If we take a quick look at Debbie Han’s sculptures, they may appear very close, if not identical to classical Greek sculptures, made of fine marble. It takes a second look to realize that Han’s sculptures are in fact hybrids – having a body of a typical Asian woman and a face of an idealized Greek sculpture. Han, who is an American-Korean multimedia artist, explores the boundaries between ideal western and eastern beauty in an experimental way, using sculpture, photography, painting and installation.
Debate on Beauty Standards
Debbie Han was born in Korea and emigrated to the United States, where she obtained a BA in fine arts at the University of California and later on an MA at the Pratt University in New York. Even though she completed her study in the U.S., she decided to go back to Korea to attend an artist residency program. In 2009, Han won the Sovereign Asian Art Award for Seated Three Graces, which is her most prominent work. This series of sculptures opened up a lot of discussions on modern beauty myths and standards and put Han in the limelight of international attention. Her presence in now strong throughout American, Asian and European art scene and auction houses.
Han’s most recent photo series, called Color Graces, hybridizes the bodies of multi-racial and multi-ethnic women with classical sculpture heads, resembling the old Greek statues. These images represent an allusion to the dynamics and politics of the nowadays world. Han’s colorful Graces appear to be paradoxical blends of human and goddess, past and present, ideal and realistic, and they carry a certain emotional drama. They also underline basic human experiences of diversity and reflect on the meaning of being human in the contemporary society.
Han’s hybrid image of classical sculpture with Jewish nose and African lips
Quest for the Ideal – Nip, Tuck, Mix
In Korea, around 60% of women undergo facial plastic surgery, with the most common procedures being eyelid and nose corrections. Modern Korean women had set Eurocentric beauty as their long-term goal and Han is depicting their beauty quest using a whole array of unique processes. She is appropriating classical sculptures and images and altering them using a high-end, latest photo manipulation techniques. It’s important to mention that she’s not addressing only Asian women’s appearance and ideals – some of her sculptures and photographs are featuring physical characteristics of African women (full lips) or so-called Jewish hooked noses. Han is taking the appropriation process even further when she uses a classical term Grace or Venus to name her creations representing a contemporary woman’s ideals. She has a series of sculptures with a football stitched to their bust, underlining the idea that the image of contemporary Venus, hence the ideal woman nowadays, is inseparable from sports and wellness. Lastly, Han is not experimenting only with multimedia techniques and ideas, but also with the materials used in her work. For her sculptures made in 2008 the artist used Korean lacquer and mother of pearl, materials which were utilized in Asian arts thousands of years ago. It was a big challenge for Han to incorporate these ancient, traditional materials into modern subjects, but she succeeded in this idea, creating a hybrid beauty, something on the verge of real and imaginary. You can find out more about Han’s work in a recent New York Times review on her exhibition SHE: Deconstructing Female Identity.
Artist’s vision of modern Venus – stitches representing the marks found on footballs
Social Patterns and Identity
Han’s work is truly valuable not only because of its artistic qualities. The artist’s interest and motivation go far beyond the mere idea of representing the beauty standards. Through her work, Han is investigating questions of identity, social pressure, female psychology as well as social patterns in general. She makes us wonder what’s the origin of our own standards – can we truly separate what is our own opinion and taste from what is dictated by geosocial factors? The best art usually succeeds in raising some non-art questions and that’s the exact case when it comes to Han’s work.
The artist is represented by Ricco Maresca Gallery.
Debbie Han lives and works in New York City.
Featured image: Debbie Han ‘s Portrait, 2016
All images courtesy of the artist.