A Conversation with Hein Koh


Images courtesy of Dan Bradica, from Splendor in the Grass at Marvin Gardens, New York

Hein Koh’s artwork is both emotive and ecstatic. Sparkly stuffed creatures condense ideas that drift between the surreal and the sentimental. Her works evoke my childhood, and my distance from it. In early development, sense is paramount and back then, play depended more on physicality then digital experiences. I emailed Hein recently to hear about the scheming and process behind the worlds she builds in fabric, these kindred forms and her relationship to Surrealism, Pop Art, and twins.

Your works seem to subvert the very male voices within movements like Surrealism and Pop Art, meditating on and performing love, feeling, and indulgence. These are universally felt themes, but your approach seems to bring creedence to kitsch and clichéd sentiments. You valorize these realms and, to me, that conveys a feminist/political intentionality.

I’m definitely very influenced by Pop and Surrealism. I was a child of the 80s, so Pop Art was my first introduction to art. I didn’t think of art as lofty and elitist because Pop was so accessible and infiltrated the culture. Things like Swatch Watches and Benetton rugby shirts—which were huge fads—were a big influence on me. I don’t know if there are fads now like there used to be, but back then, as a child, you had to have one or else you weren’t cool. Those emotions are very powerful when you’re young—desire, acceptance, and popularity. I’m veering from the subject of Pop Art, but I do think it relates, and I’m sure those emotions influence my work now. That fetishism of consumer goods definitely relates to the way we fetishize art objects, and the idea of fetish plays a big role in my work.

I never viewed Pop and Surrealism as predominantly male, although obviously it was. I just viewed art as art, and I saw myself as an artist, rather than a female artist, from a young age.  I never focused on my gender holding me back in any way. I just did the things I wanted to do, and I often ended up doing things that were male-dominated, such as martial arts, djing, and playing in a band (I was the lead singer and guitarist in a riotgrrrl band, Speedy Vulva). When I express myself in my work, I am just trying to be honest, so my experience as a woman is a big part of that.


I value emotions, which can come across as kitschy or sentimental, but I embrace that. The universality of the themes appeals to me—what we all have in common as human beings. I’m not setting out to necessarily subvert male voices or be political, but I recognize that by being myself and embracing who I am—all aspects of me—that is a political act. I happen to be an Asian-American woman, a double minority, so if I want to express my voice loudly and clearly, people are going to view it politically.

What other art movements and artists and things from life give you strength and momentum? 

I am inspired by my daily life as much as I am inspired by art. These days my 3-year-old twin girls serve as my biggest inspiration—the designs of their clothes, toys, and books, and their obsessions (like ice cream, which is why I’ve been making ice cream sculptures). I read them books every night, so I am particularly influenced by children’s book illustrations, which have seeped into my art. My kids have given me strength and momentum in ways I never imagined before I became a mom.

Your work is whimsical, and obviously surfaces all forms of fantasy. What did your first encounters with art-making look like? How have you fostered your own creativity in your lifetime?

I have been making art as far back as I can remember, and when I was five I really liked going to the paint easel in kindergarten and painting self-portraits. I also really liked to play “house,” and those are basically the two things that take up all my time now! When I was 9, my mom signed me up for after-school art classes with a local Korean artist, where I learned how to paint with acrylics and draw from still life with pastels. I enjoyed it, but by the time I started high school, I grew tired of it. Being a good student, I felt I didn’t have time for art anymore. That’s really sad! So I didn’t make any art throughout high school, not until I went to college and decided I would take a drawing class for fun during my first semester. It wasn’t until the end of sophomore year when I decided to major in it, along with psychology. College really helped me get in touch with my creative side again. Early on, I just decided I didn’t care about being a good student anymore, something that had been ingrained in me by my Korean immigrant parents. When I started painting again, I became obsessed, so that became a much bigger priority than my grades.

Can you describe why you decided to start performing with your works? This adds an active feminist layer to the sculptures, and more humour too!

When I started making sculptures in 2011, I had a vague idea that I wanted to pose nude with them to engage with a feminist dialogue, but I wasn’t sure how to do it in a way that wouldn’t seem too derivative. I thought of the history of feminist artists performing with their works, artists such as Lynda Benglis, Ana Mendieta, and Hannah Wilke, but my perspective didn’t completely align with any of theirs. One day, in 2013, the idea just came to me, and I did my first “Selfie with Sculpture,” posing nude with my “Dentata” sculpture just barely covering my privates and wearing stiletto heels. I realized the humour was very important to me. I wanted to bring the sexuality of my work to the forefront, and ask important questions about sexuality and gender, but to make it more accessible to the viewer and remind us that we take ourselves too seriously sometimes. Since I felt frustrated about being objectified as a woman, I decided to objectify myself as a form of empowerment, on my own terms. I wanted to acknowledge that objectification is desirable and pleasurable in certain contexts, so I played a fantasy role for my own enjoyment, with a sense of humour about it.  By playing the role of creator as well as subject, I wanted to give the female nude a voice, who historically doesn’t have one. I was trying to raise the question of whether women can present in an overtly sexual manner, but still be respected. These are questions women ask themselves all the time, and now that we are in the #MeToo era, these questions are becoming part of a larger, essential, and very fraught conversation.

Can you describe how you responded to Marina Abramovic’s claims that women should prioritize their careers over love and family?

She said that the reason women aren’t as successful as men in the art world is that they don’t want to sacrifice “love, family, children,” which I think is ridiculous. Jeff Koons has seven kids but no one can say that’s hindered his success at all. I don’t have a problem with anyone’s individual choices or priorities, but I do have a problem with people making sweeping judgements about other people’s choices. There are already too many sexist attitudes towards women, so we don’t need one of our own—a role model—contributing to the sentiment. That is what is holding us back, not our individual choices.

When I read what she said, in a moment of anger, I decided to post a picture of me tandem breastfeeding my twins while working on a laptop—something I often had to do during those early months—on Instagram and Facebook. I wrote a caption about how motherhood actually pushed me harder and made me a better artist, how I learned to be more productive despite all the challenges and restrictions. You can read the full post on my Instagram or Google it. To my surprise and shock, the post went viral, and suddenly it was all over the news. It was a really weird experience, but I was happy to make a positive impact and was touched by the multitude of support. Of course, there were also a ton of trolls attacking me too, but that’s just what happens on the internet now. Now I know what it’s like to be a celebrity and I’m glad that as an artist, I can just hide away again.

I appreciate how you’ve discussed in other interviews the importance of your children witnessing you doing what you love. Can you elaborate on how you find time for both motherhood and art? Are there shared joys and pains?

Art-making is a job like any other job, but it’s also different because it is an all-consuming passion and people generally associate creativity with self-centeredness. When I’m in my studio, the focus is all on my work, but when I’m with my family, the focus is all on them. I have a regular schedule, I work when my kids are in school and with their after-school sitter, but I don’t work outside of those hours, which are the same as a full-time job.

As I mentioned, my twins serve as inspiration for my art, but I can’t work with them in the studio. They are really active and want to touch everything. I don’t remember exactly what I said in the interview, but while my kids bring me both extreme joy and extreme pain, my art plays a different role of bringing me joy as well as respite from the rest of my life. It might have caused me pain in the past—mostly the culture surrounding art which is still painful sometimes—but that kind of stuff doesn’t really bother me like it used to. Anything you’re really attached to will bring you both joy and pain, they are two sides of the same coin. While I can’t live without making art, obviously the emotional attachment is not comparable to what I feel for my kids. Although I do think that when I’m not making art, like if I’m away from my studio for too long, I do start to feel pain because of its absence.

Twins and binaries are an interest (as well as a reality) of yours. Can you describe how that emerges in your work?

After I had my twins, I made a lot of drawings processing the experience, and thought a lot about the mysticism surrounding twins and dualities. When I started making sculptures again, I found myself wanting to twin my sculptures, which I still do today. Sometimes I make trios, which I think of as me and my daughters, and sometimes I make quartets, which I think of as my whole family. I’ve always drawn inspiration directly from my life, so my decisions reflect what I am going through at the moment. As I evolve and change, my work evolves and changes, too. I can’t make work that’s not honest, I need a personal connection to my work in order to feel motivated to make it.


Read more from contributing editor Zoe Koke HERE.