Conversations: Se Young Au and Hyungi Park | Varyer

Conversations: Se Young Au and Hyungi Park

On foraging, rituals of keeping time, and transcending our sensory binaries

Two artists we deeply admire, both exploring the craft of scent in their own distinct ways. Se Young Au, of our ongoing Transmissions series is a multi-disciplinary artist navigating the pervasiveness of loss and sublimity in the natural world, redirecting that grief as an act of radical defiance and hope. Hyungi Park works as an artist, incense maker, bookbinder, tattooer, and designer.

Together, they collaborated on our new 문 (Moon) incense, a custom scent and ritual intended to foster creativity and inspiration. In February, we got on a call with both of them to discuss their process, the power of scent to overcome binaries, and the joy of collecting scents in the wild.

(The following interview was edited slightly for length and clarity.)

Photo by Se Young Au

Hyungi Park: My name is Hyungi. I am a multidisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles. My practice involves incense specifically, and I also do bookbinding and tattooing. My background is in sculpture, so I like to get my hands on anything and everything. I have a studio and a shop called Goyo focusing on incense, and am starting to get into tea and home goods.

My relationship with scent primarily started from my background in sculpture. I was doing primarily performance art at the time, which got me thinking about rituals and components of a ritual, and specifically incense. So kind of how scent can really transport people to a place in time and also be very nostalgic, but also can hold such a spiritual kind of meaning or experience for people.

Se Young Au: I'm Se Young, I am also based in Los Angeles. My practice is also multidisciplinary in nature. I studied music from a young age. Then in school, I continued studying that and also ended up studying photography as well. I moved to Los Angeles in 2016, and discovered that we have a really great resource here called the Institute of Art and Olfaction. It is a place of study for all things scent, they're a nonprofit and the programming is exceptionally diverse in its guests and also its topics. I learned the foundations of materials there, and connected with a wonderful community.

In my practice, I do a lot of installation work, where scent elements are usually meant to be transportive or help articulate a liminality that exists within realms, space and time.

Also, scent helps to articulate things beyond binary, which I think is really helpful. It's helped me work through a lot of ideas, mainly around grief.

I think it's really great to be able to externalize honoring the ritual of creativity, because everyone's creative, but to have a physical marker really helps. It’s also just taking a moment to help us get embodied. By virtue of doing that, we’re able to do a scan and slow down. Our breath becomes a little steadier.

Se Young Au

Photo by Se Young Au

Izzy Fradin: I'd love to hear you speak more to the notion of scent transcending binary and exactly what you mean by that.

SYA: Sure. So scent- it's really subjective. We all have a bank of memories that we have different associations with based on our life experiences, where we grew up, et cetera. In some of the classes that I took, it was really amazing to hear people smell a material, and everybody would go around the class and describe what they thought they were smelling, and different associations, everybody just said such varied things. But sometimes somebody would say something that they might feel a little self-conscious about because nobody else was referencing that. But then when the person said it, it would be like, “Oh my god,” and would bring you back to a place within your own memory. So, because it's just a practice that is grounded in… it's not right or wrong, and lives very comfortably within the gray. So I guess, that speaks beyond duality, and allows for many, many things to coexist at once.

IF: The idea is that these incense will foster creativity – Se Young, you put together the original palette of scents that you thought might lend itself to that, and then Hyungi took that and ran. I'm curious about the relationship of scent to creativity, could you each talk about that experience and the way that scent informs your creative practice and vice versa?

HP: It was a fun little challenge for me in terms of getting a prompt and taking my own spin on things. When Se Young came over to my studio, we were chatting about projects or different clients and what that process looks like, whether it's coming up with the scent, and then not only the scent, but also the products or production as well. It was very collaborative, and in a very hands-off way, which is interesting. Even though we're both based in Los Angeles, it could have easily happened across seas.

I feel like scent can conjure creativity in a way… this specific incense, because it's a bit more involved, it's not just an incense stick that's a bit more popular or straightforward, where you light the incense stick, and you kind of let it do its thing. It's a ritual in itself, and you have to put it all together with all the components. So I feel like even just seeing how it works, the incense powders, which historically were used to measure time. I love thinking about time and my practice. It's also using charcoal as a heat source with a mica plate, so instead of burning the incense directly, it's a bit more of a subtle, intimate fragrance. I love intimate moments, especially when there’s any subtlety, you just notice all the nuances, and I feel like this fragrance is a softer fragrance. Within the process and the fragrance, it's not meant to be very in your face, and I like that, how you can kind of just sit with it.

I like to watch incense, even though it's not the most dynamic but it can be, actually.

Photo by Se Young Au

The incense powders... historically were used to measure time. I love thinking about time and my practice.

Hyungi Park

SYA: In terms of incense in general, or, what Hyungi was saying about ritual... I feel like for creativity and also to take a moment out of our day, I think it's really great to be able to externalize honoring the ritual of creativity, because everyone's creative, but to have a physical marker really helps. It’s also just taking a moment to help us get embodied. By virtue of doing that, we’re able to do a scan and slow down. Our breath becomes a little steadier. And that hopefully creates an environment and a foundation for people to really come back to themselves. There'll be an opening where thoughts can trickle in, as well.

IF: Absolutely, those were both so well said. It reminds me also of this phrase that I come back to in my work and practice of making it sacred. The notion that anything in life can become a habit instead of a ritual if you don't take the time to be intentional and set those reminders for yourself that this is only meaningful when you choose to give it meaning. And these incense are such a nice opportunity to invite that sense of sacredness to whatever it is that you do with them.

Hyungi, I wanted to ask about the foraging process.

HP: There's a lot of pink peppercorn trees around here. They're not native to California, but for some reason, they're everywhere. I kind of love the aspect of foraging and that there's a lot of things you would typically buy materials online, but they will likely only have the more generic popular materials. And so I am really excited when I can discover a new fragrance that I can smell in person when I go on a walk, and I love to go on a walk. And I joke that I'm kind of like a dog, I just like I'm smelling everything, and sometimes I'll just pocket a few plants. Foraging is super fun for me.

Also knowing to not take too much, especially if it's in a sacred space. Once I came across someone who was trashing a juniper tree that fell during a rainstorm, and I took it all back and powdered it. So whether you grow things, or you forage for anything, you can dry it out and then powder it and then use it in incense, which is super fun. I love the aspect of using all the raw materials blended together.

Photo by Hyungi Park

SYA: Hyungi was super generous with her time and space sharing about her practice. But she also showed me a bunch of materials that she had been collecting and let me rifle through them. It was extremely meaningful to have the opportunity to do that. As two people that connect on this different wavelength it felt like somebody was showing me their treasure chest and that was really inspiring. It was a really fun show and tell for two people that work within the world of scent.

HP: I love when I forage things, sometimes for specific ones, I'll write where I got it and have a memory tied to it. There's some fallen eucalyptus leaves I got in like Golden Gate Park when I was walking with a friend. I love writing down my memory when I got the materials.

IF: That's so beautiful. When I travel I always have to capture audio because so many people just take pictures of things, and I'm a music/sound person. So for me, ambient audio of a space that I'm in and what the birds sound like there, feels like a similar kind of idea. What a meaningful way that you document your travels.

Was there anything else noteworthy about the collaboration?

Photo by Se Young Au

HP: I felt like it was pretty seamless which is great when that happens. It involves a lot of trust, I liked that aspect where it was just like, “okay, I'll let you do your thing.” And also, the studio visit was super lovely. It was pretty casual. We were talking about mugwort, and I have some Korean mugwort tea, which Korean mugworts are different than American mugwort.

SYA: I've been a fan of Hyungi’s work for a while now. And being able to collaborate in this way and to build community in a way where it feels genuine... I mean, I had no idea what to expect, and she obviously exceeded all my expectations. And also in terms of doing diasporic work and making that connection… because I think people tend to want to flatten that kind of experience, and just bond over the fact that they come from the same culture. But I think there are so many variances within lived experience and to be able to connect with somebody that does similar work that exists and orbits your world in a layered way resonates deeply. We have different touchpoints that exist in a larger sphere, so it was just really special, and I will think about it for a long time.

문 (Moon) was created as a transportive scent; a portal or door to clear pathways for creative reflection and renewal. Intentionally crafted in powder form, the incense burns in a mound on a mica plate above heated charcoal, creating an intimate practice and producing a lingering, diffused fragrance. At first light, the incense produces a clean waft of desert wind that becomes toastier and earthier as time passes; as the burn finishes an herbal resinous aroma grounds the space with a warm wood scent.

Notes of—

Toh makko
Pink peppercorn

Handcrafted by Hyungi Park from natural ingredients inspired by environment and function.