Altered Plans is an allegory of life, death, and rebirth. It's an act of preservation by destruction,
and a time capsule of 2020.
Mike Han is a Korean-American artist, designer, and former sustainable sushi chef
who explores the plight of the city of Detroit, a corporation, and himself through salvaged blueprints and charred animal bones in the midst of a defining moment in history.
Dec 31st, 2020 - Jan 31st, 2021
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I destroyed a collection of salvaged blueprints from the Meyer Jewelry Co. Building using bone black acrylic paint. I found these historical documents in 2012 on the abandoned upper floors of a building that was later purchased, renovated, and reborn as the Shinola Hotel.
These blueprints, from 1988, document the rise of a Detroit company and their expansion into several shopping malls across the state of Michigan, and into Ohio's Columbus City Center. Finding these plans discarded amongst rubble in a shell of a building made me feel the pain of going out of business in a visceral way. Unbeknownst to me, they would foreshadow the fate of plans I would create in Detroit.
The documents were found one year before Detroit declared bankruptcy. I treasured those blueprints for 8 years. I kept them safe until I had the perfect opportunity to create a body of work with them, and show the collection to the world in a dramatic fashion in a beautiful gallery setting. At least, that's what I wanted.
The world as we knew it ended in 2020. It crushed my soul and took away a career that I was deeply passionate about and worked terribly hard for. But it also brought me new life.
I was one month away from opening the sustainable sushi concept of my dreams, an intimate 8 seat counter service concept that would translate Michigan and Detroit ingredients into a Korean-American expression of sushi. It was a love story about Detroit and Michigan, told through a cuisine that I've loved since childhood in the city where I was born, Ann Arbor. It was a concept that would help define who I was as a Korean-American against the backdrop of my artwork.
Then the coronavirus hit and destroyed my dream of opening a restaurant (for the third time), and crushed my will to live. I was left without purpose, or meaning. I no longer had a vehicle to deliver my message. I was unemployed and felt that there was no future for craft I committed so many years to. The concept, called Pursue Underground, was ready for service but didn't get to serve a single guest. This failed opening came a year after I opened Detroit's first sustainable sushi restaurant, Pursue, which closed 6 months after opening, and a week after my grandfather died.
COVID-19 brought my restaurant dreams its death blow. My opportunity to build confidence in my identity as a Korean-American was destroyed. But in the fall of 2020, I was reborn as an artist, committing myself wholeheartedly to a practice I longed for but lacked the courage to pursue.
I have created a body of work that’s emblematic of the times we’re in, and an allegory of the city. To illustrate death and rebirth, I used bone black acrylic paint, which is made from charred animal bones. Detroit’s Ebonex Corporation has produced this pigment for over 150 years, and this medium quite literally represents the city’s motto. "We hope for better things, it will rise from the ashes."
From death comes life.
The depth of bone black helps us to consider the layers unseen by the naked eye. Black is a spectrum of color, although we can only see what's on the surface. To know that everything is present in a single line is powerful. The paintings that comprise Altered Plans do not illustrate the numerous animals that died whose bones were charred in a processing facility just outside of Detroit, or the sadness of space in which these documents were found. But they're the essence of this work. Hidden behind the lines and wrinkles of the paper, they are the work.
The relationship of life and death, creation and consumption, has been the focal point of my work for over a decade, and so bone black has been essential to my practice as a Detroit artist. My work, and my life, has been lived in thoughtful consideration that in order to create, you must destroy. As a sustainable sushi chef death was felt more tangibly, as I took life from live fish and shellfish in order to nourish my guests.
Creating and living sustainably is challenging at best. I wonder if it's even be possible. Through the paralyzing practice of considering the implications of our actions, I find there are some special moments when sustainable creation can actually be achieved.
Taking death, literal death, from charred animal bones and applying them to discarded pieces of paper gives them new life as art. With this simple but purposeful act, I have created my highest form of art. Adding value to this world is something I will spend my life aspiring to do, and hope to find myself in many more special moments like these.
This body of work is a time capsule. It’s a moment that captures a decade of my personal trials and failures in the city where my mother immigrated to with her parents and brothers nearly 50 years ago, against the backdrop of a world that has collapsed.
I present Altered Plans as the last show of 2020 and the first of 2021, to reflect on a year plagued with death and serve as a beacon of hope humbly from inside the Detroit apartment I call home.
With Detroit spirit and Korean tenacity,
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