazed by it. It has been my only  connection to the world since the pandemic started. As I also take care of my son, I am currently juggling between working on different things.

Currently, I am working on the Net Bag Project. We go to grocery stores and buy fresh produce, but we just throw away these bags. I found the net bags from oranges, brussels sprouts, garlic, potatoes, and onions so attractive, and quite useful. So I started to take pictures of them. It has such a great potential to become something else. It’s both my social media project and public project. My concerns for climate changes, plastic ocean pollution, and coral reef temperature rises is reflected in this project. Once I collect photos of net bags from the public, I then share them on Instagram. I am currently making sculptures with net bags for my upcoming show at the URSA Gallery, Bridgeport, CT, in April. My vision is to initiate projects like this so that the community can create a change towards a sustainable future together.

Jae Hi Ahn’s Work Will Exhibit In Here Comes The Sun, Showing At URSA Gallery, Bridgeport, Connecticut. Opening 24 April 2021.

Jae Hi Ahn is an artist inspired by both natural and unnatural environments, evident in her works that explore materials, emotions and nostalgia through installations.


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