Who: Korean-born, Brooklyn-based artist Kyu Seok Oh
What: “Wandering Sheep,” the Rose Kennedy Greenway’s newest large-scale public art installation
Where: Chinatown Park, Surface Road and Essex Street
It’s just about the last thing you expect to see while speeding down a busy thoroughfare, but glance to your right as you cross the intersection of Surface Road and Essex Street, and there they are. Perched above the serpentine walkway of Chinatown Park, a flock of white sheep stands passively, looking entirely unbothered by the traffic whizzing by.
Rather than mammals covered in matted wool, the animals are sculptures made of handmade paper and aluminum, the work of Brooklyn-based artist Kyu Seok Oh. “Wandering Sheep” is the Rose Kennedy Greenway’s newest large-scale public art installation, and the first in an annual series of rotated works representing the animal signs of the Chinese zodiac (2015 is the Year of the Sheep). Ten different sheep are situated on red platforms placed near the park’s Essex Street entrance – among the bamboo grasses; atop the rocks near the stream; in front of the modern red gate – to greet passersby.
“This is a place that is busy and artificial, so I wanted to bring out the simple and quiet, the fragile and the natural,” said Oh, who was born in Korea and moved with his family to Japan in 1952, at the age of 4. “The sheep represent gentleness, and they celebrate the Chinese zodiac.”
The temporary installation is the third in Oh’s sheep series. Previously, he exhibited similar sculptures at the Dallas State Fair and, in 2011, in Times Square.
To create “Wandering Sheep,” the artist first shredded and blended recycled paper, hanging thin layers of the resulting pulp on wire mesh to dry in distinct curved shapes that would help form the bodies of the sheep – a laborious process that often resulted in unsatisfactory textures or shapes, forcing Oh to repeat it many times. Once dry, he assembled the pieces together over aluminum backbones, sealing the resulting forms with adhesive and injecting expandable foam into the molded legs to make them sturdy. Sometimes it would take up to 10 days to create a single sheep.
The sculptures, faceless but distinguishable by size and contour, were installed at Chinatown Park in June. Oh worked with Lucas Cowan, the Greenway Conservancy’s public art curator, to ensure the fragile figures were optimally positioned.
“Kyu and I worked together to figure out where the sheep could be displayed in a way that was interactive but out of the way of grabbing hands, so we settled on this idea of sheep jumping from platform to platform, moving from one place to another,” said Cowan, who had a local ironworker create the plinths the sheep are mounted on. “We placed them on site, moving them back and forth and deciding we wanted to place them in different directions. It’s a really busy area, and we wanted them facing toward different buildings or sounds, so it looks like everyone’s on alert.”
Oh and his assistant used ladders to hoist the sheep, each of which weighs only about 15 pounds, onto the elevated platforms, fastening them to the acrylic plates with threaded rods extending from each animal’s sculpted legs.
Reflecting the urban change that serves as its backdrop, “Wandering Sheep” interacts with both the traditional Chinese culture and the contemporary architecture that coexist in Chinatown Park.
“Chinatown is growing and transitioning [from] the old generation to the new generation,” said Oh. “Traditions and new developments are right in the same place.” Oh also thinks that the sheep mirror the alienation many immigrants feel when arriving in a foreign environment, like he did when he emigrated from Korea to Japan and, again as an adult, moving from Japan to the US.
“The sheep are like my family when we moved to Japan from a small town in Korea as illegal immigrants,” said Oh. “My artwork connects to the way I grew up as a minority.”
“Wandering Sheep” will be on view at Chinatown Park through the fall.