Hwang Ji-hae: “I get inspirations from the gardens I saw while growing up.”
Courtesy: The Chosun Ilbo
“Can you make me look attractive to investors?” Everyone laughs when Hwang Ji-hae (Jihae Hwang), 36, the “queen of the Chelsea Flower Show,” makes this odd request as she poses for the camera. But it is understandable, considering the anguish money has caused her this year. Though she has won a gold medal two years in a row at the world`s most prestigious garden show, she has fallen into debt. “Participating in the flower show twice has cost me my car and my house,” she says with a laugh.
“Quiet Time: DMZ Forbidden Garden,” her entry for this year won the Royal Horticultural Society President`s Award, the highest honor in the Show Garden division (for gardens covering 200m²) of the Chelsea Flower Show, held in May in London, but it almost did not come into being. Three weeks before the show was set to open, when the garden was about 40 percent complete, Hwang realized that she did not have enough money to continue. But like a miracle, two construction companies from her home province of Jeolla in Korea came forward as patrons. British visitors to the “DMZ Forbidden Garden” were duly impressed with the treasure trove of plants that have paradoxically survived thanks to the division of the country after the Korean War. Some of the more famous visitors to the garden were Prince Phillip, Princess Anne, and fashion designer Paul Smith.
We met Hwang when she returned to Korea to participate in the Gwangju Biennale. Tanned and wearing leather boots, she looked as if she had just been planting a couple of trees. “It`s not the sun`s fault,” she says. “I`ve always been dark skinned. I must have been born with a spade in my hands.” (laughs)
◇The Queen of Chelsea in Debt
Q. So you mean the star of the Chelsea Flower Show has fallen into debt.
A. My family home was already mortgaged when I won a gold medal in the 2011 show with “Hae-woo-so: Emptying One`s Mind” in the Artisan Garden division (small garden of 20m²). My younger brother, who looks after the family books, is very upset with me. (laughs) I poured more than 200 million won into this year`s garden, “DMZ.” The remaining 500 million won came from two construction companies in the Honam region, Hoban Construction and Namkwang Engineering & Construction, which gave 300 million and 200 million won, respectively. The economy`s not good right now, so I was just very grateful. As I am a Honam native, the city of Gwangju also helped me. When I came home a month ago I was busy going around visiting all the people I am indebted to.
Q. Is the Chelsea Flower Show so important that it`s worth going into debt?
A. The Chelsea Flower Show began in 1827 and is the biggest show of its kind in the world. A royal event organized by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), it is the dream of all garden designers. I learned about the show 10 years ago. I had been active as an environmental artist and always had a thirst for nature. When I saw the Chelsea show, I was convinced that a garden was the perfect medium for fusing nature and art. Vaguely I believed I would do well, and it seems it was fate. How can I put it? It was like meeting a long forgotten first love again.
Q. You received gold medals for both your first and second entries in the flower show, even though you were a newcomer.
A. To prepare for the show I first went to stay in London in 2007. At first, I didn`t even dream about entering. I wanted to build my skills first and set out to apply to the faculty of garden design at the Inchbald School of Design. But one day the vision of a traditional Korean toilet, haewooso, came to me. Not because I`m particularly patriotic. But I was lonely and tired in a foreign country where I didn`t speak the language, and I kept looking back on myself, wondering who I was. I realized we didn`t need to envy the formal gardens of Europe, and found myself remembering the natural gardens that I saw while I was growing up. I recalled the night stars I saw on my way to the outhouse at night, the breezes at dawn, and the smell of the earth. It was now or never, I thought, so I gave up the idea of going to school and sent my design plans to the Chelsea Flower Show.
Q. What are the judging procedures?
A. First you have to submit to the RHS your landscaping blueprints, gardening plans, drawings, and 3D images that show what the garden will look like. If you make it to the second round, you are judged on the rarity of the plants chosen, and the artistry of the design. Receiving a notification on site allocation means you`ve made it to the third and final round.
Photo Courtesy: www.studiogblog.com
Photo Courtesy: www.studiogblog.com
A. For the DMZ garden you were allotted the site in front of the Queen`s Garden, which is the highlight of the Chelsea Flower Show.
A. It was a difficult site, triangular in shape and open on all three sides. It was a little daunting to be under the spotlight next to the Queen`s Garden, but I took the site allocation as recognition of the quality of my design, which gave me confidence. The DMZ garden aroused a lot of interest in the first two rounds of judging.
Q. The work must have been difficult considering the great size of the site.
A. The garden required native plants from home to be brought to London, so freight costs were three times higher than usual, and getting them through customs was also an ordeal. There are no specialist garden construction companies in Korea so our team did all the work ourselves. We had to make all the flowers bloom at the same time for the opening of the show on May 20, and we ran our feet off taking care of 10,000 plants at the same time. And our funds had run dry.
Q. I can imagine the RHS would have been disappointed if you had given up on your garden due to lack of funds.
A. That`s not the case. The RHS has held successful shows for 185 years. It makes thorough preparations, and if I had given up another team would have been ready to replace me right away. Lots of artists were probably waiting for me to give up. Three weeks before the opening, when the notice came asking me to sign forfeiture papers, I exhausted myself with anxiety until I felt blank. When I emptied my mind and resigned myself to the situation, a miracle happened. (laughs)
◇Changing Trends in Garden Design
“Quiet Time: DMZ Forbidden Garden,” comprised of 10,000 plants of 300 species, is not a neat, pretty garden. The grass and trees seem to grow haphazardly and are not trimmed to any particular size. “Instead of prestige trees and flowers, I planted wildflowers. Sixty percent are indigenous Korean plants,” says Hwang. “I planted mugwort, which our soldiers used to stop bleeding; plantain, which was squeezed for juice to treat stomachache; and plants that could be used for food such as wild grapes, hardy kiwi, shepherd`s purse, and dandelions.” The high watchtower and barbed wire that runs around the garden are reminders of the war. Bottles containing letters from separated families, a path paved with thousands of uniform buttons, and a bench made with the ID tags of 8,000 British veterans of the Korean War… A stream runs through the middle of the garden.
Elizabeth Banks, president of the RHS, praised the garden, saying it was the most profoundly moving garden she had seen in her life. The Times introduced it as a garden featuring a watchtower and barbed wire and the most original that the queen would see this year, while the Guardian said the weeds had become jewels. In addition, a British gardening magazine said that the messages of reconciliation and healing in the DMZ garden made all the other gardens pale into pretty insignificance.
Q. Both the Hae-woo-so and DMZ gardens are filled with nameless wild grasses and wildflowers.
A. I was born in the countryside, so I`m not used to roses and lilies. The only ones I saw were in the school flowerbeds. The fields where I played were covered with wildflowers like river bulrushes, touch-me-nots, burnets, and the smartweeds called myeoneuri mitsitgae [daughter-in-law`s toilet paper]. Nobody cares about the wildflowers, but when they are planted together in clumps they are really beautiful. I love their lines and shapes, their clear colors.
Q. What is it about the DMZ garden that moves people?
A. As everyone knows, Europe is having a hard time right now. It`s not only the economy; the people are also exhausted. In Europe gardening is an upper class pastime. In the way they change their brand name clothes every season, the rich newly decorate their gardens every season with expensive plants and flowers. At the Chelsea Flower Show also there has been a preference for gardens featuring rare plants, newly developed species, and beautiful luxurious flowers and trees. But Korean gardens like “Hae-woo-so” and “DMZ” shook them up. They were astonished by the simplicity and roughness of the Korean garden, which was nevertheless overflowing with life and energy. The Europeans, who cringe at the word “toilet,” discovered in it truthful stories about real life.
Q. So you`ve changed the trend of European gardens?
A. The garden that won the gold medal for best show garden this year in the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, one of the three top flower shows in the world, was titled “Bridge over Troubled Waters.” It`s hard to say they were not influenced by the Hae-woo-so and DMZ gardens. When I submitted my blueprints to the Chelsea show, people scoffed at first. Bets were placed before the show and it was predicted that a pyramid garden for parties by British star designer Diramuid Gavin would be the favorite. But against expectations DMZ was the winner. People were moved by the simple spirit of the garden.
Q. Members of the royal family including Prince Phillip, Princess Anne and Prince Edward have visited the garden.
A. Prince Phillip thanked me and said it was an honor to see such a garden before he died. Paul Smith said it was fortunate both for himself and for England to have discovered Hwang Ji-hae. He was a very sexy and witty person. One other visitor said that standing in the garden made him feel a sense of peace. When one of the volunteers who helped make the garden said “I`m eating food for the soul,” I almost burst into tears.
Q. I hear that some Korean War vets also played a part in completing the DMZ garden.
A. When the garden was in danger of being discontinued, they wrote a letter to Queen Elizabeth and to our presidential office, Cheong Wa Dae. They hoped to see the garden completed to ensure that the Korean War did not end up being a forgotten war. Many of them wept when they came to visit the garden at the show.
◇Strength from Deficiency
In the garden design and landscaping world, Hwang Ji-hae belongs to the minority. A graduate of Mokpo University where she studied Western painting, Hwang was active for a long time in the Gwangju area as an environmental artist. Her artistic inspiration comes from her childhood in the country town of Gokseong and her mother, who was a typical country woman. “When I design gardens I always think of my mother,” she says.
Q. Did you show artistic talent as a child?
A. Drawing was the only thing I did well as a child. In our poor country neighborhood my mother was the only one with a real passion to see her children educated, so I often used the whole art room in my school by myself. (laughs)
Q. What kind of person was your mother?
A. She was a tough person who had to raise three children on her own and made a living by running a restaurant and a hair salon. But she was also a woman who on windy days would take a chair out into the yard and close her eyes to enjoy the wind. She had great sensitivity to such things, unlike most country women. She knew how to use nature to deal with the fire in her heart. She gave me my name Ji-hae, which means “wise sea.”
Q. You majored in painting, so how is that you`ve found success as a garden designer?
A. The kitchen garden that my mother cultivated was my first garden and my treasure trove. The garden had all kinds of fruits and vegetables growing in it, so many that there are few fruits that I have not tasted. I would play in the garden and fall asleep there, and was constantly bitten by insects. My childhood of playing in the fields is my source of inspiration and energy. Once I decide on the theme, it`s easy for me to see which plants will look most natural in the garden.
Q. A lot of people are surprised that the star of the Chelsea Flower Show is from a provincial university.
A. I wanted to attend an art college in Seoul but I didn`t get in. I`m the kind of person who doesn`t like to take any steps backward, even drive in reverse, so instead of repeating I decided to attend a university close to home. But there were a lot of excellent professors there who gave us experience in a lot of different genres. My experience with gardens in university, which called for a variety of skills and even made me want to get a driver`s license for heavy equipment, laid the ground for my current work.
Q. Can you tell us about Muum, the environmental art group that you formed?
A. My eyes were opened to environmental art thanks to a professor who had studied the subject in Paris. When I was a student teacher, I once painted a mural at a country school. When I saw the children clapping and jumping with joy, I decided to form a group of volunteers and we went around painting murals at country schools and medical centers. That was the start of Muum.
Q. Why the name Muum?
A. The look of the name [뮴 in Korean] is artistic! (laughs) There is no special meaning. If you look at the word, it looks like a person sitting with knees bent. From childhood I liked to see my mother praying on bended knee. Although it`s a local artists` group we have worked not only in the whole Honam region but also in Seoul. We`ve also done a whole lot of apartment complex landscaping work, though we were only subcontractors.
Q. Do you think you would have found sponsors more easily if you had come from an elite university?
A. I don`t know. But I do know that my drive for life comes from deficiency, from my complexes. (laughs)
Q. I hear you are planning to enter the Gardening World Cup at Huis Ten Bosch in Nagasaki, Japan this September.
A. I have been getting a lot of calls since I won an award at the Chelsea show. The world`s top 10 garden designers are invited to the World Cup, so it is a great honor, but to tell the truth, I`m very tired.
Q. Are you planning to enter the Chelsea Flower Show again next year?
A. No. The experience this year was so hellish I don`t think I`ll be returning next year. (laughs) If no corporate or government sponsor appears and offers to help first, then definitely not. Ha-ha!