The centerpiece of Heesoo Kwon’s exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Art San José (ICASJ) is her newest film Leymusoom Garden.
The 12 minute video opens with an aerial view of the giant goddess Mago. She’s fast asleep on the bed of a green forest. The smile on her face suggests she’s in a dream state of absolute bliss. Her naked skin is tinged a soothing robin’s egg blue. As the camera circles and slowly zooms in on Mago’s body, human-sized women mingle and rest upon her chest and stomach. This is a garden of Eden in which Adams, snakes and punishing gods never gained access.
Kwon recalled that she first learned about Mago in a college class about women in Korean history. “I got to know this ancient creation myth about a giant goddess who created the whole universe,” Kwon said. But when patriarchal societies rewrote history, the Mago myth became a monster story. In her video, Kwon is reclaiming Mago’s creative powers.
The peaceful women on her belly are Kwon’s ancestors and the goddess’s many disciples, practicing the rituals of Korean shamanism. “They’re exploring their own agency, for their own spirituality, and their family and their ancestors,” Kwon explained. “The 3D animation includes my mom and all my female ancestors—they all had so many hardships through their whole lives.” In this digital world, she wanted to “give them a space to rest and hang out. I don’t want them to work.”
In Leymusoom Garden, dreamscapes that the women move through bend the rules of gravity even as their bodies hold onto the sculptural weight and heft of actual flesh and bone. Kwon started out as a sculptor and moved on to digital media, 3D modeling and animation in the MFA program at UC Berkeley. She made the shift in her artistic practice because she wanted to, “expand my utopian world.” In Kwon’s utopia, the ideal environment exists with her ancestors—and it’s limitless.
“There’s no burden of patriarchy, misogyny, or religious doctrines that we were forced to follow,” Kwon said. “When I was making physical pieces, there were so many limits—you need to pack objects for the installation, to keep and store them in a specific condition. I felt like they became burdens.” The digital medium was better suited to the direction of her practice as she began to manifest her utopian vision.
One source of inspiration for the Leymusoom Garden itself, the forest we find Mago dreaming in, is Kwon’s grandparents’ garden in Korea. Before her grandfather passed away she said, “It used to be very vivid, with people visiting and the flowers and trees so well kept.” Now, the garden isn’t tended to as it once was. On one recent visit there, Kwon found some disused tools in the corner of the garden. “I felt very sad to see that, so I scanned the gardening tools into my digital garden and gave them a second life,” she said.
For Kwon, maintaining a garden also represents, “how you manage your life and relationships.” It’s a way of acknowledging her own physical limitations. “I really need to think about how to allocate my energy and time,” she said. “I can see the people and values in my life as big beautiful trees or flowers or other things in my garden.”
Leymusoom Garden is just one small corner of the virtual world Kwon has created, both in her practice and at the larger ICASJ exhibit. One of the artist’s websites (leymusoom.com) is a growing archive and library of the spaces and people who’ve appeared in her work. One link takes the user to a memorial page dedicated to Kwon’s late paternal great-grandmother Jo Lee. On Jo Lee’s page, she lives on in the artist’s memory taking baths, spending time with her daughter, and “chilling in the Leymusoom utopia.”
When visitors walk into Kwon’s ICASJ exhibit Leymusoom Garden: Following Naked Dancing and Long Dreaming, there’s a grouping of “Leymusoom blessing branches,” or loose scrolls of braided Korean fabrics. One gallery wall is covered with a wall print mural that’s an enlarged family photo from the artist’s childhood. “I used an AI program to extend the photo,” she explained. “In the middle of the gallery, you’ll see a spotlight on me when I was a baby.” The side gallery walls are made to look like a forest. Like one of the characters in the video who disappears and reappears in another realm, visitors step inside Kwon’s parallel worlds, a virtual one made into something real.
Leymusoom Garden: Following Naked Dancing and Long Dreaming on view now through February 18, 2024 at the Institute of Contemporary Art San José, icasanjose.org.